I opened Abraham Kuyper’s* suitcase–and an exhibition on travel writings! Scholars at the Free University in Amsterdam organized a conference on travel accounts, particularly those by women, and invited me to present the keynote. The conference title reflected both the trajectory and the bilingual experience: tracking female trails, reisverhalen in boek en brief** . So I came, I lectured, I rang the bell heralding the official start of the exhibition. This blog falls somewhere in the realm of travel writings, making me more conscious of the critique one faces as an outsider-commentator. In Amsterdam my talk asked whether the letters of cross-border migrants serve as travel writings. My short answer: yes, but not according to literary scholars and librarians. I pled for more flexibility because immigrant letters go out to audiences with less literary tastes, bringing them into contact with distant places. And more, the writers of these more informal accounts include more women and people beyond the elite. So I spoke of Dutch American migrants and missionaries, women whose writings function at least in part as travel accounts. I stretched my capabilities, talking and listening in Dutch as well as English, sustaining and building connections across borders.
*Kuyper’s fame came as theologian, writer, and politician in the Netherlands in the era around 1900.
**Travel writings in book and letter
You too may mutter the T-word under your breath at times. I do often. Technology lures with promises of instant contact, reaches into our pockets for increasing shares of the purse. But does it deliver? Coming from and living in “fully” interconnected places does not mean connections exist or the devices that sustain them function. The hours and energy I spent trying to bring a literal T-stick to do its designated task, to connect my home computer to cyberspace, lost. Multiple other “flukes” required technological knowledge I neither possessed nor could understand when tech consultants tried to explain (to our increasing mutual irritation). My virtual phone conversations croak, sputter, and die. At least in my memory of sojourns past, land lines operated better. My son and I wrestle regularly with a transatlantic online school world that works often, but not always. Making school exciting—flash!–means making it slow or no go for a meager modem. For relief I think of the North American correspondents of the 1600s, who sent three versions of one letter with different ships across the Atlantic in hopes that one would arrive. “Good connections” meant that message arrived and the writer received an answer–one letter in each direction in the course of the sailing season. The expectation of instant, visual, in-person quality: these cause my frustration.
Theirs, mine, ours: lectures filled my days the last two weeks. Lectures to attend, lectures I learned about but could not fit into the schedule; my own contributions, guest lectures in Vienna and Salzburg covering elements of U.S. history. My hosts asked me to lecture in English, in part so students could practice that lingua franca. And then my hesitation, for I speak fluent everyday—but not what I understand as academic–German. When I try to sound professorial my tongue ties in passive imprecision and I may stop mid-sentence pondering an absent word. Language also underscores a deeper difference. For some, not all to be sure, to be erudite in German demands an academic voice I would consider for publication only. In a lecture, that might mean reading a text comparable in complexity to an intellectual treatise–the search for the period at the end of the sentence proceeding onto the next page. By contrast, in lecture I tell stories and show pictures. I project a few key words, point at my maps. If I seek to increase the vocabulary, extend the attention span, push the limits of cognitive processing of my U.S. students, then I must interweave the lessons with pedagogical precision. Above information, they demand clear and memorable delivery. Does this reflect the tuition they pay? Perhaps in part. But perhaps the academic climate in Austria trains students better for contemplation—it demands listening carefully. No switching to Facebook. No entertainment expected. And at the end of each class in Austria, students applaud, rapping their fists politely on their desks. Just as some colleagues here may admire and aspire to elements of my lecturing style, I too admire a system that endorses and enforces concentration and substance.
Preserve the past, inform the present, protect the future. Along the road between Salzburg and Graz stands a caste. Fortress Hohenwerfen crowns a hill above the Salzach, surveying the pass that remains a transportation artery nearly a thousand years after its origins. Hohenwerfen defended against enemies, regulated trade, and functioned as a hunting retreat for the Archbishops of Salzburg. On Sunday an eagle sporting jesses rode the updrafts above as we hiked up the path. The falconers not only introduced the birds of prey, they also introduced the practice of falconry and with it protection of these avian species and the alpine lands they inhabit. In the weaponry museum along with swords, armor, muskets and explanations of how to use them, came a debate in alternating quotes: from the freedom of arms as the basis of a free country to the theft of resources from the poor that spending on arms entails. The curators interspersed critical to pacifist voices in a room of war implements. With gun control in the news in the U.S. recently and on the minds of some Austrians in this land of Glock the discussion resonated–even more than the weighty bell in the tower. A costumed guide led us through the highlights of the fortress, from the chapel to the torture chamber to the newly restored royal residence. Much of the story he told reflected religious conflict, for Hohenwerfen served in the fight against Protestantism. The current tourist attraction dates back to 1987. Of the many stories it tells—Nazi training ground, police academy—the focus on the Middle Ages reigns. Come for the knights’ table, leave ruminating on the thoughtful fare.
The rooms where I teach overlook the Salzach River. Computer terminals and internet connectivity contrast the marble columns that frame the stairwells. The University of Salzburg presents many such juxtapositions, from the map gallery in the law school (circa. 1600) to the Unipark complex, a modern setting for study, lecture, and other functions, right up to the terrace classrooms and café. Unipark officially opened last year as part of the 50th/390th anniversary celebration. Two dates? The university, founded in 1622, functioned until 1810, then downgraded and reorganized as part of annexation to Bavaria—the politics of education. In the century-and-a-half interim that followed universities moved toward a greater focus on research to complement teaching. Salzburg the university reopened under a new initiative in 1962 bearing the name of its original founder: Paris Lodron. “University” here once implied theology, law, philosophy, and medicine. For Salzburg Catholic theology formed the core of both its founding and an important component of its rebirth. Not all other subjects fell under its offerings. The path from theology to cultural and social sciences, where I now reside, took a few years. Along the way a shift towards greater autonomy for each university assisted. In a country where anniversaries matter the University prepared an impressive program for the half-century mark a year ago. One part included the Altstadtfest [Old City Festival] which I attended while here for a guest lecture. New music, old settings: yet another demonstration of how history connects to today in this setting.
Spring break—time to go skiing! At least for many Salzburgers the vacation around Easter means an opportunity to enjoy the end of the season. Mother Nature cooperated, even at this low altitude. Coward that I am, or prudent adult mattering on your viewpoint, I opted to write lectures and partake of a relatively empty city. Ötztal, a spectacular Austrian valley and site of my last alpine ski endeavor many years in the past, is embedded in my memory with beauty—and crutches. The newspaper reports regularly of avalanche deaths, stupidity in many cases, but simple bad luck in others. Within Salzburg the public works employees started uncovering the many fountains that demand protection from freezing temperatures, perhaps a bit early in this case. Red and white sticks warn of possible dangers, things like snow or ice that could drop from the roof onto the sidewalk. Spring keeps trying to break through. The trees around my apartment boasted pussy willows recently as did the local flower shops. Crocuses, daffodils, and other early blooms fell to freezing temperatures this week. Decorated bushes of ribbons and eggs still herald the season. Spring will spring soon.
The German “wander” translates to English “hike.” As a hiker Salzburg offers more opportunities than I can even imagine. I reach my office via the Freisaalweg, a pedestrian and bike path through the fields, past the chateau Freisaal with its little lake. The path boasts a view of the Fortress in one direction, the mountain […]