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May 08, 2007

Remembrance of Things Past in Merano, Italy


Kaffee und Kuchen, just like Baba used to order.

One of the things about traveling is that you can step foot in a town or city you have never been to before and be reminded -- powerfully reminded -- of people and places that have receded far into the past. This is what happened to me at the Vigilius Mountain Resort.

After my brush with German sternness and German nakedness at the spa, I came back to my room and phoned my mother. We talked about the sauna episode, and eventually she asked me, "Are you near Meran?" Meran is the German name for the town Italians call Merano, and to get to Vigilius, you take the first exit for Meran off the highway. "Baba absolutely loved Meran," my mother said.

"Baba" is the Polish word for Grandmother, and seeing as my father's mother was born in Poland, this is what we called her. The knowledge that she had been here -- in the South Tyrol, left me unaffected at first. I considered it coldly and abstractly and then turned my mind to other things. At dinner, I started tearing up over a plate of cheese and mountain-ham dumplings. There was no apparent trigger, but something about the Austrian-style decor brought on a bout of melancholy.

Hela_henryk_mira For the first third of her years, Baba led a life that you could call charmed. She was born in 1909 in a Polish town called Lubience. Her father was in lumber and land management and dabbled in oil. Thus was he more than capable of supporting his daughter's fondness for spa holidays in the mountains. Though she was born during the last gasp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- it dissolved in 1918 at the end of World War I -- she lingered lovingly in its dying twilight. For holidays, she would take her husband -- a cavalryman and engineer, shown at left, flanked by his wife and mother-in-law at a Polish spa -- to some fabulous mountain resort.

By day, she would promenade down the main street and shop for clothes or souvenirs, stopping for coffee and cake -- always coffee and cake. At night everyone would put on something quite nice and gather in the dining room for a formal dinner. For their honeymoon, Baba and new her husband -- my grandfather, Henryk Schatzker -- toured the mountains of Switzerland. The trip lasted five weeks and Baba, who was just plain Helen Schatzker back then, brought 25 suitcases. (I never found out how many Henryk brought, but I imagine it was considerably fewer.)

On July 1, 1941, her life was changed forever when the Nazis invaded Stryj, the town where she lived. That day, they rounded up ten prominent townspeople and shot them. Henryk Schatzker was one of them. A year later, Baba and my father, who was 7, were broke and hiding in Warsaw, living under assumed Catholic names. By 1949, they had made it to Canada. From a large and close family of more than 20, three were still living.

Baba didn't ever learn to love life in North America. She never told me what it was that didn't appeal to her, but I think it was that no one knew how to dress or how to walk leisurely down a street. Everyone also had bad table manners, so Baba made it her mission that her three grandsons would not. Twice monthly she would attire herself in a nice dress, order a taxi, and take us to a restaurant called the Coffee Mill, a peculiar early-1980s throwback to the glory days of Austria-Hungary.

Over plates of Wiener schnitzel, Baba instructed us how to hold cutlery, where to keep our left hand while we were eating soup (on the table, flat, and to the left of the soup bowl), and where not to put our elbows (anywhere on or near the table). From these lunches, the most vivid memory I have is of a man and woman sitting at the next table. It was during summer and the man had barely taken a sip from a delicious-looking chocolate milkshake when he tipped it off the table and it exploded on the floor. He sat there, coolly, and finished his conversation. A woman appeared with a mop and he ignored her as she removed the mess. "How come he isn't getting in trouble?" I asked Baba. I do not recall the answer I was given, but that day I realized what makes adults adults is that they can do bad things and not get in trouble.

Besides teaching us manners, Baba would tells us stories of her "beloved Europe," a phrase she used so often it became stock and predictable and would later take on comic proportions among her three boys. (Years after her death, we still use it when referring to Europe: "I hear you're traveling to my beloved Europe next week..." "What is my beloved euro trading at these days&") My father always told us that Baba's version of Europe didn't exist and hadn't existed for a very long time. Nevertheless, by 1968 my father was a practicing doctor and by the early 1970s, Baba began taking the trips across the Atlantic in search of the elegant spa towns she once loved.

