Saturday, 7 June 2014

Now Wash Your Hands

Candle display, Innsbruck

Today I saw what may well be the single weirdest thing I have ever seen in my life.  It was a towel-rail.  Seriously.  I mean, I know I'm here in my Martian capacity, and things abroad will often seem a bit outlandish, but this...  This was something special.

It's a special weekend, in general, here in Austria.  Monday is a public holiday, one of those religious festivals we have forgotten all about in super-secular Britain, but which abound in Catholic Europe.  It is Pfingsten, the equivalent of our abandoned Whit Monday, the celebration of Pentecost.  Lots of early summer rituals and merry-making get into top gear over this weekend.

On an entirely inferior level of strangeness to my towel rail, I was bemused to witness a gradual accumulation around the bars of central Innsbruck of men of all ages wearing what I can only describe as idiotic hats.  These men had that look of embattled respectability that comes naturally to a man in a tight formal suit, a badly-knotted tie and draped with various bits of militaristic regalia -- sashes, boots, and even the occasional sword -- when the temperature has exceeded 30 centigrade, and everyone else is in shorts and eating ice-cream.  They reminded me strongly of Orangemen.  Something tribal was clearly taking place.

As I was looking for pictures, I did the obvious thing, and asked a table of friendly-looking hat-men whether they'd mind being photographed and, ah, could you explain what is going on, please?  It seems that this Pfingsten marks the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Akademische Verbindung Austria Innsbruck, "the oldest and biggest Catholic colour-bearing Association in Austria, celebrating 150 years of Cartellverbände in Austria". (Sorry, I have no idea what that really means; I had to lift it from the online news, as I sort of lost concentration in the middle of his no doubt splendid explanation).  I think it's a sort of cross between American university fraternities and the Boys' Brigade, no doubt with a bit of life-long secret handshaking going on.

Later, as I emerged into the blazing sunshine from the Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art, slightly spooked by my encounter with the towel rail, I found the street outside was bustling and noisy with marching bands, some wearing the same folk getups I'd seen displayed inside, most in matching Cartellverband hats and sashes.  Again, what with the drums and banners and odd outfits, I was reminded of an Orange Order march, but it was clear that this lot were not going to march through some local protestant enclave in order to provoke showers of bricks and abuse.  Nonetheless, it all seemed a bit inexplicable, even to the regular onlookers, but then I have never understood the urge to join clubs of any kind.

But, back to that towel-rail.  I'm a fan of any good museum, and the Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art is better than good, it is exemplary.  It has plenty of stuff, in depth and in breadth, which is well described and well displayed, including a number of entire wood-panelled interiors from farmhouses of various vintages.  It is thematically arranged, and in several sections there is a marvellously effective ambient soundscape of sampled music and voices in the background, that is a real work of art.  In the section entitled "Das prekäre Leben" (roughly, the uncertainty of life) the exhibits deal with the folk superstitions around and material and spiritual preparations for the Big Events:  birth, marriage, and death.  With the emphasis on death.  Really quite a heavy emphasis on death.  At all stages and every moment of life.  Death, death, death.

Now, there must be something in the water in the Tyrol.  I have visited quite a few museums of folk life around Europe, and I have never seen such a morbid collection of artefacts.  Perhaps it was felt that without constant reminders, people would fail to notice the mortality all around them.  Or perhaps the idea was that by a constant harping on skulls, skeletons and other grisly mementi mori, the real thing might not seem so bad after all.  But, look at this extraordinary object:

It's a towel-rail.  It says so on the label, and that is self-evidently what it is.  The young lady is holding between her hands a roller, on which an embroidered towel is handily draped.  The trouble is, her entire right half has been excised to expose her skeleton.  I mean, really...  In what kind of household, in what kind of society, do you need reminding of "the skull beneath the skin" every time you have a wash?

Well, before the discovery of antibiotics, practically every household in every society, of course.  But the Tyrol seems to have been particularly, even uniquely, pre-occupied, given the evidence on display.  I confess I didn't bother to read what the embroidered words on the towel itself said.  I think I can guess.

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