This is the last my the series of introductory question posts, and it is the most complicated. Why German? Why au pairing? Why Austria?
Actually, most people don’t ask me these questions when they find out that I am moving abroad for a year. At least, most Americans don’t. The questions, in my experience so far, have come primarily from Europeans and, of course, myself. I’m sure there is a complicated cultural reason why Americans see inherent value in living in/going to Europe, regardless of the circumstances, but that’s not the point of this post. I want to talk about why I, Molly, wanted to study German and move to Austria.
My two strongest associations with Austria come from my childhood. One, that I share with 99% of Americans, is The Sound of Music (that will undoubtedly be another post in itself). I remember my mother always making us be quiet during the opening helicopter shots of the Alps, to look at how beautiful it was.
The other association is a travel brochure that was somehow mailed to my house in small-town Louisiana when I was seven-years-old. I don’t know why we got it–it was before the days of “request more information” online, and no one in my house had ever been to Europe, so it seems unlikely we would have requested such a brochure anyway.
But it arrived, a detailed brochure for a two week tour entitled “Christmas in Austria.” I was entranced. The pictures were of a fantasy world of snow, horse-drawn sleighs, and laughing women and men in ballgowns and tuxedos leaving the Vienna opera house. These are things I had not only never seen, but never imagined. At that point in my life, I had lived in Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in quick succession, and the blizzard of ’93 was only a vague, cold memory. For all intents and purposes, I had never seen snow. I had certainly never seen anything so magical and glamorous. I kept this brochure for years–I think I memorized it. I can still see all the pictures in my mind.
Fast forward to age ten. I interviewed my grandfather for the fourth grade family history project that it seems like all American school kids do. I learned that he was an occupying solider in Germany immediately following WWII. Although, even then, he was an avid photographer, the only snapshots he has from this time are of the 1948 winter Olympics in Switzerland.
In fourth grade I was exposed to the Holocaust for the first time via Lois Lowry’s novel Number the Stars, and my best friend’s grandfather, who was a survivor. He often spoke to groups of school children, opening with, “So, do you want to see my tattoo?” It was at this point that I began to develop a historical context for the scene in The Sound of Music when Captain von Trapp tears down the swastika from the front of his house.
In eighth grade, I enrolled at the Alabama School of Fine Arts as a Creative Writing student. My creative writing teacher was German, and when she really loved our poems, she wrote Fantastisch! Wunderbar! in the margins. Through her, I learned a little about German culture–about Struwwelpeter and Run Lola Run, about German poets around the world.
As high school progressed, Liza Minelli and Cabaret got me interested in the Weimar Republic, which began a life-long fascination with Berlin. Then, for a screenwriting class, I saw der Himmel über Berlin (English title, Wings of Desire), which completely rocked my world. As a movie, as an evocation of a specific place and time, I was as entranced by the grime of Berlin in the 1980s as I was by the fairy tale travel agency version of Austria.
But all of these different associations never really came together in my head as a unified interest in German Studies until much later. I suppose the tipping point was when I finally got the opportunity to travel in Europe.
For my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Northern Ireland, but I had three weeks off for Easter break. My friend Elizabeth-Anne came to visit me from home, and we set off with Eurail passes and hostel reservations in hand to make our way around continental Europe. This was it, this was the chance to live out seven-year-old Molly’s dream of visiting Austria, land of snow, sleighs, and the Sound of Music. I went in April, so there was no snow, but it was still the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Riding on an overnight train from Rome to Salzburg, the Alps rose up in front of us with the sun, and when we finally emerged from the train car, the sky was blue and the air was clean.
It was not a long exposure to central Europe–we spent two days in Salzburg, one day in Prague, and three days in Berlin, at the tail end of three long weeks of traveling. All three places were both everything I had imagined them to be, and complicated in a way that I knew I couldn’t totally access as a tourist. Salzburg was as charming and the lake district as magnificent as I had hoped. Prague had as many winding streets, cobblestones, and cathedrals as I had pictured. Berlin was appropriately grimy and cold, with reminders of history everywhere (we actually stayed on a hostel boat on the river by the East Side Gallery). It was the culmination of my associations, and yet, it was a challenge to them. There was a big wall in between me and the culture, and that wall was the German language. After having lived in Belfast for nine months, I knew the unique experience of actually being immersed in another culture, and I knew that I had much more than three weeks of traveling and adventuring left to do.
So this brings me more or less to the present. I quickly learned that, as an American, the best way to spend an extended amount of time in Europe for the least amount of money is to work as an au pair. All of my work experience is also child related, so it was the obvious choice. I decided to take German and French during my fifth year at Agnes Scott, so that I could move to Europe and work as an au pair in either Austria or Belgium (both have lower language requirements for au pairs than Germany or France). I did well at German (French, not so much) and within a few weeks my goal of moving to Austria was set.
So am I learning German because my grandfather was part of the Allied occupation? Because I grew up around a Holocaust survivor? Because I had influential teachers who exposed me to German literature and culture? Am I moving to Austria because of a tourist brochure I got when I was seven?
No. Yes. Both.