On February 17 2020, my Oma, Anna Bergmoser, turned 90. In many ways it snuck up on us. My grandparents, despite living on the other side of the world, were regular presences when we were growing up; their visits always the thing we looked forward to the most, their departures occupied by tears and begging for them to stay. They are lively, funny and loving people, and in my head they have always been the relatively energetic, sixty-something figures of my childhood.
My grandparents remain healthy and active. They walk every morning, they ride their bikes, they come for lunches and dinners with their family. But turning 90 makes the ticking clock that’s always been there a lot more obvious. And having not seen them in almost a decade, Oma’s 90th seemed the opportune time to go back to Austria. Understand, I’ve wanted to visit for years. But it’s only been recently that finances have allowed, and even once they did time quickly became a problem. I only booked this trip a month ago, capitalising on a three-week period between commitments. The only time I could fit it in, a time that happened to line up with Oma’s birthday.
Once the tickets were actually booked, a vague, creeping fear started to set in. What if Oma and Opa weren’t how I remembered them? What if they were disappointed by my terrible German? I knew it was irrational; my grandparents, who don’t speak a word of English, have been tolerating the broken German of the Australian side of the family for years, and both my parents and brother had reported on how they remain more or less the same as ever. But ten years is the kind of time that creates a feeling of pressure, pressure that made me almost dread walking up the stairs of their home.
I had a good week to get ready, even once the trip had begun. With the HarperCollins Literary Bites launch taking place the night before we flew, Molly and I arranged to go from Sydney – the trip kicking off with the wonderful whirlwind of the launch then a day spent wandering the city, having a slightly boozy (technically business related) lunch with the inestimable Tony Cavanaugh and Louise Lee Mei from Beyond Armana and then finally heading to the airport for our late night flight. Bad sleep, plane food, a stopover in the eerie early morning version of Doha airport and then we were in Vienna.
We only had one full day there and grappling with jetlag it probably wasn’t enough to fully appreciate a famously beautiful city. We got lost and separated in the enormous Natural History Museum (I reached what I thought was the end after a couple of hours only to realise there was a whole second floor) before heading to the Belvedere Palace, now a gallery home to several famous pieces of art. By that point, however, I was starting to flag, and so we had the obligatory schnitzel dinner then went straight to bed.
I was confronted with the limitations of my fractured German as I tried to order food and coffee from the quickly frustrated lady running the bakery up the road from our AirBNB (“um… spreche sie English?” “No.”). Molly, however, turned out to be basically fluent, which didn’t exactly help the growing panic over to what degree I would be able to speak to my family.
From Vienna we got the train to Salzburg. If you’ve ever caught one of these long-haul European trains you’ll know how great they are – comfortable chairs, tables (like the one I’m writing this at now) and beer (like the one I’m drinking now). Not to mention the stunning scenery as, in our case, we crossed into the more striking, mountainous part of Austria.
Salzburg, if you’ve never been, is a strong contender for the world’s most beautiful city. Ancient buildings surround a long, winding river, cobblestoned alleys, strange little boutique-y stores, overflowing cafes, expansive public squares, towering cathedrals and overlooking it all a sprawling mountaintop castle, striking against the expanse of snow-caps. We had three days there, spent with Molly’s friend Lenya from Germany, before heading on to my family’s hometown of Frankenmarkt. So we explored. Molly and Lenya went hunting Sound of Music locations while I went hunting a great European bar to write in. In the centre of a touristy city this did not prove easy; my broken German and attempts to make a joke out of it were largely met with unimpressed silences that left me a little resentful towards compulsory tipping. Still, on our second afternoon there we had a drink up at the castle, and in that moment everything became beautiful; the clouds cleared and we looked out over the city expanse and gleam of snow capped mountains under a sunny sky that, to me, so perfectly encapsulates Austria.
