Marriage brings all kinds of benefits. If you have married into a family sprinkled with other countries of origin, your life can be enriched in many ways. I feel very lucky to come from a family of mixed origin – my mum is Canadian, my grandparents English – and to have married into a British family with a Mauritian and Austrian background.
Every year, just as the Christmas panic has ebbed away, I put the leftover turkey and red cabbage in the freezer, lift my freshly-fattened body off the sofa and head to Kent in the southeast of England to see my in-laws. I’ve been doing this since 1997. First, it was my new boyfriend Marcel and I who landed on the doorstep of his mother Erika, a jolly Austrian lady from Vienna: after a warm hug of greeting she made me a prawn and avocado sandwich and a cup of tea, winning my heart forever. Before long Erika was my mother-in-law, and soon after that we came to stay with babes in arms. In the blink of an eye they were toddlers, then energetic children, and now teenagers. They didn’t grow bigger in isolation: my mother-in-law is now very elderly, having proudly turned 90 years old last June. But she still welcomes us, she’s still warm and funny, and I know that if she was able to there’s a chance she’d make me a sandwich, even if only to keep me away from her immaculate kitchen. She is unbelievably clean and tidy, whereas I just can’t work out how people do it. It’s been a source of friction over the years, along with Erika’s suspicion that my babies were cold (I think they were, looking back), but on the whole we hold each other in great affection.
It has been our annual tradition to start day-drinking from about lunchtime on New Year’s Eve and continue until midnight, when Marcel and his mother crack open champagne, with a flourish born of the confidence that any judgment from any direction would be curmudgeonly. I can’t muster enthusiasm to drink after about 10pm, so when the kids were very small I would use putting them to bed as an excuse to fall asleep before midnight. The eldest would insist on staying awake to watch the fireworks beyond the rooftops, kneeling up on the bed in her little yellow and orange striped pyjamas.
This year was a little different. The eldest is all grown up now and travelled on her own to Bristol for New Year’s Eve. Man down. Then Erika didn’t feel too well on New Year’s Eve, and stayed in bed. Two men down. I took those still standing, Paddy (17) and Liv (14) for a coffee in the local Costa. They are good kids and were happy to sit while I sketched. Why wouldn’t they be? Didn’t they have the richest of hot chocolate with ginger and whipped cream, with a gingerbread man on top, and the finest coffee and cakes to keep them happy? Just as I finished, Liv looked at my sketch.
“Tell me you hadn’t forgotten to paint in the shadow on the bottom of the hot chocolate glass,” she said.
What? No, of course not.
Erika has been in Britain since the 1950s and speaks beautiful English, charmingly accented with Austrian. In some ways she has become more British than the British themselves, but often has a really random take on things. One evening during our stay, we were watching TV and something came up about Salzburg, pronounced in an English accent, not unreasonably, as it was British television, read by British broadcasters.
“I cannot bear how people mispronounce Salzburg,” said Erika. “It should be Saltz Boorg, not Salz Burg.”
“Me neither,” said Marcel.
“But that’s just how it’s pronounced here,” I said. “It’s like saying you can’t bear when people say Paris instead of Paree.” Erika didn’t answer; she was getting into her stride.
“Cor blimey,” she continued in her beautiful Viennese-accented London accent, “It’s Saltz Boorg. Drives me mad!”
“You cannot say “Cor blimey” and “Saltz Boorg” in the same sentence and expect to be taken seriously,” said Marcel.
On New Year’s Day, Erika was transferred to hospital, as her condition had worsened a little. I wanted to help her pack a few things into a bag. Erika has always claimed to find me difficult to understand, but she’s really hammering this theme home at the moment. I asked her, in what I believe to be nice clear speech, which nightdress she’d like me to pack. She turned to the pretty young paramedic standing by her bed, looked at her pleadingly and said, “What is she saying?”
I’d had enough. In a generic English accent I repeated myself. “Which nightdress would you like? The striped one or the blue one?”
“The striped one, please. Thank you very much darling,” she said.
Marcel found this accent ridiculous.
