Let us pause to reflect for a moment on just how delightful the service stations on German and Austrian motorways can be. As one pulls in to the (clearly) marked car park area and finds a spot in one of the many bays ear marked for that purpose, a feeling of anticipation kicks in. Getting out of the car, the smell of burger and diesel mingles, becoming the smell of coffee and croissants as I step inside this paradise for the clutter fiend. Jam packed with every kind of item you could possibly hope to need on a road trip, the many varied and colourful shelves create a maze, as I head to the toilets. Here, at last, I find peace and tranquility! Decorated in a calming green with soothing ‘Zen’ music tinkling in the background, these motorway loos even have a funky machine that cleans the seat after each evacuation. Bliss!
With the sunshine glaring (I bought a new pair of sunglasses at the above) and the Alps looming ever closer, my drive from Munich to Aigen bei Strobl in the Salzkammergut was a complete joy. I sang for much of it (Abba) utterly elated by the sense of freedom I felt and sheer happiness and gratitude to be alive.
Now. On this blog, I have written quite a bit about my girl-friends but as yet, I have not really written much on my few, select, male friends. It’s time to set that straight! When Martin and I got to know each other, he was living in Haimhausen (where we both taught at the International School) with his young son, commuting every weekend from his wife Claudia and home in Austria. Another family, forced to separate because of economic necessity. Whilst I was under no doubt that Claudia was fundamental in making this arrangement work, right from the beginning, I was impressed with how much effort and commitment Martin demonstrated as a husband and father to keep it all going. It was unusual, for me, to see this work from a male perspective.
Today, after 4 years of international commuting, the family are all living together again in their beautiful house, surrounded by mountains, not far from Wolfgangsee. I have stayed and visited here many times over the years – on the Geography Field trips that Martin used to organize; with friends for the Christmas markets and with my brother during one of our camping adventures. Just south of Salzburg, it’s a stunningly beautiful part of the world (much of the area was used as the locations for the ‘Sound of Music’) and I always enjoy my visits very much.
But this visit was particularly special and went far beyond what I was expecting.
I had a packed and well thought through, itinerary. It began with a stroll around St Wolfgang and our first (of many) Kaffee and Kuchen overlooking the startlingly blue, sun kissed Wolfgangsee. There was hardly anyone around, it being a Monday, and it didn’t fail to disappoint. Back at the house, it was lovely to catch up with Claudia and Tim and to share the first of many delicious dinners. Not having to prepare food or clear any of it away for a whole 5 days, was most definitely a treat.
The weather was rough on Tuesday but nevertheless, we managed to squeeze in a tour of the area, beginning with Halstatt (town and See). I’ve always wanted to go to Halstatt but apparently it is crushed with tourists in the Summer months – and it’s not that big a place. Even the cold January day when we were there, saw a couple of coach loads of Japanese tourists. If I do go back, it’ll be on the train (from Bad Ischl).
We then drove through the Koppen Pass (a twisty bendy route – glad I wasn’t driving!) to Altaussee. This beautiful lake was used in the James bond film ‘Spectre’ and at one end of it there is a posh hotel where rich people go for treatments. Plan A had been to walk around the lake but the weather was yukky so we went to church instead!
A small unpretentious little place of worship with very little gold, we never did find out its origins but it kept us dry for a few minutes! Back in Bad Aussee, more Kaffee and Kuchen may have been involved, then we continued, determined to walk, towards Goissen (Bad Goisern).
This took us up another mountain pass, more narrow than the first to a hut near ‘The Wand’. This is an impressive rock and cliff face that towers over the valley. We donned boots and crampons and hiked through the snow to get a close up. It was quite imposing although our route was straightforward.
The views towards Halstattsee (Hallstätter See) even on this grey day were incredible and a pertinent reminder of why so much of the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Having done a bit of exercise, we headed to Bad Ischl and lunch at Zauner’s – always good to find an excuse to be surrounded by empire opulence!
On Wednesday I went off on my own – a gentle walk from the house to Strobl along the River Ischl. With snow everywhere, it was absolutely stunning.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To go party with the other chickens!!
Martin met me in Strobl and showed me the cemetery (ever the Human Geographer!) which has a very unusual shrine – it is in memory of the young men of the village who were sent to the Russian Front towards the end of the second world war. So many of them. And so young. The photographs on this memorial have a real impact. Generally, Germany and Austria do not have as many memorials to the war dead as we have in the UK. Having just read, ‘The Book Thief’ (Markus Zusak), the experiences of small ‘ordinary’ communities during the war was particularly on my mind. I do wish there was more education on this available in the UK. When I first started to live in Germany, I was so ignorant about the ‘other side’s’ experiences and perspective.
But I digress…..Moving swiftly away from ‘the dark side’ I headed for Bad Ischl, specifically, 4 hours in the Therme. Ah me! What a delight this was! With pool after pool of warm salty water, my body was in 7th heaven. I swam, I jacuzzied, I went round and round in the lazy river which took me outside to look at the mountains, and I chilled in a white dressing gown and read a book (Agatha Christie – I must be on holiday!). Then, still in my dressing gown, I headed for the cafeteria and a massive plate full of raw grated vegetables and sat, half naked trough-ing my way through that!
What decadence! What indulgence! By this point of the week, I was beginning to feel seriously pampered. I then went off and did a bit of writing before going home with Claudia.
