Story of My Decade

In exactly 366 days I turn fifty. I think that makes me a Centurionette, which sounds like a Centurion in a skirt. It definitely makes me middle aged.

I like the idea that the milestone birthday celebration sets the stage for the decade to come. I can’t remember my 20th birthday, probably testament that I did it right. My 30th was a surprise potluck thrown by my husband and a bunch of friends, and its happy chaos was a harbinger of the era of starting a family and balancing a career  and being surprised at every turn at what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

When I turned forty, my sister and I went to Cowgirl Camp on a dude ranch in Arizona. Thanks to the summer camp I attended growing up, I’d been a fearless horseback rider all through my teens and twenties, cantering bareback and riding horses into lakes and barrel racing. I’d fall off, brush the dust off my butt and get back on, once even after a horse had clipped the skin on my chin open with his hoof as I slid beneath him in the corral. But after I became a mom I suddenly lost my nerve. I kept picturing myself having horseback accidents and my husband having to explain to motherless girls that my need for equine speed had deprived them of a parent. It kept me on the wrong side of the corral fence for almost ten years.

So at forty, when the girls were older and I was feeling less fragile about everything, Cowgirl Camp seemed like a good way to get my mojo back. My sister (who has always been a more fearless and talented rider than me anyway) and I had a blast at the dude ranch outside of Tuscon. The four days culminated in a team cattle penning competition where she and I had to cut three longhorn cows away from the herd and drive them into a small pen; by the time it was our turn to ride out, my horseback riding fears were so far in the rear view mirror that I plunged straight into the herd and their sharp, pointed horns, yanking and kicking and screaming at the top of my lungs until the job was done. During the barrel racing competition, I beat my sister’s time by about a half second. Though the judges gave her the 1st place ribbon made of hand-tooled leather. And if you think we’re not still discussing that a decade later, you don’t have siblings.

 lazyk corral

In retrospect, Facing My Fears was exactly the right way to celebrate, ten years ago. I’d just had my first few essays published and was girding my loins to step away from corporate work and hang a shingle as a writer. It was a scary time – was I any good or were those essays a fluke? How would I earn a living? Remembering how it felt to sit on the back of a beautiful horse again, more satisfying than any fear could sabotage, helped me take the plunge.

So what’s the right theme for celebrating my 50th next year? I think it’s going to be A Long, Long Walk In Another Part of the World. It ties in two things that I sense will be important for the next decade: trying to keep my aging body from hitting the skids too quickly, and having a new time consuming hobby to distract me from the kids being gone.

When my husband turned 50, he started planning a super-challenging bike trip in Italy with his buddies, to take place a year later. That was a good twelve months for him: he was riding like a madman, researching fancy bike parts, preparing with his buddies. The actual trip was only 10 days long but it kept him busy for a full year. And even though he sent me a postcard from atop a punishing mountain climb that said, “If I ever say I’m going to do something like this again, tell me no,” he was rightfully proud that even if his fifth decade, he could take on something physically challenging, and conquer it. I’m a solid daily 4 mile hiker now, but I figure if I start adding miles incrementally over the next 12 months, I’ll be ready to handle the fourteen-miles-between-really-fancy-inns experience I’m aiming for to kick off my second half-century.

And there is no end to the places you can go on a hiking trip. In four short years, this nest will be empty. I don’t want to stick around it any more than I have to, for fear of catching a glimpse of an unslept-upon bed that will make me cry. I want to stay on the move, and if those moves can be made in lovely parts of the world, so much the better. If the hikes have to start from my front door, I’m fine with that too.

My sister and I have started researching self-guided hiking trips through Scotland. We’ve never been there and even if I can’t stand drinking Scotch, I love bagpipes and Scottish accents something awful. This time around, we’re trying to convince our brother to come. His schedule makes it tricky; then again, he just forwarded me an article about a Scottish hotel that wants to have beer taps in every room, so maybe he’s leaning yes.

All I know is if there is a speed-walking competition at any point on the journey, I’m taking home the 1st place ribbon in my suitcase.

Can you imagine? When I looked for “Story of My Life” on YouTube, the top result was the song of the same name by OneDirection. As if.

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Still in Rotation: Abraxas (Santana)

Still in Rotation is a guest post feature in which talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers about an album they discovered years ago that’s still in heavy rotation, and why it has such staying power.

