SALZBURG, Austria – “These are a few of my favorite things...”
You can’t stop yourself from humming it here. But for this blog post, I am not thinking of Julie Andrews’ saccharine version from the 1965 Hollywood classic, “The Sound of Music.” I am thinking here of John Coltrane’s much more complex take on “My Favorite Things.”
So with apologies to “‘Trane,” here are a few of my favorite vignettes from the journey to Salzburg. Three to be precise, and one small addendum:
1) Karaoke in five languages At the Salzburg Global Seminar, karaoke night takes place in the palace’s beer cellar, where thick, stone walls had a nice way of muffling ‘“the sound of music” for those of us, like myself, who are, well, musically challenged. The 50 students there from around the world were surprisingly gifted. And they sang in Arabic, Spanish, Chinese, English and I guess you could say Swedish, unless one considers Abba its own foreign language.
They were just about all pop songs (with the exception of a serious Syrian folk song) and they all had their own “truth” in the way they were sung. It was the kind of truth that Coltrane would have loved. (If you have never heard the American jazz legend’s album titled “My Favorite Things” you are missing out on perhaps the greatest jazz album ever. And a fun fact is that it came out in 1961 based on the Broadway play, which made it a full five years ahead of the Hollywood classic by Julie Andrews.)
And there were a lot of good laughs. My youngest son, Jack, sang a Justin Bieber song. He’s eight years old and was doted over by the college girls, which was nice but which resulted in teasing by older brothers. Gabriel, 10, fearlessly sang a much too mature rendition of Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” accompanied by the Argentinian intern Gisele Laffont, who is not only brilliant but has a great voice.
But I would be remiss if I did not also give a tip of the Tyrolean wool hat to Stephen Reese, a serious scholar and theorist on media at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Communication, who as it turns out also has a serious talent for late-night Frank Sinatra knockoffs. Maybe it has to do with my approaching arrival to the middle-age marker of 50, but I thought he knocked it out of the park with his version of “My Way.” But maybe all American guys who are 49 think any version of that anthem rocks. (Personally, I still have a fondness for Sid Vicious’ version over the one by the Chairman of the Board.)
2) Dinner Or for that matter any meal at the Schloss Leopoldskron. All meals were served in the dining room of the elegant 18th century palace, the beauty and grandeur of which I have already tried to describe here in the blog. We had perfectly prepared schnitzel and delicious hot pretzels (usually at breakfast, of course) and Bavarian sausages and cheese and bread and chocolate desserts and fresh berries that were all local and all out of this world. Every evening was complemented by a simple table wine that seemed to make a nice companion to every meal. We all worked to burn off these rich meals by hiking in the Alps and riding bikes along the well-designed bike paths that allow you to ride everywhere. We all brought home a few extra pounds. I truly don’t think we’ve ever eaten so well. And good thing Continental Airlines doesn’t charge for added weight, although I am afraid if we give them the idea they probably will institute that as policy.
3) The Eagle’s Nest And here is where the complexity of Coltrane comes in. The Eagle’s Nest is a stunning perch that overlooks the Bavarian Alps with all the marbleized majesty of their peaks and the lush green beauty of their valleys. It’s about a one-hour drive from Salzburg across the border into Germany to get there. And we hiked the path through the Alps all day with our kids amid a thick fog, and swirling rain clouds interrupted by bursts of warm sunshine. The weather was a perfect metaphorical setting for the light and the darkness of the place.
The dark side is that Eagle’s Nest was built in 1938 as a tea house for Adolph Hitler to celebrate his 50th birthday on the eve of World War II as clouds of war were gathering all over Europe. It is a winding drive that leads up to a series of bunkers where Hitler met with planners of the war and it was a strategic outpost for the Third Reich, the very perch from which he planned the war that killed more than 60 million people. If Hitler was brought to power because of the failing economy of Germany at the time, there seemed no limit to the lavishing the Nazi Party would heap upon him.
The winding road took three years to carve through the rugged mountains and there is a 400-foot, tiled tunnel that leads into the center of the mountains and then an elevator that brings you a further 550 feet to the pinnacle, known as the Eagle’s Nest. This art deco elevator with its polished bronze walls and the very 1930s-looking phone on the wall is extremely creepy. When one of my sons put his hand on the wall and left a visible child’s handprint smudge on the gloss, the elevator operator snapped at him in German to “stop it.”
At the top of the perch is a 25-foot wooden cross which casts a shadow on the tourists there that feels like an insult to anyone who considers themselves a Christian. When one of my sons asked me why there was a cross there, I have to say I had no answer and have not found anything online that would explain it. So here is, of course, the start of the journey to the complex part of “favorite things” from our journey. It is one of my more memorable vignettes of this place precisely because it is a complex and layered memory. And that is all part of the reality of being here in a place that is so beautiful, but still so haunted by its own history.
*Addendum So as not to end on too heavy a moment. A small vignette of adolescent mischief. It happened on a walk with the Salzburg Global Seminar president Stephen Salyer in the outer perimeters of the palace property where an outdoor theater is largely overgrown. Salyer was showing us his plans to restore the grounds and bring it back to life. But while we walked, my son Will, 14, a normally very mature and well-behaved kid picked up a small tree frog along the way and very quietly placed it in my pants pocket without me noticing.
As I was walking along, talking very earnestly and seriously about big ideas and history with Stephen, I felt something jumping around in my pocket. When I put my hand in my pocket to figure out what it was, I felt the frog crawling around. And I jumped a bit. Will cast a perfect grin when I looked over at him. Straight out of the movie, right? He definitely learned it from the Von Trapp family kids in that very unruly pre-governess stage where my kids continue to dwell though we have no plans of bringing in the governess Maria anytime soon. Although I am thinking about getting the military whistle that Capt. Von Trapp used in the beginning of the film.
Not that it would work, but just because it’s cheaper than a governess.