It was the cliché post-college, going-off-to-Europe-to-discover-oneself trip. But I would have only two weeks to do so.
The year of the new millennium.
And though traveling alone, I wouldn’t be completely alone. I would be visiting a various scattered friends and distant relatives. Considering I had stayed home for college, this was only fitting and my general lack of risk taking.
The future not only lay ahead of me. It lay ahead for the entire planet. And with the anticlimactic arrival ofY2K safely behind us, it was time to turn a new leaf.
To start anew.
To become the best version of ourselves.
If it wasn’t going to happen in this millennium, it would never happen at all.
I now look back on that trip the way one might think of an indie coming-of-age film that aimlessly drifts from once scene to the next. Not heavy on plot. But deep on character, theme, and resonance. The trip even adhered to conventional plot structure – a Hero’s Journey, complete with a perfectly-placed climax. No explosions or heavy battle scenes … but just as powerful and life-changing.
The exposition of my journey began with my graduation from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the day before I was to depart for my journey. With my newly-minted English degree in hand and a PR job at Ford Motor Company already lined up, my future was bright (at least on the surface. Inside, I knew that until my writing dream came into fruition, I could never be fully content).
In some ways, having a job already waiting in the wings wore off a bit of the free-spirit luster that a trip like this should include.
The sense of being truly “free”.
But for two weeks, I would have to pretend otherwise. Besides, having a job doesn’t mean one can’t keep one eye open for opportunity.
Despite my degree and job, my future was by no means close to clear.
Should I go back to school to earn a teaching degree?
Or, do I go to film school in full pursuit of my Hollywood dream?
I was convinced I could make it without film school and in my home state of Michigan (if there’s anything that comes close to having a regret in my life, it was my decision not to follow my passion directly to Hollywood).
At the very least, it was my hope that this trip would somehow bring my future into better focus – and that I could perhaps have this epiphany while walking the very streets Mozart once called home.
And, maybe if I were lucky (or, better yet, played my cards right), I would find some European romance along the way. But I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself, considering my track record here at home.
I never played my cards right.
Following my graduation ceremony, my family took me out for dinner. Later that evening, I found myself overcome with a strong wave of unexplained melancholy – the depths of which I hadn’t quite felt before. Perhaps it was the steady cold rain (a steady motif throughout my trip). But it was more like the realization that a big chapter of my life was over. The end of one of life’s chapters is always a sad occasion, no matter how much we look forward to the next one.
The sudden realization that something was gone. Forever gone. Life is made up of an endless parade of moments such as this. Every time we say goodbye to something – or someone – we’re really saying goodbye to a piece of ourselves.
Perhaps it was the realization that I was about to embark on what could turn out be the most memorable experience of my life. I tend to get overpowered by the sad reality that any memorable experience is going to end at some point and become just a memory.
These are the moments that I believe you get to re-live in your afterlife over and over as though it were the first time. So, it was only fitting that as I sat on the cusp of one goodbye, I knew another profound would be lurking just around the corner when my trip was all said and done. I tried to channel my energy into the here and now, but it’s never any use. The only way to avoid it to make yourself numb to all experience. In my experience, that is truly the only way to “live in the moment”.
While sitting on the plane before take-off, I realized that this would be this exact moment I would return to the most following my trip. Because it was the exact moment before any of the memories took place.
At the starting gate.
Before any pictures were snapped.
Before any memories were made.
When the magic of the entire trip lay ahead.
Of course, “in the moment”, you never know what those memories will even be. It’s hard to appreciate something that doesn’t even exist yet. But when it’s all said and done, of course, it’s all you can think about.
It’s the moment that if granted the ability to back in time to re-live the whole experience, you would rewind to that exact moment. When an unwritten adventure awaits – one that can never be replicated. Adventures that become increasingly more infrequent the older we get.
As I waited for take-off, I plugged my headphones into the armrest and tuned into the plane’s radio, stumbling across Samuel Barber’s sorrowful Adagio for Strings, which accompanied my take-off. A song that can turn any moment into a funeral.
As the song — mixed with the cacophony of the plane’s ascent — flooded my ears, memories of the last five years of my life all flooded my soul, as I began to wonder what the future had in store as this transitional chapter began. Then I drifted off to sleep, in search of all the answers I was seeking. But there were none to be found.
My agenda waiting to fill up my blank canvas for the next two weeks was as follows: Frankfurt and Aachen, Germany followed by Salzburg and Vienna, Austria. Arriving in Frankfurt, I was picked up by the daughter of my Grandmother’s first cousin, Ulls. Despite our common language ability (I could speak only ein bissen Deutcsh and she could speak only a little English), she provided a whirlwind tour of downtown Frankfurt (a memory best described as a jet-lagged lucid dream). Through my hazy consciousness, my initial impression was:
This isn’t Germany. It’s any Big City, USA city, filled with modern, glass skyscrapers. Where were the lederhosen, giant pretzels, and beer wenches?!
