Fairy Tales About Death

The thing about Austria, at least the thing about it that tourists remember, is that it’s more like what Disney World would be if it was grounded in reality. That’s probably a stupid thing to say, given that Disney was looking to create a fictitious version of reality, not restricted to the talking mice and a caste system for dogs (why did Pluto not have access to the same rights as Goofy unless he was some sort of dalit?).

But really, the experience that the average visitor will have in Austria will be something like out of the Brothers Grimm. Forested hills capped with castles and fortresses in varying states of repair seem to fall under every casual gaze. Snow capped mountains tussle with lakes that seem to resonate blue pigment for the attentions of a thousand social media posts. Cathedrals and churches, crooked worn stair cases and winding medieval alleys mute the bustle of the working city, and make you feel like you’ve tripped into a wormhole in time – until the next gaggle of tourists follow you and start setting up cameras on tripods, and the crackle of shutters makes you think of a thousand sewing machines in a sweatshop, and the illusion is broken, only to be rebuilt at the next stop off for Sachertorte or pork knuckle or a concert sold by a hungover, out of work actor dressed as Mozart.

The illusion is what Austria seems to be selling, and it doesn’t take a great deal to reveal the artifice. Taking my wife on our honeymoon, back home meant I had the opportunity to guide her to those places where the magic was strongest, but things would always descend into reality anyway. Standing outside the birthplace of Mozart in Salzburg, now a supermarket, we watched the bloodshot eyed, unshaven Mozart impersonator delicately pick his nose in front of roughly 200 American tourists and wipe it on his replica velvet topcoat. In the meantime the conversation washed over us across the clatter of a thousand digital camera shutters.

Mozart’s Place of Birth

“So this is Mozart’s house? Right above a supermarket?”

“Yeah, I guess so. It must be kind of convenient though, easy to get groceries.”

“When are we going for dinner?”

My wife turned to me and sotto voce, said, “Do they think Mozart’s up there now? Clearly he’s right in front of us selling tickets to the show tonight.”

One of the Americans looked over at us uneasily, and with a final burst of picture taking the group left, to replaced immediately with their Japanese equivalents, and swarmed Mozart who was now digging through his back teeth, as though he was hoping to  find a deposit of something valuable, possibly uranium, in there.

But the spell remained largely unbroken for those people, and you have to be thankful for that. Austria is the kind of place that survives of artifice – after all this is the nation that has managed to convince the world that Hitler was German, and Beethoven was Austrian, and indeed the latter must have moved approximately 400 times around Austria, if the number of commemorative plaques on houses are to be believed. There’s perhaps no real pleasure to be gained from gaining a better sense of the tawdry reality of it all, beyond the capacity to act world weary and superior to those who encounter the world with a childlike sense of naiveté.

That idea of wonderment might be something we need more of, especially as we start to see it wane through the little knocks to the soul that we all take. Realising just how difficult the world was for my father as a wheelchair user was emblematic of the disintegration of some of the fairy tale. Getting used to the sight of the amputations was enough to keep me occupied at first. He had lost a lot of weight from a frame that had never been particularly big in the first place. But somehow he took a savage pride in the whole affair, perhaps because it was easier than the alternative.

“I’m down to thirty-two kilograms now,” he would announce periodically, and the tone was similar to a person in a weight watchers group, except there was no applause or congratulations forthcoming, just that awkward silence, punctuated by my mother’s life time catch phrase of “Oh well…”

The hospital where he was interred for much of the time in that first return didn’t allow for many challenges anyway. Smooth linoleum and an abundance of ramps meant that the transition seemed less of an issue. At that time the conversation was still mostly positive. We spoke about When he gets betteand Once he’s back home, listening to updates about the fitting of the prostheses that would allow him to learn to walk again.

Urwaldgebiet Mittelsteighütte, Bergmischwald, Europäische Eibe (Taxus baccata)And then one day he was given release to go out, and we took him to visit the tree and the Unicorn’s Cave in the valley by Dreistetten. Somehow we missed the carpark that time and ended up below the space, just by a few hundred metres. He insisted on getting out of the car and into the wheelchair, and fell out twice trying to move along the rutted muddy path. His anger seemed to radiate like the heat of a furnace, and the women called me to help him, to stop him from doing it again. And I did as they said, but I remember wondering What more harm could he possibly do to his body at this point?

“It’s too bumpy here. I can’t find the place. Everything has overgrown.” he said and it was at that moment that the curtain was pulled back for both of us, and the illusion of the place fell away. A new reality was made clear, the way a child must feel when they realise that Mickey Mouse is just a man in a big suit based on drawings and voices of people long dead. The reality was that there was no change to the valley, but we could no longer see it in the same way – the way the sounds of cameras and barcode scanners turned Mozart’s home into a destination.

That moment will remain clear in my memory for some time. It’s hard to keep having to acknowledge as I approach 40, just how many illusions I still harbour about what life is. It’s hard to think about the determined angry struggle I watched, as my father tried to defy the reality of his new life, by returning to his old one. It was hard to accept that because it was a lesson about change. And Austria is a place that abhors change, a world where xenophobia can be viewed as a gift rather than a hinderance. Would the fairy tale exist if Austria had been responsive to multiculturalism? If it had embraced new architecture, customs and religions? Probably not, so on the surface you could argue that everyone got what they wanted. The Austrians didn’t really have to change beyond acknowledging that Anti Semitism and Genocide were bad, and were allowed to carry on being racist to Turks and outsiders indefinitely. The tourists get to visit the grown up version of Disney World, and experience the facsimile of a culture that is presented as almost unbroken since the Holy Roman Empire, despite the huge changes since the erosion of the Hapsburg dynasty in the early 20th century.

But reality is surely being exposed, as it always has been. The Syrian refugee crisis has certainly affected the nation in recent times. The struggle between the left and right wings in politics at the time of populism have skittered between the absurd (a Centre left President?) to the sense of the inevitable (links to the Nazi party and it’s modern counterparts in the rising far right parties). The real story is in the conversations and acknowledgement at the national level. To some extent it only becomes reality when it is recognised.

In that way, that day watching my father come to terms with his new reality was only the beginning of a new process. We all start to become aware of our own mortality gradually, and the process never stops. From a child who first encounters the concept of death, through to the knowledge that one day we will die, to the realisation that we are dying, the journey towards reality is continuous and relentless. Those emblematic moments serve to represent moments of acceptance in the long run, times when we let go of a bit of the illusory world we have created and enjoyed, and then it is our duty to find the beauty and joy in this new reality we have been shown.



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