An American in Admont?
This may have been the most beautiful of all the days. Everything just felt right about this day. It felt open and wide –not wide open—but the type of openness that was full and saturated.
I left my dwelling in Graz to travel to Leoben, a single-rail track town tucked away within the mountains of central Austria. From there, you wait for the once-every-two-hours coach bus that will take you to Admont, an even smaller town with the largest monastery library in the world.
The coach bus was empty when I climbed on, but it quickly filled as we passed the local elementary school where it transformed into the town-wide school bus. Growing nervous about my upcoming stop, I turned to the eight-year-old boy sitting quietly next to me and asked if he spoke English. At his affirmative response I asked where to get off to for the Stift Admont (The Admont Monastery). After answering, he asked where I was from. Upon telling him that I was from America, I watched his innocent eyes bulge out of his eyes as he said “America???” with childish wonder and amazement. I was an American! He had only heard of us through textbooks and stories of superheros.
I felt tension growing inside of me but laughing politely and explained how I’m trying to see more of the world. I didn’t like the immediate celebrity status I was given upon the realization that I was from America for a few reasons. First, I still struggle with my identity as an American. Realistically, most of my world views, mannerisms, beliefs, and traditions are western but still I can’t relate to the kids who grew up watching Boy Meets World or The Amanda Show and have specific relatives they visit on Thanksgiving and others that they see on Christmas and Easter. There is some disconnect. But then again, how can I claim that my big nose and love for lentils, rice, and pomegranates makes me an Iranian if I don’t even know how to write allah in Farsi? So not only was I hoping not to disappoint this kid and his first encounter with an “American” but I was also getting angry at the global privilege that Americans experience by telling a stranger where they are from *mic drop* Now, I can imagine someone thinking “you’re in the middle of nowhere Austria so meeting any foreigner would be amazing for this child,” but I implore you to ask yourself what would have happened if I told this child I was from Iran…
I told you the day was saturated.
Social privilege aside, I found myself descending the bus and walking into a picturesque landscape of grey mountains against the bluest sky under the greenest grass. Making my way into the monastery, I darted for the library. This time there was considerable hustle and bustle; I wasn’t stepping into a hidden land like before. No, this library had a reputation, a title associated with it: “The Largest Monastery Library.”
This library is breathtaking. It has undergone several iterations of reconstruction, remodeling, and complete stylistic upheaval at the hand of shuffling architects. And, as with most old edifices, this monastery and library are survivors of a ‘great fire’—one that took down the old baroque traditions and made room for the creation of a spacious and full structure that is now in place. The library itself has been praised as a “truly magical hall” and even “the eighth wonder of the world.”
The dimensions of the library hall measure seventy meters long and fourteen meters wide, with a height of twelve meters at its apex. With 48 of the 60 windows visibly admitting light, there is a strange sensation of over-abundance of light. That, coupled with the bright white luminescence of the bookshelves, gives this hall a peculiarly ethereal feel. The general layout of the library took inspiration from the National Library of Austria(featured in the next blog post!) and took the shape of three subspaces, vaulted by a total of seven domes—a truly innovative yet elegant formation. The white and gold adorned bookshelves have been constructed into the architecture of the room, not as freestanding shelves like most other libraries, and they pair nicely with the pink marble pillars that carry the ceiling. Complementing these romantic shades are additional pink and blue hues that appear in the frescos up above, all together hinting at the underlying theme: Enlightenment. But in direct contrast are Josef Stammel’s “The Last Four Things” sculptures, which sit around the perimeter of the central dome. These sculptures reminisce on the Baroque history of the monastery, pulling the visitor back from the entirely secular world of the Enlightenment, and reminding us of where we are—a center of religion. The four sculptures represent Death, Resurrection, Hell, and Heaven, which are undoubtedly the last four things a traveller on earth who has spent so much with books and knowledge, must face at the time of death.
The grandeur of this library was unbelievable, but upon stepping outside everything felt insignificant as giant mountain loomed over never-ending fields of hand-drawn grass blades. I allowed myself some time to roam this most beautiful and open place. I came across a little creek, crossed it, and appeared on the set of the Sound of Music. The hills were alive! I’ll be truthful; I immediately started to spin around and drop to the ground, watching the plumpest clouds roll by. How lovely these unplanned moments can be. I even got myself some Austrian beer, danke shoen.