Cultural Exchange

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Salzburg, September 1962. As a new American Fulbright Scholar with scant knowledge of German, I had actually succeeded in renting a room with a piano from Frau Grubenmann in the Haydnstrasse. I was pleased with myself and felt confident that I could handle any future challenges that Austria had in store for me. I was ready to begin some Cultural Exchange which was an important goal of the Fulbright program.

I briefly noticed the coal stove behind the door which would eventually become one of those challenges. I didn't know then that the coming winter would be one of the longest and coldest in Austrian history, and I knew nothing about coal stoves. My previous experience with building fires has been for the sole purpose of making frankfurters and marshmallows more edible. But on this first day in my new surroundings, other surprises were demanding my attention.

Like the large supply of neatly torn squares of newspaper next to the WC. I had been in Austria for two weeks and, unquestionably, Austrians knew about toilet paper. So this newspaper solution could only mean that Frau Grubenmann had a very tight budget. Cultural Exchange works two ways, however. Fortunately, my scholarship enabled me to afford this luxury, and I would be happy to share it with Frau Grubenmann.

The next surprise came that night when I turned back the bedspread and saw all the buttons. Austrians don't tuck their top sheet and blanket under the mattress the way Amis do. They prefer to make a package of these items and let it float free on top of the bed, from where it can more easily fall to the floor all night. In this case, 30 buttons held the sides of the sheet over the edges of a lovely, but short quilt.

I stretched out under the package and contemplated my toes that hung out like a hotdog over its bun. This would never do. It took me a week to get the hang of rolling myself up in the quilt like a ball, and I looked forward to the long sheets that I had packed in my trunk which hopefully would soon arrive.

Alas! My toes had become used to not being pinned down and were reluctant to give up their new freedom. I had to get up in the middle of the night, turn the sides of my sheets over the quilt and fasten them with safety pins before I could go to sleep. I wrote "Austrian style bed linen" on top of my shopping list, and to this day, it is a part of my household.

My first Cultural Exchange in this new country: toilet paper for "Deckenbezug".

© Susan Neumüller 24.11.2019