Well, That Was Unexpected

Real life is stranger than fiction...depending on which authors you read, of course.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pilgrimage to W.H. Auden's House and Grave in Kirchstetten, Austria

As I've matured (think wine and cheese) I've stopped pursuing any particular activity simply for the sake of its uniqueness. For example, I used to listen to godawful bands in my youth because I wanted to be "unique" and noncommercial. These days I'm much more comfortable embracing my preferences no matter whether millions of others prefer them, or only a few. For example, when I wanted to live in Paris, this was not unique, it is in fact the most visited city in the world. I didn't care. I wanted to live there even if everyone else in the world was going to come along. And I did, and I loved it. Now, I didn't think that my love for WH Auden was quite in the "Paris" realm of popularity, but neither did I think that in visiting his grave and last home that I would be boldly forging a path that has virtually not been documented in the English language. Yet this is, in fact, what happened.

Now, I knew that Auden died in Vienna and was buried near his home, the first he ever owned, in Kirchstetten, Austria. I saw that this was a town outside of Vienna and it didn't cause me too much pause; I mean, it was documented on Google maps and I had read an article on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Auden's death which mentioned that it was an hour train ride outside the city. Very good, I found it on a Viennese subway line and felt confident. Now, the website for Kirchstetten the town, which has some info about the Audenhaus, is a little lacking, one might say, but hey, there is a website. Oh naive, Julie. I called the  main number to ask about the opening hours of the Audenhaus. Well, the city council says that there are no official hours, rather you are to call the family who now owns the house, specifically a woman named Brigitte whose phone number is given, and you arrange a time with her. Well, Brigitte isn't answering her phone. Time is of the essence, though, and I need to get out there whether I can be let into his study or not. This is seeming a bit peculiar, I mean, Auden isn't Shakespeare, but he is arguably one of the preeminent poets of the 20th century (I should mention a fleeting memory of when I visited TS Eliot's birthplace near St. Louis and it is now a factory, appropriately in the midst of a suburban wasteland, that now makes tanning beds.) Whatever, it's a small village, I'm thinking I can make my way when I get there.

The train ride is in fact quite straightforward and one is dropped at the doorstep of a tiny, wooden train station in the type of friendly, sleepy suburban town that I like to catalogue in my head in case I ever run afoul of the law and am so committed to life that I need to disappear, fake amnesia, and reinvent myself as a barmaid ala Edward Norton in the movie the 25th Hour. There is one bank. There is one bar. The bar is the only thing with anything going on. I gather my courage and ask where the Audenhaus is. I mean, I'm thinking it has to be the biggest thing that ever happened to this town, so they will all know where it is. First of all, I have to revert to my high school German, because in an Austrian  town where the local hotspot is a place that looks like an old mini-Cocos where people still smoke indoors, their English isn't great, i.e. it simply isn't existent at all. (I suppose here is where I give a begrudging shout out to my high school German teacher, despite dropping her class after two years because of general detestation in her direction.) It takes a relay of four people before the elderly cook comes out of the kitchen and gives directions to a man who then maps them onto a piece of scratch paper for me. I would complain about their lack of sufficiency except that it was becoming painfully clear to me that I was lucky that anyone knew anything about my very favorite, and, arguably the best poet of the 20th century...who had lived in their midst. Kirchstettenians were too busy drinking beer and smoking indoors on their lunch breaks. If Auden had lived here when he had written Musee des Beaux Arts I would have made the connection immediately. They "had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on."

They assumed I was driving a car. I was not. I was making this pilgrimage on foot. a) isn't that how all the best pilgrimages are made? and uh, b) the rental car fees were way too expensive and the town looked tiny, and I'm a prolific walker. sehr gut, ja? nein! The locals were perplexed. The barman made me promise to come back and tell them if I was successful. I managed to say something about calling the polizei if I wasn't back in 4 hours. He clapped me on the back. Did I mention that this part of Austria is going through a heat wave? A heat wave that came on so quickly that my hotel's air conditioning unit broke under the pressure of the cooling needs of their patrons. Sweating profusely at night in a Hilton. This comes into play 3 miles later in a forest. Wait for it.

