Snapshots and Strangers

            It’s a sunny afternoon, and I’m strolling through Mozart’s apartments in Vienna, remembering Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote, imagining Mozart writing brilliant operas in these rooms. I pause to look at a display case and read a note from Mozart to an English student: scribbled on a scrap of staff paper, I am out this afternoon, please return tomorrow at three o’ clock, and I chuckle. Mozart, like Empress Elizabeth and King Louis VI, was a real person, not just a legend. I check my watch, and realize that I have to leave now if I want to make the last guided tour of the Vienna State Opera House. I hurry through the streets of Vienna, and pay the 3 euro entrance fee. As I wait for the guide, an Austrian man in gaudy period garb throws me a sidelong grin and asks me three questions: first, do I want to attend the classical concert that evening (which is so touristy – all the singers are dressed in equally gaudy period garb and wigs), and second, how are the boys I’ve met on my travels, and third, do I want to get a drink with him. As he looks to be nearing thirty, I politely decline, and he persists, and I ask him isn’t he supposed to be selling tickets to this concert tonight, and I am relieved when a group of Asian tourists sits beside me and the man leaves.

And I think about “the boys I’ve met on my travels,” who I consider not as “boys” in the sense that the Austrian man means but rather as real friends, and mostly I’m just very thankful. Sailesh, the Ph.D. student who was lost with me in Poland, who took it upon himself to find my bus stop and stayed with me and talked for five hours to see me off at midnight because he wanted to be sure that I was alright. Marcus, my German host that offered me excellent German beer and took my roommate Matt and I on a 50-kilometer bike ride all around the coast. And I realize how much more interested I am in history and architecture and writing than in “boys.” And I hope to myself that this preference likens me to Marilynne Robinson and Mary Oliver and Flannery O’Connor, and I know I’m flattering myself. And then I think about how thankful I am for all the kind strangers, men and women alike, that I’ve met on my travels. The Czech woman who walked me to the Hlavni Nadrazi train station because I couldn’t find it, and because “it’s not good for a woman to walk alone here.” Faustine and Gheslaine who showed me amazing hospitality, and who were strangers one minute and friends the next. Charles who invited me on the Germany tour in the first place and Bryan who gave me the metro ticket and the latte on my first train ride and alleviated my anxiety.

And then, as the guide arrives and we line up to go backstage of the opera house, I think about “boys” and note that as I walk streets alone in foreign cities, I take a defensive posture toward male strangers and subconsciously think, This is someone who will potentially hurt me, while I look at female strangers and think, This is someone who will probably help me. And I wonder about the implications of this, and I wonder about how bent this world is, a world where if I happened to stand next to Sailesh or Marcus or Matt at a bus stop at night under different circumstances, and I didn’t know them, I’d be afraid of them. I think of communism and of the paralyzing fear of strangers in those days and those places, and I remember Solzhenitsyn’s words from the House of Terror: “It is easy to go through your days with a clear conscience, thinking that you are a decent person, a good person even. And then those moments arise when you realize, I am responsible for all of these people, and you realize how you have been miserably failing and how large is the burden of responsibility that you bear to strangers.” I glance one last time at the Mozart-costumed Austrian stranger, and silently thank him for causing me to think of all this, to think about strangers. As I wonder what it all means, I know that the responsibility is large indeed.

—-

At 4:50 in the morning, still quite dark outside, Anna drops me off at the Velence train station outside Budapest. I am anxious because again I have no safety net, no friends that will bail me out if I find myself in a bind. I have to get the train from Velence to the main Budapest station, find my train to Linz, Austria, make a connection in Linz, get on the train to Koblenz, Germany, and from there find my way to Braubach, a German village. My computer is dead, and I really hope that everything happens according to plan, because if I’m not there tonight, the choir bus will leave tomorrow morning for northern Germany without me. I ride through the countryside along the Rhine river, and I see castles everywhere – tiny stone castles on the hills. And, like always, my worries are for naught, and I make it to the train station in Braubach at 8:06 p.m. Charles stands outside waiting for me. I see the Marksburg castle on the tallest hill as we walk the cobbled streets of Braubach to my host family for the night. After dropping my stuff off, we head to the stone church next door for a last-minute rehearsal of the pieces we’ll be singing the next day. I briefly sing through them, and Charles continues practicing organ as I walk back to the house. I pause to look up; the castle is lit up in soft gold, and as dusk falls, from the narrow streets of Braubach you can hear the organ humming, low and ponderous.

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