Last summer I made the genius decision to attend the Book Passage Travel Writer’s Conference, and even if I’ve written barely a word of travel prose since, it was the best introduction I could have asked to a group of super-talented writers consumed by wanderlust. One was Erin Byrne, an award winning writer of essays, poetry, and screenplays, and in this piece I love how she captures the full body takeover that is falling in love with music as an adolescent.  This essay is an excerpt from Erin’s story, “Avé Métro (which is in itself an excerpt from her upcoming travel memoir, Wings From Victory.)SantanaAbraxas

Abraxas (1970)

by Erin Byrne


My job in this life is to give people spiritual ecstasy through music.

—Carlos Santana

Even before birth, the sounds of Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie Parker formed and nurtured my growing ear-for-music, and a record player was playing in the foreground nearly every second throughout my childhood in the 1960s. As a girl, I constantly pestered my mom to play my own records: Hans Christian Andersen, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins. When I was ten years old, liberation: My own 45 rpm singles blared from a new record player in my bedroom, and I sang into a hairbrush microphone to the Monkees and a band called Smash.

Then, one day in 1971, when I was twelve, my cool, long-haired, college-aged cousin gave my parents a shocking gift: a record album with a languishing naked black woman on the cover. Another lady, red and nude as well, stood in profile, straddling a drum: Santana’s Abraxas. My dad, a drummer, pianist and jazz purist, blanched and set the album down on the coffee table. I instantly seized it as my own.

I could not believe it. Santana. They’d been at Woodstock.

The family drifted off to the dining room and I was alone in the living room, just me and the giant, wood-paneled stereo console. I turned the knob, removed the black vinyl disc from its cardboard casing, slipped it out of its paper sleeve, and placed it in the elevated position where it wobbled and hovered, suspended above the spinning, plate-sized rubber disc.

The whir of the base circling emptily was interrupted by the click-clatter of the record dropping. The needle arm lifted and moved over above the record and then dropped. There was a fuzzy, anticipatory static followed by the whisper of a stylus scraping the groove…then…two dramatic piano chords, wind whirling through tinkling chimes.

A few more solid chords, tinkles. Notes ascending.

The wail—the primal, scintillating wail—of an electric guitar sliding, climbing, soaring. It was like a kite in a hurricane and I was attached to the string, legs flailing as the music looped and circled, suspended then swooped up, up, up—the highest I’d ever flown.

Exotic drumbeats along with untamed, unidentifiable sounds grabbed a place between my throat and my chest, pulled something out and used it to tie my stomach in knots. The electric kite pulsated into my body, then out, but I was still attached to it.

It was as if I danced with my own being, apart yet fused, separate yet one.

The shush between songs sounded for a second. Next came an eerie, mesmerizing melody and the guitar returned. In a weird but really cool way this music was somehow calling to something deep within my skinny, knobby-kneed body. I stood with my hand on the trembling top of the waist-high console and the vibration traveled from my fingertips inward. I felt plugged in somehow: Zzzzt.

My hips swayed with a surge of naughty rebelliousness, a rising bubble of “No!”

A voice: “Got a black magic woman…”

From that moment on, I’d follow Carlos Santana wherever he’d take me.

Where he’d taken me with those two songs, Singing Wind, Crying Beasts and Black Magic Woman was someplace deep inside myself; he’d got his spell on me, baby.

Abraxas caused a riot in my adolescent body, mind and soul, although at the time, I didn’t know what that meant. Now, forty years later, I think it meant I attained spiritual ecstasy through music. Even today when I listen to that album*, my rib-cage vibrates and the soles of my feet tingle.

*I, like many another child of the 1960s and 70s, will always call them albums.

Erin Byrne writes travel essays, poetry, fiction and screenplays.  Her work has won numerous awards, including Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, and appears in  publications including World Hum, Vestoj, Burning the Midnight Oil, Adventures of a Lifetime, and The Best Travel Writing.  Erin is writer of The Storykeeper, an award-winning film about occupied Paris.  She is occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, and is co-editor of   Vignettes & Postcards From Paris, winner of ten literary awards. Erin is currently working on a travel memoir, Wings From Victory, and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco.  Her screenplay, Siesta, will be filmed in Spain in 2015.

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An Open Letter to the Selfie-Stick Wielding Tourists on Alcatraz

the rock

Dear Adorable Young Couple:

Last Sunday our paths crossed on a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay: specifically, Alcatraz, the federal-prison-turned-federal-park that sits, foreboding yet irresistible, just off the shore of San Francisco. I was there with my family and two visiting nephews from Upstate New York, whose wish list of Bay Area sites was topped by a visit to the famous jail.

