Flames and Shadows

Nicolas Sampson

UK

‘I would like a coffee with milk and a sandwich with ham and cheese please.’

Bitte?

She stood there, pen and notepad in hand, her brow raised ever so slightly, the tiniest furrows on her nose ridge, looking at me through sky-blue eyes, waiting.

The fireplace roared and cracked, and a sprinkle of sparks went flying through the room. I felt motivated by circumstance.

‘Ich möchte ein Kaffee mit Milch und ein sandwich mit Schinken und Käse bitte.

Her face lit up. She repeated my order, scribbling it down.

‘Ein Kaffee mit Milch, und ein tostiSchinkenundKäse.

She poked a full stop on her pad, glanced at me.

‘Danke!she added.

She slipped her notepad inside a pocket lining in her black and white dirndl, and took off. I couldn’t help staring at her bosom. It was just so—there! This wasn’t a sexy cosplay party. Did people dress up like that in real life? I couldn’t look away, till she turned her gaze toward me on her way to the counter—blue-eye zang!—and I jerked my head to the side, at the fireplace, a hot flash wrapping around my face.

I shouldn’t have felt guilty. I was sixteen, bursting with hormones and fantasies involving beautiful naked ladies and forbidden erotic encounters with strangers I’d just met, I, the little pimple who fancied itself a face around which the recipients of my adoration gathered to observe my shattering looks and tend to my boiling needs, until I gently went away, gently went away, fading in the background of a larger, worldly, more elegant expression I was yet unable to be part of. Rejection was my most committed companion during my adolescent years, and I knew how to handle it. Kind of.

I was sat at a small square table accosted by two empty wooden chairs, one to my left, one to my right. No chair across from me. The tabletop was made of thick, uneven, polished planks that were more tree trunk than furniture. To the side, a few paces from me, roared the fire, gilding the left part of my face, my shoulder and hands. My backpack on the floor beside me, black with gray straps and a gray zip line. Leaning on it, a bulky plastic shopping bag.

I closed my eyes. The sound of the room intensified. Chatter, laughter, the muffled rumble of the kitchen behind the wooden walls and the clank of utensils and coffee cups kissing delicate Untertasse saucers trickled over me. The high-pitched jingle of stirring teaspoons and the delicious crunch of biscuits or little fun-size chocolates unwrapped from their plastic packaging and enjoyed with coffee, they made my mouth water. The busy words of men and women exchanging thoughts and stories in a low but intense tone of voice, as if every word meant something, each syllable striking with the precision of a mason crafting a stone edifice, the pieces falling in place with strength and accuracy that left me convinced that it was true, whatever it was they were saying; most of the sentences ending with a verb, their full impact concentrated and delivered just when you thought the discourse was making no sense.

My German was still holding up back then. It had only been three years since my last classes at the Goethe Institut in Nicosia, Cyprus, where I lived, and I still knew how to string sentences together, or take them apart, even when delivered in between gulps of beer from gigantic Steins in the middle of songs of cheer and celebration in the après-ski bars of the Austrian Voralberg area. I could understand your average Germanian – that’s what I used to call Germans back when I was a young little snot – and could on occasion decipher the odd, well, Swisslander. Barely. The Swisslanders had insane accents. Schwytzerdütsch, they called it, for Schweizerdeutsch. Swiss German. Schwytzerdütsch. Nothing to do with the Dutch or the Netherlands. It was all very confusing, profoundly, but kind of fun, too, if you played along. Speak the language, make an effort to be courteous and blend in, withstand the odd disapproving look directed at your accent or skin tone, be part of the Alpine agora, don’t try and guess where anyone’s from, and smile. Be polite. Make an effort. Greet people, thank people, bitte sehr, auf wiedersehn, servus. Nothing to it.

I turned my face away from the fireplace, eager to put my vestigial talents to the test. A little flirting session with the waitress perhaps. Round Two.

She wasn’t in the room.