When it came time to leave Vigilius, I had a big drive ahead of me. My plan -- ambitious, admittedly --  was to make it to Monaco by mid-afternoon. There wasn't much time, but I started driving in the wrong direction, towards Meran. I couldn't leave without having a slice of cake and a cup of coffee in the memory of a smart and beautiful woman who lived through more pain than most ever know and yet found the space in her heart to love her grandchildren very much.

The dream that was Austria-Hungary still lives in Merano, Italy. The stone churches are dark with age and have tall, pointed steeples. A river brings down cool water from the icy mountaintops and winds slowly through town, matching the current of people on the mane promenade. There are fine things to look at in the store windows, and on warm afternoons, the patios are crowded with umbrellas spreading shade. Beneath them, men and women drink coffee and eat cake.

One of the things that makes Europe Europe is that little changes, despite so much history. I decided to try and see if there was a coffee shop where Baba could have stopped during one of her afternoon promenades thirty-odd years ago. I found the Cafe Koenig. The sign at the entrance said it had been open since 1893.

I took a seat on the patio and ordered a coffee and a slice of cake. At the next table, a young couple was consoling a crying baby. Next to them, an elderly couple sat and talked. The waitress brought me my coffee and cake. As I sipped and filled my mouth with forkful of creamy sweetness, I thought about Baba. I thought about the movement of time, and how what is in the past can sometimes feel more present than what is all around us. I looked at my cup of coffee on the table in front of me. I could take my hand, I thought, and tip the cup off the edge and have it explode on the floor next to me. I would not get in trouble, I realized, and someone else would be sent to remove the mess. But I was raised with better manners than that.


Watching the world -- and time -- go by on the patio of Cafe Koenig.

Posted near N 46 37.301 and E 011 08.105


I enjoy your more light-hearted articles more, but this article was so moving. It was interesting to note your father saying "Bada's" Europe hadn't existed for a long time, but you conjured up an intoxicating impression.

First: Knock it off, you're making me cry.

Second: one important lesson I am learning from your travels is that if you are trying to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days or less, avoid Italy. It takes a disproportionate time to cross, say, compared to the largest continents on the planet...from your writings though, the reasons seem obvious.

Great article- I recently was stationed in Europe and had the privilege of seeing where my grandparents had lived in pre WWI Germany before immigrating to the midwest... vivid memories and wonderful times.

Keep up the great writing.


Mark, what a touching and beautiful tribute to your Baba. Thanks for sharing these memories. Had she been able to read this entry, I'm sure she would have been extremely proud of her grandson.

I have been following your blog - what a great journey! After reading your story on your Baba I Googled Stryj and actually came up with a link that mentions the demise of your grandfather.

The whole Holocaust is such a sad story, but it is made up of individual stories that are both poignant and uplifting. I am glad (as I am sure you are) your Baba was able to escape - not many did. Travel safe!
Chris P

My grandparents on my father's side were also Polish, but they emigrated to the United States (with most of their family) in the late 1800s. So my Dad was born in the US, as were his four sisters. In fact, my grandparents actually met here, although they had come from the same area of Poland (which is now in the Ukraine, thanks to changing boundaries).

I never knew my paternal grandparents, dead long before I came along. But your tribute to your grandmother reminded me so of my Aunt Al, Dad's oldest sister and self-appointed matriarch in her mothers absence. She died, too, when I was in my twenties. The last time I saw her she insisted on giving me a haircut and spent the time bitterly complaining how Bing Crosby's "crooning" had ruined the career of a REAL singer, Rudy Vallee. This was in 1970, long after either performer had any current significance.

Maybe it's part of Polish culture to hang on hopelessly to what was once loved, and lament its loss, rather than to find new things to love.

Or maybe not. Your grandmother loved you, and my Aunt Al loved me.


Loved your post re: Italy. Hoping to go for an extended period soon and stay in what was my granfather's house in the mountains of the northern Tyrol! Near and dear to my heart. The immigration records indicate his country of origin was "Austria", although it is now Italy. We even have a "Tyrol Club" here in Syracuse, as so many came from that area.

Happy travels and adventures! Maybe I'll see you there!

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