You were there with his n’ her selfie sticks.

I had actually only seen my first selfie stick about an hour earlier, while we were milling around Tourist Central in San Francisco, aka Fisherman’s Wharf. Near where the sea lions and their eau de poo scent entrance foreign visitors, people were attaching their cameras and smartphones to extendable metal rods and taking pictures of themselves with the barking pinnipeds in the background. Guess it’s easier than asking someone else to take the shot, though you meet fewer people, and you’re probably trading the risk of someone making off with your camera with the risk of your camera falling off the selfie stick.

At any rate, we probably arrived on the same Alcatraz ferry, at which point my kids and their cousins scampered away from us to explore the island. My husband and I have visited Alcatraz enough that all we really wanted to do was sit in the warm Bay winter sunshine for a while, on a bench near the lighthouse that overlooks the city. That’s where we observed you and your dueling selfie sticks (two different lengths) and the thirty minutes you spent in an American national park taking pictures of: yourselves.

You pouted, you shrugged, you extended the selfie stick back and forth for various depth ranges. Sound effects were made. The wind that ruffled the beautiful wildflowers in the Alcatraz garden also blew your hair across your faces, and you liked that so much you snapped even faster. You were filling up that camera card, moving toward a railing, up a step, near the lighthouse, and back again to capture every angle of: your own faces.

Our favorite move, though, was one that you must have practiced in your hotel room repeatedly. It was almost like a pas de deux. First you’d squeeze together and reach your arms forward to layer your palms onto the camera, covering it. Then, on cue, you’d both pull your arms back with a wiggly finger move, then blow kisses to the camera. That’s when the real fun started, because you would then spin in a 365 degree circle waving and blowing kisses while capturing the arc of scenery behind you: the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the tourists on the bench, and the lighthouse. You did this spectacular selfie stunt at least five times, spinning and giggling and blowing kisses. It was impressive.

Anyhoo, the point of this WHOLE note is that I thought it might be helpful if I’d described to you what you missed on Alcatraz because you were busy memorializing your own faces. My goal is to round out your vacation memories so that when people ask, “What did you do in America?” you have a better answer than “Took selfies from a metal stick.”

The sight of the San Francisco skyline from Alcatraz is really special: you’ve got a sweeping view of the Embarcadero, from the Ferry Building past Ghirardelli Square and on up to Fort Point. It takes only a little bit of head swivel to see both the solid red of Golden Gate Bridge and the showy single tower of the new Bay Bridge, each connecting like a Tinker Toy to other parts of the region. It was such a gorgeous day on Sunday, blue skies with just a few white clouds scudding across. You would have liked it.

I doubt you made it into the cellblocks because the selfie stick lighting there is suboptimal, what with the weathered windows and light-swallowing concrete walls, but there’s something undeniably eerie about peering into three floors of cells and the visitor stations. Our favorite part is always the cells made up with the actual dummy heads that fooled the guards during the real Escape From Alcatraz back in 1962. Take my word for it, it’s cool. As is the exercise yard and the abandoned Officer’s Club.

The biggest thing you missed, though, is the temporary exhibit called @Large, by Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei-Wei. Since he’s not allowed to leave China, he conceived of a wide-ranging temporary exhibit that celebrates and contemplates prisoners of conscience, just for Alcatraz – get it, a jail? It’s displayed in buildings like the infirmary and New Industries building that are normally off limits to tourists; worth going just to see what those buildings are like inside.

without a trace aungsansuukyi ai wei wei kites

The artwork is gripping, disturbing, thought-provoking, about the jails we see and the ones we can’t see, how freedom is taken from us and how we sometimes give it away.

A selfie stick that prevents you from experiencing what’s actually happening around you could be a kind of jail, now that I think about it.

I assume you’re probably in Joshua Tree or Vegas by now, capturing pictures of yourselves, but I hope this helps round out the San Francisco version of your trip. And there’s no need to thank me. If, however, you’re wondering who I am, just look at the spinning Alcatraz panorama shots on your camera card. I’m the blond in the black leather jacket flipping you the double bird every time you spun past my bench.