When we got into her car to head, I immediately dozed off with visions of sugar plum strudels dancing in my heads. By the time I woke up, we were driving through the German countryside.
Ulla and her parents lived a couple of hours outside of Frankfurt. A quaint, quiet little town that one usually only experiences in foreign cinema.
We finally arrived at their countryside home, where I was enthusiastically greeted by my grandma’s cousin Peti and his wife Susan. Once again, neither spoke English, so I tried to utilized the little German I could muster.
And it wasn’t pretty.
Thank God for non-verbal communication – and for language dictionaries. For the most part, the dictionaries did the trick, especially on a day trip when Peti took me on a boat on the River Rhine, punctuated by grey clouds, a light drizzle, and mangled language.
That evening, Peti’s son Ehrhardt arranged for me to hang out with his girlfriend’s 17-year-old daughter, Anya. She was not only super cute, but spoke halfway-super English! Anya and her friend, Eva, took me to a discotheque located in a German strip mall. It was now time on Sprockets for me to dance!
Here I was, driving around with two cute girls that I didn’t know existed until that night. The kind of night that becomes encased in the museum of your memory. Again, the kind you hope to carry with you to the great beyond, where it could be re-lived for eternity. It’s even more rare when you are fully aware of the magnitude of a memory such as this that will live in your soul for the remainder of your days as though it had just happened yesterday.
When we arrived at the club, the girls blindsided me by introducing me to their boyfriends. Suddenly, I was a fifth wheel in a foreign land – enveloped in German existentialism as I danced by myself to Snoop Dog’s “Smoke Weed Everyday,” as the Germans sang along:
“Dr. Dre, mother fucker!” (enunciating in place of the more accurate “muthafucka”).
I sat back, sipping on my gin und saft, observing this whole new world play out before my eyes. Besides, this was nothing new for me. Third or fifth wheel was my natural habitat. I would expect nothing less. And it certainly did nothing to tarnish the moment. If I were to find romance in Europe, I still had plenty of time for that. And besides, I figured if such a thing were to happen, it wouldn’t have been in Frankfurt, where I was visiting relatives.
After the club, we drove back to the Anya’s mother’s house, where Eva and I were to stay for the night. We looked through Anya’s childhood photo albums, jamming to shitty German pop pouring out of a boombox. Eva expressed how she hoped to come visit the U.S. sometime, and taking this as an opportunity, I extended an open invitation to visit me back home. She seemed thrilled by the prospect (not so much of seeing me again, but of being invited to stay in America). I never saw her again after that night – nor did I ever attempt to contact her. A reminder that, some relationships are shooting stars, destined to last only a split second in the wide canvas our life. However brief, it is sometimes in those seconds that make all the other minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years worth living. Nonetheless, I will never forget Anya and Eva. They are firmly embedded into the fabric of my memory – one square of an enormous, beautiful memory quilt devoted entirely to that trip – attached to an even larger canvas of my life in its entirety.
The next morning, it was time to depart for the next leg of my adventure. Peti took me to the train station, where I set off for the northwestern town of Aachen to visit my friend Janet, whom I had met through a friend back home when she was doing an internship. We hung out as a group back at home on numerous occasions and I developed a bit of a crush on her. Well, okay. A big crush. And though I didn’t expect the crush to be anything but one sided, it was enough of a crush to inspire me to purchase her a silver bracelet and bring it all the way to Germany.
While on the train, I looked at her bracelet, while listening to listening to Moby’s Play album on my Discman – the de facto soundtrack of my trip that I purchased just before my trip. It would become the official soundtrack of my trip. To this day, if I want to fully absorb myself into the memories of this trip, all I have to do is put this album on and memories otherwise forgotten become enhanced or unlocked in my mind. In fact, it’s interesting how many different Moby albums have coincided with such key moments from my life. The Danny Elfman to my Tim Burton, or the John Williams to my Spielberg, in my personal soundtrack of life. Two years later, a trip to Ukraine would be accompanied by his 18 album. It would also lead to my first book, Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine. This trip was its prequel.
Janet greeted mat the train station, then me back to her house to meet her parents and two brothers. After a satisfying meal, then headed out to meet up with some friends at an Irish pub, where we proceeded to drink Guinness like any Germans in an Irish pub should. We all had a good time, save for Janet’s friend Dirk – an odd duck who kept whispering to me in English:
“I’m going to kill myself tonight.”
I really didn’t know how to deal with this. Perhaps he was confusing words and was trying to come on to me. The good news is, I did him again later during my visit and not only was he still alive, but was in jovial spirits. And better yet, no sweet nothings whispered into my ear.
Late that night, when we got back to Janet’s house, we rolled into our respective beds (or, in my case, on an air mattress on the floor next to Janet’s bed like a dog). Though it was late, I was wide awake, in a tipsy state of consciousness. After much internal debate, I decided no time was better than now to give her my gift. So, I reached into my bag and located the silver amulet that accompanied me on my journey.
