Austria: the Landlocked Mermaid
Vienna is a city worthy of any mermaid princess. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna looks like a set from a Disney Princess movie. Ornate Baroque palaces line the streets and squares. Decadent cathedrals tower above the paved streets. The squares are littered with cafés, where people enjoy sachertorte, strudel and poppy seed cake and watch the world go by. It is an utterly luxurious city full of wonder.
After several days, I began to ache for nature. Vienna was spectacular and had innumerable gardens. All were perfectly designed, symmetrical and spotless. But I was craving open spaces and green horizons.
We caught the train (60 minutes) to the Wachau Valley. The scenery was stunning. The blue Danube, surrounded by lush green vineyards and forests. We opted to cycle along the river, stopping to sip Gruner Veltliner at a number of wineries along our path.
The medieval town of Durnstein was magical. We hiked to the castle to get a better view of the town and valley and we were not disappointed. It was breathtaking!
Befriending a local, she was full of questions about life in Australia and about the beaches. Oh, she had heard of the beaches! Glistening sand, crashing waves, surf and sun… She explained that she, like many Austrians, were lovers of the sea. But Austria is a landlocked country. She couldn’t often get to the coastal regions of Europe, but the sea called to her.
I understood. I had been a landlocked mermaid once. I grew up a 5-hour drive from the nearest coast, in the desert. Dusty and dry, we suffered through extreme heat in summer and sub-zero temperatures in winter. The (very) occasional rainy day and self-made spa day in the bathtub (when water restrictions permitted) were all that sustained me.
She gave us a wicked grin and told us she was going to take us to the local “beach”. We crossed the river on the barge and cycled past fields of apples and apricots. We eventually arrived at a flat section of river, where we propped our bikes.
“Behold, our beach!” She announced with a chuckle.
Before me was a small sandy section of river bank.
It made me wonder. So many humans feel such a powerful pull towards the ocean. But it is not just the ocean. Water is the life-blood of communities. None of us can survive for long without it, so it makes sense that humans would create settlements around rivers and lakes and coastline. These bodies of water also provided essential sustenance for our ancestors in the form of food. So, it makes sense that humans would traverse waters to fish and forage. But what was it that caused this universal love of the water? What was it that made humans risk drowning to immerse ourselves in the magical element of water?
I was reminded of the Aquatic Ape theory I had stumbled across many years ago, whilst studying psychology at university. The Aquatic Ape theory purports that certain apes (from whom humans are descended) were aquatic, being swimmers, waders and even divers. Whilst a controversial theory, some anthropologists have argued that certain aspects of human physiology can be explained by adaptation to swimming and diving to seek food. For instance, our hairlessness when compared to other apes (our closest relatives) and the layer of subcutaneous fat humans have. Even the fact that when we wet our face, we trigger the mammalian dive reflex (an automatic physiological response that slows our heart rate - among other changes - in preparation for diving underwater) has been cited in support of this theory. This theory has been controversial to say the least and many aspects of human evolution can be explained by other theories. But recent research into primates living in areas of Africa that flood showed they would wade to access water lilies for food, which also fits with African and Australian hunter-gatherers who eat roots and tubers from aquatic plants (Wrangham, R, 2009; Harvard University, American Journal of Physical Anthropology). The evidence is circumstantial, but it sure makes you wonder! Even the fact that this theory, one that many consider thoroughly debunked, won’t die, makes me wonder at this desire for humans to find a connection through our history with our love of water/swimming/the sea.
Meeting this landlocked mermaid and having the privilege of visiting her riverside beach reminded me of how magical water can be.
I am blessed to have access to beaches. But a landlocked mermaid is no less of a mermaid and any connection with water, be is lakes, streams, rain or even tap water is still divine!