It’s hard to be in a place like Salzburg without ending up pretty inspired. A book that was previously eluding me seemed to become instantly clear in those surrounds and despite the unfriendly bar staff I furiously tapped away in spare minutes, finding Alpine Austria weirdly conducive to writing a story set in rural Australia.
On our last night in Salzburg we went to a brewery recommended by my parents. I say brewery but I’m not sure what the right word for it is – I’m not sure there is a right word for this place. It’s like an old monastery and seems as much when you enter it; all statues of saints and an eerie silence. Then you go through a door, take a left turn and suddenly you’re met with a succession of packed out beer halls and deli type stores for you to get whatever Austrian food you want. This, followed by a dingy dive bar that was basically exactly the place I’d been looking for, capped off our Salzburg trip with a feeling of real authenticity and beyond that, a feeling that I really wanted to return as soon as possible and really get to know this city.
But the next morning it was time to head to Frankemarkt and see the family. My cousin Nico picked us up early and we were on the way. As we drove and I watched the green hills, smatterings of villages and towering churches out the window, that vague sense of fear sharpened. I felt shaky and too warm. Passing the sign that welcomed us to Frankemarkt, I could barely speak. Ten years since I’d last been here. Now I was back and I couldn’t shake this terrible false sense that maybe I’d come too late.
My family live about five minutes outside of the town of Frankenmarkt. If you’re ever in the area you’ll immediately know where they are from the spread of greenhouses on a hill overlooking the town itself. The family business, Blumen Bergmoser, is floristry, with my Dad being the only one of Oma and Opa’s children who did not go into working with flowers somehow. His older brother Dietmar now runs the business, and he lives there in a large house behind the greenhouses, directly across from Oma and Opa.
It is, in the most traditional sense, the family home. Outside of when I was too small to remember it, I had been there twice before; in 2010 and 2003. But of course it has always remained clear in my head, and as always there was no overwhelming sense of nostalgia upon pulling up there again, just a quiet feeling of ‘there it is.’ The moment I got out of the car I ran straight up the stairs to Oma and Opa’s house.
I should never have worried. My Oma remains astounding. Even seeing her then, the day of her 90th birthday, it really struck me how little she has changed. How little she ever does. She walks easily and without assistance, she laughs and jokes and waves her hands around when she gets excited. She overflows with love for all of her now huge family. Nico told me she was worried that she wouldn’t make it to ninety, that she would miss seeing everyone. Well I can tell you, if you met this woman you’d have no doubt whatsoever that she’ll make a hundred at a canter. When I told her she had not changed in ten years she laughed me off, before going into the next room and proudly reporting to Opa what I’d said.
Opa has maybe changed more. He’s always been the more active of the two and that remains so, but at 86 he’s a little quieter now, a little more withdrawn. But he remains a wry, warm, always smiling presence, a man of many hobbies and eccentricities. His study is absolutely coated in photos of the family from all times and places. He makes things with his hands, feathers on rocks creating little birds, Edelweiss flowers glued to stones that look like mountains. His Wintergarten boasts part of his massive collection of stones and gems, along with handmade murals of every branch of the Bergmoser family’s lives; homes, partners, pets, everything. In the centre of the Wintergarten is a huge, painted image of Australia, with photos of all of us attached to the places where we live. The pride in where we have all gone and what he have done permeates all of my grandparents’ home.
It’s always the way with these things that immediately it becomes as though you never left. And while my German isn’t great, it was enough. Walking with my Opa in the forest that fringes the family home, I was able to tell him about what I’ve done and what I’m working on, knowing from his small smiles that he understood. He showed me through the greenhouses, naming for me the different trees and flowers growing there. That fear might as well have never been present. All I felt, those first few days there, was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I could be here now, that I could share these moments, that I had reached a place in my life where this was all possible.
