Expectations are hard things to manage. They mess with your memory, fog up your present and drain your future of novelty.
On this trip, I did my best to avoid them.
Austria and I, we have history. In 1993 I realised my life was in dire need of a shakeup, so I scraped together my laughable earnings from the pottery I was employed by at the time, fumbled onto this fascinating, shiny thing I’d recently discovered called The Internet, and signed up for a 2-week walking holiday. This would be the first time I’d left England on my own (yes, at the age of 22, bite me) and my first walking holiday dominated by overly British strangers.
I spent 2 weeks in the company of primarily middle-aged people covering the sanity spectrum from amiably dotty to tranq-dart-in-the-ass bonkers. I walked up a number of mountains (and down them again, obviously). I despaired at restaurant staff that heard my accent and immediately tried to serve me a fry-up. I ate cubic metres of food and still managed to lose 15 lbs. There were inept mountain guides, inedible bread rolls and entire days spent in the company of people I had nothing in common with. My fondest memories are of escaping the largely joyless confines of the group itinerary and blundering out onto the surrounding hillsides, to watch the sun come up, to search for a ski-slope that I never found on account of reading the wrong side of my map (this was more fun than it sounds). I walked for 2 hours each way to get chocolate intended for family and friends, twice, because the first time I ate it all in a protracted moment of weakness.
That Austria was a curious thing: measured and tame, and then suddenly, as the snow came down or as we emerged from the tree-line and the whole world turned to rock, a thrillingly bleak, uncaring place. It felt – and I apologise deeply for the next sentence – a land of contrasts. Sometimes I was swept away by it all; sometimes I felt crushed. Austria pummelled me physically and emotionally for 2 weeks, filling my head with all sorts of Stuff that would take a decade to filter down, and it left me changed. I left it a shaken-up man. (And about time too).
My first trip to Austria was such a pivotal experience that I knew I had to be careful this time round. This would be the equivalent of approaching the Difficult Second Book – something that had such a high bar to clear, that had so many comparative boxes to tick that I was bound to find something underwhelming, even if it was an experience that failed to live down to a miserable memory. My Austria had a lot of preconceptions to juggle, good and bad.
I’m sat here in Frankfurt airport (loving the charging station, cursing the lack of free WiFi), and it feels like I’ve just spent 4 days in an almost entirely new place. Yes, I have a Lonely Planet guide – but I didn’t start reading it until I took off from Salzburg. Yes, I had a notebook – but I only wrote down the names I knew I’d get wrong later. I asked questions of my hosts, but I didn’t try to fit them into the wider context lurking in the back of my mind. I ignored my memories of the South Tyrol and focused on Upper Austria / Styria around me. I threw my senses wide open, and I ate cake. I ate lots of cake. Let me tell you, one good way to swamp unwanted memories is with cake. Some days I was barely aware of what my name was.
I’ll be spending the next few weeks writing up this trip – including the truly *calamitous* first day – but the last half-week doesn’t feel like a disappointing sequel. It feels like an introduction.
And hey, I’m really happy about that.