A Bavarian in Südtirol

from left: Franz, Wolfi, Toni, Paul und Günter


"Ecco il suo scontrino". The other people in the dining car, which just passed over the Brenner pass into Italy, did not quite understand why I laughed out loud when I heard this. I had not been to Italy for over a year, and the words sent a shudder of nostalgia through me. My bliss was complete when the cashier was unable to give me change for 50,000 Lire - I was back home! Only the anti-semitic asides in Woody Allen movies can illustrate my relationship with Italy, where you have to keep your receipt within 200 meters of the point of sale, and where cashiers start their shift without 25 USD worth of change.

On the way back to my seat, I had another uplifting experience. I sighted an echte Südtiroler Gitsch (1), reminding me of a Haflinger from the north and Gitsch from the extreme south of Italyhappy Haflinger filly, with a mane of flaxen hair resisting any futile attempts of coiffurage, and with hips slightly oversized so as to be proportionally wider than the jawbone, whose biblical dimensions visibly underlined the concept of a woman's most dangerous weapon. The rash of fury provoked by her cellphone's fancy ringing tone subsided the moment she started speaking, obviously to an Italian friend of hers. The Italian was fluent enough, the grammar perfect to the point of not being noticeable. Yet the melody, originally formed along the ragged Rosengarten skyline, was forcibly bent to assimilate the soft lines of the Ligurian shores. Tender Italian vowels cautiously felt their way through a throat that had clearly been designed with a different language in mind, while the "r"s would have had you immediately arrested on any American airport as a suspect Arab terrorist. "Allorkha dschi fediamo all'arkhifo del rrkheno"! (2)

Another gitsch, another laugh: the girl in my compartment was reading a book on Italian art history. Which would have been innocent enough, had it not had Tut-Enk-Amun's mask on the cover. The subtitle enlightened me about this choice of illustration, denouncing my weird logic as utterly un-Italian box-thinking. Egypt and Greece were declared merely the foundations for the treasure of the great Italian culture, which in turn is being imitated by whatever came after it!

Amy Fall and Ndeye PendaIn Bolzano, I shoved my sister-in-law and her baby daughter out of the train, although there was nobody there to pick them up, even though we had telephoned a few days earlier to announce our arrival on this specific train at this precise hour. Not as she had done on flying up from Senegal, telling us she'd arrive on Tuesday at 7.30 am, when indeed she meant to leave Tuesday night to arrive on Wednesday morning, which we didn't immediately notice, though, because the connecting Sabena flight from Brussels was cancelled due to that carrier's insolvency, and when we did realize this, it was no good either, because the next day Dakar airport was closed to the general public as a security precaution linked to a meeting of African chiefs of state convened by our deeply venerated president, Maitre Abdoulaye Wade President Wade (refer also to a previous part of this saga). As a result of this whole mess, the contents of the styrofoam box that Aminata had brought along were accurately described by the customs officer at Stuttgart airport as fish soup – fresh fish and crushed ice only ever remain cold for so long. Luckily, the official was so amused by the contents of Amina’s 200 pound baggage that he even forgot to confiscate this undocumented biohazard.

I travelled on to Verona, where I first called Mariétou from a public phone and told her to call Fallou in Bolzano and tell him Amina and Ndeye Penda were sitting in the railway station. In order to do this, I had to buy a phone card, thus confessing that I Osteria in Veronawas the last human in Italy without a cellphone. To my relieve, Aminata had been dutyfully picked up, so I could enjoy my tour of select Verona bookshops and wine-bars with a quiet conscience.

At 7.30 pm, I finally arrived (again) in Bolzano, where Franz felt a bit mocked when I came from the wrong direction. 30 minutes of hair-raising bends later, we got to the Mock’s home on the Ritten, where Edelgard was waiting with the dinner. Their son Bernie was there, too, and during dinner we tried to work out ways to install an artificial climbing wall at our new house. The grips wouldn’t pose any problem, there are – admittedly expensive – techniques for fixing them on just about any wall. The security hooks are the real challenge. They must support 3,000 kilos to be considered safe. In the end I realized that I could buy several life-time memberships at professional sites for the 10,000 Euros such an installation would cost me.

The following day, I had a chance to think over my freeclimbing aspirations anyhow. The via ferrata Gerardo Sega begins harmless enough, with a 10 meter steel ladder leading halfway up a vertical wall. At the top of the ladder, you turn left and traverse the whole width of the cliff on a ledge about 20 cm wide, with a steel cable to cling on to as you edge out over the point where the access path ends and the cliff below you drops about 50 more meters. The rest of the way is sheer pleasure. The fascination of climbing in Trentino owes much to the fact that you get all the action of rock-climbing, but below the tree-line. You can enjoy the breath-taking view of mountainsides burning with the colours of indian summer, and challenging rock-climbing bits interlude with pleasant walks on forest paths, with the warm autumn light filtering through the multi-coloured foliage.

