This Austrian storyline is no lederhosen singalong

The city made famous by The Sound Of Music is now host to a new kind of refugees fleeing a dictator, writes Deborah Williams.

Leopoldskron Palace where the Von Trapp family lived in Sound of Music. In the background is Fortress Hohensalzburg. The city made famous by The Sound Of Music is now host to a new kind of refugees fleeing a dictator. Tourismus Salzburg
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On my mother’s bucket list had long been a visit to Vienna and Salzburg, the home of many of her favourite composers. This past weekend, in a belated celebration of her 74th birthday, my brother – in keeping with his work in the movie business – made her wish come true: he bought her a ticket from Chicago to Vienna, where my sister and I joined them.

We roamed Vienna, marvelling at Hapsburg castles and listening to beautiful music in marbled palaces. In Salzburg, we visited Mozart’s house, where I discovered that Mozart had a sister, Nannerl, who was also a piano prodigy but did not become a world-renowned composer. Instead she was married, then widowed, and then became caretaker for her elderly parents. Her fate anticipates what Virginia Woolf wrote about, centuries later, when she imagined “Shakespeare’s sister”, whom she named Judith, and whose life followed the same arc of unfulfilled promise as Nannerl’s.

Beyond the real lives of Mozart and his sister, however, we also visited some imaginary places in our Salzburg tour: the various sites immortalised in The Sound of Music, perhaps Salzburg’s most famous export after Mozart. Everywhere you turn in Salzburg it’s “Maria this” or “Von Trapp” that. There are bus tours, walking tours and even Segway tours, all devoted to visiting the movie’s exterior locations.

But such is the power of Hollywood’s illusion that the Von Trapp family adventure has become a powerful engine for the Salzburg economy. That illusion crashed into reality, however, as I waited for the train back to Vienna: I had to move aside to make room for a long queue of refugees who were being escorted off a just-arrived train and taken to a car park where the Austrian Red Cross had erected large white tents. The refugees (who, in a subtle shift in nomenclature, were called “migrants” in the international newspaper I had read that morning) were flanked by small contingents of police who did not look overtly hostile but were definitely vigilant – and fully armed.

The refugees carried nothing but a few small bundles, and some of the children clutched stuffed toys. Everyone looked empty-eyed and exhausted.

My small luxuries – the apple in my bag for a snack, the warm shower I had taken that morning, the comfortable bed I would sleep in that night – suddenly loomed large, as did the irony. Here in a city made famous by one family’s flight across the mountains to escape a dictator were throngs of families attempting the same thing, but their trek was no lederhosen singalong.

And of course, in real life the Von Trapps didn’t elude the Anschluss by skipping over the Alps on foot: they took the train.

The next day, in Vienna, traffic was snarled beyond belief because the central roads were closed for an enormous rally in support of the refugees. There were concerts outside parliament, donation points for Médecins Sans Frontières and other charitable organisations, and people everywhere wearing buttons and T-shirts saying: “Refugees welcome here.”

We were stuck in a taxi and the driver had only complaints about the rally. “This is going to solve things?” he asked, leaning on the horn. “Because traffic comes to halt in Vienna, all of Europe is going to say ‘OK, we change things now?’”

He shrugged. “Eh, this won’t accomplish anything – there’s nothing really to be done.”

In Hollywood, it is possible to escape to a new life under the cover of darkness and a sad song, or for a rally to create social change. By the same token, in the Hollywood versions of their lives, Judith Shakespeare and Nannerl Mozart would achieve great things despite their circumstances. I wonder, in that crowd of refugees I saw at the Salzburg train station, if there was a Mozart (either Wolfgang or Nannerl), a Shakespeare (William or Judith), or a family whose life used to be full of songs.

Is the taxi driver right? Is there really nothing to be done?

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi