A Wonderful Reunion

3/24/2010

The following is a unpublished article about a wonderful reunion I had last summer. Enjoy!

Living overseas is a remarkable experience. In my case, I learned a language, made life-long friends and got to know a beautiful, historic culture. I lived in Vienna, Austria as a 21 year old AHA student in 1988, and returned as a 42 year old in 2009. If that trend keeps up, I’ll be back when I’m 63!

I was at Central Michigan University at the time of my sojourn. While I have kept up with friends from that time, I had lost touch with my teachers until this summer. Fortunately, a combination of my research skills from years as a reporter combined with the ease of access the internet permits allowed me to reconnect with my two of my four Viennese former mentors. My path to Vienna was not a direct route. I had studied French in high school and Russian in college. My family was Irish/Scotch-English. German wasn’t on the agenda. However, as my senior year of college loomed, I had a pair of friends who studied overseas. I began to explore the possibility, thinking ‘if not now, when?’ I don’t remember the specifics, but I believe the programs my friends had attended were either filled, or out of my curricular track. As my minor was history, my advisor in the international studies area recommended the AHA program. It focused on history, political science, culture, and German language. While I was apprehensive, I was also intrigued and looked forward to total immersion in a language, an experience I had not had in either my French or Russian language experiences.

Being your typical broke college student, I would not have been able to travel without my financial aid package, and the generous support of several family members. I was used to working during college to pay for my ‘incidentals’, and their support allowed me to take the semester off while I traveled and studied.

For my first trip to Vienna, I arrived by plane. I remember that it was not too long after a terror attack at the airport, and I marveled at seeing soldiers walking around with automatic weapons. I could not have foreseen the security measures we all endure today in the United States.

The program’s coordinator, Lynne Heller, was an expatriate American studying for her doctorate. I remember her being a whirlwind of activity, shepherding our little group of somewhat unruly college students from special event to special event, and smoothing out cultural faux-pas which were bound to crop up. Our history teacher was a well respected professor, Karl Vocelka, now the head of the Department of History at the University of Vienna. I tormented him during a museum visit, in broken German, asking ‘Wo sind die Kannone?’ Where are the cannons? Our German teacher, Helga Stadler-Maly, had taught at Stanford University before taking us on. She played an important role in my return to the U.S. which I’ll mention again later. And the political science teacher was Charlotte Teuber-Weckersdorf, who has since passed away.

This trip to Vienna, my wife and I drove in from Salzburg. We were dating when I lived in Vienna, so Dawn had only known the city through my letters and photos. We came in on the A-1 and followed the U-4 through Heizing, my old neighborhood. After a false turn on one of the outer ring roads (I had lived in Vienna for five months, but had never driven in the city!), we found our way to our Pension, in the shadow of Belvedere Palace.

I was anxious to retrace my steps the next morning, and took my wife to my old school building, across from the Hofburg, near Parliament. I remember my walk to school across a small park which separated the Justice Palace from Parliament included an almost daily encounter with an elderly woman who would be out sweeping the park, and shooing the ubiquitous pigeons away.

From there, we took the reverse route back to my old neighborhood, near Schoenbrunn Palace, and found both the courtyard and door open to my old building. I peeked inside, took a few photos, then fled. I didn’t want to press my luck further, so we headed back into town. My wife and I enjoy non-touristy things when we travel. We wandered around Stephansplatz, ground-zero for Vienna, and rode the U-Bahn/subway and streetcars, as I had when I was a poor college student. We enjoy going into grocery stores, to see how people shop, when we travel, and I ordered a Kasewurst Semmel, a favorite lunch of mine back in 1988. And I splurged on one luxury I had not enjoyed as a student, a piece of Sacher Torte from the Hotel Sacher.

My semester in Vienna prepared me to be a decent tour guide. My wife only knows whether I was interesting or boring, but we explored the city as I had known it. I noted similarities; the coffee house I frequented, Bellaria, had largely the same menu and coffee choices. I noted differences; the Kunsthistorische and Naturhistorische Museums were being restored to their sandstone glory. They had been caked in black soot when I lived there. But the highlight of my time was my mini-reunion with my former teachers. It was on our final night in Vienna, and Lynne Heller coordinated, as she had so many times in 1988. Karl Vocelka was traveling with students and could not join us, but my former German teacher, Helga, was able to attend.

After 21 years, a lot of things had changed. I wore my hair very long in those days, and had a lengthy beard and moustache. These days, I vary my facial hair with an occasional goatee and/or moustache, but like to wear my graying hair short. But I recognized Lynne and Helga immediately. Time for them had not passed much. We traded stories over a wonderful meal, shared some updates, and then Helga invited my wife and I back to her flat for coffee. I had been to her place once before, on the second to my last day in Vienna in 1988.

It was a bittersweet occasion. It was supposed to be my last day in Vienna, but on my way to the airport, I somehow lost my ticket home. I remember tearing apart my clothes, backpack, luggage, to no avail. My plane was leaving without me. I dragged my awkward luggage back to town, and tried to work out how to fix things. I had to call and cancel people who were going to pick me up in Toronto. My ticket couldn’t be refunded until the airline was sure it wasn’t used, and the travel agency which booked the flight was nine time zones away in the Pacific Northwest. Around mid-day, Helga came to the rescue. As I was casting about for options, she invited me to her home and in a time before the easy use of credit cards and cash machines in Europe, produced cash in the sum of about 11,000 Schillings (around 1000 dollars.) I was dumbstruck, in both German and English. I had to race to the airline office to buy the replacement ticket, coordinate the refund to Helga, and re-pack everything for the next day. I doubt that I’d ever adequately thanked Helga for her kindness, but every encounter, I try.

We remembered that each of us enjoy collectibles, and traded some items from our mutually- exclusive collections, talked about current affairs, language and life. Sadly, as we had to leave early the next morning, we had to prematurely end the evening. Helga drove us back to our Pension, and we hugged each other goodbye. My career has taken me back to Europe twice, and I’ve used my German language and history skills frequently during my career, in a variety of ways. But the personal friendships I built as a student through AHA are the ones I value the most. I cherish every reunion, and hope for more frequent visits to Vienna.