Best regards,


The part of the Ai Wei-Wei exhibit that hit me hardest was the soundscape section, where you could go sit on a metal stool in a cell and hear the poetry, music, and speeches of political dissidents. From Martin Luther King on America’s entry into the Vietnam war, to the Robben Island Singers doing a version of “My Darling Clementine” about the prison where they were incarcerated alongside Nelson Mandela, and Pussy Riot singing an anti-Putin song, the juxtaposition of the music and words in the frigid, bare cells was powerful. But when I heard the Pavel Haas symphony – one of eight works he composed as a prisoner in a German concentration camp in WW2 before he died – it put me over the edge.  It’s on the Rock until April 26, and is free with your Alcatraz ticket. Get there.

Speaking of letters, I’m speaking about them this week over on Tue/Night. Check out “Family Archivist,” about how the unexpected silver lining of being the faraway satellite to the rest of my family.

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Keeping It Real, Vacation Edition

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s checking social media when everyone else is on vacation except me, and being confronted by all the photographs of gorgeous sunset views and colorful foliage and photogenic children. It makes me want to punch the computer screen, as I look down at my misery-colored office carpeting and the plant in the corner that is performing a slow, silent death spiral, one yellowed leaf at a time.

So when I posted a few shots on Instagram last weekend on the last day of our family trip to Belize, please know that I felt ashamed of my hypocrisy. Just not enough to overrule the fact that I finally was somewhere without misery-colored carpeting, and with plants that understand how photosynthesis is supposed to work.

But as self-punishment, I’m going to do what never happens on social media and tell you the story behind the photos of our stay at Belcampo Belize. It’s a hill-top lodge surrounded by jungle, in the Toledo district of Belize. Our entire family recommends this spot wholeheartedly – we left only under protest – and if you go there you will not be disappointed.

However the perfection of our vacation snapshots left out a few details.

For instance, here’s our shower, with a private view of the jungle and a bench in case, I don’t know, you get tired from lathering and want to lie down for a spell. Pretty nice, huh?


The story behind the photo is that I showered three times per day because whenever I ascended the property’s steep driveway, or descended the long staircase to reach the Rio Grande River, I had to stop repeatedly and put my hands on my knees to take in large sucking breaths to calm a heart beating so fast that it threatened to emerge through my chest a la “Alien.” Each time I did anything remotely physical, I’d sweat about seven gallons. I thought I was in pretty good physical shape, but apparently not after eating my daily platter of Belizean breakfast fry jacks.

Here’s a shot of a troop of howler monkeys that appeared outside our veranda one day. We laughed as they moved from one side of the tree to the other, making it sway precariously, and we imagined the monkey conversations they were probably having. “Jim! I already called the leaves on this side! Get back to the other side, I mean it! God. You are so grabby.”


The story behind the photo is that howler monkeys don’t actually howl. They make a noise very similar to the Smoke Monster in “Lost,” mechanical, loud, and eerie, only they can keep it up much longer than a one-hour episode. Or maybe it only seems that way because they’re most vocal in the middle of the night, say, 4:30 am, when you sit bolt upright in bed to try to identify the sound.

Here’s one of the fragrant Mexican oregano plants we saw during our class on chocolate making.


But here’s why we were in the garden for such a long time photographing it: this is the spider hanging over the doorframe between us and the chocolate-making workshop. I’d say it was about 4 inches, stem to stern. Then there was the tarantula that scurried off the door frame one night just after the eldest daughter had stepped through it. Belcampo’s chef, a transplant from Chicago, told me that her spider fighting method is “two cans and a machete” i.e. two cans of bug spray from opposite sides to stun the little blighter, and a machete to finish him off. (Note: “Two Cans and a Machete” – a perfect Lucha Libre name for a hermaphrodite.) Belize’s alternative catchphrase: Come for the birds and monkeys, stay for the giant spiders and snakes!


And this, my favorite shot of all, the “In conclusion” picture of the vacation, of the girls riding the funicular to the ridge top. On the right you see a child beaming with the joy we all felt about discovering beautiful Belize, the snorkeling and the chocolate making and the sunset cruising and the unbelievably friendly staff of Belcampo. On the left you see a child who believes that the palm frond that just brushed her head is a spider.


So let’s all remember: for every gorgeous vacation picture you see on Facebook, there’s probably a photo no one took of someone tripping over a rock or examining their new rash.