“Janet?” I said, not even entirely sure she was awake.
I leaned into her and handed her the box (in hindsight, probably freaking her out in the process).
“What’s this?” she said, clearly half asleep.
“A present! Open it,” I said, realizing that opening a present in the dark probably not the best idea.
Fortunately, as she lifted the silver chain out of its box, it caught a brief sliver of silver moonlight, before she accidentally dropped it back into the darkness. After a fair amount of scrambling, she finally found it amidst her tangled sheets – my gift taking a part in an unassuming lover’s tryst.
“Thank you! But why did you get me such a nice gift?”
I jumped right in:
“Because I like you. A lot.”
She was very touched, but sensing my intention, she quickly made it abundantly clear that we were “just friends” – the universal language of rejection. A language I understood fully well.
I immediately regretted giving her this present – but not because of the money I spent on it. Why didn’t I at least wait until right before I left so I could avoid spending the rest of our time together in a state of awkwardness? After all, I should have seen this coming. Then again, if I waited until the end, it might have been too late. So, I took a gamble. And lost. Fortunately, there was nothing awkward between us. And at least the pressure was off now. In fact, it made us closer, even if it meant no romance. I still had plenty of time to find that. It just wasn’t going to be in Aachen.
The next day, Janet arranged for us to go to Köln (aka Cologne) for a couple of days, to visit some of her university friends. More specifically, I would be sleeping in an apartment filled with six college girls – European college girls. I was pretty sure I had seen that in a video once. Since I stayed home for college, I felt like I was being granted an opportunity to make up for lost time. The only action to be gotten, however, would come in the form of sex acts with Bert and Ernie puppets (clarification: between the puppets – not me and the puppets).
The first night in Köln turned out to be a night of drunken revelry highlighted by bar hopping, dancing, and literally chasing after the last trolley at 3 a.m. down a cobble-stoned street, singing a huge European hit that never quite made it across the pond: Tom Jone’s “Sex Bomb”, which Janet and her friends enjoyed translating into “Sex Bob”. For the record, he U.S. truly missed out on this gem.
Upon our return to Aachen, where the first of two defining moments of my journey took place. I was lying on my air mattress, once again listening to Moby (as I am doing while writing this, 18 years later) while Janet getting dressed in the adjoining bathroom. While listening to the aptly-titled track “Why Does my Heart Feel So Bad,” I was overcome with a torrential downpour of emotion I never felt before that day and haven’t felt since. Although no amount of descriptive prose could ever fully describe what I felt that night, I can at least attempt to. It felt as though every fiber of my being was ripped open and flushed out with tears from the deepest recesses of my heart, mind and soul, while at the same time, absorbing my every tear like a sponge, before releasing them in a soul-cleaning downpour of emotion, as my entire life played out before my eyes, allowing me to see through a brief window of clarity of my past, present, and future. I cried so hard, it hurt. It was, perhaps, the most utterly human I have ever felt. I have never experienced anything quite like it ever again.
Looking back, the experience feels paradoxically detached from real life – much in the manner that a good film, book, or song might tough the deepest recesses of our soul, even though we are simultaneously aware that it isn’t real. I often think back to that moment with a tinge of embarrassment, wondering what was going through Janet’s mind as I wept like a baby on her bedroom floor. Though I tried to hide it from her, it was impossible to hide a soul ripped wide open like that. She discovered me halfway through my jag and held me close to her like a mother comforting a child.
Without a single hint of judgment.
And I never wanted that moment to end.
And in many ways, it hasn’t.
And much like the earlier bracelet incident, this episode didn’t put an awkward strain on our friendship, either. Once again, it only strengthened it. In the larger context of my life, I look back at that moment now as not only one of the most profound, powerful experiences of my life, but a key turning point – the dawn of a new chapter – a transition into a vast unknown that would only reveal itself in time. I was also aware in that small window of clarity that one day, even that chapter would close. Like all chapters do, in their own unique way.
On my final day with Janet, we headed to the Netherlands, a hop, skip, and a jump away from Aachen. In fact, it was literally in such close proximity to Aachen, that I sometimes forget to include it on my list of travels. It didn’t look any different from Germany, with the exception of the cannabis paraphernalia on display in storefronts.
Once again, experience turned cinematic:
A man and a woman.
A quaint town, lined with cobble-stoned streets.
Again, right out of a movie.
We stopped for a drink in a café across from a small church. It felt like being inside Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night”.
She had a coffee.
I had a cocktail.
And we just talked.
As the rain fell.
It couldn’t have been more perfect.
And then suddenly, it was time to move on. It was time to flip the page to the next chapter, as life forces us to whether we want to or not.
I never saw Janet again.
As the years pass, the odds are, I will never see her again. It’s hard to grasp in the midst of moments such as that there was no ellipses. No next time.
The memory is nothing more than a relic from my collective past – a moment forever gone, but not forgotten.
Like so many people we encounter in life, there is no tomorrow. There is only the present. And yet that present lives longer in our memories than the more permanent fixtures in our lives.