“It’s like something out of a 1970s sitcom parody,” he said.
Erika is back home now and we are all very relieved.
We left Britain and returned to Galway the day after New Year’s, leaving the kids home alone. Twelve hours later we were back in Dublin Airport, having arranged a last-minute trip to Austria to celebrate a big birthday I’d had nearly a year before. We’d heard that a large Brueghel the Elder exhibition was underway in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, which was finishing in two weeks’ time.
When I was a plump little red-haired seven year old, I was moved into a new bedroom. The family was growing (my parents stopped at 8) and a little rearranging was in order. My far-sighted mother put an enormous poster of Pieter Brueghel’s Peasant Wedding on my new bedroom wall. I drank in that scene every night, drifting off to sleep with the scene inches from my face. Into my very being drifted strongly-outlined figures, muted colour palettes and animated groups of people with quite nuts expressions, just as I was becoming a conscious human. It was all the art I knew. Other artists entered my life in the years before my teens (Hergé, Uderzo) but Brueghel was the first and the most significant influence. There aren’t words to adequately describe the effect he had on me. Just as an early traumatic experience can mark you for life, so can a positive one. I was a swirling mass of creative potential before I was seven. After that, there was a clear direction. I have never drawn any other way: I used to think it was the influence of Hergé and Tintin, but I’d suppressed the memory of that early world of which the Brueghel print was a part, not yet ready to look at the years of childhood bliss squarely in the face, for to do so would be to acknowledge that they are gone. Tickets to the exhibition were like gold dust, but Marcel’s cousin is married to a lady who works in the museum (and in fact had worked on the exhibition itself) and – lo and behold, we were good to go.
Vienna turned out to be cold. Marcel and I took a train from the airport to the centre of the city, left the warmth of Hauptbahnhopf train station (after having jumped off the express to Salzburg at the last second – maybe on a subconscious level Marcel wanted to hear how the locals pronounce their town) and made our way to our lodgings. It had started to snow quite heavily by then, with a chilly wind, and sadly the blood in my fingers raced for cover in a panic, leaving me unable to help Marcel use the GPS in the phone (anyone with Raynaud’s disease knows what I’m talking about). We took many a wrong turn, and I was getting frosty, and not just in a physical sense. Eventually we found our hotel and it was warm, clean and comfy, with a fake crackling fire on a screen, which was nice once you stopped wondering what that weird noise was. Soon it was time to find somewhere to eat. Back out into the snow and biting wind. The same numb-fingers / wrong-turns scenario started to unfold once again. I began to get cross. Another deserted street, another U-turn. I began to shout as only wives on deserted streets in the snow with numb fingers can shout. “How long must I trudge through the snow on these deserted streets?!” I roared. “One more street, and that’s IT!” “Two more minutes! Two!” replied Marcel. He’d seen somewhere that he liked the look of on his phone. Then, just as those two minutes were up, there on yet another deserted street was a little place with trees garlanded in lights outside: it was the restaurant Marcel had been looking for. The food, described as “Austrian”, was beyond our expectations: lamb steaks that cut like butter, trout fillets cooked to perfection, beetroot risotto prepared with great confidence, a variety of Austrian wines, all full of notes and flavours. The dessert was perfect – coconut panna cotta, with hibiscus sorbet rose-hip syrup.
I sketched it because it was all so lovely. Not for the first time I realised I’d forgotten to refill my brown ink, so the sketch is red, which is quite nice, as it turned out. I loved the Christmas decoration they’d put up, just a tangle of branches with red baubles of different sizes. Our waiter Sasha (he’s the guy on the left) seemed more interested than usual, and hesitantly said he used to love drawing but had given it up when he was about eight or nine, and that he would love to do it again. Sketchers hear this all the time. Needless to say, I told him to join the great Urban Sketching movement, and gave him a few links. I swelled with pride, thinking of another life I had touched with the joy of sketching (I’m only half messing).
