Places of Meaning

Fr. Romanus and Miss Thalia were talking about great moments on school trips. Miss Thalia recounted taking a group of advanced students to England on a drama and literature trip, and visiting Poets’ Corner. Fr. Romanus reminisced about finally getting to see the island of Ithaca, and just how much the opportunity meant, and how powerful the moment was. Several of the teachers and staff have either taken school trips, traveled on their own, or have been assigned places outside the US at least once. I think Mr. Long-Slavic-Last-Name may hold the school record for “visiting places smart tourists don’t go,” while I hold the European duration record (cumulative). But the conversation started me thinking about places that made connections I’d never sensed before.

I think the first overseas place like that was Vienna, even before I really knew much about the city. I was twenty, on my first trip to Austria, and it was announced that we were climbing the tower at Stefansdom. This was before I discovered that crowds in small places with uneven floors really bother me, so up I chugged. Up. And Up.

Yes, that tower.

There are a lot of stairs in Europe, if you have ever wondered. I seem to have a gift for finding the narrowest, most crowded stairways in any given country.

I don’t recommend looking down if you do not like small, crowded spaces.

I peered out the eastern windows and something hit me like a hammer. I don’t know if I can really explain what I felt, other than to say that I knew I was looking back into history, very far back. All I could see was an endless blue distance, a great flat plain stretching so far that it blurred into the summer-pale sky.

Look past the church, onto the great Pannonian Plain.

Something clicked inside me. To the west, the Wienerwald, the last outcrop of the Alps, formed a protective shield. But to the east? Nothing but miles and miles, flat, open to anything that might come. A sense of looking from now into history swept through me, even though I knew next to nothing about eastern Europe or the story of Vienna. I knew it had been a frontier for the Romans and the Habsburgs, and that Mozart, Hayden, and Beethoven had hung out there, but little more.

If I believed in reincarnation, I’d wonder if at some point I’d lived in that area. Instead, something imprinted, for lack of a better word, and from that point on, whenever the taxi turns off the autobahn onto the outer ring, and I catch the first glimpse of Steffl*, I feel at home. Not “thank heavens I’m back in Texas where things make sense I’m so glad I’m an American” home, but somewhere that fits. I can’t really define it better than that. Perhaps it is the sense of being a frontier outpost, or of the amazingly deep history that exists in and under the city. The feeling started with that first look out the diamond-shaped panes of glass on the eastern side of the main tower.

The next year I was in college in western Germany, with classes four days a week and a student rail pass (back when they were cheap. Really, really cheap.) One of my first stops was Speyer, because it looked interesting when seen from a train window. It was not hard to find the old part of town, you just left the train station doors, looked for a medieval-sort of tower and walked to it. At one point, before hitting two really interesting museums, I stopped beside a different tower and leaned on it while I read the little plaque on the wall. It had been built in the 1150s. I can still feel the rough finish of the stucco-like plaster work, the grit and small pebbles in the mix, warmed by the spring sun. The tower had been built before my continent had been discovered. The tower was older than written records of my continent! Those were the exact words that slammed into my brain. Everything seemed to shift and shake up in my brain as the idea sank in. Holy history, Batman, I really was in a different world.

After *mumble mumble* years of travel and wandering north of the Alps, the idea that people were [here] before humans reached my continent has become a fact, not a shock. But I can still recall those moments when place jumped up and thumped me in the awareness, when something changed because of a “where.”

*Steffl is one of the nicknames for the tower. There are several folktales about why the second tower was never finished.


2 thoughts on “Places of Meaning

  1. Europe has a way of humbling Americans… 🙂 Never climbed that tower, none of the rest of the guys were interested…

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