Other than that ukulele, the only Christmas present I remember right now, was the miniature “spy” camera I got in my stocking when I was fifteen, and never used until I took it along on my junior year abroad in Austria.
For the Christmas/NewYear holiday that year John Irving, Eric Ross, and I had booked a room in the Post Master’s pension, right at the foot of the ski slopes at Kaprun, which had very little snow cover at the time. If any spy photos from that ski trip had survived, they would have shown broken skis.
Because of the poor snow at Kaprun and just about anywhere in Austria that year …. a year of winter olympics in Salzburg … we three left Kaprun temporarily, taking the bus to the train to a town further up range, where we caught another bus that took us up a long steep valley to a hamlet built around the terminal base for a gondala the size of a railroad car that was used for pulling timber off the slopes of a long draw that was another twenty miles up a roadless swath to a lodge at the foot of Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria. From the lodge, you could walk up the talus slope and ski back the lodge, or ski the twenty miles down valley under the gondola line.
There was plenty enough snow under Grossglockner, but it was so cold up there, that as soon as we could step outside the lodge and put our skis on, we had to take them off and go back in for tea with rum.
The next day we took the gondala ,the bus, the train , then a bus again, back to our rooms in the post master’s pension at the foot of Kaprun’s milder mountain, where we tried to ski again, despite the nearly naked slopes.
I hit a fence while falling in an attempt to avoid some bare rock. I broke one ski … which is as effective as breaking both.
We three took a break from trying to ski. We ate, slept, and drank. We took steam baths. When it snowed a little bit, and they didn not plow the streets of Kaprun, we held on to the rear bumpers of unsuspecting cars, and skidded around the streets on or boot heels.
Alone on foot Christmas eve, I strolled around Kakprun, and stopped to watch a church service from outside the doors, which were wide open and imploring.
Why was I … why AM I … suddenly smelling butterscotch cookies? Is that priest fueling the incense burner with butterscotch cookies? Are butterscotch cookies the communion wafers in this church?
No, it is just the pungent memory of Christmas Past:
The Christmas eve when my Sunday school teacher Mister Hutter had invited us kids out to his farm. It was probably not functioning as a farm then, though I suppose there were chckens, because Mr. Hutter was a poultry science professor, who is remembered for having developed the famous Cornell Barbecue sauce, which is still used by many a fire department at fundraisers. We were invited to the farm on Christmas Eve in order to wrap gifts of toys and food which we would put in baskets that we snuck onto the porches or front steps of the local, rural poor … then running back to the car, parked just out of sight.
When we got back to the farm house after a few such raids, Mrs. Hutter was baking butterscotch cookies. The smell ot hot sugar hit me with such a Tsunami of nausea that, right there in the kitchen, I lost my cookies before I could even eat them.
I don’t know if there were any actual butterscotch cookes anywhere near me that Christmas eve in Kaprun, but with odor ghosts threatening invisibly and Church bells all around ringing, I hurried back to the Postmaster’s pension.
It snowed a little more the day after Christmas,`so I rented a pair of skis.
But on my last run … a little too late in the day to notice some bare granite … I broke another ski.
So the next day Eric and I checked out of the pension again, collected the lunch sandwiches we had already paid for at the hotel, and headed off hitch-hiking toward the coast of Italy.
The first day we were passed by truck after truck, carrying snow from the peaks to Salzburg for the olympics.
We got very few rides that first day and ended up sleeping in a corn crib … which was enough of that sort of thing for Eric. He turned around and hitched back to Kaprun the next day.
I myself detoured to Germany and look up Peter Kruger, a German friend at the University in Stutgartt.
I hitched only so far as the next town and went the rest of the way to Stuttgart by rail arriving late on New Years Eve.
The university was not in session and I couldn’t find Peter Kruger in the phone directory.
With help at the railroad station I found a room in a household a short walk away.
Outside the pension, a jolly group of roving students saw me with my rucksack and invited me along, but I declined, and checked into the pension about fifteen minutes before midnight. The Frau put me in my room abruptly, then went back to her family celebration.
At midnight I watched the fireworks from my window.
Next day, I bought a train ticket to Vienna.
But the train wouldn’t leave for another six hours so I sat down in the station restaurant and ordered a bowl of Liver Dumpling Soup: a grey broth with a grey, fist-sized dumpling half sunk in the middle of it … a homely comfort food for which I often stopped in for at the WestBahnhoff station near my room Vienna .
The only other person eating there at the time was a kindly smiling older man who asked if I was an American and where my travels were taking me and if I was a fan of The Reader's Digest. Learning that I had to wait six hours for my train, he invited me to his apartment for tea and to look at his Reader's Digest collection.
So O.K. I was young, far cuter than I am now,innocently appealing, and ignorant.
His room had a cot, a chair, and a hot plate. He made tea, and we sat on his cot to read a "most unforgettable character "story… which I don't remember.
He put his hand on my thigh and I lifted it off. Though his advance was a surprise to me, the scene was not as awkward as it might have been …unless it was more awkward than I remember … but I do remember clearly that my friend said he guessed it wasn’t his lucky day; and I think we even read another unforgetable character or “life in these United States articles.
When my train time came near, I left politely and went back to grey Vienna with its bare streets and liver dumpling soup at the Westbanhoff.
Now, as I recall the year in Austria … I realize that I actually DIDN’T get sick that Christmas.
I don’t want a pony anymore, I have a guitar, and too much other stuff , but I have been ill for the last two Christmases, and I may be ill again this Christmas too. I’ll stay home, and you can go shopping if you wish to.