This is part 1 in a series about my three-week trip to Europe in December 2014-January 2015. Read the rest here.
Boots drumming on metal stairs, breath puffing through the puffy collar of my puffy coat, head pounding in the thin air, I hustle up the indoor staircase of the lodge riven into the mountain’s crown.
Behind me, Grace pants in a different rhythm. We’ve been like this for nearly two weeks: me leading, her following—usually to keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t kill myself on our whistle-stop gallivant through Europe. Dublin > Berlin > Rothenburg > Nürnberg > Salzburg > Mondsee > München > Dachau > finally Grainau, a tiny village folded in the foothills of the Alps in southern Bavaria, and then a vertiginous 10-minute ride caged inside a glass gondola up 6,500 feet of empty air to this ski lodge.
But I am not here to ski.
I shove open the door at the top of the stairs and take a faceful of icy, snow-sharpened wind. My eyeballs feel cold when I blink. I see a ramp and keep climbing. My heart pounds harder than my head. I want to wait, but I can’t. Halfway up the ramp I dart a look over my shoulder and catch my first glimpse of a wide panorama jeweled with blue and white mountain peaks.
I suck in. “I think I might cry,” I hear myself say.
If Grace answers, I don’t hear. I quick-march up the ramp and step onto the wide, windy, snow-packed terrace and seize the view. I seize it with my eyes, my lungs, and someplace so deep inside my chest that it feels like my heart is squeezing the beauty like a fist around a precious stone.
Heavy white wings of winter clouds cover the late afternoon sun, but the mountains are clear. Over 400 peaks in four different countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy. I am in the middle of an Alpine sea—stunning ridge after ridge, rock tip after rock tip spreading out to the horizon and the horizon after that as far as the eye or telescope can reach. Here and there gold-beaked choughs play on the wind like acrobats on aerial silks, their glossy black feathers spread distinctively wide. The world has split into thirds: a cathedral of sky, a ring of mountains, spectacularly hewn cliffs below. Only behind me on the German side is the forested valley visible. Towards the other countries, I cannot see the bottom. Only snow and rocks and sharp, cobalt shadows where the Alps plunge.
I am laughing and gasping at the same time, running from railing to railing, trying to take it in all at once. And I do cry. Sort of. Tears stand in my eyes but are too cold to run over.
Experienced mountaineers take two months to scale Everest from start to finish (crucial acclimatization included). Reaching Zugspitze has taken me 30 years and I feel like I haven’t had the chance to acclimatize at all. Three months ago, I didn’t even know Zugspitze existed. Now I realize that the yearning, phantom limb-like pain I have felt all my life actually belongs to a place. It is here. Ten thousand feet in the air at the top of Germany. As far as I am concerned, the top of the world.
How did I get here?
Rewind 443 days to a black, cold night in October 2014. The season’s first snow is just a few days away and the vent blows warm air on my feet as I sit at my desk and scroll unblinking through Google, ferreting out nanny jobs, ESL positions, openings at the American embassy—anything that will take me to Germany. Who knows whether these impulsive ideas will pan out. All I know is that I must go.
I was born in Germany. Remember nothing. Nine months old, I returned to the US with my parents and could only grow up listening to my mom’s stories of the snow, the cobblestone streets, the well-run and terrifying autobahn, but especially the Alps.
Surrounded by flat Florida jungle and breathing humid air as thick as a wet towel, I could hardly imagine altitude. The Sound of Music gave me my first look. As I watched the von Trapp family hike away (never mind the fact that doing so in real life would have landed them in Nazi Germany, not Switzerland), the Alps became more than a series of pretty peaks. They stood for everything beautiful and painful about fighting evil. I was probably only five but I knew in my bones that if I was supposed to climb every mountain till I found my dream, then my dream was to defy darkness like my hero Captain von Trapp ripping that Nazi flag in two.
World War II has felt very close to my family, like a ceiling I can almost touch. My mom’s father was 18 years old and halfway through his senior year when the news of Pearl Harbor shook America. He quit school that same day and enlisted as a private, later becoming a pilot in the Army Air Force without so much as a high school diploma.
If ever a man was born to fly, it was Granddad, pilot nonpareil. But if ever a man was supposed to die, it was Granddad, risk-taker extraordinaire. In flight school, if his instructor told him to make a forced field landing, he would comply—upside down. One yellowed page in his arthritic pilot log notes casually that “On March 15 at 3:45 My Tail snapped off NAJ while diveing at 405 M.P.H. at 10,000 ft.” (Granddad was never much for spelling.)