Janet and I are at least connected on FB, but she doesn’t have much of a presence, but just enough to know she is now living in Australia.
The next day, it was time to depart Aachen and prepare for the next leg of my journey:
In the spirit of a young romantic drifting aimlessly in Europe, I purposely didn’t book any hotels ahead of time. So even though I always knew where I was heading next, not having hotels booked at least created the illusion I was drifting my way across Europe. After all, it’s not in my character to take a risk without some form of training wheels.
I knew no one in Berlin, so it was the first time on my trip I would be totally alone. I attempted to persuade Janet to join me, but she had to go back to work.
Thus, began my global experiment in isolation. But following my breakdown/epiphany in Aachen, perhaps being alone was exactly what I needed.
If one truly wants to feel alone, then a city as vast and strange as Berlin is the place to be.
It was there that I came to realize that traveling alone is something I cannot recommend enough. You never feel more connected to yourself. This is especially true when you are surrounded by a foreign language, making you feel even more disconnected from the outside world and more in tune with yourself. It also lets you really focus in on every experience, free from distractions that cloud moments spend with others. It is a deeply spiritual experience that cannot be replicated with traveling with companions.
With Moby’s melancholy symphonies filling my ears once again, I was overcome with a wave of existential loneliness I had never felt before. So utterly small. And insignificant. Yet somehow, in that loneliness, I never felt more…alive.
After all, most of life is spent in a numb, zombie – or robotic – state of mind. We are drones, living without feeling. We’re just there. And when and if we feel something, as much as we want it to last forever, we know deep down it’s only temporary. We know that we eventually have to return to our emotional cubicles that make up the days of this thing we call life.
Despite this alienation I felt in Berlin, I knew I was feeling something real. And raw. In fact, Berlin was the perfect city for such a lost state of mind. But that was precisely the problem. I wanted to crawl into my shell. Perhaps a smaller city might have helped matters. But looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having spent my entire life up until that point playing by the rules, it felt good to be lost for once.
My original plan for my stay in Berlin was to scope out the city’s famous nightlife. Being an avid techno fan, I was quite aware of the role Berlin played during the origins of Detroit techno. Largely ignored in Detroit, the DJs from there made their names known in Berlin and elsewhere throughout Europe. Regretfully, my plan to scout out the clubs where techno was put on the map quickly fizzled out when I realized I would be forced to navigate through Berlin’s underground metro system. Subways were something I had zero experience with. And it stayed that way as fear and loneliness won out. Being directionally impotent is especially challenging when you find yourself in a foreign city. Although, if I learned anything on this trip, it’s that I could actually read a map if I truly put my mind to it.
The navigational equivalent of having a gun held to my head.
In attempt to cure the empty loneliness and general sense of homesickness Berlin was instilling in me, I took refuge in the comfort and familiarity of McDonald’s. It didn’t necessarily make me feel any less lonely, but I did discover that their apple pies were still fried like they used to be back home, before they became baked in McDonald’s healthy initiative.
The highlight of my anticlimactic trip to Berlin was the surreal experience of staying in a hostel for the first time in my life. It was located in what used to be East Berlin, not far from the largest existing portion of the Berlin Wall. And although I had never been to the former Soviet Union (little did I know lay in store for me a little over a year later), the drab, gray architecture certainly gave me the impression that I had been.
The hostel wasn’t without its challenges. For instance, the lack of an elevator meant that I had to drag my heavy suitcase up several flights of steps. And since I couldn’t figure out how to use the shower, I ended up spraining my foot trying to wash myself under a faucet.
So in lieu of the Berlin nightlife I had hoped to experience, I got a taste of Berlin youth hostel life. From the mentally challenged German rapper in the courtyard, to the underground bunker bar, the cinematic feel to my trip suddenly became overtly Lynchian.
Accessing the bunker bar required climbing down a rusty wrought iron ladder connected to jagged concrete, which dumped you into the bar, which was roughly the size of a closet in width, and a crawl space in height. Although climbing down was challenging enough, the climb back up after a few German brews is a challenge of a different sort. Unless, of course, you are an Irish lothario who left the bunker repeatedly through the night to bang a different foreign chick, only to return fifteen minutes later for his next conquest. Meanwhile, I remained in my natural state – a wallflower and soaked in my surroundings until I could no longer stay awake, temporarily living my life vicariously through the Irish Don Juan the Leprechaun.
The next day, I took a walking tour of the city, which was fascinating from a historical standpoint, passing the site where Hitler’s bunker once stood, as well as the site of the infamous Nazi book burning.
Looking back, my days in Berlin reminded me of my brief tour of Frankfurt upon my arrival – an impressionistic blur of dreams standing in for reality.
The next leg of my journey was one-day stay in the southern Germany town of Passau, where I was to meet Katrin – a friend of my German co-worker Mark, who was doing an internship in the U.S.
This was the same town that my grandmother passed through during the war. It was here where my grandmother, her sister and mother ducked beneath a bridge as a train carrying ammunition exploded just yards away from them. And just yards away from that very bridge was my hostel. It was impossible to fathom what my grandmother endured.
I had a chance to correspond with Katrin a couple of times prior to my trip (back when handwritten letters were still a thing, despite being thrust in the digtal age) so we could get to know one another a little bit.
And perhaps, if I played my cards right, I would be leaving my heart in Passau! After all, as Mark so eloquently described her, “she will suck you both day and night.” It sure sounded tempting, but I quickly ruled out any prospects of this happening when she all but blew me off in an entirely different way.
After Katrina helped check me into a hostel, she escorted me to a beer garden, where I was left to my own devices for the next several hours – something about having to attend a dance class, if I understood correctly. While she was gone, I consumed the two largest beers I ever had in my life, still holding out hope for Das Suck. At some point after my first beer, I got up to use the restroom and nearly toppled over from the numbing buzz I was feeling.
When Katrin returned, she retrieved me and literally had to help me out of the garden. She then explained that she had a bad headache and that she would be unable to entertain me that evening, which was unfortunate, since that as the only evening I had there. We said goodbye and that was the last I ever saw or heard of her. I then took myself to an empty dance club, where I sat alone in a corner, munching on pretzels and feeling sorry for myself. At least nothing exploded yards away from me.
“Smoke Weed Every Day” was played, along with “Sex Bomb”…but they both only served as a reminder of happier times.
I returned to the the claustrophobia of my hostel room, which literally consisted of nothing more than a bed tightly wedged in between the walls. If the bed were half an inch larger, it wouldn’t have fit. Hell, if it were a millimeter larger it wouldn’t have fit.
The next day, I boarded a train and left Germany behind for Austria. With my trip now past the halfway mark, I began to wonder if my trip reached a premature climax in Aachen, completely throwing conventional plot structure out of whack. I was still desperately clinging to the hope that a truly magical experience was waiting for me around a cobblestone corner that would match the intensity of the earlier experiences. Perhaps a new country would bring better luck.
My next destination was Salzburg, Austria.
From the moment I stepped off the train, I fell in love with the town at first sight before any memories were actually formed there It was pure magic. Quaint, narrow cobblestone streets too narrow for cars. A medieval fortress hovering above the whole city from up above, which was somehow always in view.
And the music.
Street musicians, mostly. Add it all up, and it was like a something out of a fairy tale or Disney movie!
Whereas most of my fellow Americans equated Salzburg with Julie Andrews and her brood of happy, singing children, I had always equated Salzburg as the hometown of Mozart.
This was my Graceland!
After my hostel experience in Berlin, I decided I would treat myself to a halfway decent hotel. In other words, a place that left at least two inches of space between the bed and walls. And preferably with a private shower. Of course, in Europe, there were no guarantees.
I stumbled upon a hotel called Hotel am Dom, tucked inside one of Salzburg’s famed cobblestone streets, just outside the city square — the centerpiece of which is the horse head fountain Julie Andrews pranced around in The Sound of Music.
The lobby had a cozy, welcoming feel to it, featuring a desk with carved, dark brown oak lending to a warm and inviting atmosphere. My room was narrow with two twin beds running along side a wall, but in comparison to the hostel in Passau, it was the lap of luxury! Even so, the beds were so small, an elf would barely fit. Then again, I was in a fairy tale world, so it only made sense. I opened up the windows, and instantly, a soothing breeze poured in, along with soothing mash-up of classical music, punctuated by the enormous Glockenspiel overlooking the square. Then came the bagpipes playing “Scotland the Brave”, a played during the procession at my graduation just a couple of weeks prior. On one hand, it was a small and insignificant coincidence. On the other hand, I smiled back at fate and soaked it all in, lying peacefully in my dwarf-sized bed.
After a short nap, I headed out to explore the town. First on the list were Mozart’s cribs: Mozart Gerburstshaus (birth house) and Mozartwohnhaus (the house he lived in as an infantile adult). Although heavily renovated over the years, especially from the damage inflicted by the ravages of World War II, it was still awe-inspiring to be in the same geographic space that Mozart himself not only lived in, loved in, laughed in, cried in, shit in, but most importantly – composed his wonderful art in.
In the middle of the main room of his the Wohnhaus, there were several listening booths. I sat at one and listened to my favorite Mozart composition: “Concert No. 21 in C Major.” This composition perfectly captures every aspect of Mozart’s personality, shifting from playful and light to sadly reflective.
The absolute embodiment of bittersweet.
As its soothing melody washed over my entire being, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was perhaps composed in this very same space. It was a truly spiritual experience – not wholly unlike my previous Moby moment, but more spiritually cleansing, rather than the existential crisis that was. It was one of those rare moments where you feel truly at peace. In that exact moment, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Just me and the music.
At that moment, nothing else existed.
Nothing else mattered.
The song ended.
And I was part of the world again.
