(I wrote the following piece around four years ago. No one wants to publish it—but maybe you’ll want to read it? If so, it’s right here.)
I had broken my right hand just before I left for Austria. I blamed wine for it, I blamed my girlfriend—more than anything I blamed that damn wall for knowing how to take a punch. So, with a fractured fifth-metacarpal, I traveled to the southern Styrian wine land, spent two faithful weeks surrounded by European women, and tried notto throw down with any walls…. Oh yeah, and I met a nun.
I went to Austria to attend Graz University Summer School. It was a way for me to pick up needed credits toward my MFA—the City College of New York (where I’ve been enrolled, very-part-time) and Graz University share a joint-degree program in American Studies. On top of the practical academic move—and the novelty of being taught English linguistics by first an Austrian and then a Hungarian professor—I couldn’t pass up three meals a day and travel expenses reimbursed up to 75%.
I could use the vacation and the money. Only a couple of nights before I left New York my girlfriend stiffed me on a restaurant bill. Two bottles of Ortruga imbibed and our bellies full of good Italian, the superior night turned to shit when I made an apparent linguistic error—how apropos—when referring to George W. Bush. If you can, I recommend you never argue with your girlfriend over the word “Cunt.”
The summer school was held at Seggau Castle, above the city of Leibnitz, which is about 40 km south of Gratz. The region is nicknamed the “Styrian Tuscany” because der Weinbauer know how to treat a grape. There’s a 300-year-old wine cellar on the Castle’s grounds, one of the oldest and largest cellars in Europe. I have the palate of a 13-year-old girl, so I dug their whites. I mean, their Welschriesling is just too delicious.
Yes, Seggau is wonderful and incredibly romantic—a place to either bring a lover or to be single. Those are the sane options. Now, if you’re here in Seggau and your girl is somewhere over there—in a time zone six hours behind yours—and you have a history of punching things, then maybe, at least, you’ll have a story to tell. There is a pool.
The pool was the most painful, for the obvious: the Aryan duo from a concurrent program (one peroxide-coiffed and perpetually sunburnt, the other flat-chested and in need of a Corvette to pose on), the elegant Venetian whose peacock bikini, when wet, was a little saggy in the bottom, and the handfuls of female Eastern European sunbathers born under the last throes of Soviet rule. Then there was the image of my girlfriend in her red bikini—a big tease flashing inside my head. The only permitted tease…And, of course, there was the nun—a rare sighting, but enough to remind me that I was in a rare place.
Seggau Castle dates back to the Romans. The archbishops of Salzburg built the upper part of the Castle in the 12th century, and the first nuns arrived in 1897 from a Franciscan order in Gratz. In 1956 Seggau became a Catholic school and later a place where families could holiday without spending too much money. Today it’s very much a hotel.
We had a party one night in what was once the lapidarium. Matthias, an Austrian student, pointed out that the carvings on the walls were hundreds of years old. There we were, drinking cans of Schwechater and homemade sangria in an historic structure we had turned, with little effort, into a “disco.” In one engraving on the wall, the wear of age had shaped one David-like figure into a eunuch.
At first it was the meeting of the historic and the modern that interested me—or the convergence of the religious and the secular. On the one hand you have the Castle with its chapel and on the other the “congress and convention centre”—they’re wired. Inside the buildings on the walls you find unimposing crosses: you could miss the wooden ones easily, and the metal ones (which are far more complicated in design) are works of art. Not one of the crosses reads “crucifixion.”
In a way, Seggau reminded me of the Catholic high school I had graduated from eight years before: Saint Mary’s in Manhasset, Long Island. Crosses decorated the halls and the classrooms of Mary’s, but I didn’t pay much attention to them in the day-to-day. And during the mandatory masses where we were reminded of Christ’s suffering, I couldn’t sympathize with the Son hanging up there, because I was down here, wrestling with my own pocket Passion—the interminable erection brought on by dreams of taking, if not every girl’s chastity, then at least my own.
The GUSS program felt like an opportunity to relive high school. There I was taking courses I didn’t care about, forced to accept a daily routine (six hours of class and mandatory lectures), unconcerned with shelter or food. As for the food—the cuisine could kick the shit out of anything your Food Network-watching mother could ever make. You have no idea what culinary gymnastics the Austrians can perform on a potato! (That is, unless you do know already.)
I am a version of the man I dreamt of being when I was in high school. It’s weird and it’s scary to think of myself that way, but it’s true. At 26 I’ve done some traveling, I am smoother in my words and interactions, and I’ve actually wooed women to the point where they’ve slept with me—even loved me. I know that I was sporting a broken hand in Austria—not exactly a testament to adulthood. I could have fallen off a skateboard and come up with the same injury—that would have been more respectable.
But I did punch a wall days before boarding the plane to Austria. After she had stiffed me on the check my girlfriend walked the six blocks to my apartment where she waited for me to return. I let her inside, and we argued some more. I felt challenged, insecure—I loved her. The three sentiments (with the help of alcohol) unleashed the 16-year-old boy inside me. I actually thought I could bust through the wall. But the wall knew what I was made of.
And days later, with me miles away in foreign country, my girlfriend, via email or calling card, expressed her own insecurities. She had forgotten about the carnage my C-bombings had caused in the restaurant and in my apartment. Seeing how we had left things in New York she worried. “The girls by the pool,” she said, maybe as a joke, “they’re not topless, are they?”
