Sabina, or Sabine, the Poor Mandolinist

When a visiting American German Professor meets a young Austrian street musician whose guinea pig he eventually helps to bury.

Heading through the arches at the west end of Salzburg's Domplatz(Cathedral Square), I noticed a young woman sitting cross-legged on the flagstones, playing a mandolin, an inexpensive A-style Fender. I stood and listened for a few minutes. She looked about thirty and had straight dark hair, cut to her jawline, with bangs. 

There are almost always musicians on the Domplatz: over the decades, it has seen Andeans strumming charangos and playing pan flutes, Russian balalaika-and-accordion quartets, and throat-singing Mongolians, along with actual Austrians fingerpicking amplified guitars or plucking Alpine harps. These buskers are generally good musicians, since all they do is practice in front of tourists. 

And so I was surprised that my mandolinist wasn't very good. I play mandolin myself, and though I'm no virtuoso, I could have done better. I felt a little like the narrator in Franz Grillparzer's novella The Poor Fiddler, whose attention is attracted by a dignified man in patched clothes, discordantly scraping on a violin, his hat set out for coins that never come. Like the narrator, I really wanted to know what was up with that. (That's not exactly how Grillparzer put it.)

The poor mandolinist stopped mid-melody and looked up at me, smiling broadly with straight but dull teeth. Her irises, as dark as her pupils, crowded the whites of her eyes. She seemed both a woman and a child, her skin youthful yet weathered. She remotely resembled Audrey Tautou as Amélie.

I spoke first: 'I play mandolin too'. 

'Really?! Then you can give me lessons!'

She told me her name was Sabina, or Sabine. Either spelling was fine with her. She already played accordion on the streets, much better than mandolin, but wanted to take up a less-common instrument to stand out from the other entertainers. She also juggled and performed as a living statue. She liked to talk, so our lessons didn't go much beyond "you need a good tremolo".

Sabine grew up in an SOSKinderdorf. SOS Children's Villages is an international organization founded in Austria after World War II to help kids with inadequate parental care. She was one of thirteen children whose mother couldn't provide for them. Sabina talked about a brother who also lived in her Kinderdorf. She'd been close to him, but they were now estranged. Needy but cautious, Sabine allowed a few glimpses into her life, but not many. 

This was the spring of 1999. That summer, when my year of directing the study-abroad program ended, my family and I returned to Ohio. My next stint in Salzburg was in 2002-03, but my wife and son left in December so he could finish the eighth grade at his own school among his own friends. I stayed on as a grass widower.

Luckily, I had regular company. An American family from another study-abroad program invited me for dinner most Fridays. And Jackie Vansant, my co-editor of the journal Modern Austrian Literature, was teaching in Salzburg that semester. 

One day Jackie and I had left the Café Wernbacher and were walking down the Franz-Josef-Strasse when I spotted Sabina looking at miniature trains in the display window of a corner toy store. I greeted her, and she hugged me. We exchanged phone numbers and said we should get together. 

There were no more mandolin lessons. Instead, I occasionally visited her at her small apartment in a public-housing complex near the municipal heating plant. She shared her lodgings with a caged menagerie of guinea pigs and rabbits. We'd have coffee and she'd tell me about the healing properties of water or stones. Maybe we'd get a döner at a stand on the Saint-Julien Strasse before moving on to the grassy banks of the Salzach River to pick greens for her creatures. 

Why was I hanging out with a female street performer? I did enjoy Sabine's company, and it was nice to have a friend in the absence of my family. But I'm sure part of me was indulging in what Grillparzer's narrator called his "ravenous anthropological appetite": I'm fascinated by people, and here was another chance to indulge my curiosity. I also flattered myself into thinking I was doing her some kind of favour. After all, she seemed down and out. 

But I learned from Sabina that she wasn't on the streets because she had no other choice. She had worked for a while in a wholesale bakery, and she was good at the job, but she couldn't stand being told what to do, or having her time regimented. She was a free spirit who accepted the social consequences of living that freedom. Her busking strategies were business decisions, not moves of desperation. Her friendship with me was just a friendship, not a cry for help. 

At this point, you might think I was being either devious or naive, a married man apart from his family consorting with a single woman. I'll cop to naive, but not to devious. I've always gravitated toward women as friends. Maybe that's because I grew up with four sisters, and my mother was my most important role model. I told my wife I was spending time with Sabine.

Not devious, then, but probably naive. One evening Sabina and I passed an outdoor café where I saw my Friday-night American family. I sensed they were wondering who this was and why I was with her. What had felt innocent, because to me it was innocent, suddenly seemed to need an explanation, though I didn't give one. I just introduced Sabina to my friends.

I was also naive to think that Sabine wouldn't develop a crush on me. She did, and she expressed it, but I reminded her I was married and that was that. 

One day Sabine called me to say that her guinea pig had died, and she wanted to bury it on the Kapuzinerberg, one of the wooded hills that surround Salzburg's old centre. She couldn't afford cremation, and besides, she wanted to return her pet to nature. She also wanted my company on this sad errand. I reluctantly agreed. I was sure this was illegal, and I pictured a scandal when my students and my university found out I'd been arrested for abetting the unlawful disposal of an animal carcass. 

The woods were deserted as we left the path and inched down an incline slippery with last year's leaves. I can't remember Sabina's improvised eulogy. We laid the critter to rest without incident. 

When I left for the States that summer, we agreed to stay in touch, but there was only one exchange of letters. I didn't go back to run our Salzburg program for eleven years. In March 2014, my wife and I were giving newly arrived students a tour of the sites and sights of the city. 

In the orangery at Mirabell, a botanical conservatory, we stopped to look at an artificial pond with turtles in it. I looked up, and there was Sabina, looking at turtles. I was not surprised. If I was going to run into Sabine, it would be at a toy store or a pet store or a turtle pond. 

We said hello, she gave me a quick hug, and I re-introduced her to my wife. We talked vaguely about getting together while I was in town. I never saw Sabina again.