During dinner that night, while reminiscing about old times, we were bound to remember our friend Toni (the cheerful guy in the middle of the photo at the top), who had died in a horrible way the winter before. Hit by an avalanche, one of his skiing poles got thrust through his abdomen. He was still alive when they dug him out half an hour later, but died soon after in the Trento hospital. The heart-lung-machines at Innsbruck were both occupied, the one in Bolzano was free, but with no one around who knew to work it, so they had to fly him all the way to Trento, to no avail. Toni wouldn’t have liked to see us sulking; after quenching a quiet tear, we remembered his natural gift for telling revolting stories, all true, from his life, himself humbly smiling while the rest of us were roaring with laughter, with the exception of the professor (a guy who thinks that having read a ton of books entitles him to be a theatre critic), who remained in shocked silence as Toni remembered the good old times of the brothel in Meran, 50 Lire for the common folk on the ground floor, 100 Lire for better gentlemen on the first floor. On the more tragic side, he had been cheated out of two years of his life by his first employer, who had never cared to register the young boy with social security, a fact that Toni found out when applying for old age pension. There he was told he had to continue for two more years to be eligible at all. The only non-academic in our little group, he happily enjoyed our after-mountaineering discussions at Schwarzsiehler or similar traditional institutions of Südtiroler Buschn-Kultur (3). When the bank manager Gerald, the controller Franz, the accountant Günter and the surgeonWolfi had drunk themselves warm and were heatedly discussing the utilitarian advantages of monotheistic religion in a pagan environment, Toni, who never touched alcohol, would enjoy the show from the wings, while the professor was again reduced to dumbfounded suffering at this display of drunken silliness.

Later that evening, Franz untypically announced a phone-call he was about to make. Franz is not the loquacious kind. When he calls someone on the phone, he doesn’t make a fuss about it. But there was something he felt he had to mentally prepare me for. "I’m calling Carlo", he mumbled, adding somewhat embarrassed: “There is now an Italian going with us on the mountains”. I met Carlo the next morning at the Colle parking lot. Although Italian, he blended in near-perfectly with the other guys, insofar as he spoke not three words all day long, if you count out the occasional “ma che böööllo!” (7), which he duely echoed to the Tyrolian “na schiiiian!” (8), which one is supposed to utter when, turning a corner of rock, one is struck by an awe-inspiring view, and which, if the beauty of it all becomes unbearable, can become an ecstatic “na schaug wia schiiian!” (11) (followed by “che böööllo – ma veramente!”) (12). To counterbalance such emotional overflow, the true Tiroler follows these outbreaks with mantra-like enumerations of all the mountains in sight, indiscernible to the Flachland-Tiroler – I usually lose count after the third or forth name. "Zemm sigsch wunderbar an Adamello, Greizschbizz, der midn schian Ferner is da Dschewedale, danemm Orddler und Königschbizz, und hindn der schiane is de Weißkugel" (13) – they more or less look the same to me, and explanations along the line: “the one with the nice triangular peak” are of little help.

That evening, I had to do my shopping. Equipped with Franz’s Metro (14) card, I bought 30 kilos of Barilla pasta, 15 packs of Lavazza espresso, 5 kilos Keschtn (15), 20 packs of Schüttelbrot and the occasional titbits. Just to show the Senegalese that I can do power-shopping, too!

November 2001
Günter Eckert

(1) Gitsch (South-Tyrolian dialect): expression indicating a young girl (at least several months younger than the person using the expression, if the latter is male. Seldom used for women over 30). [back]

(2) Allora ci vediamo all'arrivo del treno (Italian): See you at the station when the train arrives. [back]

(3) Buschn: Tyrolian institution, by which farmers are allowed, for a limited period, to operate a restaurant on their premises, marketing mainly their own produce, which usually consists of red wine, white wine, Würstl mit Kraut, wine (red or white), Ziager (4), Portugieser (5), Graukas (6), many other mouth-watering specialities and, of course, wine. [back]

(4) Ziager: strong cheese, not from goatmilk, as the name (Ziege = goat) may suggest, but one that has matured (gezogen = drawn). Usually served with slices of raw onion, oil, vinegar and salt. [back]

(5) Portugieser: red wine from a particular grape, in times immemorial (to me) transplanted from Portugal. [back]

(6) Graukas: cheese speciality. Crawls at three distinct speeds, depending on ripeness. Serving suggestions: see “Ziager”, (4) above. [back]

(7) Ma che bello! (Italian): How beautiful! [back]

(8) Na schian! (Tyrolean; Schriftdeutsch (9): Nein, schön!): How beautiful! [back]

(9) Schriftdeutsch (German): What Austrian speakers (South-Tyrolian or not) mistake for Hochdeutsch (10) [back]

(10) Hochdeutsch (German): Artificial language which has never been spoken by anyone. Closest analogy: English as spoken by Eliza Doolittle, without any discernible local or social influence. On second thought, maybe German as tought at the Goethe-Institut Budapest (Hungary). [back]

(11) Na schaug wia schiiian! (Tyrolean; Schriftdeutsch: Nein, schau wie schön!): Look how beautiful, isn’t it? [back]

(12) Che bello – ma veramente! (Italian): How beautiful, really! [back]

(13) Accidental enumeration of mountain names I have heard somewhere. There is no point in the Alps, Dolomites or Kaukasus from where one could see them all. Given my ignorance in these matters, perhaps there is... [back]

(14) Metro: Chain of supermarkets which is supposed to cater exclusively to retailers, a condition which is controlled by means of an ID card. Has led to a class distinction wherever the chain operates: Privileged individuals have somehow succeeded in obtaining a bona fide Metro card. Members of the underpriviledged minority have to borrow one from an individual in the first category, or from their employer. An urban legend reports that once every full moon, an actual retailer is seen entering the premises (probably to deliver something they have bought elsewhere). [back]

(15) Keschtn (Tyrolean; Schriftdeutsch: Maroni): Edible chestnuts. Roasted, a delicacy, (nearly never served with onions). Since they are rather dry, it can take astounding quantities of red wine to slosh them down (which maybe accounts for their popularity?). [back]