It is impossible to overestimate the influence of childhood experiences. I’ve come to realize that so many of the things I’ve done, so many of the choices I’ve made in my life were actually set in motion long ago. My trip to Vienna was no exception.
The dream of Vienna truly began when our family went to see a movie. I know that going to see a movie doesn’t seem like something very special but for us, at that time, it was. It was the mid 1970’s and our family lived out in the Australian bush. Until then I’d seen a grand total of two movies in my short life, or so I’ve been told. Of the first I have no memory at all. My parents went to see “Gone With the Wind” on a rare visit to Sydney. I was taken along essentially as baggage. I was six months old. Luckily I slept right through the entire marathon. The second movie I saw was Disney’s “Pinocchio” which I do remember. How could I forget? Singing crickets, whales and the perils of dishonesty all in saturated, fluid colour.
Apart from these two encounters, my experience with screens of any kind was slim. In our dusty, shoebox-sized, tin-roofed house there was a finicky black-and-white television which, when it deigned to function, offered fuzzy but intriguing glimpses of BBC costume dramas, cricket matches, the Montreal Olympics, ballets from Covent Garden and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The third movie of my life, the one relevant to this story, happened without forewarning. One afternoon my brother and I were abruptly bundled into the back seat of our sun-faded Volkswagen beetle. We set off going who knows where, my father driving and my mother balancing a large casserole on her knees. It was dark by the time we arrived at what was some kind of hall I think, though it may have been a wool shed. There were cars already parked up against a barbed wire fence, other women with casserole dishes and clusters of men talking about the weather as was the wont of farmers. Eventually it was revealed to us children that we would all eat a potluck dinner and then watch a movie which would be projected onto white sheets hanging on a wall.
Movie nights like this were not frequent or even normal occurrences. But on the other hand, this particular movie, the one that had caused wives to cook their signature recipes and put on earrings, the one that had caused their husbands to polish their elastic sided boots and drive for miles after a long day of sheep dipping, seeding and tractor problems, was no ordinary movie. From London to Tokyo to Buenos Aires, this movie had been a smash hit. Because this movie was “The Sound of Music”. In fact, it was already old news since the movie had been released more than ten years earlier. Everybody in the whole world had seen it. Everybody but us. At last somebody had decided to do something about that. By whatever means were necessary, reels of this treasure had been obtained and “The Sound of Music” was finally having its long overdue premiere in our little speck of the great Australian outback.
But for us “The Sound of Music” held more significance than simply the promise of a greatly enjoyable night out. After the desserts were finished and the lights were turned off my father leaned over and said, “So now you will see where I come from.”
The film flickered to life. At first there was silence – nothing but the faint whistling of the wind flying over the mountains. Then the sunlight bounced off glittering streams that wound past castles topped with slated spires and tulip bulb domes. I’d never been in an airplane and this aerial view took my breath away. The forests and mountains, the greens and water blues were things I’d never seen before in my parched, flat Australian world of brown and grey. In the space of three seconds I was captivated. My astonishment continued undiminished for the rest of the movie.
I wasn’t alone. When the movie ended people actually applauded. My father swelled with pride – though what he’d told us at the start wasn’t true at all. “The Sound of Music” was set and filmed in Austria. My father wasn’t Austrian. My father was German. Everyone knew that. Still, Austria was German-speaking and Austria was next door to Germany – which was close enough. Sadly, the only German characters in the movie were the Nazis. But somehow, by my father’s way of thinking, that didn’t seem to matter. Until someone made a feel-good movie set in Germany (it still hasn’t happened) my father had decided that he’d claim ownership of this one. People came over to him to talk about the movie, to ask if his village in Germany looked like that. Had he been to locations where the film had been shot? Was it really as stunning as it looked? The way he talked, like such an expert, you’d have thought he'd made the film himself. The point was he finally had something to share – and that was important. It wasn’t easy being the odd one out. This was not America, that great melting pot of nationalities. This was Australia. My father was the only true “foreigner” in the region, the only German amidst a colonial population all descended from English and Scots. For all I knew he might have been the only German in the country. My mother was Australian through and through and it was because of her that he had come. There were plenty of people who thought he shouldn’t have, plenty of people who weren’t happy about it at all – which was really a shame. My father was extremely likeable if you just gave him a chance. Somehow “The Sound of Music” did give him a chance. It helped. A little bit of its magic rubbed off on him. From then on people were less likely to say “I’ve got to deal with that bloody German joker” and slightly more inclined to say instead “I’ll have a word with that Sound of Music bloke” or even “I’ll bend the ear of Captain von Trapp.”
Not too long after this momentous movie event, I received a big book for my birthday titled “The World of Horses”. Amongst the photographs of Clydesdales and Shetland ponies and Appaloosas was a full-page colour plate of a porcelain-white horse in mid-air. The camera had caught him perfectly at the height of his leap. His rider, dressed in a boat-shaped hat and old-fashioned tailcoat, looked thoroughly undisturbed, as poised as though he were merely seated in an armchair, his face a study of calm.
“What’s this horse?” I asked my mother.
“Ah,” she sighed. “It’s a Lippizaner in Vienna. They all are white – just like this one.”
“Vienna? Where’s that?”
“Do you remember that “The Sound of Music” was in Austria?”
Of course I remembered!
“Vienna is the capital city of Austria. It was Salzburg that you saw in the film but Vienna is even more beautiful. Before you were born I went there with your father. I saw the dancing white horses of Vienna perform.”
The Sound of Music, white Lippizaners, Austria and Vienna. These trinkets I put in a little jewel box which I stored on a shelf in the back of my mind. It gathered dust for decades.
Six months ago I slept badly one night, plagued by the quotidian worries that can take over your life if you let them. Had I remembered to buy more coffee filters or had I forgotten again? The package was almost empty. Why was the electricity bill so high last month? Should we try to change our internet service? It was so crummy, in fact it didn’t even work half the time. And could we really afford to replace the deck on the house this coming summer? Exactly how rotted was it? Could we just ignore it a bit longer and hope that nobody fell through it?
Half asleep, filled with doubts and anxieties, I blundered around the mansion of my mind. By 2 a.m. I had lost my way and stumbled into the storage rooms of memory which were crammed with all kinds of cabinets and boxes. Immediately I stubbed my toe on a massive chest brimming with racehorses and the Middle East. And that caused me to bump into the shelves. Flailing about in agitation, I then dislodged a box. Simply by virtue of the fact that this box, as opposed to all the myriad others, was so small I accidently swept it off the shelf altogether and there at my feet it spilled open. Music tinkled, castles with bulb-shaped domes unfolded themselves like cardboard pop-ups and white horses sprang out like wind-up toys.
I woke up and stared into the dark
“I want to go to Vienna,” I said to myself.
The deck would have to wait.