Anyway, I'm told to make a right at the fire station, denoted with a star on said featured map, and then other vague arrows that I, again, very optimistically, assume will become clear along the path. The street opens up to a scene which reminds me of nothing more strongly than the vista in the Shawshank Redemption in which Red hitchhikes up to the hay field in Maine where he finds money and directions to Mexico. I might be melting, but at least there is great promise ahead. My "map" tells me that to get to Auden's house I take a right; to get to the church where he attended service and was buried, I take a left. I want to take a lot of time with his remains, so I decide to head for his house. Thus began the long death march from hell, something he might have written about from Nanking (that's how he wrote it, not me.) Now, in reality, while his house is, in fact, hard to find, it's would not be quite as hard if one had, say, a real map. A map that had a few extra accurate forks in the road, say. But I didn't, so after 3 miles of incorrect treks through a forest during which a small boy on a bike and a sunbathing woman finally pointed me on the right direction, I was cursing myself for clearly choosing the wrong VW Beetle-driving, loud-hymn-singing favorite poet. Another curious fact for me was that this alternate path was littered with references to some dude named Josef Weinheber, an Austrian poet who is definitely the town's favored son. So I now associate this rando, Weinheber, to a big Austrian suckerpunch. I feel this is also a good time to announce that I once had a Viennese lady on a flight tell me that the forests of Austria had no mosquitoes. A painful bite on my head would like to inform you that this is incorrect. More painful bites from rabid ants on my ankles would also like to attest to the fact that while perhaps not festering with mosquitoes, the Austrian forest is not a place you want to get lost on a hot afternoon. or any afternoon, methinks. I was also pretty sure that this was where my episode of Law & Order: International was going to begin.

Anyway, sunbathing lady pointed me down an overgrown forest trail that did, finally, lead to his house. And while Brigitte had not answered her phone, luckily her shirtless 15 year old son was happy to take a break from mowing the lawn in front of the trampoline to unlock "the museum." I am happy to report that this was quite a moving moment for me, to see where Auden worked and see his apperitifs of choice (gin!) and his house slippers and typewriter. I also left my mark, in the form of a pool of sweat that fell to the floor as I was toweling off in the room. Also in the guest book where I noted that the last visitors had been there a week ago. So...not the Paris of poet destinations. (But still enough to warrant a sign down on the main village road.  or even the 3rd main village road. or the 5th main village road.) Sorry, I'm still traumatized and have lines of salt all over my leggings.  Salt from the inside of my body excreted through my pores and dried onto my clothes like a Utah landmark. Everything about me smells bad right now.

Anyway, after bidding adieu to my favorite Austrian teen, I headed to the church where he was buried. This was a much easier prospect now that I had basically mapped out the whole village of Kirchstetten on foot. (Need a map? Message me.)  Again this yahoo, Weinheber, was the main attraction, but Auden got a shoutout on the church entry map. I like thinking of him going to church every Sunday and loudly singing hymns in this Catholic church, even though he was Anglican, in his slippers and sitting in his spot in the back. Since he did love it so much, I suppose it is appropriate that his grave is right behind the church and not even 10 meters from where he would have sat in the pew. His grave is simple and full of plants. I like that it is full of so much life. Sadly, that life includes lots and lots of scary black biting ants and so my plan to pay homage with hours of loving reading and lunch with my sir was cut short and I poured a bottle of wine, that I had trucked in lovingly from Vienna, mostly on his grave, partly in my mouth, left him a memorial cigarette, and proceeded to the one bar, which Auden also frequented, to read some memorial verses with cheap, delicious Riesling and the many villagers who had just finished their workday. The barmaid and the barman were both, in incomprehensible-to-me German, very happy to see me alive and said something to the effect of "it was there?!" Ja.


Blogger NigelBeale said...


6:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I happened upon your post about your pilgrimage W.H. Auden's home and gravesite in Kirchstetten a couple of weeks back and have just re-read it tonight. It is vivid and touching. I liked your descriptions of your difficulty in finding your way to the house and of the summer heat and all those mosquitos and ants!

Your photos, too, are very moving -- not only of Auden's grave, but also the wonderful map on the napkin, his study, and the residents of Kirchstetten. Finally, I loved the fact that you poured the bottle of wine on the grave (Libation Bearers!) and left a cigarette. Just perfect.

Thank you so much for your post, which I'm printing out and inserting into my copy of W.H.'s Collected Poems.

I don't understand how to post on these blogs, so I'll just leave my name and email address below.

Best wishes to you and happy trails.

Madelineal@aol.com (Madeline A. Lewis)

9:27 PM  
Blogger David Smith said...

I was delighted to come across your post, which I read with raised eyebrows, lots of grins and huge relief. I am off to Vienna in July, and I had also harboured the idea of 'pilgrimaging' to Kirchstetten. (With a car - maybe. But that's unlikely.) No, I think you have cured me of the urge, and I'm grateful... Maybe I should spend the time visiting the Josef Weinheber Room at one of Vienna's Bezirkmuseen - if I do, you will have 'led' me there, too!

David Smith (cembalisto14@gmail.com)

4:28 AM  
Blogger Patrick Kimura-Macke said...

I lived in a village (Ludmerfeld) about 5 kilometres away from 1985 onwards and still rent the rooms though hardly get a chance to use them these days. Together with an old friend we visited the Auden Haus both last year when we went in and this year when we remained outside but did walk up to the woods where there are some of Auden's poems displayed. It is not easy to find the house, at least nowadays it isn't. There used to be direction signs in the village back in the 80s and 90s when I ran through on the road to or from Kasten but they are no longer there.

Patrick Kimura-Macke

3:27 AM  

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