The next day we visited Stephansplatz. Marcel thought it would be fun to climb to the top of the tower in St Stephen’s Cathedral “No thanks,” I said. “I really am terrified of heights.” He bought two tickets. There was a sign beside the ticket booth. 365 steps. Ten minutes to climb. The steps turned out to be a spiral stone staircase. No handrail. People coming down in the other direction, hugging the wall to allow folk going up to take the skinny bit of the triangle steps next to the central stone post. Three hundred and sixty five steps.
A fool blocked one of the very few tiny windows as he or she (it was dark!) hugged the wall, meaning I was climbing the narrow bit of the staircase in the pitch dark.
I started to fantasise about being stuck halfway up the tower in a power cut, or a fire. I began to think of the Twin Towers and I felt panic start to rise in my throat, and my heart began to race. I forced myself to keep calm. At the top – the top, mind – a couple of newish parents started to make their way down, navigating the skinny bit of the steps next to the middle as were everyone else on the descent. The parents had a toddler with them. She was sucking a soother and whimpering in terror. The mother had a huge baby pack on her back which meant she could barely squeeze past the folk hugging the wall. With no handrail, nothing to stop her hurtling down 365 steps, taking everyone else with her like skittles. I was beginning to realise that Austrians have a somewhat hands-off attitude towards public safety – we’re not going to wrap you in cotton wool, and it’s up to you to be sensible.
The views through the windows at the top were, dare I say it, worth the climb, although we could have done without the women taking endless pics of each other in front of the views, checking them for how flattering they were, then taking more. So selfish. When it was our turn, Marcel and I took selfies, and I checked them to see if they were flattering to me, and took more to be on the safe side. The good news is that we met barely anyone on the way down, and I felt full of joy to be alive as I hit the last step to ground level.
We were dizzy as well as elated (well I was anyway) and Delia’s Café provided a likely spot to recover our equilibrium. A nice slice of something Viennese was the perfect remedy, accompanied by a frothy cup of coffee. Merilyn, the very elegant server, was very happy to be drawn, but I didn’t do her justice. Soft jazz played through the speaker, which I would have forgotten if I hadn’t sketched the music – one of the nice ways that urban sketching is an aide-mémoire.
Afterwards we paid a visit to Schönbrunn, a beautiful palace and gardens to the west of the city. There was just enough snow to make everything pretty and white but not so much that it was difficult to get around, nor make your feet wet. Perfect, in other words. There is a magnificent palm house on the grounds, a Victorian glass edifice and the warmth inside was very welcome (the numb fingers thing again). Marcel’s grandfather was a gardener in the Botanic Gardens, in the Palm House, but he was conscripted into the army and lost in the last days of the war. His wife and family never saw him again. I suggested to Marcel that he tell the young woman taking the admission about his grandfather. “There should be a rate for grandchildren of gardeners,” I said. We agreed that it wouldn’t impress. Later, Marcel returned to use the loo and met the head gardener. He was delighted to hear about Marcel’s grandfather and asked him for any photos or correspondence relating to the Palm House that he might have. It was very special to be there: I’d heard about the gardening-mad, palm-loving grandfather since Marcel and I met back in the ’90s, and reflected on Marcel’s own passion for growing palm trees…he’d never met him. When Marcel ordered palm tree seeds from all over the world, and sterilised the soil for them in the microwave, was there a gene somewhere deep in his cells coding instructions for this?
I had never met Ulli, Marcel’s cousin, so I didn’t know what she looked like – and especially not all bundled up against the cold. But when I heard a voice outside Schönbrunn trilling “Oh-oh! Curés!” and was warmly hugged, it came as no surprise, as the entire family is like that. From that point onwards we were looked after beautifully. In the evening we visited a beautiful and charming heuriger, where you can drink local wines and eat lovely Austrian food. Our feet crunched on the snowy path to the heuriger, which was lined with conifers strung with lights that twinkled in the dark. Inside, it’s the perfect idea of Austrian cosiness: carved wood everywhere, a tiled kachelofen emitting warmth and waitresses in blouses and aprons. Well-behaved dogs lay curled up under the tables. We felt welcomed. We had potato dumplings, sauerkraut and roast belly of pork with crackling, but there were delicious salads too, like cabbage, green bean, tomato and of course the amazing Austrian potato salad, prepared with red onions and dill. I sketched our little party towards the end of the evening. Marcel’s cousin Ulli is on the far left, followed by her boyfriend Wastl, her sister Susi and Marcel on the right.
