Melk, NiederÖsterreich, Österreich

I spent much of my junior year of high school living in Stiftskonvikt Melk. It’s a big old Baroque building which houses a monastery and a high-school (Gymnasium), located in a fairly small town on the Danube, about 100 km west of Wien.

The Courtyard of Stift Melk
Courtyard of Stift Melk

Melk was a place with a lot of firsts for me. First time outside North America. First time riding in a jet, for that matter. First time drinking beer and booze until I puked. First crushed crush. Lots of firsts.

Stift Melk by Night
Stift Melk by Night

We lived in large communal dorms, but the rooms were large enough that even though there were four people per room, each person could have their own space. And the Stift was a really nice building. Old, to be sure, with cold marble floors, but we were on the third floor, so even our floor got warmed by the levels beneath. And massive limestone walls that left a big enough space between the inner and outer windows for you to store some groceries in the winter.

The RA we had, Werner Schultz, was a hippie/green kind of guy. I got along with him pretty well, but he had an “Atomkraft? nein danke.” poster on his door, was critical of US policy in Nicaragua, and generally down on the US even before the election in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won. When Reagan was elected, and Condo was gloating over that, Werner nearly had apoplexy. From that point on, many of the more conservative guys in the group started a “Werner Scholtz? Nein Danke!” group, which was kind of funny. That was probably the first time I saw how easy it was to bait hard-core lefties, and while I sometimes felt bad for him, he took himself far too seriously and got far too upset to avoid spending a lot of time laughing at him.

Emmy Sack was our “fearless leader” and taught most of our classes. He was an Austrian who had taught German at St. John’s the previous year, so we all knew him, but he was a very different person in the US than he was in Austria. I suppose we probably gave him plenty of fits too. He was around five feet tall, and I wasn’t the tallest person in the group at around 6′5″. When he’d be driving us around in a VW microbus, I seem to recall him sitting on a phone-book or something like that so he could see over the dashboard, and that led, combined with his sometimes officious nature, led to jokes about how “they only cut off Hitler’s legs.” I think he was trying to do what was best for us, but trying to control a group of thirteen kids ranging from high-school juniors to college freshmen was quite a task for someone who’d never done it before, especially when he expected children to respect him without giving us a reason to do so first.

One of the intersting things when we first got to Austria (and even more so in Switzerland and Liechtenstein on the way there) was shopping. Shops in Europe at the time were often small affairs, with most of the goods behind the counter, so you’d have to ask for what you wanted. We could often recognize the thing we wanted to buy, but our vocabulary was limited enough that it wasn’t always easy asking for it.

When we arrived in Austria, another thing we had to deal with was changing money. Since it was an election year, when to change the money was a big deal. We weren’t sure how the election would influence the exchange rate, but by all accounts, it was going to have some effect. I decided to change my money right away and just set up a local savings account. As it turned out, Reagan got elected, and the rate went from 13 or 14 schillings to the dollar up to over 21 schillings per dollar. Ouch. I ended up having to get some additional money from my parents partway through the year anyhow, but missing out on getting an extra 50% on my money is one of the bigger economic screwups I’ve made.

I started the year out living with TJ. We’d been roommates the previous year in the dorms at St. John’s, and apparently they figured (and neither of us argued at the time) that since we hadn’t killed each other the previous year, we’d be good as roommates. That may have been a good plan initially, but over the course of the year, we started to get on each other’s nerves, much as we had sophomore year at SJP. In any case, I decided to switch roommates partway through the year, which apparently made many more waves than people were comfortable with. Again, in the Austrian culture, apparently we were supposed to suffer together the whole year, rather than attempting to change an unpleasant situation.

The local Gasthaus where everyone drank was the Gasthaus zum Goldenen Stern, or more simply, Das Stern. There were other Gasthäuser in Melk, but it was one of the closest ones to the school, and had been the watering hole for many Americans visiting Melk in the past, and we continued the tradition. I don’t remember the names of the folks who worked there, but the bartender was “Hands” as he was a big burly guy with hands the size of platters. Definitely useful while carrying around kegs. There was an older woman (either his mother or mother-in-law) we called “Shakesbeer” and his wife. We probably weren’t especially well-behaved drunks, but they seemed to tolerate our antics most of the time.

Often we’d head to the Stern for dinner and a beer or two, but once in a while, we’d play drinking games. They were usually on evenings where nobody had anything special to do the next morning, so a hangover wouldn’t be too brutal, but I don’t ever recall thinking too hard about that. Since they locked the gate at the Stift at 10pm, we had a curfew, and if we were in bed by 11 or so, waking up at 7 wasn’t too tough. Ahh, to be young with a strong constitution again... Anyway, the main drinking game we’d play (which I haven’t seen since) involved buying a "Doppler", or a two-litre mug of beer. We’d split the cost of the first one, but after that, the rule was that if you finished the doppler, the person drinking before you had to buy the next one. Early on, that would lead to attempts to put down the whole two litres at once, but as the evening progressed, it would mean that people would take fairly small drinks of beer until a certain critical point was reached, and it was time to empty it. There were a few of the guys that you didn’t want to be sitting just before (I wasn’t one of them – even though I drank a lot, I don’t remember being terribly competitive about it), as they’d try to finish it with foolishly large quantities of beer still in the mug. And they’d succeed often enough that the evening could get pretty expensive if you were sitting in the wrong spot.

We also played a lot of hearts in the afternoons and evenings, but seldom as a drinking game. That was usually just a game played for pride.