One of Belize’s musical masters, Paul Nabor, came from the tiny town into which we flew for vacation – Punta Gorda. Nabor, who passed away last October, was a pioneer of Garifuna music – combining African percussion brought from the Garifuna, slaves shipwrecked in St. Vincent in the 19th century who migrated into the Caribbean and Central America, with Latin guitar rhythms. I kept expecting Belcampo staff to play us some Garifuna music but to be honest, we mostly heard Bob Marley.

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Accidental Ambassadors

After last weekend’s Book Passage Travel Writer and Photographer’s Conference, I came away thinking of travel writing less as a fun way to expand my portfolio of published clips and more as a path to world peace.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, I know. I have two degrees in international business, driven by my belief in a quote attributed to one of the founders of my grad school: “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.” Yes, commerce was a part of it, but my real interest in international business was seeing the world and getting to know other languages, cultures, belief systems. (Or, as my dad used to sigh when faced with an undergraduate tuition bill: “Are you sure you don’t want to be a flight attendant instead?”)  Each time in my business career that I had the chance to work with colleagues or clients in another country, my own sense of the world grew a little larger. And whether I liked it or not, I was an American ambassador in that role, with all the responsibility the title entails. Conversation by conversation, meeting by meeting, I had the chance to build bridges of understanding with people from other countries. (My all-time favorite business book? Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands, about the nuances of business etiquette around the world.)

Then I remembered how much I hate accounting a few years back, and became a writer. Something like that, anyway.

I’ve always thought that travel writing would be a nice way to combine the education my parents bought me with the one I’ve gotten one keystroke at a time. And the Book Passage’s annual conference in nearby Marin County was the only place to start. I won’t drop all the names here, but if you check the covers of any guidebooks or travel magazines or newspaper travel sections you have lying around the house, there’s an 80% chance their authors were my teachers last weekend.

Editors on Parade

Elizabeth Harryman, Davina Baum, and Jenna Scatena with the inimitable Georgia Hesse

Also, yes, because I know you, Midlife Mixtape readers: one faculty member was a Brat Packer. Andrew McCarthy was gracious, self-effacing, and funny, and clearly held in highest esteem by the travel writing greats. If you want to feel close to Blane again, go buy his book.

Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy, Tim Cahill, Don George

Andrew McCarthy, Tim Cahill, Don George

The days were long, conducted in the nooks and crannies of Book Passages’ fabulous Corte Madera location. We learned what travel editors look for in a story pitch (hint: don’t pitch “The Pubs of Edinburgh” to a magazine for a driving association.) We learned the travel writing clichés to avoid like the plague, from “city of contrasts” to “quaint” to “off the beaten path.” We learned that if everything goes right, there’s nothing to write about.

"Write the Big 5" instructors Jim Benning and David Farley

“Write the Big 5” instructors Jim Benning and David Farley

When the sessions ended, well after dark, we cocktailed, karaoked, and ate delicious dessert waffles.

BP's Kathy Petrocelli and the supersize waffle batter bowl

BP’s Kathy Petrocelli and the supersize waffle batter bowl

Mostly, we were reminded that travel makes our worlds both bigger and smaller. In the course of the weekend I heard stories about how a broken down bus in a dusty Indian village was the start of a beautiful friendship, conducted mainly in pantomime; that a nightmare before a solo trip to Turkey was an inverse reflection of the kindness shown on the actual trip; that charm lurks even in the most packaged hotel experience, once you throw s’mores into the mix. (True story: the small group that workshopped the s’mores story was led by Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, who had never heard of s’mores before. It’s not often you have the chance to teach the world’s most famous traveler about a new cuisine.)

But the session that got me right in the tear glands was on Sunday afternoon, called Travel That Makes a Difference. Four panelists, all esteemed travel writers, talked about the moments in which they realized how powerful travel writing is in protecting vulnerable places and people. If you want to make grown travel writers cry, ask them about the transformative kindness they’ve experienced on the road.

Tim Cahill, founder of Outside magazine, called it “the conspiracy of caring” – the power travel writers have to make people care about and conserve places that they may never even see. Jeff Greenwald, whose website Ethical Traveler educates travelers about the social and environmental impact of their decisions, shows how travel can be a potent form of diplomacy, and gives travelers a forum through which their united voices can serve the world community, handed out bookmarks with 13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador. They include “curb your anger and cultivate your sense of humor,” “learn and respect the traditions and taboos of your host country,” and “learn to listen.”

