Monday, February 27, 2012

Rushing towards France

Having survived the treacherous road through the Austrian Alps, I drove east towards Liechtenstein. To me the independent little city-state looked like an ordinary German town. David and I did not stop, but drove as fast as our rental car would go on a surprisingly flat highway across Switzerland.

In mid-afternoon we paused for tea and cakes in Zurich. On later trips I visited Zurich several times and enjoyed the historical museum with its enormous globe of the World made in the 16th or 17th Century with names of New Mexico pueblos (some out of place with Taos below El Paso) and California as a separate island. I rode the trains over the mountains to Montreau on Lake Geneva, but somehow I never saw Lake Zurich.

When David and I paused in Zurich, we did not see much but shop windows. Leaving in a hurry, I drove through a long, long tunnel. Afterwards I wondered if it was really that long, but it surprised me again on a later trip. The tunnel took us into Germany, where I kept driving after dark, and the Black Forest was black indeed. Never did get to Freiburg.

As we approached the Rhine River, I made David listen to a history lesson. I explained the Rhine’s significance as the border between Germany and France, how the two countries fought back and forth over the Rhine for centuries. I told him about our capture of the bridge at Raighmagen (spell checker couldn’t find that), enabling U.S. troops to enter the German homeland, a turning point in World War II.

Then we came to the bridge over the Rhine, an insignificant flat bridge, like the one between downtown and the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. On the other side, in a small booth like a telephone booth, a Frenchman wearing an official uniform with a kewpee cap (can’t spell that either) read a newspaper. As our German car invaded France, he lifted one hand to wave us by without raising his eyes from his paper.

We entered Colmar, and I stopped at the first lighted building I saw. It was a bar. Not a picturesque place, as I might have imagined, but a linoleum-on-the-floor, Formica-on-the-counter kind of place. I asked the slim, middle-aged woman tending bar (How do French women never get fat?) if she knew where my son and I could spend the night. In heavily accented English she said she had a room upstairs. It was as plain as the bar below, but it was clean, quiet (Frenchmen seem to drink without loud talking) clean, and cheap.

David and I spent the night in Colmar without seeing a darned thing. I’ve heard – and seen pictures – of a charming old town with a famous cathedral. I regret we didn’t take at least one day to see it. Why didn’t we linger? Why do we hurry through life without “stopping to smell the roses?” Instead, after a good night’s sleep, we left our rather dismal lodging right after breakfast.

Thinking back on that day when David and I rushed through five countries, including Liechtenstein, which really should not count, I am reminded of an old lady here at Montclair who sat on a bus for twelve days and thought she had seen Europe. David and I saw nothing that day.

I went back to Europe many times and never did go to all the places I wanted to see. I would go again if dialysis did not make it impossible. That day I knew what I was missing, but I was in a hurry to get to Paris.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Danger in the Alps

During David’s visit to Texas, he and I talked about the trip he made with me when he was thirteen. Remembering Austria, he asked, “Where did you find that road?”

I thought I was on the main highway to Liechtenstein. We left Innsbruck and followed a twisting, narrow road over the mountains. It had all the hazards of driving around blind mountain curves. Did I make a mistake? Twenty-three years ago Germany with its autobahns was the only European country with super highways.

Our little rental car frustrated me with its sluggish manual transmission. My muscles remembered how to let out the clutch and put the thing in gear, but the Opal had little power even on ordinary roads. On the autobahn in Germany the Mercedes passed me going 135 mph and Volkswagens came up behind me in the right lane flashing lights warning me to go faster or get off the road. I floor-boarded that miserable Opal. It refused to go over 80 mph. In mountains it struggled to go 30.

Going up a mountain with many switchbacks we rounded a curve, and, seeing a particularly steep grade ahead, I attempted to change gears down from third to second – and killed the engine.

Holy cow! I slammed my right foot down on the brake. The emergency brake didn’t work. Here I was on a mountainside with a cliff behind me and no barrier to stop the car.

Keeping my left foot on the clutch, I started the engine. As I eased out the clutch, I jumped my right foot from brake to accelerator. Not fast enough. The car rolled backwards towards the cliff. I slammed my right foot back on the brake. . . and killed the engine again.

Again I started the engine and slowly eased out on the clutch. As soon as I took my right foot off the brake, the car rolled back, getting closer to the cliff. I did not have enough feet.

I tried again and again. I was about to tell David to get out of the car, as his mother was about to die by going off a cliff in the Austrian Alps. Finally I was quick enough for the motor to catch. The car stopped its backward slide and began slowly to inch forward

David did not say a word as the car coughed and sputtered on up the mountain until we saw three-foot banks of snow beside the road. I found a place to stop, and David got out and made a snowball. Back in the car David looked down at the snowball in his hands and said, “What am I going to do with this?” He rolled the window down and tossed it out.

Making snowballs on a warm October day was fun, but in a car rolling towards a cliff was not. Twenty-three years later David and I finally admitted to each other that we both had been terrified.

I am 83 years old and have had my driver’s license since I was 21. In all my years of driving, in city slums, on remote roads in Yugoslavia, in snow in Illinois, and on icy highways returning to New Mexico, that time in the Alps was the only time when I was truly afraid.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dreams of Venice

On the day David and I crossed the Brenner Pass and down into Italy, I was tempted to continue going south to Venice. David and I had to return to Innsbruck, as we had not checked out the hotel. Our luggage was still in that attic room.

