Archive | July, 2017

Ernst and Marchegg

16 Jul


One of the saddest bits of news I uncovered while in Austria was that my first boyfriend, my Austrian love Ernst Schreiner, had died at the age of 68.  Of my five serious boyfriends, then, three of them are now gone. (Ironically, my “old man” boyfriend–he was 40, I was 25–is the only one other than George who is, at 83,  still alive!) I learned this after we had made a nostalgic trip back to the small border town of Marchegg where his family had lived, and where the photo above was made in 1970. The photo, taken by Ernst’s sister Erna, always reminds me of an art film from Czechoslovakia (as it was known at that time!). We look like spies or something (that’s Ernst’s mother in the photo with us), when in reality I have asked Ernst why my camera isn’t working.

Before I get into that trip to Marchegg, let me reminisce about young love and memories of romantic days that all too soon faded in the light of the realities of life in one’s early 20s.


We met at my first Viennese ball during Fasching season. This was the ball of the Hochschule für Bodenkultur, or the Boku-Ball, as it was endearingly called by the students. Boku is the Agricultural University, where Ernst was then studying brewing and oenology. You can actually see him in the background of this photo, behind the woman–Eva, his girlfriend of the time–in the white gloves seen between me and my partner (a very nice man who is now a high functionary in an African country). He was charmed by my demure way of hiding my cleavage when I bent over in my ball gown to shake his hand at his table of mutual friends. “No Austrian girl would do that, she would show as much as she could,” he told me later. I can’t now remember how things proceeded after that night, but I think our first date was to another ball, after which we were together as much as possible for the months remaining of my Viennese year.


Ernst was, at least to this 20-year-old Californian, darkly handsome, cultured (he played Schubert on the piano and spoke French!), and just about everything a young American girl could want for her first real romantic adventure. Almost every one of us in my Vienna group got an Austrian boyfriend that year, which seemed a requisite part of the international experience! A lot of my friends, and especially the Austrian ones, never really liked him for whatever reason, but I really didn’t care. We went out to his family in Marchegg quite often, we spent lovely weekends together there when his family was out of town, and took trips to Graz (where he had studied in boarding school) and to Paris, where he had spent a semester with a French family.


I still remember, as one of the most memorable times of my life, an absolutely perfect day spent in Marchegg and back in Vienna when my friends Marbie and Ron came to visit. We picked strawberries with Ernst’s mother and cherries off of Marchegg’s trees, Ernst and I showed them how we could dance the Viennese waltz, and then took the train back to town and played in the Prater. It was just a glorious template day, as you can only have when you’re very young, carefree, and in love.


Then the summer had to end, and we had to get on with our lives. I had to come back to the States, and Ernst went off to Germany to do his apprenticeship in a brewery there. We had the most picture-perfect of farewells, out of a European film, with me standing on the train platform while he waved his handkerchief out the window until I couldn’t see it anymore.  We wrote volumes of love letters, most of which I still have and have schlepped around the world. He planned to visit me in California at Christmas time. I couldn’t wait, I was so excited.


Then he was there, in Santa Barbara, under the scrutiny of my parents. I wasn’t used to being home myself, and Ernst felt uncomfortable from the very start; it was an awkward visit at a home that wasn’t mine anymore. We met up with friends and began a trek around California and over to Colorado. I still remember with complete clarity–again, as one can only do with those “first times”–when I discovered that he had slept with someone else back home. He had actually made a note of the occasion in his notebook! From then on, nothing quite clicked anymore. I was heartbroken. He went home to Vienna, and I only saw him one more time, in 1974, when I was on my Fulbright year, right before George and I got hitched. We never stayed in touch after that.

Many years later, I learned that Ernst had become the master brewer at Stiegl-Brau, one of Austria’s oldest breweries! I had to laugh: by the time I learned this, I had already quit drinking, so the discovery of an old boyfriend whose life revolved around beer seemed amusing. Good thing that one didn’t work out, eh? I always had the idea that I would try to contact him again some day. Once the internet got going, I was able to find out about his work there, and to discover photos of him:


Oh, my!  I could hardly believe this was the same Ernst Schreiner! But the dates matched, and he was obviously the same man. All those years of beer had changed him indeed! He was apparently instrumental in bringing the brewery into the new technological age, but that is all the information I could find about him. He retired in 2009, that’s all I knew, until I found the death announcement online. I have no idea if he had family, if he married, or had any children. This makes me sad.

I didn’t know about his death when we decided to go visit Marchegg again. We were staying in Bratislava at the time, and realized that this tiny Austrian town, which was on the border, was only half an hour away, now that the Iron Curtain countries were as easy to access as a neighboring state. That was not the case when we visited Ernst’s family in 1970. His father actually worked for the railroad customs office, the Austrian border patrol in those days. We used to stand at the river in Marchegg and look across to Slovaks looking at us over the border, which was still rigorously patrolled. It seemed a foreign place, with barriers that were larger than Soviet-enforced political ones.


And the river? What had seemed such an insurmountable barrier back then now appears as a rather inconsequential but beautiful stream, along which an historic bike trail, with informative markers lining the path, now winds for many gorgeous miles. We were there on a beautiful spring day, and although I tried hard to find Ernst’s family’s home, Marchegg is now as prosperous and upgraded as all Austrian towns are; I couldn’t find it. But the train station is still there, looking nearly as grim as it did 47 years ago.


The Schloss, which then was a rather forbidding remnant of Maria Teresia’s time, is now a WWF-funded refuge for storks! We saw many of them flying above us, and thrilled to see that such good use is being made of this historic place.


The fields around Marchegg, where Ernst and I used to go collecting poppies and lilies of the valley, were on the day we were there absolutely bursting with blossoms.


People pass away, borders change, ambitions and institutions alter. Thankfully, at least in this case, nature remains. I’m so glad we decided to make this little journey. It was a beautiful day, just like that one I remember so fondly so many years ago.