Every night when I got home from the conference, exhausted, I stayed up another hour to catch up with the news in Ferguson via Twitter. And it struck me how the lessons we learned about being good travel writers – to listen, to be respectful, to maintain a sense of possibility, to understand that “different” is not the same as “bad,” and above all to not panic when things went wrong – is exactly what’s needed in Missouri, and everywhere else in our country, right now. We don’t need a passport to exercise these practices. We are Human Race Ambassadors, with all the responsibility the title entails.

Wonders await out there, in this cruel, crazy, beautiful world. Get moving.

A few other travel books to check out by our BPTravel2014 instructors:


I’ve been doing a little travel, at least on the Interwebs, in the past week…

What’s that creak in your hip? Check for the Top 9 Signs You’re Hurtling Toward Middle Age, over at NickMom.

And Huffington Post picked up my piece on advice to an incoming high school freshman, called “Find Yourself a Lisa.” PS Brian saw it on Facebook and accepted my apology for insinuating that he drank strawberry wine coolers back in the day.

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Tourist Trapp

We're in Vermont, birches

Quick show of hands. How many of you marked the passage of the 1970s by which Trapp child you’d be cast as when they inevitably remade the 1965 Academy Award winning movie, The Sound of Music, and came to your house to offer you a role? For example: from 1974-75 I would have been Gretl, 1976-77 were the Marta years, and in 1978 I would have been perfect for Brigitta because I was a bookworm just like her.

Anyone? Anyone else?

Oh. Well, there you have it. I was a Sound of Music nerd, listening to the soundtrack on my orange record player and studying the album cover so closely that it fell apart in my hands and had to be repaired with cellophane tape that, over time, removed patches of the Alps from the cover art. I listened to the music so many times that thirty years later I can still anticipate the tiny interruptions as the children inhale and exhale during “So Long, Farewell.” I was so ready for my closeup. But time passed and one day I was too old to play even Rolfe, who may have been 17 going on 18 but still had a faulty moral compass.

Still, I found other ways to stay connected. I don’t want to say that TSoM was the reason I studied German in school, but it wasn’t a deterrent.

When I landed in Austria for a semester abroad, one of the first places I visited was the Trapp hometown of Salzburg, staying at a youth hostel that catered to Australians, sold Gösser beer for $0.25 a bottle, and played The Sound of Music on a loop in the common room. Later, when I lived in Munich, I’d take out of town visitors on the easy-peasy 90 minute train ride to Salzburg and drag them around saying, “Here’s where Marta dropped the tomato in the market! Here’s where they marched in lines and sang ‘Doe a Deer!’ Here’s the Villa Von Trapp!”

So earlier this year when we were looking for an offbeat Vermont location to spend a few vacation days with the family at the end of June, I booked the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe faster than you can say Lonely Goatherd. This is the Austrian style hotel that Maria, the Captain, and their children built in the 1950s, first as a family farm and later as one of the first cross country ski resorts in the country.

Gruss Gott!

My mother and dad drove up to Rochester to meet us and my mother kept threatening to sew us matching dresses out of drapes so we could run through a field together singing, “The Hills Are Alive.” It would be a double whammy of mom/grammy embarrassment for my kids, because I was totally game.

From the minute we pulled onto the resort property I was a little short of breath with nostalgia for my Austrian sojourn. “See the front of the building? That’s what buildings look like in Salzburg. See how it says ‘Tagessuppe’ on the menu? That means ‘Day’s Soup.’ See how it’s pouring outside nonstop? It also rains in Vienna!”

View from the Trapp Lodge

Reinforcing the full-immersion experience were hallways that were alive with framed movie posters and paraphernalia from all over the world.

Japanese Sound of Music

You can bet that my mom and I were among the first people to arrive at the “The Real Family History” tour given by…Samuel Von Trapp. He’s a strapping, friendly guy, grandson of Maria and the Captain, and he looks perfectly capable of climbing over some Alps to escape the Nazis.

Only: it didn’t really happen that way. As we learned in the talk, there were quite a few discrepancies between the real story and the Hollywood version, like the fact that the Trapp family actually boarded a train bound for Italy rather than hiking over the Alps (which would have landed them in Germany,) and that they had ten kids not seven (Samuel’s dad was the baby, born once they got to the U.S.), and that the Captain was not the cold curmudgeon depicted by Christopher Plummer but rather a warm and loving dad.

