Sunday, June 12, 2005

Blogging for Books - Hit the Road, Tuna


For this month's Blogging for Books, write a blog entry about one of three things:
  1. A memorable trip or "mini-vacation" (with "memorable" covering everything from "best time of my life" to "unmitigated disaster");
  2. A time you did something spontaneously, in order to shake up your life;
  3. A time you metaphorically took "the road less traveled", and made an unpopular or uncommon decision.

Most people plan their trips. They sit down with maps and books and consult friends and travel agents. They are escorted from site to site on air-conditioned tour buses, and fed kibbles of facts by professionals wielding the all-important umbrella of power, able to “Tally HO” a group of 25 briskly from destination to destination. These kind of trips are devoid of all spontaneity – they are carefully scripted as if the scrapbook pages were already completed, and all that’s left to do it take some pictures and glue them in place.

No itinerary could possibly do justice to the summer of 1989. It began with a two-week vacation trip to Montreal. I traveled under the guise of competing in an International Music Competition, but assumed – due to my young age and relative lack of experience – that I would be eliminated quickly and could spend the remainder of my time seeing the sights. As Karma would have it, I kept advancing from one round to the next, and had to spend all my time learning piles of music. My vacation fortnight shrunk to one single “now or never” vacation day, and I spent my time frantically running from sight to sight, snapping pictures and praying I would remember what they were and why I took them in the first place.

Shortly after my Canadian excursion, I traveled to Austria for an intensive music program. At the end of the program, with a telephone in one hand and seven confirmed opera house auditions in the other hand, I called home and told them I was staying. I had no idea for how long. The program was over and I had run out of script. I found a fellow student who was staying on in Vienna to study piano. I begged him for a small corner of floor space in his studio apartment, and that’s where I slept for the next six weeks.

If it wasn’t an audition day, my time was filled with a whole lot of nothing. Because I was poor and had never planned to be in Europe this long, my options were limited. But when the appointed day arrived, I donned my standard issue navy blue conservative audition dress, grabbed my briefcase and Eurail pass, and set off for points unknown.

It was during one of these excursions that I found myself on the local train returning from Wiesbaden, Germany. Physically worn out from the day of travel, and mentally bankrupt following the stress of the audition, I stared, glassy-eyed at the train map as we rolled past small towns and vineyards. The train slowed, and although I was nowhere near my destination, I got off...

When you’re little, you remember little. And when I say little I really mean small or curiously insignificant things. Of course, when you’re little you also don’t remember very much either, and as you grow up, the remembrances get smaller and smaller, until they just wear away.

Some memories are hard to trust, especially if you live in my family. We have a curious habit of concocting fictitious stories, and then repeating them time and time again until they are taken for fact, as if they had been delivered to Moses himself on top of Mount Sinai.

If you asked me about certain childhood memories, you would think perhaps I had been in a coma, or had lazy synapses. My entire recollection of Kindergarten is: fury at not being taught to read, the pain – both physical and creative – of being forced to color in the same direction, and somehow managing to come home covered in paint every single day. First Grade brings memories of: talking too much in class, learning to read, and having an entire wall for my reading chart. My friends in Kindergarten and First Grade were the neighborhood kids: Big Stevie (my next-door neighbor and best friend), Little Stevie (the neighborhood hellion), and Mary-Margaret (whom nobody liked).

But when I get to second grade, my memories stop working. Here is what I remember: I lived in Germany. I went to school at an Army Base. I had to use the lower-elementary school library, which I hated. I got in a fight on the day of school pictures – though I wonder if that isn't family lore, since I can't recall a single thing about the entire incident. Messy hair for school pictures is the main witness for the prosecution.

I don’t remember any friends. I don’t remember any teachers. All I remember of our house was sleeping in the top bunk of a bunk bed, and that there was a landing as you went upstairs. I could remember some facts, like the name of the town and my street, but considering I was living in a different country, I find it surprising I don’t remember more. The entire year was like a half-erased Etch-a-Sketch: you might be able to see traces of the outline, but mostly it was nothing but a shmeary mess.

With some hesitation that I found myself standing under a weather-beaten sign marked “HOCHHEIM” trying to explain myself in rusty German to a very patient train-station employee.