All I could see were people perched around small square wooden tables and larger rectangular ones, sipping steamy concoctions and talking. Older people, in their twenties, thirties, forties, plus a few geriatrics, all of them dressed in colorful fleece jackets—pink, green, orange, blue, red—with un-matching woolen caps on their heads. Everyone randomly outfitted, yet remarkably splendid. Motley and pleasant. Their winter coats bulky and bloated, lined with trims of fake fur along the necklines, the rain bonnets hanging out, dripping with melted snow. Hanging on the wall were ski memorabilia and paintings of snowcapped peaks and rolling mountainsides, and the room smelled of coffee and cake, the sweet aromas mingling with the incantations of the crowd. Everyone chatting, everyone but me. I was sitting alone in that café, in the middle of the Alps, between two empty chairs, among molecules of people socializing their way into the afternoon, making my plans.

The date was Dec 24th, 1990, and I was on a shopping expedition.

I was buying CDs.

We had arrived in Austria a couple of days prior, my parents, big sister and sweet sixteen-year-old me, the bundle of us here in the Montafon area for a postcard white Christmas skiing holiday. I enjoyed skiing, a lot, meaning I had a love-hate relationship with the sport due to its grueling nature, its strain on the muscles, the amount of waiting one had to endure to use the ski lifts and gondolas. Not the best way to spend my day, waiting in the freezing cold among throngs of maniacs shoving their way onto metal chairs and boxes dangling above the tree line from a wire. But there was an upside to this torture, and it involved everything downhill, long wide slopes of soft powder snow down which I would glide and swerve, a positively awesome experience, as was the occasional racing down the mountain like a rocket. Worth all the leg burns and frustrating queues.

My parents didn’t approve of my love for speed. They insisted I take it easy and enjoy the scenery, but I was a teenager. Taking it easy was for parents and old people. I wanted to keep time and set personal records. Every second counted.

But on Dec 24th, Christmas Eve, the most celebrated day of the Yuletide in Austria, skiing was not on my agenda. I was out shopping for music. A different kind of trail. I needed my fix. Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin, Gary Moore, Iced Earth, Doro Pesch, Metallica, Savatage—hard rock and heavy metal heavyweights. That’s right! I was a rock fan, a very passionate one, buying everything I could get my hands on, building myself a respectable collection. Cassettes, LPs, EPs, CDs, I hoarded them.

To find the right music store in the Alps I had to do a little searching. Schruns, where we were staying, was a picturesque village making a living as a ski resort in the winter, doubling up as a hiker destination during the thaws. An idyllic location in a U-shaped valley with a river cutting through it, wainscoted with dark evergreen forests and snow-white cliff sides. A crown of icy mountain peaks hung in the sky above. A pristine, cozy village where Hemingway once spent a winter writing his celebrated Fiesta. I barely knew who Hemingway was at the time. I had never read his books, knew nothing about his life, didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was ski, smoke cigarettes at night, after my folks went to bed, drink beers with the ski instructors in the pubs and bars and clubs—drinking and smoking were not a problem in Austria for my age group—and music. I wanted to buy as many rock albums as possible.

My expectations of finding good material in the Alps, in the middle of nowhere, were low. Schruns was a tiny village. The chances of it having a decent music store were slim. When I located one—the one and only in town—it was no bigger than a minivan. The only items on the shelves were albums by Michael Jackson, Engelbert Humperdinck, and the entire David Hasselhoff collection, plus a wide variety of Tyrolean folk music.

So there I was, stuck inside a pop-folk nightmare, looking over my shoulders for leather-clad farragoes sporting mullets, touching their crotches while singing, taking over the Alps, one mountain peak at a time. I had to find a loophole. There had to be a town somewhere around. I asked the locals and was advised to take the train to Bludenz where I’d find many wonderful things, they said.

I didn’t get my hopes up, but I took the train to Bludenz anyway. It was worth a shot.

The surprise was striking, and very welcome. Believe it or not, in that obscure little town in the middle of oblivion, in the shadow of an extinguished empire, I found one of the largest rock and metal catalogs I had ever seen. Only in Athens, Greece, had I witnessed more variety, where the genre of heavy music was, and still is, quite popular.

Bludenz was no Athens, but it was no Sesame Street either, no sir. It was wunderbar. They had Blind Guardian, Exciter, Deep Purple and Forbidden; Kansas and Accept—their early stuff; Eloy—the Silent Screams and Mighty Echoes album. And Stratovarius, the Finnish band that would throughout the nineties dominate the European melodic power metal scene. I found their very first album there, Fright Night, a 1989 first edition, in other words, bingo! Talk about a collector’s item.

Fine purchases, all of them.

And there was still half the alphabet to go, sections N-Z, and the entire cassette section for me to browse.

No vinyl though.

Yet, as local custom would have it, the stores in Bludenz closed for lunch at 12:30, at least they did back in those days, so I had to take a break, go for a walk.

At 12:30 sharp I was standing outside the music store, the locks clanking shut behind me, a bitter wind biting my face.

I took to the roads.

Bludenz had a mighty small-town feeling to it. Gone was the ambience of a ski resort with its cobblestone streets and beautiful little shops, its family-owned pensions and cafés and throngs of colorful tourists pixelating the alleyways. Bludenz was gray and dull. A small and sad version of everyday city life.

I decided to head back to the train station where I had seen a café advertising après-ski drinks for the afternoon.

At 12:50, I was waiting for my ham and cheese sandwich plus cola inside the warm café.

I searched for the waitress again. She was rushing between tables, heading for the bar.

I didn’t catch her attention. She disappeared behind the corner, only to burst back into the room a moment later, carrying a steaming strudel and three soft drinks in a round tray she balanced effortlessly in one hand above her head. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, swinging and gyrating as she rushed through the tables. I tried to get her attention on her way back, failed. It took two more trips to get back on her map.

Smiling, I asked her what time the shops opened after lunch, addressing her as Freulein for added charm. I already knew the answer to my question—2pm—but the point was the chat, not the information.

Zwei Uhr,’ she replied curtly. I sensed an ever so subtle sweetness in her voice. No frustration or tension, just undercurrent sweetness delivered with a warm smile and a musical mountain accent. It perked me right up. Back home I would have gotten the old stink-eye, the look that screamed, ‘Get on with it! I don’t have time to play trivial pursuit with you.’

Smitten, I stared at her—then realized what I was doing and recoiled—thanked her with a danke.

Bitte,’ she sung back to me and sped off.

I felt like getting up and dancing.

I followed her with my eyes all the way to the counter. I couldn’t help noticing her gracious demeanor, the way she walked and how she handled everything with a combination of authority and friendliness that reminded me of an actress, I wasn’t sure who.

I turned my face back to the fire, laboring over how I could have gone about the conversation better, what else I could have said and how I could have said it to generate more chemistry. I was well aware, even at that tender age, how fleeting the opportunities of the world were and how easily they evanesced. Hesitate, blink, wonder what if, how and when, and the moment’s gone, and so’s the zest. At least that’s what the rock songs said.

I leaned back in my seat, immersing myself in the symphony of the Alpine café. The incantations of the patrons were different all of a sudden, more varied, not so harsh and square and lever-like as I’d initially perceived them. Among the Germanian tourists with their matter-of-fact accents were a great many Austrians I hadn’t noticed before, locals on their day out, on their break from work, yodeling to each other softly. Their super-slanted ö’s and sideways ä’s and piercing ü’s were percolating through the room, sprinkling the air with warm and vaunted intonations. Faces laid back, rustic, dark hair, their clothes not as flashy, nothing touristy about them, their shoes bulky and scuffed. Local people out for lunch and coffee, on their way to and from work, to and from skiing.

I thought about how any given language comes across to a foreigner. So alien, weird, intimidating, or in this case exciting and inviting. I wondered if the people around me knew, or cared. Most individuals tend not to analyze their own speech and cadence of communication, which is where a visitor’s perspective comes in handy, offering insight. Feedback you would never otherwise get. Non-Cypriots have told me on numerous occasions, for example, that my native tongue, Greek, sounds musical. ‘A conference of troubadours,’ is how a Corsican friend described us once, during a long night out at a pub with a bunch of childhood friends. We all laughed at his observation, gulping down our crisp beers, chain-smoking cigarettes. Troubadours! We never thought of Greek as musical, especially not Greek from Cyprus, the kind we spoke. The blunter type.

Ein Kaffee,’ purred a silky voice next to me and a milky hand placed a coffee cup in front of me, ‘und ein Tosti,’ and before I had time to respond the waitress chipped danke and sped off. So there I was, in my black shirt and black jeans, with my black cotton cap on my head and my black coat hanging from the chair, like a beetle on a whitewashed wall, enjoying my simple meal, listening to the crowd around me. The only person sitting there alone. All of a sudden very self-conscious of my situation and surroundings. Where were the other loners, the kind of people you get to see everywhere on the Continent, reading their books, writing their notes, smoking their pipes or cigarettes, unafraid of being individuals in public?

