Advice for the Lovelorn ... Teacher

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Chapter 5

As I entered my 40s, my mother died. I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t cry. I cried more when I had the cat put down years later than I did for her. I liked the cat.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not happy about her death. You must remember this basically was my only parent. My sister and her family were living in California and they came back for the funeral. Then they went back to their life and I went back to mine.

Except I really didn’t. I didn’t have a life to start with.

I just didn’t know it at the time. My schedule for the past decade was arranged around therapies and doctor visits for my mother and this new-found freedom threw me for a loop. I can go away for a weekend. I can go out after class with a co-worker.

Holy crap, I am free!

But, like a dog that is used to being attached to a certain length of chain, my little world only went so far. Sophia was now an empty nester so we spent more time together. This was a wonderful adventure for me. I could go out to dinner at the drop of a hat—I didn’t need to be home. I could go to a concert or a lecture in Chicago with Sophia! I could do things! What an incredible time in my life.

Now, I need to explain Chicago. Indiana’s motto is “Crossroads of America” and that is true. In one city, four major interstates are located within its boundaries. At one point, Interstates 80, 90, and 94 are all the same stretch of road. (Can you say congested?) So to go to Chicago is a major ordeal. You don’t just “go” to Chicago. Oh, sure, thousands of Hoosier residents commute to Chicago every single day for work, but regular people don’t even think about attempting it. I can never get there in less than three hours and I live three miles from the Illinois border. It’s the amount of traffic, the crazy Illinois drivers, the crazy Indiana drivers, and the thousands of trucks transporting goods to the east coast from the west and then to the west from the east coast. Needless to say, there are very few two-lane roads in this area, unless you’re driving through a subdivision. But every subdivision has at least one semi-driver who brings his work home with him.

I even knew people, other than Sophia’s relatives, who refused to travel on the interstates. As one friend explained her reluctance to drive on the highway, “There are cars there.” And no, she wasn’t blonde.

But leaving the herd—it is a true mentality. It’s almost as if you are being disloyal to the family. And you feel obligated to keep their respect, so you tamp down any ambition or emotion or thought that would lead you away from home.

Me, on the other hand, it was all I thought about. But I didn’t have the drive, and maybe the ambition, to leave. Lacking the money was also a reason, but I digress. I was stuck and I knew it from the age of 15. I was stuck in Indiana. I was stuck with a mother who was quite content to play the victim and wallow in her little existence. It was my job to keep her comfortable in that situation. And it was my job, nay my duty, to get married and have children. Not for me, but for her. This way she could benefit. But I wouldn’t wish her on my worst enemy. And to get married, I would probably have to leave the house to find a man. They weren’t breaking down my door. And I worked with mostly women, so that wasn’t even a possibility.But I knew there was life out there, somewhere. Save yourself, E.T., because I sure as hell can’t save myself.

Sophia was used to driving into Chicago. She had attended dozens of lectures and concerts and even was a frequenter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the occasional opera. So she was always the chauffeur on our adventures. I would drive to her home, park my car and hop into hers. She could get up there and parked and into the building in under an hour. I don’t know how she did it. Well, the getting into the building part I do know—she walked very fast.

My soul just grew by these experiences. I was hearing live music. I was meeting authors. I went to my first opera with her. We saw silent movies with a live orchestra playing the score. I can’t imagine the hours of practice for that orchestra to be able to not only perform the music so perfectly but to also keep in synch with the movie.

Sophia was very easy to talk to. It also helped that she did most of the talking. I loved listening to her stories. And it was on one of our drives to Chicago that we decided that we were going to Europe. She longed to go back and I just longed to go. As luck would have it, the planets aligned and an opportunity presented itself. Sophia was going to France one summer to take a course just for fun. (Who does that? Isn’t this the most exciting thing a person could do? I want to be Sophia when I grow up!) Once her coursework was done, why not fly over with her daughter, Lauren? Then the three of us could tackle the continent.

I nearly swallowed my tongue. Everything I had ever hoped for was coming true. And even though I was a novice traveler, Lauren was not. Sophia made sure to show her the finer things in life (like culture, art, music, traveling) and the high school where Sophia taught and Lauren attended often had European trips for foreign language students. Lauren had graduated from college a few years before and did spend a semester studying in Europe as well. I was in very good hands.

