By Barbara Falconer Newhall
My genuine Austrian Walkjanker had hung forlornly at the far end of a plastic garment bag for decades. It had no place to go.
Till my son got engaged to a Minnesota girl.
A classic Walkjanker, just so you know, is a traditional, no-nonsense Austrian winter jacket of real wool. It’s densely knit and, using an ancient, pre-industrial technology known as Walke in German and fulling in English, it is aggressively soaked, heated, beaten and shrunk until it’s two-thirds its original size and the scales on the wool fibers have loosened and hooked on to each other. The finished fabric is as thick and stiff and impenetrable as a slab of berber carpeting.
It’s a garment so old-timey and so Old World that even Google can’t find you more than a couple photos of the real thing.
I bought my Walkjanker in Austria during a mid-century stint as a nanny in Salzburg. I saw the loden green, dark red and teal blue garments everywhere in Salzburg – in the adorable shop windows on the Getreidegasse and on the backs of the (to me) sophisticated, old-worldly
young Austrians I spotted on the town’s narrow sidewalks. I wanted some of that authentic, continental je ne sais quoi for myself, so I sprang for a Walkjanker of my own.
My Walkjanker (say valk-YAHNK-ehr) cost me a pretty penny – twenty or thirty dollars, a fortune for a young student at the time. (Today they’ll still cost you – 199 Euros, which comes to $269.) But it was worth it to me. I was now the owner of something truly and authentically Austrian.
My Janker is loden green, a unisex affair with buttonholes down the front on both sides of the opening so that you can string your buttons on a ribbon and button them onto the left or right side depending on your sex.
It gets plenty cold in Austria; you can’t throw too much wool at a winter day in the Tirol. Which means my souvenir coat has what it takes to resist wind, snow and even a light drizzle. But I’ve held on to my Walkjanker all these years, not because it’s practical, but because I’m so sentimentally attached to it. It reminds me that I was — and on most days still am — an adventuresome soul.
Trouble is, I’ve nowhere to go in my Walkjanker. I live in San Francisco’s East Bay, where a severe winter’s day is 45 degrees and foggy. I don’t ski any more. And my trips home to Michigan
are always in summertime, when the blueberry bushes are green and Lake Michigan is swimmable.
Also, sad to say, my berberish Walkjanker makes me look, well . . . plump. As plump and round as a potato dumpling.
And so it was that a couple of weeks ago, while packing for a trip to Minnesota to audition rehearsal dinner restaurants with Peter and his fiancée, I spotted my beloved Walkjanker waiting
patiently at the far end of its garment bag. I thought, it’s now or never for that dear old vintage thing.
Here was my chance to put my genuine Austrian Walkjanker to the test in a genuine Minnesota winter. It was also my chance to show off my interesting past and my interesting taste in clothes to the kids.
I folded the thing in half and pressed it into a carry-on suitcase. Unlike Jon’s high-tech down jacket, which we rolled up and stuffed into a corner of his bag, my preindustrial Walkjanker took up the better half of our carry-on.
Two days later there I was, ankle deep in real Minnesota snow wearing my real Austrian Walkjanker.
As warm and round as a potato dumpling.
More stories about Peter and his fiancée at “I’m the Mother of the Groom — Now What Do I Do?” and “Time to Crack Open My Hope Chest and Live a Little.”