Oscar Wilde, playwright, wit and genius once said, “ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation.”
Having returned from the United Kingdom (my thoughts from an overload in a country in turmoil still need to be put down on paper/screen) and caught up with a couple of friends who I had not seen in years, and with whom contact in the intervening period had been exclusively by Christmas card, occasional phone calls or even e-mail, it made me appreciate having friends in easy reach in Vienna. Some I see very regularly, others less so. Some I know socially, others through the model railway club that I joined many years ago in order to have some contact to more people locally, as well as to enjoy a guilty pleasure. Some others in the group I only see at our sessions, carefully building models, rewiring track layouts, and some are so concentrated that they are very taciturn and not so chatty.
However, our club keeps a look out for its formerly active members. The committee makes sure that old members who feel their advancing frailty make it more difficult to join in are not forgotten about. In this way, I connected with a couple of older members, who I would pick up to go to meetings or events, and with whom I soon became firm friends. Fortunately, one, Werner, still only lives a couple of minutes walk away from me and even though he has stopped attending the group, due to advancing immobility issues, we still keep in regular contact. I pop over for lunch with him now and again (our stairs are too twisty so I often take soup over for him and while a couple of hours away with him, talking about all things railway). On grey days in recent winters it has also helped keep the black dog at bay for me. The short walk to the other side of the Heinrichshügel is one I have really come to appreciate. So many friends and acquaintances are not within easy walking distance, which makes it seem rather a luxury to be able to see someone within only a couple of hundred metres.
I had promised Werner that I would pick up a book for him in the UK about Beeching and the closure of some of the branch lines, and duly made sure I was able to deliver it in person to him. Werner in turn looked out his logbook-cum-diary from when he travelled the length and breadth of Britain back in the 1980s, a sort of proto-Portillo except without the garish shirts and cords combos, and all done at a fraction of the cost, helped somewhat by a network of train enthusiast penfriends (why else would a trip to Crewe receive such glowing reviews). In addition I took over my soldering iron to repair a couple of engines that Werner had that needed a few solder joints redoing. He wanted to then present them to the club – many of our older members do this once they are no longer in a position to run trains themselves, or if they don’t have space for them.
As I soldered on, I heard about Werner and his brother are still soldiering on, and how his brother, Willi, although in his mid 80s still has the get up and go to travel all over Europe by train (Willi is a former ‘Eisenbahner‘ who has never been able to give up travelling on trains and still keeps a detailed log of all the trips he does by train throughout Europe, having racked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres over his lifetime). I would love to be as sprightly as Willi still seems to be when I hit that venerable age. And the wonderful thing is that experiences feed into our conversations. Werner recounted about times of being stuck at borders, marched off trains, and back on once paperwork was found to be in order, about having a few Deutsche Mark notes in the inside pocket of his coat to ease his passage, and about the friendships struck up on trains. From the chess and draughts games, the communal eating and drinking (sharing a bottle of vodka, some fruit juice, bread and cheese). The companionship of sharing helping to break down linguistic walls, and as I left with the resoldered engines, there was a twinkle in Werner’s eye about how wonderful it is to have someone to talk to only just across the road.
For me another parallel emerged. Possibly Werner’s snapshot of 1980s Britain from his diary/logbook was closer to my snapshot of early 1990s Britain that I left behind to settle in Austria, which was a far cry from the Britain of 2019 that I experienced on my recent trip to the UK. We swapped tales of trains and transportation, rolling stock and railway stations, mediocre ham sandwiches and stations bars, and before I knew it my wife was calling me to come back home for dinner, as I had promised to cook for her. We pored over railway maps and the old Thomas Cook European railway timetables of yesteryear.
Which brings me back to the friends I caught up with in the UK recently. On occasions the sensation of the elephant in the room was palpable. Some tried to steer around the subject, or address the subject indirectly. Many asked questions like, “How do you see retirement in Austria?” or “Do you ever consider moving back to the UK?” which seem all perfectly innocent, and others ask slightly more direct questions like “Has Austria become more expensive for you in the last three years?” or “Are they many nervous Brits in Austria?” In some cases I realised that I couldn’t have a blanket expectancy that all my friends would be on the same side politically as me. A friend of my brother, who I had known since before my brother’s wedding (so going back 40+ years), enquired gently about how I thought it’d all pan out. And as I replied, sucked in his teeth (a horrible habit!) and said he’d voted leave, thought we would be better off out, but had he seen through all the empty talk of funding for the health service (his mother had died on a hospital trolley in a corridor waiting for medical attention) he might not have done so. We moved onto other conversations, had a laugh about old times, some of my brother’s antics and the funnier side of life. Because we’re adults, and know how to talk to others. After all, as my brother reminded me in the mid-1990s when we did phone each other (albeit at exorbitant Post Telekom Austria rates of about ATS 6 a minute, or 25p a minute rates on BT until he discovered Mercury), it’s good to talk.
Conversation truly is the glue of friendship and even if it takes a glass of wine or a beer, or even a model railway engine to get the conversation to flow, it is always appreciated.