Sophia left on June 1, shortly after her school year ended. Lauren and I would fly to Paris on July 23. I didn’t think July would ever arrive, let alone late July. What would I do between the end of my semester and the trip? Teach summer school.

Now, I had never taught summer school. I had never even attended summer school. I completed all of my studies, from elementary school through high school and even college, during the school term. (In my defense, I think this was because there weren’t many options during my high school years to take courses during the summer unless a student had flunked a course.) And I didn’t think that I could teach summer school—didn’t they have their stable of professors doing that? Every story I have ever heard about teaching summer school said it was easy money for the faculty and those with the most seniority were lined up to rake it in. But this summer there were no takers. This would be money and a diversion for me, so I happily accepted.

It was basically a 16-week semester condensed into 8 weeks. The class would meet two evenings a week for 75 minutes a session at Central Heights University and it would be worth three credit hours. In fact, it was the same course I had been teaching, English Composition. What could be easier?

The 16-week course would be easier. Did I mention I was teaching Advanced Composition?

CHU’s writing program showed no mercy to its students. Under the theory that the more you write the better you become, students wrote multiple drafts of each paper. And by writing multiple drafts of each paper it would foment a practice within a student during their academic career to work on each and every assignment in multiple drafts so that the finished project was as perfect as it could possibly be. There were five assigned essays (not counting the smaller, daily journal writings which were only a page a piece, for every class day). A 750-word-draft was due every Friday, the last class day of the week. That allowed the professors a weekend to grade the papers to return on Monday. A revised draft would be turned in the following Friday, that corrected draft returned Monday, and a final, revised draft would be submitted that third Friday. This was the money paper—the one that fully counted. So, five papers with three drafts equals 15 weeks. The 16th week would be the final exam.

That’s a lot of grading. Even with the maximum class size limited to 25 students, and over four classes, that’s 100 papers (provided all of the students turned one in).

Hmmm. This might be another reason why I’m single—who had time for a social life grading 100 papers every weekend?

Now, if my math is correct (and I am not good in math), at minimum, a semester provided up to 100 students each turning in a paper each week for 16 weeks. But this was summer school, with 25 students doing five papers in eight weeks and multiple drafts …

How can they do multiple drafts when we have eight weeks? Maybe only do one draft?

Cutting the number of essays was not an option. But fewer drafts were all right. And the journal writings.

So 45 journal writings of one page each times 25 students over 8 weeks with five essays with more than one draft, carry the one … Damn, I really wish I knew algebra. But it’s probably a good thing I don’t otherwise I would have convinced myself it was impossible, like I do with truly inconsequential things that can be easily accomplished. It is true what they say: Ignorance is Bliss.

Somewhere lost in the translation and discussion about taking on this class was the part about how the hell to pull it off. Other than cutting one draft of each essay out, I literally taught a full 16 weeks in 8 weeks. And, God love them, the students worked their rumps off and kept up with it. It nearly killed all of us, but we did it.

And yes, I did have a foreign-born student in this class. She was a young woman from Hong Kong who was called Kenny. I have no idea what her proper name was (and let’s be honest, I probably couldn’t pronounce it if I did know it). She was educated in China and had emigrated to the United States. She never said a word in class.

Until that one class discussion, the one about higher education, reared its ugly head.

The students were sharing stories about their respective high schools. There was about a 50-50 mix of urban (well, more properly suburban) schools and rural schools. One thing they all had in common—there was at least one teacher, usually a coach, who either favored the athletes and gave them no homework or that one teacher who showed movies everyday and gave students no homework, or the teacher who offered a worksheet that would be more fitting for an elementary student (it was that easy) and this allowed the students to sleep in class. Yes—that was another common trait—sleeping in class and getting away with it. Oh, and getting an A.

It made me cringe. My high school most certainly was not like that.

Kenny raised her hand and asked permission to speak. Of course! This was a class discussion and you most certainly are part of this class. I was almost relived that she was going to actually say something!

And say something she did. This was when Kenny exploded. And I mean exploded!

“Do you know what students must do in China?” She said loudly, through gritted teeth. Her teeth may not have actually been gritted—she was biting her words and her enunciation was flawless, her accent fairly mild.