When I finished the tour, I passed through a gift shop and bought a myself a little bust of Mozart, of which I made the cut clerk crack up when I approached the register with my souvenir butchered the German language with “Ich wolle einem kleine Mozart Kopf, bitte.” (A butchered attempt at “I would like a little Mozart head, please.”).
I then headed up the funicular train to the top of the medieval castle to take in a spectacular view of the city and beyond. Out in the distance, dotting the were charming little Bavarian homes with flowerpots lining each window peppered the countryside, set against a backdrop that gave one little choice but to belt out “The hills are alive!”
While wandering through the fortress, I fancied myself a medieval minstrel. And then lo and behold, a voice screamed: “Help!” from somewhere up above. But this was no damsel in distress. It was a man about my age just happened to be a fellow metro Detroiter. Apparently, he wandered into a tower and a door locked behind him. I told him not to fear and searched for help. He was released from the tower by a custodian-in-shining-armor and I headed back to my hotel, where I booked a tour for the following day, setting in motion the magic I was desperately seeking.
Her name was Julia.
She was my tour guide, but also a college student who had lived in Salzburg her whole life. She was cute, in the plain-Jane sort of way that I was generally attracted to. She greeted me in the lobby of my hotel, leading me to her empty tour van with a Salzburg Sightseeing Tour decal affixed to it.
“Hop in,” she said.
“Will it just be me?” I asked.
“If you’re lucky,” she said with a wry smile.
Turned out, I was only her first pick-up, but ultimately not her only customer. She was impressed that I was one of the few Americans who opted not to take the Sound of Music too. She was also impressed by our mutual adoration for Mozart. Soon, the entire van was filled and we headed off to see the sights. When it was over, I thanked her, shook her hand and headed back to my room to get ready for the dinner-concert I was attending, which consisted of a fancy dinner by candlelight, accompanied by opera performers singing Mozart. The whole time, I wished I had someone to share this experience with.
Somebody like Julia.
When it was over, I drifted out for the Salzburgian nightlife, in a Holden Caulfield frame of mind.
I crossed one of the many bridges over the Salzach River over to the left bank, where a tidy row of pubs, clubs and sidewalk cafes overlook the river. I wandered into a couple of establishments, was dressed up and confident I would work up the courage to converse with a stranger from the opposite sex. Of course, it wasn’t long before I remembered who I was, thus reverting to my usual shy, awkward self.
My final stop was yet another Irish pub, which turned out to be less low-key than I would have guessed, as evident by the packed house and live raucous Irish music.
I made my way through the crowded pub toward the bar and grabbed a Guinness, scanning the room for a spot to sit among the wooden tables with wooden stools made of tree stumps. (Once again, fit for an elf). Unfortunately, all the stumps were taken, so I had to stand against a wooden post, forced to endure the heavy foot traffic walking back and forth in the tight space I was able to position myself.
I was giving serious thought to quickly downing my beer, then heading back to my hotel to watch The Simpsons auf Deutsch.
And then I spotted her.
Sitting on a stump with a group of friends, wearing a blue sundress and make-up, instantly elevating her from plain cute to very cute. She was alternating cautious sips of Guinness with long drags of a cigarette, with a resigned sadness on her face. Or, was it just a reflection of my boredom. In any event, I couldn’t help but ponder the sheer coincidence of what was taking place before me.
As I stood against my post, nervously nursing my beer, I tried to muster the courage to approach her. I knew I couldn’t pass this opportunity up, but in typical Bobby fashion, I was frozen in terror at the mere thought of approaching a female — even one who I already met. Fortunately, she hadn’t spotted me yet. Nor, did I necessarily expect her to recognize me.
This afforded me more time to hatch a plan.
Compose my dialogue.
Choreograph my every move.
Or, high tail it out of there.
And there was always the possibility that before I could do any of those things, she could have spotted me. And then hopefully approach me. It would have certainly made things easier and save me a lot of agony, especially with the nagging thought playing in the back of my mind that she wouldn’t recognize me if I approached her. Perhaps that’s why she hadn’t noticed me yet.
After a long and protracted debate in my mind —combined with the half pint of Guinness flowing through my veins — I decided that the time had come. I would take the plunge. I didn’t come this far to be my usual self. Not after my Moby epiphany back in Aachen.
This was a new chapter.
A new life.
I was born again.
And with that in mind, I headed toward her table, awkwardly standing next to her for several minutes, unnoticed. I finally tapped her on the shoulder. Startled, she turned around. Instant recognition washed over her face in the form of an inviting smile and a friendly “Hello.”
“Hi,” I responded back. Or, at least a guttural sound that closely resembled a greeting.
I awkwardly offered my hand. She shook it.
She remembered my name!
“Yeah. Julia, right?”
She nodded, then invited me to sit down, then introduced me to her friends – a group of three other girls. They asked me questions about life America. We played movie charades. They laughed at my lame attempts at German. I admired their mastery of the English language.
And at about 1:30, it was time to part.