The next day Marcel and I went to the Brueghel exhibition, accompanied by Ulli and Wastl. We were treated to the event by one of his aunties: what generosity. I will always be grateful.
The gallery is astonishing: huge and imposing, with an amazing collection of work inside, which I will make it my business to spend time with at a later date. Someday I’ll go back and settle down in front of Kilmts, Rubens and many other fancy names. It was very crowded in the salons, not helped by a certain demographic filming them with their iPads, and this time I didn’t do likewise (but I did wish I’d brought my pen and little sketchbook, I had an age to wait in front of each painting). Looking at the paintings was a separate experience to the crush of people: in the here-and-now there were flesh and blood people everywhere you looked, but on the walls was a moment trapped in time – all the more so for the fact that Brueghel’s career was short – painted with limited colours, showing people, buildings and landscapes that are so familiar to me and to all of us who have loved the work of this incredible man. I was so inspired that I wanted to go out and paint immediately in colours of pale turquoise, ochres and browns of every hue, red and lots of white. I still do. I will do.
My favourite is Hunters in the Snow. I wanted to buy a print of it. In the very crowded gift shop I found the print I was looking for – and not only on canvas and paper. It was on jigsaws, Advent calendars, lamp shades, cushions, teddies, bookmarks, fridge magnets, aprons, pencils, hand mirrors – you name it, if it’s a dust-gatherer for your home, it was for sale in the shop. I stood happily in the queue for the till, my arms heaving with stuff I wanted but didn’t need. Then I realised I didn’t have my wallet, which was safe in Marcel’s pocket…on the other side of the heavily-guarded barrier out of the exhibition area. I had to put all the unnecessary but cool stuff back and leave with my two arms hanging. Boo!
Marcel speaks reasonable German, infinitely better than I do, for I don’t have a word. In the cloakroom afterwards his scarf was missing, and he asked a harried-looking cloakroom attendant for it. “My sheep! Where is my sheep?” he asked. The two words sound quite similar in German…
A cake and a coffee were sorely needed afterwards. I managed to get a sketch in: I was bursting with the need to do so after that experience. This is Café Klimt, somewhere within staggering distance of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The cakes on the top are the ones we had at our table. Too pretty not to include, since I got my angle a bit wrong and didn’t have space to include the cakes on the table, which were eaten too quickly to sketch anyway. The waitress was very glamorous. So slim and with great hair, a perfect manicure and thick false eyelashes. Fancy. I could sketch there over and over, but of course I’d have to have a different cake each time, which would eventually lead to rack and ruin. Viennese cakes are the thin end of the wedge!
Later, we visited Ulli’s mother Avi, Marcel’s aunt, Erika’s youngest sister. We sat down to a homemade apfelstrüdel that Avi had prepared for us earlier. Marcel fell into conversation with Wastl, and Avi addressed me.
“I can understand you very well, ” she said. “I cannot understand Marcel. You speak so slowly and clearly. Like the Queen.”
I was ecstatic and prodded Marcel to tell him, but he didn’t care at all. If only Erika had heard it. But if I gloat to a ninety-year-old woman who is not in her full health, I’ll look really childish and mean. I just have to hold it in my heart.
Well, that’s it. Our long weekend in Vienna was a dream trip. The snow howled in behind us and the country is heaving under a sea of white as I write. We got back to our “home alone” kids in the nick of time, reminding us that it’s always risky for both parents to go away together. But we did it and it was magical, only our second trip away on our own since the children arrived.
I picked up a lot of German over the weekend, as the non-English-speaking relatives would often speak to me in German, and I would use a familiar key word and body language to guess what they’d said. On the plane home, I said to Marcel that I might teach myself German.
There was a silence.
“You have other languages. Why don’t you leave that one to me?” he said. “I spent three years becoming this crap at German.”