I had so little to go on because my memories were so faded and old. I lived here twenty years ago. I know the name of the street, but don't know where it is. Was there a map? No? Do you know where it is? You do? Thank you...Thank you so very much...Yes...Good-bye.

With a hand-drawn map, I left the train station and started up the road towards the town. The road was up in every sense of the word: it was a long steady climb uphill past the vineyards. I looked around as I walked, hoping to see something familiar -- but when you don't remember, you can talk yourself into, or easily miss anything.

My steps became heavy and my heart sank more and more as I continued my hike. Why had I been so stupid? What was I expecting? It's not like there was going to be a historical marker saying, "GreenTuna slept here." Did I know what time the next train arrived? Would there even BE a next train? This was not good.

At the top of the hill, overlooking the vineyards and acting as a holy sentinel to the town was a small white church. I looked at it for awhile and thought that maybe, just maybe I had gone to church there. I stood a few minutes more, but my gut feelings never got any more confident than maybe yes....maybe no... so I kept walking.

The town was a typical quirky mix of quaint old German and modernistic. Architecturally speaking, it was as traditional as a puzzle picture, with chalet-type buildings sporting overflowing flower boxes. The storefronts though, betrayed the picturesque scenario, and I found myself walking past Adult Video Rental Stores, Hardware Meccas, and even a Radio Shack.

Even today, I remember strange things. I look back on high school, and can recite the birthdays of former boyfriends. I remember with whom I walked for graduation. I remember where I sat, and my class song. But to this day, I have practically no recollection of any of my classmates. And sadly, even a picture wouldn't help. My mind is a miner's sieve, and all the valuable memories slip through the holes, leaving me nothing but fool's gold.

Maybe we aren't meant to remember everything. Maybe the most precious memories are the ones that live on without benefit of photos or journals or tour books or postcards. Maybe most memories are like fireworks -- just one spectacular flash...and then nothing. But the disappointment of nothingness is instantly cured by another flash, and then another and another, until you can't remember what any of them looked like.

I looked at the street signs and then looked at my map. Now NOTHING was familiar. I was lost in a town where I used to live, looking for a home a didn't remember. I looked around and found the church on the outskirts of town. Thinking my homecoming was an unmitigated disaster due to a distinct lack of planning (and no doubt the absence of the ever-helpful Tally-HO umbrella), I started winding my way back through town.

I wound my way down several streets, guessing at the general direction for exit. I crossed a street, leaving the retail district behind. As I turned the corner to get back on track with the church, I stopped and stared. There, in what was probably once the town square, was a statue of The Virgin Mary. Flowers were placed nearby and votive candles flickered their respect in the late afternoon sun.

...We moved in the summer when it as so hot...We rode on a crowded airplane and my baby brother slept in a box...I slept on the floor...I was in Brownies and once my mother was late to pick me up and I was scared...We traveled to Spain at Easter time...We traveled to Paris and they told us, "No Gas, no Bathroom!" We spent Christmas in the Black Forest and my brother and sister lost a sled (It's still going and going and going)...Someone told my mother her children were so well behaved, and we smiled like angels while we kicked each other under the table...We moved back to America after one year...I didn't want to go...It was was really true...I really lived here, and I remembered the statue...It was a flood...a flood of memories....

As I stood there, overwhelmed by the flood of memories, tears ran down my face for no other reason than because of this silly spur-of-the-moment sidetrip, I unearthed a memory that was all but forgotten. It wasn't the statue, or the town, or even the house that I eventually found. I remembered me and my family and how we all fit together in this place at that time.

And I remembered being happy.


Bozoette said...

I find it fascinating to compare memories with my sisters and brother -- it's amazing how different our memories of the same event are!

lifeonhold said...

Very nice!

MissMeliss said...

This was beautiful...and memory is strange...I remember entire conversations that I heard as a child, but forget that I no longer own certain items of clothing, shoes, etc.

Anonymous said...

Hochheim = schranks, MEAN school bus driver, bakery every Saturday morning without fail, playing Simon & Garfunkel's album a million times in a row, carnival at the village "square" and Curtis Holland, my best (only?) friend at Weisbaden Air Base.

Frances Nash said...

loved it!