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Into Fresh Air

The countess rises to lead us on a brief tour. Animal skulls are mounted on virtually every square inch of wall. Who, I ask, did in such a huge number of creatures?

"My mother!" the countess declares, eyes ablaze. Clearly, this is a family of formidable women. The countess's daughter lives in Jakarta—a hair-raising prospect, I say. The countess nods in admiration. "She is very—what's the word in English? Diligent. No. Resourceful?"

Perhaps, I suggest, she has a nice stack of wood—

"Just forget it!" Peter barks.

A woman with a nice stack of wood, it turns out, isn't psychologically well endowed, but physically. I was about to tell the countess that her daughter must have big breasts.

LIKE MANY OF THE AUSTRIANS WHO COME FOR SOMMERFRISCHE, Susi Klozenbücher has the bug bad. An animated woman with a mane of blond hair, she first visited as a teenager, and later married a local. Although she works in Salzburg and her sons are grown and dispersed across two continents, she calls the family back each summer to their 300-year-old house.

We sit out on the front lawn, looking down over the valley. Even at the height of summer the air carries an Alpine tang, a reminder that winter is never far away.

Susi's husband, Hartmut, appears carrying a hand-labeled bottle of schnapps. It's illegal to home-brew liquor in Austria without a license, but certain farmers are granted special dispensation, and Susi and Hartmut have good connections. We throw it back: dry and fiery, accented with a distinct flavor of pine cones, it's more like a fine grappa than the insipid syrup I knew in my college days.

Over the doorway is a chalk inscription that I've noticed elsewhere in the village. Crudely scrawled, it reads, 19 C+M+B 98. Susi and Hartmut let me in on the secret: Every January 6, in a Christian ceremony, young children dress as the three wise men and go from house to house, singing carols and collecting charitable donations. In the message, the numbers signify the year, and the initials represent the three wise men of Christmas lore, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The inscription indicates that the house has been blessed for the year.

Even though she has visited Altaussee for most of her lifetime, Susi still isn't privy to all the place's secrets. "People here have their own culture, their own words," she says. Not even marrying a local grants her full status. "You have to be here for generations to really be one of them."

We move into the kitchen just as rain begins to fall. Hartmut puts a foot up on the bench and shows me his green kneesocks, an essential accessory to a pair of lederhosen. The patterns all have meaning. He traces a finger over the ribs: "Tulips, burning love, single dancing rabbit, double dancing rabbit . . ."

What do dancing rabbits mean, I ask?

"Well, you know what rabbits do!" They both laugh.

I admire Hartmut's lederhosen, which look positively prehistoric. "Of course, they're more than a hundred years old," he says, adding, only half-jokingly: "Anyone wearing lederhosen newer than that is obviously an outsider."

Poor Franzi.

EVERYONE WANTS TO BE AN INSIDER. Everyone wants to feel more deeply rooted to this ancient place. Steep yourself in the mountains for a few centuries, the notion runs, and then you, too, will belong.

Hopeless cases like me, in town for a week, have only the surface. But it's enough. There is swimming and boating, paragliding, trout fishing, long hikes through the mountains, bicycling from one village to the next. So much to do that, sure enough, the Austrians have a word for it: Freizeitstress—leisure stress.

Maybe it's the jet lag, or maybe it's just the fact that I'm not Austrian, but all this mountain air is having the opposite effect on me. I seem to be moving in slow motion, and liking it fine. The day after my visit with the Klozenbüchers, Peter invites me on a 6 a.m. hike up a trail that, he assures me, will take only a few hours. I decline, and instead wake up at 10. Then I roll over, and wake up again at 11.

I take a taxi to Bad Aussee for coffee at Lewandofsky, a patisserie in the town center. The coffee is espresso, served Austrian-style, alongside a glass of mineral water. The villagers sit under the spreading branches of an enormous chestnut tree and let the town buzz around them.

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