He picked dog fights, buzzed a high school (triggering a fire drill), even buzzed a Navy field. He stressed the aircraft and his instructors so much that they pulled him aside to enunciate that their express duty was to make sure cadets like him did not pass.
He passed. Graduating at the top of his class for which the washout rate was 97%, he had flown a plane before even driving a car.
Though he is 92 and his memory moves in smaller and smaller circles, this three-time war veteran is still the skilled raconteur, aided by a inventory he compiled a couple decades ago of one-liners to jog his recollection. World War 2 fills a page and a half. The war was almost over once he finally made it to Germany in 1945, but he made his missions count. He’d race his plane two feet off the ground beside the forests and scan the blurring trees for German munitions dumps. When he saw one, he’d fly up and over, blow them up, and keep going.
Other cryptic items from his memory sheet:
Psychic warning of impending air crash, A/C cracked in half, ailerons flutter, etc.
Brake failure on P-39.
My buzz on P-38 base in Germany.
Low level over German anti-aircraft gun.
Playing with German munitions, thermite, bombs, grenades, flare guns. God’s mercy on me in France.
Loss of coolant 40 miles behind German lines.
Landing in Greenland, iceberg, altimeter climbing, departing in bad weather.
By all accounts, he shouldn’t even be here. (Neither should I.) But Granddad was an Icarus even the sun couldn’t touch.
A generation later the war was still shaping my family. A young attorney in the US Army JAG Corps, my dad was assigned to Ansbach, once a Nazi garrison, in 1982. I was born a couple years later in Nürnberg (American: Nuremberg)—the city where the fates of monsters were decided in a beautiful courtroom in 1945-46.
Had it not been for the occupation army stationed in Ansbach after the war, my birthplace could have been very different. In fact, it very nearly was anyway. Alaska was the runner-up on my parents’ list of places to go. One decision, and I might have been in love with igloos now instead of steins.
Germany came home with us. Of the two rambunctious German Shepherd puppies, two preeminently uncomfortable couches (we call them the Nazi couches), a hutch, a corner bench (eckbank), a dining table, and a titanic wall unit (schrank) featuring hand-carved wooden doors, my parents still own everything but the dogs, who passed when I was about 12, and the eckbank, which our family of seven finally outgrew.
My mom’s decor enshrines Germany around the house. White porcelain figurines of German Shepherds in a gigantic sprint, dolphins leaping, and a donkey in a demure stance are tucked back in the schrank. Watercolor sketches of old German streets and a wood inlay of St. Bartholomä on the Königssee hang in the living room. Oh, and pewter. Ubiquitous pewter. Pewter on the Christmas tree, pewter goblets gleaming from glossy black shelves in the foyer, five pewter plates (one per daughter) running down the wall above our staircase, engraved with our names, our birthdates, how much we weighed at birth.
At Christmas, my mom carefully unwraps ornaments still in their original packaging from the Christkindlmarkts: wax figurines, miniature wooden manger scenes, dainty crystal balls glittering like ice crystals. Her speech is strewn with German phrases. She’ll say danke schön as soon as thank you, she calls Dad mein Herr, and she has said schokolade so naturally and routinely that I realized only last year that it was German.
“Someday,” she has always said, “I’d love to go back.”
I wish I could say Martin Luther played a major role in stoking my itch to return, but to tell you the truth he was more my sister’s hero than mine. I guess I had reason enough already. For years I felt like a kite let loose on a long string on a semi-permanent loan to the United States—my real country—but always something held the end of the string across the ocean. The tugging was unquestionable. The only question was when it would reel me in.
I think everyone feels sehnsucht for certain things or during certain times of year—that exquisite ache that C. S. Lewis calls Joy: “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be.’ ”
What Lewis felt for Northernness (“a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity”), I felt for lots of smaller things. From 1984 to 2014, apparently dissimilar desires and loves and needs reached out and grabbed hands, inseparable.
High mountains. Autumn-torched leaves. Violins. Snowy fir branches. Finely polished moonlight. D-Day. The Song of Roland (he was half German, after all). My own yearning to live a good story and die on time. They all wound into a many-stranded cord pulling me to these old places that had seen so much of the evil I want to fight—and the good I want to fight for.
When I look at my own country crumbling around me, its walls shot through with the bombs of sexual anarchy, child murder, and church cowardice, I think of how God-fearing Germans must have felt in 1933.
How do you love your country when the most loving thing to do is condemn her? How do you fight for your country when the best way to defend her is to fight her?
