I boarded the train for a restful afternoon of travel, moving from Salzburg, the city of Mozart and The Sound of Music , to the elegant Austrian capital of Vienna. Being early afternoon, the train was devoid of business people and was almost deserted. Indeed, I only had to share the carriage with a Mum and her two children. The journey promised some beautiful alpine scenery of snow-capped mountains and emerald green farmlands.
The boy of around eleven sheepishly approached me and asked “Are you from Australia?” in halting, nervous English. My cap had Australia plastered across it so it was a pretty safe inquiry. He stated with a growing confidence and said as if read from a textbook “My name is Robert.I am learning English at school. Will you practise with me?”
His Mum and older sister looked on with a mixture of reassurance and discomfort.
We chatted for a while, his English fairly good for someone who had been learning the language for such a short time. His classes had included details of Australia so the conversation was littered with kangaroos, koalas, beaches and Ayers Rock. Having chatted for half an hour or more as the stunning Alps sped past, Robert had had enough. I presented Robert with a new Australian cap (I carried two as special presents for my journey) and this seemed as good a time as any.
On arrival in Vienna as we left the train, Robert’s mother in broken English invited me over to their place for the following afternoon and for dinner. I eagerly accepted as this would be a great experience away from the norms of travel – Viennese Spanish horses, castles and cathedrals could wait.
And what an afternoon and evening it was. Elisabeth (the mother), Katrin and Robert drove us to a quiet winery in nearby Grinzing to experience heuriger, a uniquely Austrian experience, where local wineries can serve their own wine with some tasty snacks. There were 50 or so local people grouped around rustic outside tables digging into the local produce with gusto on this sunny Saturday. It was a superb languid afternoon of chatter, great food and wine, interesting stories and laughter.
With the meandering conversation, one of the guests introduced me to the idea of gemütlichkeit, a deep concept which I interpret as social acceptance and relaxation in a cheerful, easy-going, cosy environment. He proudly claimed that this word was uniquely German/Austrian and there was no English equivalent. A Scandinavian friend of mine believes that hygge is the same idea in their Nordic languages. The word and idea has stayed with me for all the years since and I have discussed the idea with a number of friends and colleagues. Despite this, I am not sure I have completely decoded this mysterious idea of social inclusiveness.
On returning to Vienna, they invited me in to dinner. To say it was good would be to describe the Grand Canyon as nice or the World Cup final as a game. The family ran an excellent restaurant in Vienna and they put on quite a show for their newly discovered guest. All kinds of Austrian delicacies and specialities nourished the evening away.
Though the memory stays fresh, this happened twenty years. We stayed in contact for a while but the communication faded. We have never met up again. I continue to treasure this great memory of such generosity and friendship and continue to search for gemütlichkeit, part of life itself.