Outside the pub, Julia said goodbye to her friends and then headed over to her bicycle, locked to a rack. It was one of those old-fashioned bikes, complete with basket and bell. All that was missing was a puppy!
I naturally assumed that this was where we would part. But then:
“Would you like to take a walk?” she offered.
I didn’t hesitate. Nor did I care that I had an early morning train to catch to Vienna.
As we wandered across the Mozart Bridge over the Salzach River, walking her bike by her side, we talked.
Like old pals — not new acquaintances – separated by a lifetime across the Atlantic.
We talked about life in Salzburg.
And life in Michigan.
And of dreams and aspirations, disappointments and triumphs, as the ancient cobblestones beneath our feet welcomed us every step of the way. And before we knew it, we were in the city square. And we were completely alone. We were on a stage, built entirely for us — a stage upon which a love story would be performed.
And the church bells chimed two.
Like me, Julia was at a crossroads in her life, not sure what her next step would be. She felt stuck in her job as a tour guide (taking people around, but never going anywhere herself) and stuck in Salzburg as a whole. I asked her how anyone could grow sick of a place as magical as this. And that’s when I realized that no matter where you grow up, home is home and away is away. Apparently even if home is a place as magical as Salzburg! And sometimes, we all have to go away to remind us of what there is to appreciate about home. Sometimes, we never return home at all. We move on. We outgrow. We spread our wings. And fly. While those we leave behind bid us adieu out of the window where our next chapter awaits.
We entered the empty square – like a movie set built for just us. She lead me to the horse-head fountain’s ledge in the center of the square, saying nothing, but speaking volumes as we stared up into the starry sky instead. Every star in the universe was on full display – a sky that normally only exists in an artist’s imagination. We played a game to see how who could locate the most constellations. She won. The only one I could recognize was Orion.
I told her about my Austrian-born grandmother. She laughed in astonishment when I told her one of my grandmother’s stock phrases was: “Gehen hund sei arse.” Translation: “Go up a dog’s butt.” Something she would say when something was said didn’t like or agree with. Usually in jest. But not always. And she would say this to us as children. I never thought about how utterly strange this was until that moment. And Julia continued to laugh, as did I.
I suddenly found myself acting upon a compulsion to take Julia’s bike for a spin around the fountain, ringing the bell like a sugar-rich toddler. And she watched. And she laughed, as I went around and around and around. And she laughed when I wiped out on the gravel, scraping my legs a bit. But it was worth it just to make someone laugh like that.
Voices echoed somewhere in the distance. How dare somebody intrude upon our performance? A drunk couple entered, stage right, staggering across our proscenium until they disappeared down an empty, cozy street.
And we were alone once again.
But then again, we weren’t entirely alone. Waiting for us across the square was our mutual friend Mozart, standing guard over the city square. Making sure we utilized every prop on our stage, we headed across the square across to pay him a visit. By then, an evening chill demanded us to take notice, so I took this as my cue to put my arm around her.
There was no thinking about it.
I just did it.
Of course, the chilly night temperature certainly helped make it easier for me to make my move.
We remained that way in a comfortable silence, soaking it all in until next thing I knew, our lips were locked. It was one of those kisses that came out of nowhere and no matter how many times your mind tries to replay it, you never can quite replicate it in the recesses of your memory.
The magical, fairy-tale setting surrounding us only deepened the magic of the moment, tarnished only by the cold, faint taste of a stale cigarette.
How as this real life? My life?
I was convinced that it was one of those dreams you wake up from and feel instant regret that it was only a dream. But there was no waking up from this. In fact, I had never been more awake and in tune with life than I was in that moment. Looking back at it, all these years later, it feels more like the memory of well-made romantic drama than a memory I actually experienced in reality.
We continued to kiss and as I leaned into her in the throes of passion, this budding romantic drama turned into a romantic comedy as my body pressing into hers caused her to slip off the two-foot tall railing and into the landscaping beneath Mozart’s statue.
Mozart, the merry prankster, certainly appreciated it, smiling down at us with approval. However, before I could appreciate the humor of the moment, I had to first make sure Julia’s skull wasn’t cracked open, spilling blood onto the flowers below, turning our romantic drama-turned comedy into a murder mystery.
Fortunately, the only victims were the flowers, crushed beneath her body as she quivered with hysterical, uncontrollable laughter over what just transpired. In fact, she was laughing so hard, she struggled to get up, despite my best efforts to help her up. When she finally regained her composure, I lifted her off the ground, then brushed the foliage off her dress, before we resumed kissing.
And kissed some more.
And when the clock struck three, she said these dreaded words:
“I should really get going.”
I tried to play it cool.
“It is pretty late,” I said.
“But don’t think it’s because I want to,” she said, sensing my sadness. “I just have to work tomorrow.”
“I totally understand.”
I had the sudden urge to invite her back to my room, but didn’t want to get too overzealous and risk ruining the magic and beauty of this night.
She kissed me softly on the corner of my mouth, as though to reassure me not to worry.
