Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creative Writing: The Traveler

This week's creative writing assignment was to write about an event that changed the way you think. The Traveler is a story based on an experience I had in the early 1980s. 




The Traveler

It was Easter week and most of my friends had already left for Spain, Greece or North Africa. I was living in London, at the time, completing my Master's degree. I wondered if I could find a cheap last minute deal to somewhere exciting. I had an urgency to see the world while I was still young, before responsibility and comfort made me home-bound or limited me to packaged tours.  

A cheap air ticket obtained from a bucket shop near Piccadilly led me to Austria. I had just left Vienna, a lifeless city full of anonymity. I was now traveling alone on a river boat drifting down the not-so-blue Danube. Walking along the deck, I watched the people sunning themselves along the river banks and swimming in the murky water. They were having fun. I felt lonely. I'd been to a disco the night before with some other young travelers, but they were strangers.

It was warm, even hot, for the middle of April. As I looked at the bow, I noticed an old woman basking in the sun, enjoying the warmth. Then I realized how pleasant the sun felt on my skin.  

I glanced again at the old lady. She was looking across the river at the fields of wild flowers. The meadows were full of yellows, reds, oranges and violets. I hadn't realized that spring was in full swing. Occasionally, a faint breeze would catch her nose and she would inhale deeply filling her lungs with the smell of the freshly mowed grass and cultivated fields. I took a deep breath too.

I ambled inside the boat to get a coffee. It was true what they said, Viennese coffee was good. And not just in the cafes and the restaurants; good coffee could be found at train stations, youth hostels, and even sidewalk vending machines. Sitting near a window, I slowly drank the coffee thinking how few places there were in the world where one could get a first-rate cup of coffee. 

The woman I had noticed earlier now sat directly across from me. She appeared to be in her late 70s or early 80s. She was tall, matronly, and tanned. Her elegantly coiffured gray hair and single strand of pearls conveyed tasteful, quiet dignity. She wore a matching tweed skirt and jacket, sensible black shoes, and carried a practical brown day pack.

As she thumbed through the pages of an old book, I tried to inconspicuously see the title. She glanced up with a sly smile that said 'gotcha.'

“This is my old Baedeker Guide. Vienna hasn't changed much since I was a girl. The streets are all the same.”  

“How long has it been since you were in Vienna?” I asked.

“Well over 50 years. I was a governess here,” she said, switching smoothly to English, now that she had heard my German.

“I took care of three children. I was visiting one of them. He's a successful businessman like his father. I've managed to kept in touch with the children all these years, even though I live in Switzerland.”

An image of Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music flickered through my mind. 

“Are you going to Melk?” I asked.

“Yes, I want to see the Abbey again.”

“I want to see it too. I've heard it's something.” 

 “It is! This is just a day trip to Melk for me, and then I walk back to Krems and take a train to Vienna. It should take me 3-4 days.” 

“Wow, that's quite a walk,” I said, wondering if she could really walk all that way. It was nearly 40 miles. 

“Oh, it's not so bad this time of year. There are plenty of guest houses along the way, and I have plenty of water. I live on a farm, and I'm used to walking a lot.”

“How's the trip been so far?” I inquired.

“Wonderful, it brings back a lot of memories.”

She told me of her life in Vienna before the war, and how she'd returned to Switzerland to marry and raise a family. During her married life she rarely traveled. There was simply too much to do the farm. Yet, she never forgot Vienna and the joy of traveling. And now that her children were grown and her husband was gone, she had no responsibilities. She was free again.

“Last year, my children paid for a trip to Brazil. I saw the Amazon and the rainforest. That was exciting. And a few years before that, I went to the Grand Canyon and took a helicopter ride through it. Have you been there?”

“No, I haven't. I hope to go one day.”

“I can tell that will, and you'll see the world too. You have the wanderlust, just like me,” she asserted. 

We chatted for the next half hour or so. She told me stories of navigating the markets of Istanbul, getting lost in Cairo, and watching the sunsets over the Mediterranean. 

The lines on her face betrayed her age. Yet, she radiated an enthusiastic youthful spirit. A spirit, I was beginning to lose. 

“Do you travel alone?” I asked.

“Yes, but you know, I always meet interesting people like you. I'm never lonely.”

“I don't like traveling alone,” I said. “I miss the company of another person. Someone to share the experience.”

“Yes, sharing the experience adds a dimension. But whether you watch a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean by yourself or with another person, it's still the same sunset. It's not any different. It's still beautiful. In fact, you sometimes appreciate a thing more when you're alone. It involves all your senses.”

As we approached Melk, the famous yellow Abbey stood majestically on a hill, its reflection glistening atop the rippling Danube. I noticed the puffy white clouds set against the light blue sky and a flock of swans nestled in the tall reeds near the shore. The Danube really did look blue like in the song. We disembarked, and I said goodbye to the woman. She wished me luck and started on her long walk. I looked around and no longer felt alone. I realized that beauty could be appreciated on its own terms. 

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