|By M.C. Majumdar
We were having a cool, rainy spell in Vienna, so I was surprised when I heard that the farewell party for Nanette’s retirement would be held in “an outdoor place – a place that appeals to her romantic French soul.” She is so interesting, this French lady. So vivacious, so knowledgeable, the guiding spirit of our design team these last few years – and divorced from our boss, Wolfy! Make no mistake, this reflects badly on Wolfy. He met her in Paris at an international design meeting, behaved like a prince from the north, wined her and dined her, and then whisked her off to his home in Austria. After that it was all down hill. Suddenly the flamboyant one became quiet. He wanted her to go hiking on Sunday in lederhosen, wear dirndls, and appreciate schmaltz instead of paté!
Wolfy, a large muscular man who liked to say that skiing had been ruined when they put in ski lifts, drove me to the party.
“Going to this party is the least I can do,” he said. “I brought her here and even though we are no longer married, we are friends. I must go to the party. She will be returning to Toulon after this.”
The party was over in the 21st district and the directions said to “Bring a torch because there are no streetlights and it will be a long walk in the dark back to the car.” The organizer had just given a street address (a Keller on Krottenhofgasse) and had to be prompted to also give a map.
“It is incredible,” said Wolfy, “No one would ever find this place if they hadn’t been here before! I was here once, years ago, and even I couldn’t find it without a map. They were only going to give the street address! As if there is a street!” Certainly Krottenhofgasse doesn’t sound like the name of a proper street. Krottenhofgasse means Toad House Lane.
We were going to a heurige, a wine tavern that sold the product of a particular vineyard. But this was not to be one of the gentrified, prettied-up heurige you find in the 19th district. Those had serving rooms with tiled stoves in the corner for chilly days, courtyard gardens lit by twinkle lights, kitchens turning out classic Austrian roast meats and salads, and wine brought to your table by pretty wenches in traditional Austrian dress. (Wenches – this is my husband’s description after he has sampled the wine; usually the ladies are big and strong . . . and middle aged.) A visit to this heurige, however, was a step back in time.
Wolfy parked the car in a field as directed. We were early and no other cars were there. I looked around for the fabled Krottenhofgasse. We seemed to be next to a house, but it wasn’t a heurige. Vineyard covered hills surrounded us.
“Aah Ha! said Wolfy, “There it is, behind the house!” He quick-marched off toward a gloomy looking lane that descended steeply to a narrow ravine. With umbrella drawn, I scrambled after him, following the cobblestone paving down an incline until we were at least two meters below field level. Here, numbers were posted over the dusty doors to various wine cellars which, like doors to hobbit houses, were set into the ravine walls. The vineyards could be seen peeking around trees that lined the tops of the ravine, shadowing the pavement. The rain that had lately stopped elsewhere still drizzled here. The lane was dank and the occasional pine bow displayed over a Keller door (meaning they were open for tasting) did not attract us.
“Are you sure this is it?” I asked. “It doesn’t look like anyone comes this way.”
“That is what makes it so ‘charmant’,” said Wolfy. “We shall all get drunk in the perfect knowledge that no one will know about it . . . Until we have to drive home. We are too far from the tram lines to get back without the car. Ach! Here is another little sign.”
The sign was nailed, crookedly, to a fence post. We climbed up stairs to the left and onto a walkway of cinderblocks. The path was barely wider than my foot. Grapevines reached out to pull at my sweater. They seemed to tug at me and say ‘look at my grapes. Aren’t they sweet?’
“They have paved this,” said Wolfy, “The last time I was here, this was a steam of mud. A definite improvement.”
We tramped uphill as the skies cleared above us. Finally, we came to some picnic tables nestled in a grove of walnut trees. Three large ladies of indeterminate vintage sat on wooden benches near the trees. One of these unfolded her arms from across her copious belly and jumped up with surprising agility to greet us. She invited us to sit at the tables and indicated that food and drink would be served shortly.
By and by, petite, brown-haired Nanette, along with other guests from work and the French Embassy, found her way to our hideout and, after kissing us on both cheeks, sat herself at the other end of the table. Soon the wine was flowing and trays off Austrian snacks were being served. Such snacks! There were open-faced sandwiches of lard (schmaltz) and onions, blood sausage, and hard-boiled eggs on dark bread. We all dove for the eggs. Someone has to lose; lard and onions aren’t so bad once you get used to them. And the wine helped – after a few mugfulls we were all laughing like loons and toasting our hostess for a happy retirement.
One would think (since we were in a wine making district) that the wines would be ‘magnifique’ or at least ‘wunderbar’ – particularly since half of our company was from one of the great wine countries of the world. But, alas, the white was salty and sour and the red was only passable.
“I have never encountered salty wine before,” said Mimi, one of Nanette’s friends from work.
Wolfy, in a fit of self discipline, drank the white.
“This way I won’t drink too much – after all, I have to drive.”
Mimi decided this is how wine must have tasted in biblical times when “They still weren’t very good at wine making.”
But the romance of the place, the glistening green hills, the lovely grove of walnuts, the friends sitting at picnic tables with platters of food – it did carry one away. Jokes and funny stories were told, French songs were sung, and presents were presented. Nanette received perfume, scarves, and, from Wolfy, a potato press. She looked up in puzzlement after opening this gift.
“I understand they are good for making spatzle; I didn’t want you to forget us!” he giggled. She giggled too and then we all had a laugh. What an idea! Nanette making spatzle in Toulon! Ha Ha.
“She really is a good cook,” said Wolfy, brushing a grey lock away from his forehead. “And you know, Toulon is a beautiful little city. I might go down there and just check around to see what kind of property is available.”
Mimi and I looked at his wineglass. Sour and salty or not, the wineglass was empty – maybe for the second or third time. Mimi waggled her eyebrows at me in a ‘Ho! Listen to this!’ sort of way.
The evening wore on, the sun went down, and a fine mist began to rise from the ground. We were unwilling to leave, so we all pulled on recently abandoned sweaters and, for a while, sat with our wine in the gathering damp. Eventually, the mist was complemented by a nice, steady drizzle and we had to bid each other adieu. Again with two kisses on Wolfy’s two cheeks, Nanette said farewell.
“Take care of yourself Wolfy; don’t eat too much schmaltz – it can’t be good for you.”
As we tramped back through the fields and up ‘Toad House Lane’ a little ahead of the other guests, Wolfy began to sigh.
“Such a rainy, damp, gloomy place. You know, this has been the most rainy August. Just terrible.”
“Yes really, it is usually better than this. . .” I began to reply.
“In France the air was so soft,” he continued with his soliloquy. “Fragrant flowers everywhere . . . One can really be carried away by it.”
“Why don’t I drive, Wolfy.”
“No, no, I am fine to drive.”
“Well – I really wanted to try out that sporty car of yours. Let me drive, will you?”
“Ya, O.K. . . .You know? I might just go on vacation now to some warmer climate . . . maybe to France.”