Before she left, we exchanged contact info, then snapped a picture of each other in front of Mozart’s likeness, preserving the moment in a happily ever after.
We kissed again, fully aware that it was the last time. That we would likely never cross paths again, making the moment even more perfectly bittersweet. And then she hopped onto her bike, smiled and rode away stage left down a faintly lit cobbled-stoned street. And then, she was gone, leaving me alone on stage with Mozart, who offered me a congratulatory nod and wink.
I decided to keep Mozart company for a little while longer, soaking in the tranquil stillness of the empty square, realizing that I was living a moment that could never be replicated, yet would be carried forever in the scrapbook of my mind.
As I sat alone, beneath the likeness of Herr Mozart, I saw through his eyes exactly what he sees day after day, night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year and decade after each passing decade. Sitting there, I pondered just how truly alone I was at that moment and the moments that just preceded it. How many people before me shared a similar experience as I just had in that same spot? How many have yet to experience it, having no idea as to what magical fate awaited them? I wanted to tell each and every one of them to cherish that they have not yet shared in my experience and to appreciate every moment leading up to it. Because at some undetermined point in the future, the moment would be over. And in its place, a faded memory, a yellowed photograph torn at the edges.
A former reality turned into memory.
Trapped in time.
The actual, physical moment forever out of reach.
Resigned to live on forever in abstract memory.
And it was upon that realization that I floated back to my hotel, never more awake and alive – yet so utterly exhausted – and starry-eyed.
Never more free.
And so full of potential and hopes and dreams.
I snuggled into my fairy-tale bed, in a fairy-tale hotel in a fairy-tale city, regretting that I didn’t ask her to come back with me, but also glad I didn’t. It was pefect just the way it was. Even in that moment, I knew I would never experience anything like it again. It was lightning in a bottle.
Unable to sleep, so I flipped on the television. And lo and behold was The Sound of Music, just as Julie Andrews skipped around the horse fountain singing “Do-Re-Mi.”
The next morning, I headed to the train station for the final leg of my journey. Vienna – Mozart’s place of death. As I made my final pass through the square, I grew hopeful that I would see her one last time, perhaps leading a group of Americans on a Sound of Music tour, with one eye looking out for me. I kept searching all the way to the train station. But it wasn’t meant to be. And as much I was hoping to spot her one last time, I knew deep down that it was better off this way. That somehow, seeing her again – in the light of day – would have taken away some of the magic of the night before, weakening the memory as it was preserved. No doubt, it would have been awkward. What would I say? What would she say? Besides, she would be working, so the moment would have felt awkward and detached.
Besides, I had a train to catch to Vienna.
But what if I didn’t catch the train? What if I decided to remain in Salzburg, if not for the remainder of my trip, but forever? What did I have to lose? Farfetched, sure. But possible. Anything’s possible. Life has not tied me down yet. I did not have to let life tie me down.
I became suddenly aware of how easy it is to alter the entire course of your life with just one decision. And how much easier it is to simply stay the course.
But then I remembered who I was. And as I looked behind me, I saw that the training wheels were still on after all.
As we wander through life, people come in and out of our lives, like characters in a play, protagonists and antagonists alike. Some stay for a scene. Some stay for an act. And some stay forever after. But they all have a purpose. Sometimes, it’s the minor characters we remember the most and that have far more lasting impact than the characters in our everyday lives.
Shooting stars. Brief encounters that are not only as deep and impactful as the ones we have with the leading characters in our lives, but at times – even more so. An isolated memory oasis, free from the constraints and strains of lasting relationships. As I’ve grown older, I no longer look back and wonder “what if.” I simply regard moments such as these as “what was.” And it was at that moment that I first began to realize this.
Content with this realization, I boarded my train, not taking my eye off the window, until Salzburg was behind me.
Six years later, I returned to Salzburg with my (now ex) wife, Olya – also from a land far-far-away and also somebody I met through fate – a chance meeting that turned out to be much more than one magical night in a fairy-tale world. Not to mention the subject of my first book.
We traveled in reverse order from my previous trip to Vienna and then Salzburg, before heading to Ukraine to visit her family. And six years later, nothing had changed. It was then, just as it was six years before and just like it was when Mozart roamed the cobble stoned streets and his ancestors before him. The only thing that had changed since my previous trip was me.
Gone was the free-spirited, what-do-I-do-next-with-my-life version of myself. In its place was a far more grounded, secure and content self. And, in perhaps a fitting symbolic tribute to how utterly full and complete my life was in that moment, the once empty square was filled with bleachers, tents, and thousands of soccer fans watching the World Cup championship game between Italy vs. Germany on an enormous projection screen. And even then, just as I had done six years earlier, I kept an eye out, wondering … hoping … but then realizing that once the doors to the past are closed, we can never re-enter them no matter how hard we try.
And as crowded as that square was, there he stood.
With both eyes open.
Quietly taking it all in, as always.
Whether others care to join him or not.