Austria: Travelling in a Time Machine

By Mehru Jaffer, Womens Feature Service

European women, like Austrian linguist Almaz Felch, 60, have been on the road for decades. Travel for this seasoned globetrotter, a Russian/English/German interpreter from a family of Mountain Jews of Dagestan, actually means enriching the mind more than the wardrobe.

“I choose to visit a site for its history and to spend time with the people of that place. I never look for five-star hospitality but for simplicity and charming comfort. I am not much of a shopper but I like to visit museums wherever I go,” she reveals. Felch is now planning a trip to North America and Israel later this year.

While wanderlust is a comparatively recent passion amongst Asian women, their European counterparts have been travelling ever since the post-World War II employment opportunities empowered them economically. A 2007 MasterCard survey stated that women are responsible for making four out of every 10 trips organised.

Over the last decade, the number of women travellers has grown dramatically – the majority hailing from the more affluent nations of North America and Europe, besides countries like Australia and New Zealand. In more recent times, women from South and Southeast Asia, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, too, have started to pack their bags for regular getaways.

Distant and exotic destinations like North Africa and Canada had beckoned Austrian chef, Irene Weinfurter, 49, in the past. “Now that we are getting on in years, my husband and I prefer to discover Europe,” she says, as she prepares to leave for France and Ireland by road for an entire month.

For Felch, who is a Vienna resident since 1978, one of her most exciting trips was driving to the Isonzo Front, where Austria, Slovenia and Italy share borders. This spectacular landscape is where World War I began in 1914. Nearly a century ago, the emerald waters of the 60-mile Isonzo river that kisses the feet of the snow-clad peaks of the majestic Julian Alps were painted a bloody red as the entire Continent got transformed into an enormous battlefield. Over a period of 29 months, more than a million lives were lost as Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey battled the French, British and Russian forces in this region. The lush landscape was chosen to film ‘Prince Caspian’, a 2008 release based on the novel of the same name by C.S. Lewis.

To stand at the centre-stage of so much natural beauty and to contrast it to ugly memories left by the War is a feeling that Felch finds difficult to describe. “It is amazing to think that this land has inspired human beings to create great art as well as to indulge in heartless destruction,” she remarks.

Felch was one of the over 100 women members of the Austrian, Slovenian and Italian chapters of the Women’s Federation for World Peace, who had converged at this tragic site. Invited by the Slovenia chapter, the travelling women were encouraged to revisit history and come to terms with the destruction.

Says Christine Segato, 54, who was part of the trip, “By going back in time and realising that Austrians and Italians had suffered, I made peace with the death of my 20-year-old uncle who was killed in the First World War and with the Italian soldiers responsible for his death.”

Segato is an Austrian married to an Italian for over three decades. This mother of three had made conscious efforts not to allow historical hostilities poison her marriage. Besides, she lives today in Italy, a country that has been at war with Austria in the past, she elaborated, as she walked through the Kobarid World War I museum in Slovenia.

Fellow traveller, Maria Neuberger-Schmidt, 56, born of Austrian parents in Hungary says that she was 20 years old when she travelled to Paris. Now that her children are adults, the mother of four dreams of travelling a little further away from home, perhaps even to India one day. Talking about her experience on the Slovenia trip, Neuberger-Schmidt, says, “I’m happy to have met with women of over 20 nationalities. I enjoyed the excursions to the beautiful surroundings, the common meals and the meditation. We had the opportunity to exchange experiences, ways of life and points of view.”

But it is the enthusiasm of Felch that is most conspicuous in this group. A student of English literature in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, Felch’s first move out of the autonomous republic of the Russian Federation Caucasus region on the Caspian Sea was to the more urbane Russian city of St. Petersburg in the late 1960s. Although it is unlikely that she will visit her place of birth, the prospect of combining family reunions with relatives living on different continents with travel adventures really excites her.

To prepare of her visit this winter to Israel, she has already begun to search for a book on the origins of the Mountain Jews who claim a 1,000-year ancestry. According to oral tradition, after the destruction of ancient Israel, some citizens fled to the lands of Assyria in eighth century BC and some to Media on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. These exiles were later joined by Babylonian Jews and together laid the foundation of Persian Jewish society in the Azerbaijan and Dagestan areas. Eventually, the Jewish Diaspora in the region earned the name of Mountain Jews.

Felch’s trip to Israel is planned as a return from the mountains to her Mediterranean origin and in celebration of the nomadic spirit of all human beings, most of whom are immigrants. “I will climb up Mount Nebo on the Jordanian plateau to glimpse the Biblical Promised Land below waking up before me at sunrise, as it had before the eyes of Moses,” says Felch.

Which only goes to show a little bit of imagination can go a long way when it comes to romancing the world with a suitcase.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.