Thursday was skiing day. Now. When you stay with an Austrian family in Austria, you get up at stupid O’clock and hit the pistes before 09.00. I’d been getting up early all week so that wasn’t a problem as such. Nevertheless, I was childishly relieved that we left the house 1 minute ahead of schedule. Martin had been ever so slightly champing-at-the-bit as I faffed around with one bag after another, containing various (essential) pieces of equipment I thought I might need! Well, a girl can’t have too many pairs of gloves/hats and hair bands and different things to put round her neck, can she? Not to mention spare socks, knickers in case you get snow down your trousers…..
Slightly hungry (I wasn’t allowed any toast!) we set off for another thrilling drive through the mountains. Despite my excitement, I was a little apprehensive about skiing:
- Because I hadn’t done it for 2 years
- Because I wasn’t exactly that good at it back then
- Because post intensive cancer treatment, my bones are not as strong as they used to be (although the doctors and the bevvy of support systems that is the German healthcare system is working on it!)
When I was in Reha, I asked my doctor if I was completely insane to even consider going for a day’s skiing. She said, with feeling,
“ No!!! you are not insane! You MUST live your life!”
I’m so glad she said this. I return to her words often. Because regaining strength and confidence in all areas has not only been hard work but has occasionally seen me full of self-doubt. Can I? should I? Am I ready yet? Is it too much too soon? Am I putting my health at risk? Such questions were a feature of my life up until Christmas but, I am happy to report, are rarely putting in an appearance and clouding my mind, these days.
I needn’t have worried. Martin, courteous and considerate as ever, had picked the perfect slope for me. It was on the Hornspitze which is in the ski area Gosau (also known as Dachstein West). With the Gosau Kamm (a mountain range that looks like an upside down comb, similar to the Dolomites in structure) and The Dachstein (on my pictures to the left of the Gosau) ‘my slope’ was very high up so I had that amazing feeling of skiing on top of the world. Incredibly however, my slope was a blue run. Beautifully blue. In fact, it was probably a nursery slope. Already very happy about the fact I could actually fit into my ski pants, I got my skis on, no problem. But then, rather inevitably, the fear kicked in. OK, it wasn’t a big slope but I still had to get down it and what about the button thing lift to get back up again? Could my legs actually cope with all this? Which muscles was I going to use? I could not remember……
Martin had skied around and was waiting for me at the bottom.
I had to go! Thankfully, there was no one else around – I had a completely clear run and so, eventually I just went for it, heart racing and a little shaky. Phew!
The first time up on the button lift was a bit dodgy (that first lurch always takes me by surprise) but then, good old muscle memory kicked in. Once more at the top, I was elated and as the second run became the 3rd then the 4th I got faster and more confident with every attempt, practicing my technique, doing snow plough turns as I went.
It wasn’t long before I was screeching with joy. I could still do it!!!! (Thank you Body – you are a beautiful, wonderful thing.) Once he knew I was OK, Martin went off to do his own thing (he is of course, a very good skier) and I carried on the same slope a further 8 times before heading for a hot chocolate. I managed 4 more after that then it was time to stop.
Later that evening, we had fondue and watched The sound of Music on the big screen. What a fabulous day!
In between all this activity, Martin and I found time to talk, something we have always done. About important stuff. Life and death stuff. And property and mortgages; and children; and long term relationships and other people’s marriages (always good for a laugh!!); and working in international schools and the people who work in them (“What exactly is normal??!!); and the pros and cons, challenges and tribulations of being a British ex-pat abroad. We are a similar age, the same nationality and with a similar teaching (and family) background. Over the years that I have known him, Martin has given me advice on everything from the battery on my car to, (as of this week) how much my UK teacher’s pension is worth and when I can take it. He has always been constant, consistent and reliable and as such, I value his friendship enormously and feel fortunate to have it in my life.
I never really expected to have a vacation in January. I mean, who ever did that? January is supposed to be the bleakest month, right? And when Martin suggested I came down “After Christmas” I just assumed we’d have a couple of days ‘catching up’. So, as one day of being spoilt led to the next, I was genuinely surprised and delighted to find myself utterly relaxed and yes, happy to be there, able to mark my physical, mental and emotional progress from a year ago.
And more than that, I felt my confidence returning – slowly, but it’s there. When I step into a classroom in 2 weeks time, there will be no hiding place. I will be in charge of a class of kids and responsible for their learning. I have to be ‘kick ass’. It’s like being pregnant (please bear with me for this analogy!)…..you can’t be a little bit pregnant. Either you are, or you’re not. So it is with teaching. You can’t be a teacher ‘a little bit’. Being ‘meh’, just isn’t an option. Fortunately, I do not have to start back full time and I will build my hours up over a period of time. This is something of a relief because, although I am very excited about starting back, I am also terrified. It’s a bit like standing at the top of that slope. I know I will just have to go for it. I also know, I will not hold back.
Last year, many of my students demonstrated how compassion and kindness can walk hand in hand with toughness and resilience and I was moved, on more than one occasion, by their emotional intelligence. As I have picked my own way through the emotional maelstrom that is cancer, I have learned much about myself and grown in new ways. There can be no ‘return’ to work. No ‘going back’. When I walk through those doors on February 19th 2018 (nine years to the day when I first taught at BIS) I will be putting the final piece of the jigsaw back into place, into a life that I am painstakingly re-building: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And I am creating a life that is very different to the life I had a year ago. In so many ways, February 19th will be a reflection of this – the beginning of a new chapter.
My school has not always been the easiest place to work in, but it has been the bed rock of my life for nearly a decade. During that time, I have met many talented, inspirational and hard working people and I have grown professionally in ways I could never previously have dreamed possible, learning from them. As an institution, it has supported me through thick and thin. I hope now, that it will benefit from my finest teaching ever. And for myself, I feel that the best is yet to come!
January 6th 2018