Letters to July (seven)

Dear July,

The year I turned twenty-one, I lived a July in eastern Austria on the banks of a reedy, shallow lake (“more of a giant puddle”, the guidebooks said, wryly). I was there to teach Austrian schoolchildren the art of small talk and why ‘i’ often comes before ‘e’. The place was Georgshof, a modest cluster of stables and barns painted in egg-yolk emulsion on a dusty back lane that unfurled towards the lake in one long, straight line, like an invitation. 

Recalling that July, now, is like dredging up silt from the bottom of a quarry long since filled with water. At the time, the experience was rich and vivid, hyper-saturated CYMK, a thousand dots per inch. It was the jolt of a new and foreign place, circling new faces, new names, a shot of something to the brain that felt like all burners were alight at once, sparks flying daily. Now I realise how much I have forgotten, or filed away. I have unconsciously consigned that long, hot July and its many idiosyncrasies to a folder marked ‘Past’ and moved on. So, dear July, today I plan to remember. 

It was an odd month, surrealist as the Klimt paintings that hang an hour – and a world – away down the railway tracks in Vienna. The stables and adjoining barn we called home that summer were beloved by wildlife – a family of geese (mother, father, offspring) visited each evening, their rubber feet casting a familiar thwack against the linoleum tiles. Oversized rabbits hopped about the (modest) grounds, lending the entire scene the air of a Wes Anderson movie. Horses were everywhere you looked, and the air smelled of manure and deep-fried cheese. The humble reception out front housed the only telephone for several miles as well as a freezer full of almond Magnums, their use-by dates etiolated enough to be both unreadable and highly suspect. 

It was 35 degrees most days, and bicycles our only form of transport. We were paid very little, though all of our meals were provided. To be vegetarian was to be a persona non gratis; my roommate Erika and I pleaded with the Slovenian chef for salad daily. We craved vegetables the way children do sugar.

The mosquitoes were as hungry as we were, so much so that a bite on my left cheekbone one Tuesday swelled to the size of an orange. I was excused from lessons that familiarly hot, dusty morning to cycle the three miles to the nearest doctor’s surgery. My face was so swollen I could only open one eye and zigzagged along unfamiliar roads, wobbling like I’d just been weaned off stabilisers. Miraculously, I made it there and back with a box of off-label antibiotics: everything about that summer was strange and slightly suspect.

Privacy was non-existent, the bunk bed room I shared with Erika directly overlooked the open terrace where the children learnt and played and sometimes, when the heat was unbearable, slept. We each had one day off a week, but never together. I’d envisaged weekend trips on the train to Vienna, to wander around the Kunsthalle, to sit writing in cafes, but the work was so exhausting, we spent days off sitting, dazed, in the heat. I ventured cycling to a nearby town once, giddy in this unfamiliar place, through fields of striving sunflowers, past storks padding down back roads, past onion-domed churches. The five kilometres in thuggish humidity exhausted me.

If I close my eyes and will myself hard enough, I can recall the very scent of the air before rain, moist and expectant; the crackle of lightning across the flat-as-a-pancake horizon, the acidic comfort of the bottle of Burgenland red Erika kept under her bed “for emergencies”. I have forgotten the names and faces of most of the children, though the older students have grown up before my eyes thanks to the wonders of Facebook. I remember sweet, elfin-faced Julia with the Sommersprössen (that’s German for freckles, a word she couldn’t bring herself to try pronouncing in English), a Pippi-Longstocking-esque 8-year-old with pealing laughter and a folding orange bicycle that came to camp alongside her. I can remember Georg, wise for his years, who’d go on to be a youth firefighter. I can remember Anna, shy and people-pleasing, who wrote to me for years afterwards.

Unanticipated situations and comic incidents were many, that July. The two hours we sat waiting on the stable porch for our manager to arrive, the first day we arrived. The near-miss between a young student and an elderly man riding a bicycle. My colleague, registered blind, who emerged triumphant after cycling through an electric storm, five-inch thick glasses bumping off the end of his nose with every pedal. 

I watched, stricken, one evening as the rest of our group cycled off into the distance while I waited for a Russian camper named Veronika, too busy braiding her hair to pay attention to timetables. I knew we’d never catch up. We cycled off anyway, though dark storm clouds were steeping overhead. Alas, I was right – and we found ourselves in a rural district named ‘Holle’. Hölle is the German word for ‘hell’.

Despite all of this, we made the best of it. Though some of the situations we found ourselves in were, in retrospect, verging on dangerous, we laughed about the mishaps. The time we realised the school manager had (inadvertently?) set up a treasure hunt on a shooting range. The time we cycled an unbelievable thirty kilometres, thirty children to two adults, in thirty-five degree heat and 100% humidity. Twenty-somethings thrown together in the most unlikely of circumstances, we learnt to find happiness in unlikely places.  We taught ourselves poker. We drank plenty of beer. Our world shrunk, so that by the end, Georgshof and the chalky road linking the stables to the lake formed the limits of our existence. Only Georgshof seemed to matter. We leaned into the oddness, finding solace in small 

On our last night off together we decided, triumphantly, to spend our day’s wages on dinner at the country restaurant that adjoined the stables, where we’d spent a month looking hungrily at Hungarian tourists lapping up dumplings and goulash. Anything sounded better than the jam-soaked Germknödel or oily, fried Camembert we were forced to eat for supper most days. We sat on a wooden picnic table on the terrace and ordered omelettes, which came accompanied with a tomato salad draped in a silky yogurt dressing. To this day, omelettes are my comfort reason for this very reason: a salute to a month that remains the most peculiar, and yet also strangely wondrous, of my 27-year existence. A farewell to Georgshof.