Routine formed quickly. A walk in the forest every morning, followed by a couple of hours writing in the Wintergarten then lunch with Dietmar and his wife Gabi before, usually, an adventure of some kind in the afternoon. We’d go to neighbouring towns, walk the sides of lakes, and then go to either Dietmar’s or the nearby home of Sylvia, my aunt with whom my brother Tristan and his partner were staying while we were there. Inevitably, beers would be had along with a schnapps or two, then a lot of shared stories and big laughs, alternating between German and English. The sense that I was in the middle of the best holiday of my life began to grow in those times.
The big official lunch for Oma’s birthday was that Saturday, at a hilltop Gasthouse. Lots of Austrian food and a huge family photo against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains; a perfect celebration of why we were all there, and Oma humble and smiling at the centre of it all, matter of factly treating it like none of it was a big deal.
The next day Molly headed back to Australia, as she needed to be home for work a week before me, and so the last week was spent in relative laziness, maintaining this newfound routine with only a couple of breaks; the traditional Fasching carnival through the centre of Frankemarkt (a carnival characterised by floats throwing sweets and colourfully dressed people coming up and offering you schnapps that makes you feel as though your throat is on fire) and, on that last Tuesday, a day spent skiing.
Tristan and I went with Sylvia, her husband Wolfgang and Nico. They commented several times on how bad the snow was, but for us it was perfect. Long runs that take half an hour to get to the bottom of, the constant view of all the surrounding mountains, the regular slope-side places to stop for a hot chocolate, a strudel, a beer or a schnitzel. My skiing experience in Australia looked very limited indeed after that.
Slowly, over the last couple of days, that vague fear began to creep back in a different way. Because the reality is this; for all that they remain healthy and independent, my grandparents are not getting any younger and they live on the other side of the world. And while I am now in a position where further trips to Austria relatively soon are not some far-flung pipe dream, it’s still a lot of money and a long way. At this stage, due to book stuff it looks like I will likely be able to come back in July but still. Time is moving on and I don’t know what things will look like a year, two, or three from now.
I grappled with this gnawing feeling for the last few days, somewhere between wanting to be sick and wanting to burst into tears. I told Oma and Opa several times I would see them in July, but I was just as much saying it to myself. And I did say it to myself; over and over as the end got near. I told myself not to get upset, not to treat this like the last time because it wouldn’t be the last time and after seeing them so healthy I had good reason to believe that.
How do you approach a goodbye that you don’t want to be a final goodbye, that likely won’t be a final goodbye, but might be? The truth, in the end, is that there is no right way to do this. As so as the hours crept towards the time I had to get in Dietmar’s car to head to the train station, I fluctuated between relaxed and smiling, on edge, and seconds from tears. And when the moment came, it went fast. I hugged my Opa, gripped his shoulder and, voice cracking, told him I would see him in July. I kissed my Oma on the cheek, told her how wonderful it was to see her, and that I would be back soon. And as I walked out of the house I caught the eyes of my family members; red rimmed because they knew.
Driving to the train station I played out those last exchanges in my head, over and over. I started to worry that it hadn’t been enough. I hadn’t wanted to draw it out, but at the same time – what if those brief goodbyes were the last time I saw them?
I messaged Tristan and Molly to share how I felt, and they told me exactly what I needed to hear. Tristan explained how the last time he’d been over, two years ago, he had been overwhelmed by the goodbye. But he realised that for Oma and Opa, quicker was better. There are so many family members and for every goodbye to be treated like it might be the last is just too much.
What Molly said followed on from this perfectly. That what mattered was not the goodbye, but the time spent. The mornings writing there while Oma made sure I had enough coffee and pastries. The afternoons on the couch with Opa, reading our respective books. The walks in the forest. The conversations, of which there were many, only slightly inhibited by my clumsy grasp of the language.
At this, I found myself thinking of a quote from Lord of the Rings, a quote that originated in a very different context, but summed up exactly what I felt.
“If this is to be our end, then I would have them make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
I believe I will see my grandparents again. I believe when I do it will be wonderful. But if I don’t, this was a time worthy of remembrance. A time I know with quiet certainty that I will treasure forever. A time I’m so glad I had.
Writing words about writing words.