As I ran through the empty streets of Salzburg, I imagined myself skipping through time. I was in the 18th century, hearing the sounds of Mozart in front of his birthplace. I passed by the Mirabell Palace, envisioning myself a lady-in-waiting in the 1600s, and then through the gardens, suddenly thrust forward to 1965, where Maria and the Von Trapp kids were singing Do-Re-Me on the steps. I crossed over into the old town and stopped momentarily on the bridge, watching the water flow down the Salzach. It had been the town’s lifeline since the 5th century, when Celts settled the lush green land. I stared up at the Fortress Hohensalzburg, my next destination, through cable car lines, and marveled at the many incarnations the town had been through, the evolving cultures and technologies. At that moment I felt both a part of its rich history and a stranger to it. The stillness of the morning provided a level of intimacy with Salzburg I didn’t feel I deserved, having arrived only the day before, yet I relished in it, the same as I had in Vienna on my 7am runs. I love this about Europe: nothing happens before 10am.
Continuing on my run, signs of life began to emerge: a weary man setting up cafe tables, a biker zipping down the sidewalk, an Englishwoman asking me for directions, a guy with headphones and a throwback Michael Jordan jersey. I passed a street entertainer dressed in traditional Austrian garb, his face painted, and he smiled warmly at me. I thought of Vienna and all of the men in their wigs and fancy costumes hawking Mozart concert tickets. It was such a strange blend of past and present, at once preserving and mutilating a part of the culture. Tourism can do this. The essence is there, but it becomes commercialized, commodified. It can entertain and disgust, educate or morph the meaning. This was sometimes how I felt abroad, waffling between an annoying tourist invading private space and an inspired traveller adding energy and new layers of understanding through different eyes. I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
In Vienna even more than Salzburg, I experienced this dichotomy between the familiar and the foreign, the sense of belonging and of exclusion. For one thing, Alicia and I booked a room through airbnb. Since we started using the travel website three years ago, I’ve become a big fan and advocate. While the spaces we’ve inhabited may not always be of the highest quality, they never fail to make me feel more like a local. Hotels provide a certain comfort and sense of luxury, but apartments, with their wear and tear and tangible homeyness, bring me closer to the place.
On top of our accommodations, we were surprisingly well-connected within the city, considering neither of us had ever been and Vienna is hardly a top destination for Americans. We had recommendations from two knowledgable sources: a Viennese friend of mine from back home who had written me a veritable novel on insider to-dos, and a guy from the Mix of France who had spent a couple of years living in the city. Furthermore, another Mixy girl, Anna-Nora, happened to be on our flight from Cannes, visiting her mother who lived less than a quarter mile from our apartment, and our friend Marie-Claude’s brother Denis happened to be flying in the day after our arrival. We not only had a list of places to see and restaurants to eat at, but other people to join us!
While our guides directed us wisely- the Albertina, Palmenhaus, Cafe Sacher, the Natural History Museum, Nachtmarket, the Belvedere- we couldn’t escape the inevitable feeling of being outsiders. Most notably, the language served as a constant reminder of our foreign status. I know “kein Deutsch” (no German, obvs), Alicia a few words more, but we were pretty much lost in the sea of harsh syllables and words with seemingly endless letters. We amused ourselves with some of the new vocabulary we picked up (shmetterling, meaning butterfly, was our all time fave), but mostly I felt ignorant in my lack of multi-lingual skills. It didn’t help that Anna-Nora was fluent in both German and French, but any jealousy on my part quickly dissipated when she negotiated with taxi drivers and waiters.
Like Salzburg, my morning runs brought me closer to Vienna than pretty much anything else (maybe not the art of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, but they deserve their own essay.) What is it about pounding the pavement that makes me feel so at one with my surroundings? The endorphins? The meditative state I often achieve around mile three? Whatever it is, it exists, and I am thankful for it. With such a basic action as one foot in front of the other, I can drop into my body and the space around me, my senses heightened and ready to absorb the spectacularly new stimuli. The morning we left Vienna, I saw one last time the beautiful cake-like buildings, St. Stephens, Hofburg Palace, the Danube river, at once timeless and immediate, all of history crammed into the now, my heart beating and soul uplifted…
The church bells rang out over Salzburg- 8 o’clock. It was time to head back and wake up Alicia. We wanted to explore the city a little more before our departure, as the day before had been taken up mostly by a Sound of Music tour (this is every bit as kitschy and wonderful and emblematic of what I’m trying to communicate as it sounds.) I maneuvered my way through the cobble stone streets confidently, having learned the lay of the land, pleased with the bond I had been able to form with the city in such a short time. I turned left onto our street and gasped. Even though I’d been up and down it at least a half dozen times, something about it at that very moment gripped me- the light, the charm, the serenity. It was a sight that had no doubt been enjoyed by countless others before me, both Austrians and foreigners, recently and long ago, but right now none of that mattered. I was a tourist but I was also a witness. The church coalesced alongside chain shops and 300 year-old restaurants. I felt a certain transcendence, acceptance for how things are, how they’d come to be, and I smiled. Vienna, Salzburg, telephone wires, Mozart, the Chicago Bulls, me- we were all connected.