The last time I was in Austria was embarrassingly long ago, but I recall one characteristic moment.  We were staying in a tiny hotel that occupied the second and third floors of a handsome Viennese townhouse, and once, well past midnight, we rang the wrong bell.  Whereupon the paterfamilias of the first-floor apartment appeared on the doorstep in his dressing gown and began apologizing for having answered the bell that, alas, was not meant for him and his kin.

In the morning, while coming down the stairs past the first-floor landing, we noticed a brass plaque next to the bell, beseeching guests of the hotel not to ring it in error.  It is quite likely, in other words, that the hotel’s guests had made a nuisance of themselves already in the days of the empire, and that the grandfather of the present occupant used to get out of bed to answer the bell’s misdirected summons long before Gavrilo Princip saw the opportunity to dispose of the heir presumptive.  And yet, for three generations, these people remained polite, preferring to polish their brass plaque where an Italian bourgeois would shriek “Maleducati!” and an English one would set the dogs on you.

I am writing this from a heavenly spot in the godforsaken wilds of the mitteleuropäischer Kulturraum, somewhere between Salzburg and Linz, where my wife is rehearsing for a recording.  Consequently, I have a lot of free time on my hands, and where a better man would spend it rereading Buckle’s History of Civilization in England—or at least Winnie-the-Pooh in Alexander Lenard’s Latin translation—I watch Austrian television.  In Palermo we haven’t a TV set at home, so when Olga and I find ourselves in some great universal emporium like Harrods in London, we stand, pillar-of-salt-like in the Sodom of the electronics department, looking round wildly at the screens with their promise of sinful divertissement.  Here the huge TV is right in the room of the 18th-century Schloss where we lodge, and I stare at it, transfixed, from late afternoon well into the small hours.

The programs all fall under three rubrics: sport, cookery, and shows about insects.  Now, in England or in the United States, one does see a nature documentary on television now and again, but only a small fraction of these is about Lepidoptera, Diptera, Coleoptera, or whatever else you find in your cup of tea if you leave it overnight on the patio table.  On Austrian television nature never means the call of the cuckoo in spring or the life and loves of the brook trout.  Instead, it means bulging stereoscopic eyes, entwining barbed tentacles, and the maniacal hatching of scary sticky things by scary woolly ones in various electronically magnified natural settings.

The lawns outside my window are impeccable, as are the green velvet pastures crisscrossed by the black satin ribbons of road just beyond.  A dead dog in the middle of a busy street in Palermo would look less out of place than an empty beer bottle or a rusting tin on the asphalt here.

Brigitte’s cooking—at the only inn in the village, opposite the village church—belongs to the era when Italian housewives had not heard of factory-manufactured pastasciutta and rolled the fresh stuff on their own kitchen tables.  Only after World War II could an Italian woman make spaghetti out of a box for her family without being considered a slattern by the neighbors, and in Brigitte’s kitchen the year is still 1930.  Of course, it isn’t spaghetti she gives us to eat, but Braten and Würste and Knödel, yet the spirit that I had long thought was preserved in our time only in the remotest parts of Italy is alive and well in every morsel on our plates.

And yet there is, running silently through this verdant paradise, an undercurrent of a laboriously suppressed anxiety.  This I discern in the bug-eyed lepidopteran close-ups, in the handicapped-access railings in the village church, in the no-smoking signs in Brigitte’s pub.  It is as though somebody out there is forcing these people, content to dwell in their time capsule circa 1930, to learn what the rest of the world is like, and to behave accordingly: to lie, to cheat, to litter, to eat at McDonald’s.

Of course everybody smokes at Brigitte’s, whatever the signs may say, in part because the village policeman sits in the corner, puffing away on a La Paz cigarillo.  In lawless Palermo I get to light up in a restaurant now and then, once a friendly proprietor has shooed the last of the customers out the door, but in Brigitte’s establishment the air is blue with tobacco smoke from morning to night as though Austria, and not Sicily, were a part of Africa.

Something has to give.  Either Brigitte shuts up shop, the policeman takes early retirement, and the village church becomes a pesticides warehouse—or else the world loosens its grip and admits that this kind of life is the only kind worth living.  I have a notion which it’s going to be, and it ain’t polite enough to engrave on a brass plaque.