The smell of cabbage transports me to Vienna

This time around, it's Brussels sprouts. I'm doing more important things when the aroma slips into my apartment and becomes pervasive enough to distract me. It tells me something I don't care to know about the walls or the fan ducts between apartments. Of course, I won't abandon the place. Perhaps someday I'll connect Brussels sprouts with bay windows that look onto ornamental cherry trees swaying in the breeze before a thunderstorm. Brussels sprouts may one day recall Boston for me the way the smell of cabbage does Vienna.

With all that I might recall of Vienna, it's the smell of cabbage cooking in the rooming house where we stayed that remains in the fibers of memory, just as it had permeated the fibers of rugs and drapes in our room. Yes, despite the glories of the Opera, Schönbrunn Palace, the Spanish Riding School, and St. Stephen's Cathedral, it's cabbage that still defines Vienna. And it's my neighbor's Brussels sprouts that impel today's connection.

Why a mere rooming house in elegant Vienna? Well, my mom and I were doing the grand tour via Eurail Pass, a process often less than grand. If we overspent on food or culture, we would take an overnight train - to anywhere and back - to avoid lodging expenses.

We had royally overspent in Paris, staying at a luxury hotel just off the Place de l'Opéra. Hence we had ridden trains straight through to Vienna, sleeping in our seats. Now real beds were in order, and we had hoped to find a reasonably priced room with Old World elegance and down comforters.

But we had arrived on an early evening of early summer, and the Zimmer service - the counter at the train station that matched tourists with rooms - had little left to offer.

We ended up on a street lined with tall, narrow gray houses in a district near the railroad yards. Our room was spare, and the narrow beds had metal frames, tatty blankets, and no bedspreads. But down the middle of our long, narrow room - perhaps the hallway of this once-grand 19th-century house - was an elegant Persian rug.

My mom was immediately down on her knees, counting knots on the back of the runner, and pronounced it echt (genuine). She was proud to find the right word - an echo from her childhood with German-speaking parents. So it was the real Persian rug that came to describe her Vienna - not the cabbage smell. That smell never left us while we were in Vienna, and it was still with us in our clothing for several days after we had left for Salzburg.

It was that contrast between historical echoes and present reality that typified much of our trip. It had started with my late-night departure from Heidelberg - where I had been at university - north to Hamburg to meet Mom, who was flying in from the United States. As I went to board, flashing my new Eurail Pass, the conductor stopped me: "Was soll das denn sein?" (And what might that be?)

My red, black, and white pass was unlike anything he'd seen before - it was the Eurail Pass's inaugural year. Once we got past pronunciation differences - my "You-rail Pass" and his "Oy-rile Pass" - he still didn't accept it as a valid ticket. With steam rising, both from the train and our encounter, I shoved past and boarded anyway.

By the time we got to the first stop where he could have rightfully evicted me, he had reconciled his black-and-white paperwork with my colored pass. That it provided a first-class seat he could not accept, however. I traveled to Hamburg in a crowded second-class coach with students on holiday and seniors heading to their Schrebergärten (garden colonies with tiny dwellings). Everyone bore overflowing sacks of groceries.

It wasn't the only time we encountered problems with our passes on our three-month tour. We also encountered bayonet-toting East German guards when we traveled from West Berlin to Hamburg. In many places we were the first Eurail travelers.

The full significance of those passes has just occurred to me. I'd been Googling "EU developments" when I had to get up and turn on the kitchen fan. I'd been reading a Guardian newspaper piece on the Treaty of Rome that inaugurated the Common Market in 1957. The interruption brought introspection, and now it all ties together: rail travel, Vienna, and cabbage.

One of the first joint European ventures marketed abroad was the French National Railways' Eurail Pass. It went into effect in the spring of 1959 and was, eventually, accepted across all borders. Thanks to that endeavor, my mom and I toured Europe side to side and top to bottom for $120 each in train fare. I feel a slight frisson now as I return to the Guardian article and think of what the new European unity had meant to us then.

It's still the French economic elite who promote European unity on a broad scale. Perhaps I should just patiently await their equivalent of the Eurail Pass for the 21st century? In the meantime, I suspect my kitchen fan is bringing in the smell of Brussels sprouts from next door.

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