The climb is hard, not because the mountain is actually really a mountain, it’s really more of a quarter of one if you really think about it, but no matter how many times I have started out to make this climb I find myself winded and puffing by the time I reach the final steps that lead to the castle gate. Twice a day I do this, my thigh muscles are strong, my calfs are strong, and yet they still burn with every step. Just at the final turn, where the dirt path turns to stone steps I stop, I tell myself that it’s to take a moment to glance down at the beautiful view below me, the small village at dusk, the lights in homes and the surrounding mountains peaked in snow. The truth is more that I need a moment to breathe, to stand and fill my lungs, to ease the burn in my thighs and wipe the glisten from my brow, not quite sweat in the brisk November breeze but damp just the same. My Grandmother once sat a much younger me down and told me that women never sweat, they glisten; and while I don’t buy into that at all, I have certainly sweat like a pig doing this walk in the summer, today it seems to fit and so I stand, taking in the valley below me and I fill my lungs with the cool, fresh alpine air. When I have had my fill I turn again to the stone steps before me and make the final ascent to the gates of the old castle. Once, this place was pink, I kid you not. The first time I ever stepped foot on these stones the walls around me were petpo bismal pink, all covered in an ivy that turned the brightest red in the fall. I don’t remember hating it, but I remember thinking it an odd colour for an old castle in the middle of the Austrian alps. By the time I left a year later I couldn’t imagine it another colour if my life depended on it. When I came back years later those walls were white, and far more asthetically pleasing to the eye but secretly the old pink was missed. On entering those old halls though, you quickly forget the outside wall colour in favour of the creaking wood floors, the deep scent of wood fire smoke that pours from the Kaminzimmer, and the laughter, those halls are almost always filled with laughter. Today, as I step from the wooden stairs leading from the gatehouse to the main courtyard I feel the old ghosts of friends who came and went and I feel a sadness that is now familiar to me when I remember. Things have changed, that is life here in these walls and I always wonder when I will get used to it and yet somehow I never seem to find a way to do it. The sadness lingers there, fond memories yes, but tinted with bittersweet longings for the days gone by. With each new crop of volunteers it becomes harder to open my heart to them, not wanting the inevitable pain that comes when their term is up and they get back on a plane or train to resume their lives, but with every single one I forget somwhere along the way and my heart lets them in, another goodbye always inevitable. The courtyard is getting dark, the air is colder and I see the puffs of air as they vaporize in front of me. There is the distinct smell of a woodfire and I can’t help but be transported back years to a summer when I was nineteen and serving champagne to guests who had come for a concert in this very same courtyard. There were people everywhere, all wearing traditional Austrian garb, all laughing and clapping. We had other guests too, they were english speaking guests and they stayed at the back of the courtyard, they were the ones I had come to call friends in the short week conference they were attending. That was before I had learned to protect my heart from the goodbyes, back when every week brought new friends with each new conference. With each break I got I would head over and stand with them watching the muscians and enjoying the long summer night. Just when things were really heating up though it started to rain, not just rain, it poured! The muscians grabbed their instruments and hid under the balconies, guests all dove for whatever cover they could find and the laughter continued. One of the musicians decided to continue and he picked up his instrument and soon the concert was once again in full swing. I remember my friend and I running into the rain and dancing the waltz through the rain. We must have looked so silly, our servicing skirts stuck to our legs, our hair hanging long and loose, dripping and flying behind us as we danced but we didn’t care. We had been so happy, so into the moment that we just didn’t care about anything else. I stand there, looking at the ghost of that girl who once danced in the rain and I smile at her. Where did she go I wonder to myself? The memories of that long ago summer night are fading into the dark night and I turn to the Hotel side door, pulling the heavy door open to step into it’s warmth. I can hear people talking in the Kaminzimmer, the clatter of breakfast dishes being set in the dining room, the quiet chatter of life inside this space. I cross the stone floor, heading to the ancient wooden door across the main entrance. Years ago this was a dirty, cob web filled bat cellar but now it is the heart of the castle in the evening hours. The cellar cafe, the space to sit and chat about it all, to say the goodbyes, to offer new hello’s, to be reunited, to talk about how to fix the worlds problems or to just be silly and dance or play games. This was the pub of the castle though it was never once called a pub, it was simply the cellar. I open the door and the cloud of cigarette smoke filled the air around me, I can hear the voices below me, the laughter and the chatter that I knew I would find here, the reason I climbed that quarter mountain long after my work day was through. One can never be lonely here, you only ever had to make your way to the cellar. Like ‘Cheers’, it’s the one place in the world where everyone knows your name, and even if you aren’t their favorite person, they care about you. I climb down the wooden steps, smile and greet those at the tables and make my way to the counter to order my Stiegl. I take a sip and let my eyes wander to the people around me. I Take a second sip of the beer, swallowing and then sighing. It may take more than this tonight to fight off the lonliness that surrounds me.
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