The same way Christ loved the world. Fight her by dying for her.
Claus von Stauffenberg, the hero of the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, died for the real Germany. He defied the twisted ghoul she’d become and died for what she should be.
I wanted to go back and touch that. Walk the streets where Jews had been trucked away, stand on the cobblestones where Stauffenberg shouted his final salute to his country, wade in the same waters where Allied tanks growled into northern France. I felt very much downstream; I wanted to go back and drink from the headwaters.
I simply had to go.
I knew that traveling would change my life. I didn’t expect it to before I’d even left. And the first lesson I learned wasn’t the one I thought I’d learn. I call it the lesson of the suspicious poodle.
My mom’s family had a female poodle (which, if you ask me, doesn’t even count as a dog) named Randy. Bilious little thing. They’d give her a bone but she wouldn’t chew it, just tuck it between her paws and growl her peewee growl whenever anybody got close. She was so afraid they’d take it away (which they could have as easily as shaking out a dishrag) that she couldn’t even enjoy the gift.
If only I’d remembered this several years ago when my planning saga began.
January 2010. My best friend: Hey Gwen, we’re going to Europe.
Oh, wow. Not me. Never. Impossible. At a time when I couldn’t afford $3 tights (I was a pauper my senior year), the idea of buying a $1,500 plane ticket plus hotels and food and shopping seemed hopeless. I might as well wish I were a six-foot male. Make that a six-foot male giraffe. A six-foot male giraffe dancing on the moon. Without supplemental oxygen. Playing the harp.
But then I graduated, got a job, and could actually pay my own rent.
October 2012. Me: Hey, Dad, I want to save up and go to Europe. Dad: Actually, you should probably save for a car first.
Very true. I’d been borrowing his old one for a few years and needed to get my own. I saved up for seven months and bought a car.
October 2013. Me: Hey friend, I’m going to Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, and France next October. Want to come with me? Friend: Sign me up! (Two months later) Actually, I need to bow out. Money, school, car, etc. Me: No problem.
January 2014: Me to a number of former college friends: I’m going to Germany next Thanksgiving. Wanna come? Friends: Love to, but money/time/job, etc. That’s when I asked Grace, but she said she was already going to Italy that summer and couldn’t manage two trips in one year.
Didn’t matter. I kept saving (both money and vacation time) and planning my trip by faith. From all my Europe-versed friends I sought advice on packing, trains, hotels, money. Two maps of Germany were thumb-tacked to my cubicle wall at work to keep me motivated. I read books on World War I and II so that I would appreciate the historical sites. Umpteen hours went into researching the best cities to visit. (Thank you, Rick Steves!) I updated my passport. I bought Speed Learning German (the same program used by US diplomats when they need a crash course) and started chipping away at survival phrases. I even switched my Facebook and gmail accounts to German (away from Latin) and forced myself to navigate a foreign world, however small. I cut back on life, sold my computer, and made sure to keep tithing at church since my parents had taught me well: If your budget is tight, you’ll make it if you tithe.
I gripped my dream so hard I choked it to death. Several times. This is when being a control freak, a hyper planner, and a bulldog isn’t so much fun. When I get fixed on an idea, I go from zero to 60 in two seconds flat. Stopping me is like trying to stop a train. Meanwhile, countless tendrils of my plan root themselves deep in my mind and uprooting them rips apart a hundred things at once. Staying limber—not my style. Running through walls—that’s me. I was willing to run through a hundred walls to get to Germany.
If only I’d realized I was putting up most of the walls myself.
March 2014: I had estimated my three-week trip would cost about $5,000. I had shored up $3,500 when along came a spectacular opportunity to pay an editor to read and critique my novel (another obsession). The price tag: exactly $3,500. With no travel buddy in sight, I realized that perhaps this was what I’d been saving up for all along. God had given me the travel bug for six months for a reason. He’d known that I would need $3,500 to pay this editor. This was the final sign that I should save my trip for another year! So I gave up all my savings only to realize (with a couple key strokes on the calculator) that bumping my trip from November 2014 to January 2015 would give me enough time to save up $5,000 again.
This realization was a curse. After such fleeting freedom, the trip became my master again.
April 2014. Me: Hey different friends, the trip is back on! Want to come with me? Two or three hands went up. A couple weeks later, they all went back down.
I was in despair. I had to go, so why couldn’t I? Maybe I was looking at it all wrong. Of course! I didn’t need a buddy. I was almost 30 years old and just fine on my own.
July 2014. Me: Hey Dad, I’m going to Europe by myself. Dad (wisely): No, you’re not.
