Viral Days

Sojourn in Stone

Traveling through memories from the comfort of home

By Walter Nicklin | April 8, 2021
Sculpture adorning St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria (Patrick Vierthaler, Flickr/pv9007)
Sculpture adorning St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Austria (Patrick Vierthaler, Flickr/pv9007)

Of all the new ways of thinking that the pandemic has forced upon us, my favorite is this: that you don’t need to leave home to travel. Just moments ago, for example, I traveled from my laptop on a standup desk in Alexandria, Virginia, to a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in the Burgenland region of Austria. It’s a place I would have never thought to visit had I not been stuck at home with little productive to do but organize and toss out strata of old stuff, mostly papers, accumulated over the years. More than decluttering, it’s a way to escape the relentless spectacle that passes for today’s news.

A ratty shoebox full of decades-old letters, tied with a crumbling rubber band and unearthed in my townhouse attic, serves as my point of departure. As the letters spill and tumble onto the floor, I see my name spelled out in a distinctive baroque flourish on each envelope, but the address below the name varies—a reflection of my peripatetic youth.

No return address is needed to recognize the sender. Like the undulating hills of a familiar landscape, the looping cursive strokes reach across the years. Yes, I remember that sensuous script, just as I now remember her: the way she dressed, the way she talked, the way her handwriting confirmed my sense of who she was. But are those memories true?

After all, it was a long time ago: the late 1960s, the height of the Cold War. We were university students in Vienna, only a few miles from the Iron Curtain, and as Americans, we were history’s “good guys.” Most of all, as young Americans, we were optimists who knew, just knew, the future would always be better than the past. We viewed one another as we viewed the United States: special.

It became a daily ritual to meet after our respective classes at Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral). Its 446-foot-tall Gothic tower, affectionately called the “Steffl” by locals, dominates the inner city’s skyline and serves as a beacon should you ever get lost on the meandering, medieval streets.

Wasn’t it snowing the last time we met there? Flurries of oversized flakes, dissolving instantly upon landing on our overcoats, ungloved hands, and bare faces. The snow also melted when it hit the cathedral’s masonry, surprising us. “The stone is no different from our skin,” one of us said.

Now, my sad skin has aged, while the stone, just as naturally, has not. That explains where my mind next travels. To seek out that long-ago letter writer awakens no desire but instead fear of discovering a wizened replacement for her youthful self. I can summon no interest in exchanging photos of our grandchildren. Is that a terrible thing to say? That I never really loved her, but only young love itself? Is she no longer she to me, but an idealized composite character of the women I’ve known over the years?

Maybe much deeper in the past lies something truly solid: the ancient stone, the building blocks of Stephansdom, about which I now want to know everything there is to know. It’s built of limestone, I learn, a sedimentary rock, which erodes but keeps its essence. Not metamorphic, which, like memory, is transformed from the intense pressure of time’s layers.

But where did this particular limestone come from? How was it formed? How old is it exactly? Are the years so many that they’re incomprehensible? Such granularity both frees and focuses the mind when you’re sheltering in place and your home feels like a hermitage.

So no need to travel far to launch my quest, as I wander among my townhouse’s bookshelves to excavate guidebooks and Habsburg histories. As if teleported back to Vienna for refresher courses from my student days, I’m reminded that Stephansdom St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, whose “saint day” is December 26. That he was stoned to death adds a patina to my pursuit. Could it be that the rocks that killed him were made of the same limestone as the cathedral bearing his name?

Was it a slow, agonizing death, with time enough for anguished doubts about his faith? Or mercifully quick, with a heavy, knockout blow to the skull? As for the death of the passion I felt in Vienna, I can’t remember whether it was fast or slow. And the decay of a young American’s ideals and meliorism—inevitable, but so slow it seemed invisible, just as rocks weather.

The marine limestone of Stephansdom was itself once alive. Born from the calcium carbonate of sea creatures like coral and clams, it is soft but solid, easy to cut and chisel into building blocks. This I learn from short excursions on the web; but no matter how much I punch the keys of my laptop, I can’t seem to find a direct ticket to my ultimate destination: where exactly the Stephansdom limestone came from.

But my Internet searches finally send me to St. Margarethen. Though only 40 miles south of Vienna, it has taken me hours to reach the place. I’m now stalled at a crossing over a river called the Leitha, a 75-mile-long tributary of the Danube. Like distinctive handwriting, stones have individual names attached, and I learn that Leitha limestone is the name given to the building blocks of Stephansdom.

What kind of name is Leitha? Old High German, I learn. That, in turn, is derived from a Pannonian word for mud. Pannonian? One of the Indo-European tribes, making up the Illyrian population inhabiting the Balkans before the Roman conquest. And Pannonia itself is believed to be an Illyrian reference to “swamp and wet.”

It was during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs that marine sediments more than two miles thick built up at the bottom of the Pannonian Sea. When the sea dried up, the sediments became limestone. Around this same time, the apes first evolved, later to diversify into humans’ earliest ancestors. So the stone and I are kinfolk, kinda—it feels as if I’ve discovered my genetic story on 23andMe.

Not the Pannonian Sea but the Atlantic Ocean took on the role of romantic obstacle, like the mythical sword separating Tristan and Isolde, as my beloved stayed in Vienna while I returned to the United States. That separation explains all the letters I’ve now uncovered. She sent one almost every day, until they stopped. As in interpreting the geological record, I can only infer what happened: she found someone else.

A small hint of the once 200,000-square-mile Pannonian Sea can be found today in the shallow, salty waters of the 120-square-mile Neusiedlersee straddling the Austrian-Hungarian border. Sometimes known as a “steppe lake,” it is central Europe’s largest endorheic lake–meaning the self-enclosed waters don’t eventually flow to the sea. I also learn that the area around the Neusiedlersee has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its “cultural landscape” of “agricultural land-use and way of life uninterrupted since medieval times.”

The quarry at St. Margarethen, from which the Stephansdom stones come, dates from Roman times. In recent years, the quarry was converted by the Esterházy Family Foundation into an open-air performance venue—billed as “Europe’s largest natural stage.” Scheduled this summer (pandemic permitting) is Puccini’s Turandot. The opera’s “glistening and mysteriously jagged sounds find their ideal echo in the rugged rocky landscape of the St. Margarethen Quarry,” reads promotion for the performance. It would be fun to go. But strangely, it feels as if I’ve already been.

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