On the other hand, every drag queen’s favorite character, the Baroness, was real, and so was the broken engagement. (Side note: my husband, upon viewing the movie in the lodge hall for the first time in decades, shook his head and said, “Man. He really should have gone with the baroness. Money AND good looks.”) Maria really did make a lousy nun. And the family harmonizing was real, so real that the family was scheduled to sing for Hitler and that’s what finally compelled them to leave.  Mom and I both got a bit choked up in the family cemetary where Maria and the Captain share a plot, surrounded by the graves of six of their children.

Maria and Captain Von Trapp's gravesite

After we said goodbye to the Lodge and headed down the road for Cali, me wearing a new silver ring cast from a tiny piece of Vermont birch bark to remind me of the time a childhood dream came full circle, I had a sudden revelation:

Goodbye, birches

I think I’m still young enough to play the Mother Abbess.

Here’s a favorite daughter of the Green Mountain State – they even named a chocolate bar after her: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals with The Lion, The Beast, The Beat. This song rocks as hard as Vermont granite.

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An International Leap of Faith

LuftpostWhen I was a month away from college graduation, I called my mom in a state of euphoria. “Mom!” I yelled into the receiver. “I got the job in Munich that I applied for!”

My mom said, “That’s wonderful. I’m going to call you back.” And then she hung up on me.

What she did for those fifteen minutes is anyone’s guess, but when she called me back, she congratulated me warmly and asked all sorts of questions about the new job. Both my mom and dad were nothing but supportive of my choice to move to a country where I knew no one and would be far out of their sphere of influence if something went wrong.

Only when I became a parent did I realize just what a gift my parents had given me, to cheer me on as I started off on my crazy international adventure. It was so selfless, to never once make me feel like I was worrying them. Of course, I was only there for about a month when my dad called to say, “Hey, funny coincidence, but I needed to use up some vacation days and the tickets to Munich are really cheap so I thought I’d stop by to see you,” like I lived in Boston or something.

So when my niece Shannon got the news last week that she’s been accepted to the Peace Corps in Namibia and will move there for two years after she graduates this spring, I felt as much sympathy for my brother and his wife as I did excitement for Shannon. They are thrilled for their middle child, but—not that they’ve said so to me—I’m sure they dread seeing her off. It is a major leap of faith and sign of confidence in their daughter to support her in her first big international adventure.

In the midst of absorbing this news about my niece, I was moving things around in our storage area and stubbed my toe on a big unmarked cardboard box. Turns out was full of various papers and photo albums of mine that my parents shipped me when they downsized from our ancestral 4 bdrm 2 bath Colonial castle. And tucked in there was a bundle of letters on thin blue airmail paper, written by me to them when I went on my first adventure, the act that eventually led to the Munich job: I studied abroad in Vienna in 1987.

I plopped onto the couch and started reading, and there is only one word for my reaction as I skimmed through each letter: gobsmacked. Evidently, at age twenty, I was fearless and never slept. In one letter alone I hitchhiked to Salzburg, auditioned for a Viennese radio show, and wrote a press release in German for some Austrian artist. In another, I mention getting separated from my tour group in pre-Velvet Revolution Prague on a school trip but not to worry because “Todd” and I just wandered some back alleys until we found the bus. In a third letter, I had sidled up to the American ambassador to Austria after a speech, name dropped our mutual alma mater, and got him to agree to help me find a summer job.

Who was that person and where has she gone?

I know the answer, of course. I grew out of her. I had a couple of failures, a couple of setbacks, a couple of painful losses that shook my conviction that everything would always turn out fine for me. I do my best to access her every now and again–every time I send out a new piece to an editor, for example–but it’s a shadow of the raw courage I exhibited during my Vienna year.

Which is why I’m so, so glad my niece is off on her adventure now. I hope she soaks it all up to create a reservoir of nerve that will last a lifetime. I know she will be grateful every day to the mom and dad who will start holding their collective breath in mid-July 2013 and not exhale until September 2015.

And after getting reacquainted through those letters with the bold brave gal I was, we have a new family battle cry:  Namibia Safari 2014.

Here’s another piece of fortuitous timing: a formative memory of that Vienna experience appears in a new anthology out this month called “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Travel.” (To my daughters: actually, it is your mother’s book on travel.) NYMB is a new series created by Dahlynn and Ken McKowen, who spent 10 years developing titles for the “Chicken Soup” anthology juggernaut, and I was flattered when they wanted to run my piece. Check it out  and let me know what you think!

There’s only one song that name-checks Namibia that I’m aware of, but luckily it’s by Flight of the Conchords so we know it’s good…

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