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.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sensing a shift in both luck and momentum, I have decided to give Mittenwald another try before moving on to Salzburg, Austria tomorrow morning.  Along the way, the Bavarian landscape outside the window is an evolving panorama of tiny villages and barns and onion-domed churches.  As we approach the Alps, I start to see the remanents of snow in the highest peaks of the mountains, which for a native of the eastern United States are fantastically tall and sharp.

When the train pulls into the station in Mittenwald, I jump to my feet, eager to explore the town, which is best known for the colorful frescoes that adorn its houses.  As I step across the tracks, however, a familiar wave of dizziness and nausea cascades through my body.  I look around, feeling lost, and then find a park bench outside the tourist information center, where I sit patiently for the next hour, waiting for it to pass.  It does not, and so I sit for a few minutes longer, digesting the situation.  There are two things I know:  One, that it is time to see a doctor, and two, that the trip I had planned for over so many months, is over.

I open the door to the TI, step inside, and approach a young woman at the counter to explain that I’ve fallen ill.  She brings me a cup of water and I ask if there is a doctor in town who speaks English.  She makes a phone call and returns to say that there is and that his office is just a mile or so away.  She starts to me offer me walking directions, but I interrupt and ask if she might call me a cab instead.  She furrows her brow in incomprehension and says: “But that will cost you five Euros.” I assure her that will be fine.

She makes another call, and minutes later I’ve arrived at the office of Dr. Kristian Dressler, who is expecting me.  In truth, there is not much he can do so far from home, but he checks my blood pressure, shows me the result, and pronounces it “not good.”  It’s 159/96.  He gives me half of a beta blocking pill to lower it, but when that doesn’t work, he adds the other half.  Still nothing.

He thinks I have a virus and that I haven’t given my body sufficient time to recover from it.  He’s probably right.

By now, I’m desperate to lie down and he offers me the use of one of his examining rooms.  When I’m still not better two hours later, he recommends that I return to Munich on the train in first class so that I might prop my feet up.  He starts to give me walking directions back through town to the station when, as I had done earlier, I interrupt to ask that he call me a cab instead.  “But that will cost you five Euros,” he says, sounding exasperated.  I think: “What is it with these people and five Euros?”

I have come to believe that the Germans are tight fisted with money and that they do not tolerate weakness.  I am tired of their beige food and I want to go home.

This is terribly unfair, I know, and yet it is easy to think such things when we are sick.

Three days later I do go home, but not before dismantling the remaining days of my trip one hotel at a time.  There will be no Sound of Music tour this time around, no boat ride across Lake Hallstatt, no Vienna Boys Choir or Spanish Riding School, and no opera.  The closest I will come to Austria is the terrace of Neuschwanstein Castle with its sweeping vista south towards the Alps.

Travel is an adventure, and by virtue of that definition, it is not always a pleasant and rewarding experience, despite (or even because of) our lofty goals and expectations.  I will need time to recover from this, and to mourn for opportunities lost, but after that, I will—as I always do—cast an eye towards next year, in the persistent and unrelenting hope of doing it all again.