I was 23 when I first returned to Europe, to search of the girl I had left behind. The girl that I remembered was more like a character from a storybook than a younger version of myself. That trip, half way across the world in a Boeing 747, so many years before, had marked a complete break with the old world. I was never to write to anyone, never to speak German, never to mention Austria. As my father never did learn English, we continued to speak Hungarian at home. I desperately wanted to fit in. At the time, bilingualism was a social stigma in Australia and, armed with that knowledge, I decided that trilingualism must make me even more of a target. I pretended not to understand or speak a word of German.
When I returned to Vienna with my then husband and mother-in-law, I found that I had not forgotten my German at all. In fact, I could get by quite well. I had no addresses of school mates, I only knew where we had lived. I simply drew on my memory and found my way back.
We took the commuter train from Wien Westbahnhof to Pressbaum in Lower Austria. This was the same train line my father had travelled twelve years earlier on his way home from work. It took just over half an hour from Vienna to Pressbaum, the little township nestled in the Vienna woods. In my memory we had lived a long way from the city.
Once there, I followed my nose. I climbed up the steps from the railway station to where the small kiosk stood, midway between the station and the walking path through a forest. It was shut. As I looked about, I remembered it as a little oasis between home and school. This is where I had bought Twini ice-blocks in summer, holding the siamese twin pop-sticks until I could pull them apart so I had the illusion of two treats when I had paid for only one.
I had many happy memories of this small kiosk. My father had a tab there which he allowed me to freely use. On pay day, he settled his account after a couple of glasses of beer with weathered old locals whose dialects were unintelligible. I wondered where these old men would meet now. They had always had a Stammtisch – a regular table, and sat there from morning to night – or so it seemed to me. These locals must have felt as displaced as I did now, looking at the forlorn, boarded up wooden structure.
We turned left at the top of the path, walked through a small patch of forest and sought out the house where I had lived. The gate was shut and no-one stirred behind the curtains. I looked up to the second floor and thought of the kindly old woman who had once lived there and supplemented her pension by selling moonshine to her loyal supporters.
I have some photos taken in the last couple of months before our departure from Austria. Black and white, they show me holding the handlebars of an ancient bicycle in front of the gate at number 40 Bahnhofstrasse. Although I know that the child looking at the camera is me, she is a time traveller from a bygone era. I said goodbye to that girl in the photo and crossed the railway line.
Next stop was the old station masters’ cottage. The tiny two storey house stood frozen in time. Before I could ring the bell, an old dog came tottering up the path. It was Rigo. A very old dog now, his tail still had the piglet curl. I was sure he wouldn’t recognise me but my heart skipped a beat when I saw him. My handsome and faithful dog who had accompanied me in my adventures through the surrounding woods was still alive!
Then, an ancient, crooked woman approached the gate.
“Frau Deim?” I ventured.
Her eyes searched my face and crinkled into a smile. “You’ve come back!”
She unlocked the gate and my first reaction was to reach out for Rigo. He was happy to see visitors and who knows, maybe he did know who I was. After giving the dog a long pat out in the cold, we were invited in. Frau Deim apologised over and over for the state of her house. I was simply happy to see her.
In the past I never understood my mother’s desire to leave Europe behind. For years I was homesick for this place yet I could never tell anyone. Europe was a door slammed shut. My job was to face forward, embrace the New World and not look over my shoulder lest I turn to a pillar of salt. But for years I furtively glanced back, when no-one was watching. Now I came face to face with what we had left behind.
Frau Deim was the widow of a railway worker whose body was found strewn across the tracks one icy January. She kept to herself, worked hard and bought up her only son as a single mother, well before the term was coined. The only assistance she received was her right to live in the signal master’s cottage until death tracked her down.
In 1983 she was an elderly woman with few means and plenty of problems. She had no running water and was reliant on a hand pump in her garden. Then, one day she noticed a foul odour emanating from the well. She asked the Austrian railways to investigate. The water was deemed to be undrinkable. From that day, she had to boil her water for ten minutes before it could be used.
Entering the house was like entering a sauna. Water droplets formed brown constellations on the ceiling, gliding down the walls and fogging her windows. It was hard to breathe. Mould invaded every crevice and advanced with military precision. Frau Deim looked about apologetically. Her bedroom opened onto the kitchen and had suffered the same fate. Her clothes hung limp over doors, on nails and draped forlorn over her bed. The wardrobe doors were swollen and warped.
As I witnessed the pitiful fate this woman had to endure, I saw my parents’ choice to leave with adult eyes. Leaving Europe was like buying a lottery ticket. The outcome was uncertain but it had offered them a last chance of starting anew.