Thursday, May 26, 2011

When I was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, my earliest dreams of Europe were defined by Julie Andrews and “The Sound of Music.” For me, it was a place bathed in soft Technocolor, where the mountains were tall and the meadows were green, and where people of a rosy and cheerful disposition wore dirndls and lederhosen as they sang folksongs and ate strudel. Such, it seems, is the power of movies.

Once I grew up and fell into middle age, I finally visited the Europe of my imagination.  In London, I communed with the orphans and scoundrels of Dickens’ novels, and in Bath with the heroines of Jane Austen.  In Paris, I walked the damp streets and cafés once haunted by Hemingway, and in Italy I breathed in the Rome of Julius Ceasar, the Florence of Michelangelo, and the Venice of Casanova.  Along the way, I thought—more than once—that it was time to see the Salzburg I had longed for in my youth, but for five long years other scenes had beckoned.  Now, at last, it is before me, and I feel a familiar thrill of anticipation as I page through an itinerary that will soon be filled by Alpine lakes, medieval villages, and fairy tale castles. To quote Julie Andrews, these are a few of my favorite things.

It’s a Thursday evening in late spring and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Frankfurt, which will be the start of my 20 day trek through Germany and Austria. We depart the gate on time and as we taxi to the runway I find myself amused by the bilingual admonition against the use of portable electronic devices.  For weeks, I’ve been practicing the basics in German—ja and nein, bitte and danke sehr, guten morgen and auf wiedersehen—but the words “computer,” “laptop,” and “iPod” are all the same in German as they are in English, which makes for a comically disjointed translation.

Once in the air, we are served a late dinner on tiny plastic trays with impossibly tiny plastic utensils, and I listen in as two strangers behind me causally begin to flirt.  I’m sitting next to a socially inept engineer with a stack of blueprints and a bad head cold, but all things considered, things are blessedly uneventful and for this I feel fortunate.  I look out the window at the nighttime sky, where there are flashes of lightening arcing in the distance above the clouds.  As I pull the shade, close my eyes, and pray for whatever sleep may come while sitting upright on an airplane, I feel big and small in the world all at the same time, which is as it should be at the start of a great adventure.

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