One of the features that initially surprised us in the Stern was the “urinal” in the men’s room. It was just a wall, tiled all the way to the floor, with a trough and drain at the bottom. Anyway, the big danger of the wall was that you’d stand too close to it, and the spray off the wall would hit the toes of your shoes. As the evening progressed, that became a tougher fate to avoid.

There were days, often Saturdays when nothing else was planned, that we’d basically spend the entire afternoon drinking. Get done with class, go to lunch and leave as soon as we were allowed. Then it was off to the grocery store (the supermarket at the east end of town) for a 2-litre jug of cheap red wine, a bag of semmeln and a hunk of cheese. If the day was looking particularly long, we’d maybe toss in a bottle of vodka. Then it was across town to the park by the river (on the west end of town), where we’d sit in the sun drinking, eating, and generally goofing off. Follow that up with dinner at the Stern, and a few screwdrivers before bed, and the next day would be a rough one, often requiring a screwdriver for breakfast in order to be able to get through the morning.

For screwdrivers, we had our own unique take, naturally. The store sold litre jugs of orange liquid syrup that you were supposed to mix with water (six parts water, one part syrup) for a drink that ended up being a lot like flat Fanta. Naturally we decided this was a pretty good deal if a guy substituted vodka for water, and there were a few mornings when I spent the day in classes pretty lit-up. I never got in trouble for it, other than a general "you seem to be drinking a lot lately" talk sometime during the winter. I guess that may have been the start of my being a pretty well-behaved drunk.

Not all evenings out on the town ended happily, though. There was one occassion that still stands out in my mind. It was a fairly full day of drinking, followed up by shots of apricot liquor back in the Stift. This was a 160 proof sweet syrupy booze, and it didn’t take too many of those for me to be feeling as though I’d had enough. Of course, being drunk, it took a while for that message to make it from my stomach to my head, and when I went to bed, the world seemed to be revolving around my head. Partway through the night my body was done with being poisoned, and I headed for the window, purging myself like a bulemic after an all-day session at Old Country Buffet. I left a trail to the window and further evidence of the evils of strong drink down the limestone cornice outside the window. The vaguely orange stain on the light tan limestone was visible from all over town until we got the next rain. The only person who commented was the Putzfrau (cleaning lady) who had to mop up the trail between my bed and the window – she just asked if I was feeling okay when she was in cleaning the next morning (I wasn’t). I think everyone else figured I’d punished myself enough at that point.

We were kept fairly busy on at least half of the weekends, especially early in the year, but there were also weekends when there was nothing planned for us. We were encouraged to find a family to go stay with on those weekends, but generally I stayed at the school. I didn’t have many friends among the Austrians and preferred to strike out on my own or with one or two friends, rather than joining a big gang. So the weekend entertainment was often a trip into Vienna by train to wander around or take in a museum or something. I’m not sure, but thinking back on it, I suspect I probably made more trips to Vienna than anyone else in the group, since whenever anyone wanted to go, I’d be on the train. For some reason that still isn’t clear to me, we seldom rode the streetcars from Westbahnhof Wien into the city center, but rather walked, taking in the scenery along the way. I think part of it was that it was often possible to walk (if you hurried) almost as fast as the streetcars moved, and you’d be able to stop off at places along the way. In any case, most of my good memories of Vienna are from trips like this, rather than the big group outings, where everyone would pile into the minivans and get driven into town. I also hitched a couple rides to Vienna with someone from the school, and then would either meet up with them at the end of the day or catch the train back.

Another way we kept ourselves busy was spending evenings in the gym. We’d play indoor soccer, American-style. The difference was mostly that we’d play a rougher game than the Austrians were comfortable with. Once in a while we’d have one or two Austrians join us, but usually it was just the Americans. I first hurt my knee playing soccer inside. I was in goal, and blocked a shot, but the guy taking the shot kept coming and tripped over the ball I’d stopped and landed on my knee. I ended up “walking it off” on the way back to my room, much to the amazement of the guy who was walking with me. Part of the reason for the physical play was that we’d often play after having been at the Stern having beers with dinner, but part of it was that we were just rowdy kids.

Ski-week is an Austrian tradition. Everyone from the school would pack up their stuff and spend a week getting ski instruction in the Alps. We were at Kitzbühel. On the first day, I was in the “rank-beginner” class, which wasn’t that interesting. I wasn’t that good at skiing, but I felt I was ready for more than the bunny-slope. So on the second day, I moved up a level, and one of the first things we did in the morning was skiing some moguls. That seemed a little advanced for me, and partway down the run I skidded off the side of a mogul, and when the skis hit the snow again, my body was twisting enough to screw up my knee. That was it for ski-week for me. I got a ride back up the mountain on a snow-cat, then rode down in the gondola, and was taken right to a doctor. I spent the next three days waiting for the swelling to go down, and then was fitted with a cast that I’d have for six weeks. My skiing was done for the year.

Having a cast on in Melk was interesting. I was shown where the elevator was in the Stift, but it was way on the other side of the building (that night picture up above is only about half of the building), and it was actually easier to go up and down the stairs, rather than walk all the way around the building to ride the elevator. Of course partway through the time with the cast, I slipped going down some freshly washed stairs, and sprained the ankle on my other leg. The doctors in the E.R. wanted to cast that, too. I settled for some painkillers and an ace-bandage.

Even with the cast on, I did a lot of walking. I got pretty good at getting around, and wanted to keep in some kind of shape so I’d be okay when the cast finally came off. I was, but my right leg was noticeably smaller than my left for a while, and I walked even more for a while as I built it back up.

More to come when I have the time and finish scanning pictures…

Copyright 2009, Dave Polaschek. Last updated on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 13:48:07.