I fell in Love! Oh yes! And it was amazing, and beautiful, and painful, and confusing, and uplifting, and, and, and… And, she lived in Austria.
No, not Australia; Austria. It is such a common mistake that the tourist vendors all through Austria sell tee shirts of kangaroos with a line crossed through them. There are no kangaroos hopping through the Dom Platz in the Salzburg Altstadt, but you can visit the home where Mozart was born.
They speak German there. The Sound of Music was filmed there. Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted millions and millions of pounds of iron there, before emigrating to the U.S. for a career in body building, action movies and eventually politics. Wolfgang Puck was born there too. The cold war was right at home in Vienna, an amazing metropolis within this country which had declared itself ‘neutral.’ Adolf Hitler was born in the town of Braunau along the Salzach river.
Good beer, better sausage, sublime cheeses, and of course the world famous Wiener Schnitzel (which is NOT a sausage). Austria is a beautiful country with its own identity and history within the European community. But I didn’t realize any of this back then. All I knew was that I was in love and going to see the woman who had lit this fire within my heart.
Getting off the plane in Munich, my three words of German were of little use. Before she returned from California to Austria, my love had taught me the most important words of German; Ich liebe dich. She also taught me the Austrian dialect, I lieb di (pronounced, “Ee leeb dee”). But saying “I love you,” did nothing to assist me in purchasing my train ticket from Munich into Salzburg where my love awaited me.
I entered the country under the Visa Waiver program. At that time, Americans were permitted three months in most European countries, without needing to apply for a visa (I am not current on these laws which are subject to change). The immigration officer stamped my passport and didn’t even ask to see my return ticket. I was loose in Europe at the tender age of 23 with a passport, a backpack and a couple hundred dollars.
The EU was still in its infancy and Austria had not yet joined. When crossing the border from Germany to Austria in a train, the procedure was simple and well practiced. A few Austrian immigration officers would board the train at the last stop in Germany and walk through the compartments checking papers. I saw them approaching in the car ahead of mine and fidgeted with my passport awaiting them.
I was nervous. Police of any ilk inspire anxiety in me. I spent enough time in the shadows of society engaged in various degrees of outlaw behavior to have developed a fear of law enforcement. Despite my currently clean credentials and total lack of contraband, I was repeatedly wiping my hands on the knees of my pants in a futile attempt to rid them of clammy sweat. I watched and waited as they checked the passports of each passenger.
With my long hair and stuffed backpack, I figured I was an easy target. How many other Americans my age traveled around Europe like this, loaded up with hash and other controlled substances? I had heard the stories. Sure, I was traveling an innocuous route from Munich to Salzburg, which was hardly similar to crossing a border into Turkey ringing with stories like Midnight Express and all the hapless hippies incarcerated for forgetting to throw out that last, burnt roach. Still, my fear was high that something about me would trigger mistrust and a search.
Two seats ahead of me a middle aged businessman was seated. He carried nothing but a briefcase and an overcoat. He had the look of a banker or a lawyer. Sharply cut suit with a silk tie. His shoes immaculately polished. In the years before cell phones and laptops, guys like him were often seen reading the financial section of the newspaper. Indeed, I had probably seen over 200 men appearing much the same on my plane ride, in the airport, and making connecting trains in the Munich Bahnhof.
The immigration cops, in their hunter green jackets and hats, with walkie talkies and side arms at their hips, walked up to the man, presented an outstretched hand, palm up, fingers bent and gestured in the international sign for “show me your papers.” The businessman complied and handed his passport to the closest officer.
There is a ritual that immigration cops go through with a passport. I have seen it hundreds of times now in several countries. As chip technology has infiltrated passports, the officers are doing it less and less. But at that time in 1991, it was still a common practice. He stands with the passport looking at the man and simply holds it for a beat. Then he opens it up midway, and bends it back and forth across the spine. His eyes remain on the owner. He is feeling for something, I believe. Then he casually flips through the pages, looking down and examining a couple of stamps. Finally he rests on the identification page, reads the dates, and compares the picture to the man in front of him. Back and forth his eyes go from the picture to the flesh. Resting for longer than is comfortable on the man’s actual face.
They are speaking in German and I don’t hear anyone say, “Ich liebe dich,” so I am lost as to the content of the conversation. But the intent is easy enough to discern. The officer steps back, still clutching the passport and gestures for the man to rise from his seat. The businessman, in turn, lifts his palms upward and shrugs his shoulders to ask, “what’s the problem?” The officer plants his feet more firmly against the swaying train and gestures with his whole arm and hand for the man to Stand Up Right Now.
Slowly the businessman complies. They exchange words and the man hands the other officer his briefcase, his overcoat, then removes his suit coat and hands that over as well. He is speaking softly, almost pleading. The officers are all business and search his case and coats. Then they have him remove his shoes. Then, loosen his tie. As he stands there in the moving train with the other passengers pretending not to notice, his socks on the cold steel floor, his tie unbound two strands swaying to the rhythm of the train, they motion for him to turn around with his hands above the window. He again pleads with his palms upward and his shoulders shrugging. They repeat the order and he slowly assumes the position. The officer pats him down as a cop would a suspect prior to arrest. Along his arms, down to his collar. Along the inside of his collar, his chest, stomach and back. He slips his fingers into the waist band of the business man’s pants and circles his hips. Down each leg, which I can no longer see because of the seats.
Once they are done, they toss his coat and overcoat onto the seat, hand him back his briefcase and passport and move on. Apparently, there is nothing wrong with his stamps and they found nothing of suspicion on his body. They are moving towards me now, and after this display, my palms are sweating in earnest. I am sure the officer will hear the tell tale beat of my heart that will condemn me as it did Poe’s character (for what, I don’t know). I am barely able to make eye contact as the officer gives me the universal sign of “show me your papers.” I have it ready and raise it from my lap.
He sees the blue of my passport, waves his hand for me to put it away, and moves on without ever glancing at me again.
The businessman is still lacing up his shoes. He stands to put his coat back on and looks at me across the seats. His brown eyes, set within brown Middle Eastern features, above a dark mustache have so little emotion in them that I am startled. There is no friendliness, nor animosity. They are blank. His face looks at me from another world, so removed from my own that even the common language of human emotion would be unintelligible to me. He holds my eyes a little longer than two strangers do, never communicating. The only message I can decipher from him is, “I see you.”
My love was waiting for me at the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof. I still had to pass through a one-way gate, departing Germany to enter Austria. But there were no more controls. She looked at me and smiled. I was grinning from ear to ear and we ran into each other’s arms, embracing and kissing in that beautiful old train station, full of beggars and businessmen, workers and tourists, the smells of sausage, diesel, coffee and piss floating around us.