My roommate at GUSS—let’s call him B-man—was a compatriot and fellow City College grad student. He’d been backpacking around Europe a few weeks before the start of the program. Tall, thin, he smoked rettes on the terrace with our Austrian flatmate and read Henry Miller. Newly single, Seggau was made for B-man.
Let’s be clear, I am drawing B-man a lot cooler than he actually was, but that doesn’t change the fact that I felt like I was living inside one of those hackneyed teen comedies where the main character is on a mission tofinally get laid. I was the committed boyfriend who brought up his girlfriend in conversation. I commiserated with my female peers who used Skype to communicate with their beaus who lived only one or two countries over from Austria. I was cute like that—and pathetic.
At night, lying in our separate twin beds, B-man and I would bullshit. We both appreciated the amenities of Seggau—we couldn’t believe City College could be associated with such good living—but we also noted the odd details of the experience. Like the drink company Pago who had sponsored the programs with an endless supply of pink-grapefruit juice. You’d be surprised how refreshing grapefruit juice can be when you establish a seven-a-day habit. Because, outside of mealtime, that’s all there was to drink gratis.
B-man and I talked about the toilet in our flat. Located in a closet that lacked ventilation, it was the Germanic-type of commode, with its horizontal shelf that “forces you to confront your own excrement,” before a rush of water pushes it into a watery hole and sends the crap away. (In a YouTube clip from his lecture, “Toilets and Ideology,” Slavoj Žižek describes it as such.) The toilet, along with the diet the cooks at Seggau provided, gave us easy comic material.
Of course we talked about the ladies, especially the one who gave B-man a “decent blowjob” somewhere on the Castle grounds. The few stories like these made silly-me wonder if I’d ever lose my virginity. I would think about the prospects open to me—that is, if it wasn’t for my conscience getting in the way—and choreograph the forbidden scenes in my head: like a lesson in oral for the Estonian girls…
But then suddenly my girlfriend would come to me in the flash of a red bikini from across the Atlantic, and I’d hide the erotic script behind my back, until her exit. Then, when it was lights-out, and I could tell that B-man was snoozing, I’d rub a quick (guilty) one out and try not to make a sound louder than a snore.
The nun was an apparition at first. Booze, sun, bikinis—and then suddenly I would catch this figure ambling off to some destination beyond my vision. I didn’t seek her out for spiritual purposes, nor did I play the role of cryptozoologist and hunt her down. I wanted to get in touch with her only to finish an article I had started for my journalism course. The original idea was to examine the commingling of the religious and the secular at Seggau. But the interview would ultimately turn away from the abstract and move towards the concrete and human.
By way of front-desk personnel I arranged a 30-minute interview with Sister Ida under the agreement that there would be no pictures taken. Apparently it wasn’t that hard to land an interview with a phantom. Yet I was surprised to find out that a certain Sister Thelka had originally declined the invitation. There were two of them all along!
So, with my Austrian classmate Georg acting as translator, I sat down with Ida. She was small and ancient—a living incorruptible. The nun-garb she wore was an unconcealed weapon of chastity that made the 16-year-old in me nervous. Yet when she spoke, her voice was warm, even grandmotherly. She described the coexistence of the religious and the secular at Seggau as a “charismatic evolution.” It wouldn’t be possible to have the Castle without the money from the convention center, she said.
Ida entered the Franciscan order in 1951 after meeting her Lover on a train. In a way, her Calling was similar to my own. I met my girlfriend on the Long Island Railroad. Not exactly divine—but a train was involved. It was possible, I thought, though we were worlds/years/beliefs apart, that Ida and I could have even more in common. Though she was sitting in front of me, I did not feel as though I could reach out and touch her. But I wanted to know her. I wanted to know what sins made it worth her breathing. I wanted to know if she was at all corruptible.
Do you drink wine? I said.
“When I first got here,” she said, “I hoped that I was not becoming addicted to the wine. But over the years I have been able to control myself. That is something I am proud of.”
Moderation makes her happy.
Still, I like to imagine Sister Ida drunk on vino—taking issue with a wall. The closest, bestest thing to hit.
Two nights before GUSS came to an end, a bunch of us sat around the pool drinking beers, some chasing shots of Schnapps. Though far from it, the evening gave off that last-night-on-Earth vibe. At some point B-man lowered himself into the pool, followed by the elegant Venetian who had not bothered to change into her bikini. The air was chilly, but I bet the water was a few degrees warmer. The pool was pitch black; I couldn’t see or hear the two of them. They were secrets. Naked perhaps.
I imagined my own movie moment, the last play of the virgin before he’s sent out into the adult world. Yeah, I could have been in that pool, I thought. In a different script that’s how it would have played out. But…
I was happy for the two of them, because I knew what it felt like to reach for someone in the darkness—only to have your self to cling to.
The last question I asked Sister Ida was: Do you ever swim?
She learned when she was 35. She used to swim a lot, she said, but doesn’t so much anymore. But one night in August, after a church celebration, she went swimming in that very pool and saw shooting stars.
I couldn’t imagine her wearing anything less than her habit. (Do nuns skinny-dip?) But I could imagine her taking a breath, holding it, and swimming to the bottom of the pool. When she’s ready, she comes up for air, looks to the heavens, and fills her lungs, as meteors penetrate the atmosphere.
Of course, Ida took the moment for a sign. I mean, how often does that happen? How much chaste suffering are we to endure—57 years? Two weeks? The extra minute it takes your roommate to fall asleep?—before our lover reminds us that she is worth the pain?
Whatever amount of time it is, I’m sure there are kinder places for suffering than Seggau. But at the moment I can’t think of one.