It’s not that I minded the loneliness. I didn’t. I loved the freedom to be, just be, on my own and by myself. It was something I couldn’t enjoy back home. Cyprus at the time was going through a crisis regarding people going out alone. Call it collective hysteria. Especially among the younger generation. Just you? One person only? Oh, my God! Such was everyone’s fear of being seen in public all by their lonesome that people arranged to meet around the corner of cafés and bars so that they could enter together, in groups.

The reason, I later realized, was fear—the fear of silence surrounded by noise, and an obsession with appearances. The need to strike others as a winner, not a loser. Only losers hung out on their own, at least in Cyprus.

Which is why I loved the Continent and its public meeting places where culture had graduated from these obsessions, letting individuals like me just be, hang out in the sanctity of one’s privacy, if one so chose.

Crickle—crack—crack. The fire raged on, sweltering, hissing, trying to join in on one of the many conversations. I turned toward it and stared at it. The flames were bright, their orange tongues licking the stone niche, lashing like a medieval banner on a blustery day. A gust of wind outside and the flames grew larger, louder, taking on an almost spectacular form, conveying a deep, primordial power conjured up from the depths of the burning logs, summoned to show its raging face for a brief, terrifying instant before sinking back inside the veins of the firewood. My brain felt tickly. I shook my head and it erupted like a snow globe, big foamy flakes billowing inside my head, each one bursting into steam at the touch of the flamelight penetrating my eyes and bouncing around inside my skull. On the exterior I was calm and collected, the only sign of my steamy, internal upheaval the beads of sweat accumulating on my forehead. I mechanically asked for a pen and paper and the waitress handed them to me. I think it was she. All I remember was a roaring blaze, the sour aftertaste of cola in my mouth and the smell of ground coffee, and the syncopated sensation of writing on a piece of paper laid out on a smooth tree bark.

When I was done, the paper sheet was hallmarked.

I read the lines over and over again and a rush of satisfaction permeated me. It was the shittiest piece of poetry you could think of, but I thought it was brilliant. I felt ecstatic.

It was also the first of countless instances when the inimitable rush of having written surged through me. It wasn’t about the content—though I believed it was at the time.

It was about having written.

Noch etwas?’ echoed a voice from above. It was my waitress asking me if I wanted anything else. Her teeth, white as the skiing snow, perfectly aligned with her smiling lips. She was standing between the fireplace and me with an empty tray in her palm, a sky-blue steeliness in her eyes. I realized I was due for another order. Or the tally.

I checked my watch. It was ten to two.

It was time.

I took out my wallet and counted my money. 740 Schilling. The bill turned out to be 82 schilling, leaving me with the questionable remainder of 658. Not bad, but not great either. Five, six albums-worth, tops.

I paid my 82 Schilling plus tips, glanced at the fire one last time and stepped out the door. Two minutes later I barged back inside, panting and anxious, and the waitress smiled and handed me a shopping bag full of CDs.

‘You mustn’t forget,’ she said in English.

She giggled and sped off.

I didn’t forget. How could I? I would always remember that café in the Alps, in the crown of Europe, where an Austrian princess handed me my belongings with a bright wide smile, sending me on my way in the freezing wind with my heart pounding and my face warm and flushed, wondering what if.

And when I found her note later, the one she’d slipped inside the bag with her phone number scribbled on it, I realized that rock music didn’t get it right all the time, and neither did I. Sometimes you had to relax and let things happen, nice and easy, like a gentle glide down the slopes. Like a quaint little mountain village by the river, come snow or sunshine. Celebrated like all good things for its precious little moments and the memories that illuminate it, possibly even by a note or two, maybe even an image.

Two days later, in the dark of the afternoon, I got off at the Bludenz train station. She was sitting on a bench in her blue jeans and white overcoat, a white cap wrapping around her head, her hair falling to her shoulders on either side. I walked over to her calling out, ‘Hey!’ She stood up and smiled that same smile that made me feel dizzy and amazing inside, her brow raised ever so slightly, the tiniest furrows on her nose ridge, looking at me through sky-blue eyes.

 

Nicolas Sampson is a Guest Writer for Panorama.