An Enchanted Place that makes Vienna Smile
At this time of the year, I walk out into my garden every morning. It is one small step out of the kitchen door on the terrace, and three and a half steps from the terrace to the grass with its light green, freshly risen blades. Freshly risen because it is spring now. To me, it is the season I have been waiting for during all those ghastly, mostly gray and windy, chilly winter months we have to endure here in Austria. From October to March, I have been waiting, more, longing for the moment where sleeping beauty would finally open her eyes again, yawn and stretch out.
The time has arrived now, and this is the reason why I step out into my beautiful old garden every day. It is still too cold to take off my shoes and feel the soft grass tickle my soles as I do in summer. But I try to honor the rising temperature by daring not to wear socks when I walk out in my slippers. I feel bold and courageous as when I was a child and won the yearly fight against my mother by finally wearing knee-length stockings under my dress. No matter how chilled I was, I wore my triumph-over-reasonableness with head held high – and red knees, often followed by a heavy cold. It seems I haven’t changed in more than thirty years. I still walk out there with my head held high, being rewarded with red toes and knees. Maybe, tomorrow, I will sneeze a little – but, after all, it is spring time!
Tall old spruces with wide-spread branches are the first to greet me. Someone planted them close to the house about hundred years ago. I take a deep breath to inhale this air-of-the-woods my four old spruce sisters produce. We love to sit in their quiet shadow in summer, but now their shadow doesn’t even touch the terrace stones as the sun is just rising. Today, as I look out into this garden – at one part softly shaped, at the other hunchy like an old man’s hand – among this green of the grass sprinkled with brown tree trunks and bush twigs – my eyes are caught by some bright white spots. This year’s first blossoms on our age-old apricot tree.
Until today, it has only been the shining yellow forsythia that has bloomed. When I look at its brightness, I always feel as if this bush has hoarded all the summer sun’s rays, stored them inside during the winter and now gratefully brings them out again in a brilliant radiation. We have three of these bush-shaped suns in our garden. My husband’s aunt planted them, and I know she loved them, just as much as I do now.
This is a very old garden, a former vineyard. In former times, in our part of the country, people raised peach and apricot, apple and pear trees together with the vines. The vines have been gone now for centuries, but some of those trees are still alive in our garden – old, but undauntedly bringing out their fruits year after year – old types of fruit you can’t find in other gardens any more. You can no longer buy small but deliciously sweet fruit like this at the marketplace these days.
It is a conspiracy between us – my old trees and me – as I care for them. I have to admit that I talk to my trees and flowers and plants and bushes. I ask them to pardon me if I have to cut some leaves or twigs off them and explain to them why it is necessary to do so. I know they understand. When I am sad, I lean against the big pinetree’s distorted trunk, embracing it, holding my cheek against it and getting sound down-to-earth comfort there.
But, today, there is no reason to be sad at all. During the past few days, temperatures have risen to about 15 degrees centigrade (60° F). Yesterday, we had some refreshing but already warm spring rain. Everything is about to burst into bloom. I can see the green flowerbuds spring open and white petals thrust out into the warm light on all the trees and bushes around me.
Yesterday, when I walked my dog in the evening, I was overwhelmed by spring odors. Jasmine, peach and apricot blossoms accompanied me all the way along my garden walk.
Even the soil smells fresh and recovered from the winter period, though this year’s winter was quite mild. And now that the rain has washed away all the winter dirt and dust, this certain quality of spring light sparkles all over – it is so beautiful to see the sun rise in the morning it almost makes me ache with the pleasure of it.
We get up early of late, for the birds start their day by chirping and twittering so loudly they wake us at dawn. And we both think it would be a waste to stay in bed on such beautiful days when you can watch the winter’s gloom being swept away.
My ten-year-old daughter, Joanna, now steps out of the house. I kiss her forehead and slip my arm around her. We stand still and survey the garden together, calmly watching. We are accompanied by our cats. One by one, they come near, curling up around our feet or neatly sitting down with their tails snugly wrapped around their bodies.
We observe the busy quietness. The first bumblebees hum from flower to flower. I realize now that some daisies have already stood up their neat little heads, and back there, my daughter points it out, we have a few yellow and pink primroses blinking in the newly risen sunshine. A pert little titmouse flutters down to our kitchen entrance, cautiously watching the five cats as they turn their heads towards it. The titmouse’s dark eyes shine in our direction for a moment, then it takes a bunch of dog’s hair from the mat before the kitchen door and swiftly flies up to its secret nest place. This summer, again, a handful of titmouse babies will be bred in a nest made from our dog’s underwool.
When I brush Jenny, our dog, I always leave a pile of her white underwool in some hidden corners of the garden for the birds. This hair she inherited from her father, a golden retriever. But the wind insists on blowing this pile away, bringing parts of it near our house again where you sometimes can find some long hair hanging on twigs or window sills like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Not for long, though, because our birds know exactly where to find the coziest material for their nests.
Now, a blackbird has just landed a few meters before us, far enough away not to put itself in danger of our wild cats. One of those beasts meanwhile has jumped up into Joanna’s arms, huddling there cozily and purring contentedly. We watch the blackbird try to pull a worm out of his hole in the earth. The worm surrenders his tail, leaving it to the blackbird in a desperate attempt to save his life – and succeeds. I could swear the bird looks disappointed as he flings himself up into the air again with only this morsel in his beak in spite of the promised full-scale meal.
I glance at my watch and sigh. It is time to go in again and start our everyday routine. My daughter puts down the cat. We still don’t have to talk to know what to do. Our cats also know the routine. One of them tries to enter the kitchen, hesitating at the door we have just closed in time. This, too, is an everyday contest that, mostly, we win. Sometimes, one of our beasts manages to sneak in and get a nose full of kitchen odors but, within a few seconds, it will find itself sitting outside again, looking back despite feeling offended, then starting to wash its fur majestically as if nothing untoward had happened.
I give a final glance at this secret paradise we live in as I start to prepare breakfast.
On a day like today, it is very hard for me to leave the peaceful house and garden, knowing that I have to go out into the loud and busy city that we live in. My only comfort is to know that, in the evening, I will return to a place where we all can keep our hectic surroundings outside, so that we can regain our power and where we can recover by just listening and watching.
Later on, properly dressed and ready to go, I say good bye to my oldest cat, Tammy, who is sitting at the window. I stroke Tammy’s head gently, smiling at her, warmed by her purr, knowing that she will have a lovely day by remaining here. As I finally leave, I see her head turn to the window again. She looks out into our enchanted piece of earth, at this season of the year haunted by the ghosts of the past and the future at the same time. When I step through our green garden door in the tall stony wall that surrounds our little paradise, I think of how cats can sit at a window and look out for hours into what almost everyone would call an empty garden. I understand them very well, and I suddenly wish I could be one of my cats, and stay home all day long with the possibility of going out any time and having a walk in the sun, climb trees or take a nap beneath one of the blackberry bushes where the sun has already warmed the soil. Some of us could learn a lot by following a cat’s example – because cats know for sure how to really enjoy even the smallest pleasures of life.
This thought makes me smile. It is a smile I carry with me all day long, passing it over to almost everyone I meet.
So, if you happen to come to Vienna on a bright spring day and you see everyone smile, you will be right if you suspect that a garden and a cat are responsible for that smile.
– Stina B