I always wanted to see Venice, and I thought I would never have another opportunity. I expected to married to David’s father “until death do us part.” He would never pay for another trip to Europe. I did not foresee the divorce, my big trip in 1983, or marrying John and spending a week in Venice with him, and after his death, on an Elderhostel with a week each in Padua and Venice. So much for forecasting the future. .

Reluctantly I headed the car back towards the Brenner. At the border crossing at the top of the pass, there were two lanes, one for cars, the other for trucks. We seemed to be the only car wanting to leave Italy that Sunday. Taking only a minute to show our passports, we started down the mountain towards Innsbruck, leaving behind the long line of big trucks waiting to have their cargoes inspected.

At the hotel, as I packed our luggage, I wondered why I kept dilly-dallying in Germany and Austria when my goal this trip was to see Paris. Have you ever wanted something for months or years, and when the opportunity came to actually do it, you were afraid? I dreamed for years about a romantic second honeymoon with Wally in Paris. Now I was going to Paris with a thirteen-year-old kid. Not at all as I’d imagined it when I saw Bogart and Bergman in “Casablanca”.

It was time to stick my courage to the sticking place and do it. We left Innsbruck the next morning and headed west. The road to France led straight up into the Austrian Alps – and the most terrifying experience I went through in all my trips to Europe. And David was there to be frightened so badly he didn’t talk about until 30 years later.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


David said the best thing he remembered about our trip to Europe was the little places we stayed, small hotels or bed and breakfasts. He told me, “The people were friendly everywhere we went."

Cities had railroad stations with tourist bureaus, which booked rooms for us in small hotels with rates I could afford. More often we were in the countryside, traveling through small villages. Then it was up to luck and serendipity.

Before we left for the trip, I talked to a friend from Germany who married a guy from Downers Grove. I wish I knew someone here in Texas who could tell me how to spell German words. She told me to look for a house with a hand-lettered sign in the window offering “zimmer frei” (“free room”). Not free, of course, but inexpensive. Then I was to ask for “ein zimmer mit swei bedden (a room with two beds).

That worked most of the time. The only time we had trouble was that night when we drove all over Bavaria from village to village where every little inn and hotel had a sign in the German equivalent of “no vacancy”, following that stranger who found the home with that one extra room not occupied by Russian pipeline workers. All the places we stayed in Germany, in homes or small hotels, were clean, modern, with comfortable beds, where we slept under fluffy comforters.

In Innsbruck I told the attendant at the tourist bureau that David and I were traveling as cheaply as possible. She sent us to a large, multistoried hotel which looked like it had been built in the 1890's Gilded Age. In the elegant, paneled lobby the desk clerk, whose suit and tie looked as starched as his shirt and face, literally looked down his nose as he read the note from the tourist bureau.

David and I rode the elevator to the very top, where we found ourselves in the attic. The large room had sloping ceilings and exposed beams holding up the roof. Heat rises, but if there was central heat in that hotel, it did not reach our room under the rafters. Yet I slept warm and cozy under a typical German eiderdown.

That’s not a mistake. The Austrians are hyper German. They speak German. The proper name for Austria is Osterreich or “Eastern State.” (my spelling again), meaning it is the eastern part of the Germans. Yet surprisingly, in spite of what our bombs did to them in World War II, the people we met in Germany were nicer and kinder than the Austrians.

As David said, most European people were friendly and gracious. Not in that hotel. From the straight-backed formal desk clerk who registered us to the waiter who brought us tea and bread for breakfast in the elegant dining room, the entire staff served us with grim faces and haughty manners. Maybe they disdained us as American tourists seeing their wonderful country from the cheapest room in the hotel. Or maybe the Austrians dislike anyone who was not lucky enough to be born in Austria.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Another Hapsburg

Another Hapsburg ghost I met in Innsbruck was Maximilian I, King of Germany, Emperor of Austria, and Holy Roman Emperor.

Maximilian I fought with his neighbors, especially France, losing more battles than he won. But his great success was in marriage. His first wife was Mary of Burgundy, only child and heiress to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, whose legacy included parts of France and all of the Low Countries, now Belgium and the Netherlands.

Maximilian arranged the marriage of their son, Philip the Handsome, to Juana of Castile, heiress of Ferdinand and Isabella. His grandson, Emperor Charles V, controlled more of Europe than any ruler since the Romans – plus, thanks to Columbus, Spanish possessions in the New World.
“Let others wage war, but thou, O happy Austria, marry, for those kingdoms, which Mars gives to others, Venus gives to thee.”

In Innsbruck I took David with me to a museum devoted to Maximilian. I don’t know what David thought about it, but I found it one of the strangest museums I had seen. It was all one big room, bigger than a basketball court.

Maximilian planned a grandiose tomb for himself. (Max had lots of grandiose ideas.) Since it was never completed, parts of the intended tomb were displayed as works of art.

In the center of the room was the elaborate cenotaph, the size of a small cottage. It was incomplete, as there was no bronze casket or imperial crown.

Around the sides of the room were life-size bronze statues of royalty.. What Tilman Reimanschneider did in wood, here portraits of kings and dukes were cast in bronze. From pictures I had seen in books, I recognized the dour face of his father-in-law, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Clothing and armor were rendered in detail, the floral designs on brocade executed so realistically that it looked like fabric.

“The best laid plans. . . .” Max died while trying to suppress a rebellion in the Low Countries, thousands of miles from Innsbruck.

On a later trip, I saw his sarcophagus, topped with his effigy in marble, in the chapel of the royal palace in Brugge. No grand tomb. Not even in a grand cathedral. Just a marble man lying next to a similar effigy of his wife, Mary of Burgundy, the kind of burial I saw in dozens of churches in English villages.