I have never felt so frustrated. I was stretched far apart yet mired in one place. My heart and soul were in Germany; my body was stuck in Idaho. Physical pain hasn’t had much say in my life, but let me tell you, I’d have chosen all the pain I’d ever felt over the agony of constant derailment.
It literally made me sick. Thanks to a hair trigger on my adrenal glands, my body immediately halts the unnecessaries (rest, recover, recreation, digest) and switches to fight-or-flight mode whenever I stress out. Forget shedding tears over a carton of ice cream, I simply shut down. No appetite. Sluggish digestion. Sleep? Don’t need it. I’m too busy worrying, and the worry goes straight to my gut.
That’s when I clued in at long last. Bad job, Gwen. You’re not handling this right. How many times does God have to break your fingers? Put this trip on the altar. Give it up. One hundred percent. Keep nothing back.
So I finally gave Europe away. I told God that if I ever made it to Germany, I wanted it to be from Him, not me. I was done scheming, done hanging onto this cliff by my fingernails. And that very second, my appetite returned to normal. I was at peace. Randy had finally learned to relinquish her bone.
* * *
My dad has a saying: God never takes anything away unless it’s to give you something even better.
God could have kept saying no, but through trial and error and trial by error, I had at last reached a frame of mind where not going was okay. And that’s when I suddenly remembered that Grace had planned a trip to Italy, but lo, Facebook held no pictures. Had she canceled the trip? In late August, I sent her a short, casual email. Was she, by any chance, interested in visiting Ireland, Germany, and France?
Almost immediately she said yes. Turns out her trip to Italy had fallen through months ago, but she had continued saving money based on sheer gut instinct that God would send her on a journey somewhere else.
My heart started skipping again, but I sat on my excitement like you’d hold a beach ball under water. Dad still had to mull the idea over for several days, in his methodical lawyer way. Europe was no longer the Europe my parents had known. ISIS was rearing its ugly head; ebola was creeping across continents and leaving a wake of panic and dead bodies. Even with a buddy, traveling might not be the best idea.
August 29, 2014. My dad still hadn’t given me an answer. I was driving home to Boise for a friend’s wedding and I figured he would tell me his decision after the weekend, but I already knew that he’d say no. The trip was simply too dangerous. I told myself this for all 300 miles.
Strangely, my peace stayed put. Thirty years old and on my own or not, I still respected my father. I knew I would never leave without his approval, and God had already taken Germany away so many times, I trusted Him to keep it safe for another year.
I walked into my parents’ house that warm Friday night and gave my dad a hug, determined not to say a word about the trip. He’d tell me in his own time. I had waited years. I could wait a few more days.
Still hugging me, he said without warning: “Hey Gwenny, Europe sounds okay.”
I jerked away. I felt like I’d been electrocuted. “Really?” Then I grabbed him in another hug and squealed.
He said firmly: “Just don’t stay in any hostels where it’s an open room, guys and girls.”
Of course not! What kind of daughter did he think he’d raised? But I was too excited to say anything but “Oooo, I won’t! Oh, I was soooo afraid you would say no!”
And I started bouncing off the walls. Sheer joy. I was a champagne bottle, heavily shaken and suddenly uncorked. My poor family got the spray, but they were excited too. Mom told me all the best places to buy pewter (“Look for shops that say zinn“) while simultaneously researching pickpocket-proof purses and the statistics of getting scammed at ATMs. Jen and Lacy were thrilled. Kate pouted and said I had to skip Trinity College in Dublin because I wasn’t allowed to see the Book of Kells without her, but that’s her way of showing support. Erin just said: “DO YOU HAVE A CUTE COAT AND CUTE BOOTS.”
I texted Grace with delirious thumbs and barely intelligible English. My message went something like this: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We’re going!!!!!!!!!!!!!! EEEEEEEEEEEE!” or along those lines.
And at long, long last, the planning began in earnest. I stayed up past midnight as I researched flights, cities, castles, weather, trains, shopping, history, Rick Steves, Rick Steves, Rick Steves. Because zero to 60.
* * *
As someone who hates waiting I should have known in the beginning that if God ever said yes He wouldn’t say it right away, but I’d been moving through life too fast to think about that. Sometimes it takes a two-by-four, neon letters, and lots of misery for me to get the point.
Learn this now: Wherever you want to go and whatever you want to do in life, you must work for it, and still wait for God to hand it to you.
Do most people travel for fun? To see new things? To get away from normality? I went to find something, and God gave me so much more than I was even looking for—right in my own home.