“Students in China must take six classes and each class you are given a book like this,” she held up her index finger and thumb showing an imaginary book that appeared to be about two inches thick. “—And you must memorize each book. We are only allowed to go to school for 11 years. At the end of the 11th year, you must take a test on each subject and you must memorize the book. And if you pass those tests, you may attend for one more year of school. If you don’t pass you must then go to work.”

“So they can just go to college later?” one of her American classmates asked.

“Oh, no, they cannot. If they do not pass this test they are not given the letter that will permit them to go to college. They must go to work. Their school days are finished.”

There was stunned silence. It could have been because this was the first time Kenny was actually speaking, but I would like to think it was a cold slap in the face of what they take for granted.

“And then,” Kenny continued, “if you get that 12th year of schooling, you are given six new books that are this thick--“ her fingers showed a thick text of closer to three inches. “—and you must memorize these new books. And at the end of the 12th year, you must take six new tests. If you pass these tests, then you can go to university. If you don’t pass those tests, you must wait two years before you can try again.”

“And then they can go to college?”

“No! Not without the certificate.”

“Then what do they do those two years?” another student asked.

Kenny was a little calmer, but still wound up. “They may work or they can leave the country and go to school. Many come to America to study. You must wait two years before the test, but you can take the test as many times as you need to, but you must wait two years.”

Among the many things circling within my head at this time was a recent news report about how superior Asian students were to the rest of the world. The statistics showed how Asians were far superior to American students. Americans were actually offended by this news and preparing to boycott imported items. How dare the world say we’re stupid! We’re ’Muricans, dammit!

But after listening to 20 American high school graduates, who were proud of the lack of challenge they had to face, and then listening to an Asian student explain her situation, I had the proof of that study’s validity right here in this classroom.

And by the end of this summer session, I was exhausted. A nine-hour, overnight airplane ride would be a godsend. I needed the sleep.

I had my suitcase in the car as I drove to CHU to submit the grades (yes, boys and girls, this was required to be done in writing, not submitted electronically. Ah, the dark ages of 2004 ...). I don’t remember sleeping much that week, but I walked them to the registrar as quickly as I could (I don’t run), hustled back to the car, then off to pick up Lauren and catch the bus for the airport.

Sophia was going to meet us at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris when we landed the next day. She would take the train to Paris with her luggage, which was very common for people to do. Owning a car in Europe is more of a luxury in some places but they also have a phenomenal public transportation system. She had rented a car, which she would pick up at the airport. After our excursion, we were all booked on the same flight back to the States, so we could easily drop off the rental car. She really knew what she was doing. She planned nearly everything to the final detail. To her, this planning was second nature because she had done such traveling with students and had to have everything squared away before she could even send permission notes home with her students to have their parents sign.

Our flight was uneventful and even so, I didn’t sleep much. Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the newness of the adventure, maybe it was because I was so tired that the adrenaline that was keeping me going was still pumping through my body. We left in a dark evening sky from Chicago at 9 p.m. and arrived the next day in a very bright and sunny Paris about 11 a.m. We made our way to baggage claim just as the items from our flight were beginning their journey on the conveyor belt.

The second suitcase to appear from the flight on the conveyor belt was mine. I squeezed through my fellow travelers to snatch it off the moving belt and tried to maneuver out of the way of the others who were waiting to get their suitcases. I told Lauren I could stand with our carry-on bags apart from the crowd since I had my suitcase. That way she could go closer to the belt for her suitcase without juggling the smaller bag. I found my spot about six feet away, leaving plenty of room for the crowd at the luggage carousel.

I relished these first few moments on European soil. After sitting for so many hours, it felt good to stand. I shifted my weight between both feet and looked around. Things at DeGaulle were similar to what I knew from domestic airports, but hearing the different languages being spoken, watching the people, I fully realized that deep down, we are all alike. I noticed the windows and was taken aback by the flag pole in front of the airport. How odd to see the tricolors rather than the Stars and Stripes. I realized that I really was a rookie at life—I’ve never seen a flag pole without the U.S. flag on it before. It took a few moments for me to fully comprehend this.

The crowd around the luggage carousel and conveyor belt was thinning, but there were about 15 people there still waiting, including Lauren. Apparently, an entire cartload of luggage was still sitting in London. It would be loaded on the next plane to Paris, the airline personnel promised everyone.

Wait--London? As in England? How did it get there? We never landed there.

That’s when I learned that, if a flight has too much cargo, cargo becomes interchangeable. If it doesn’t make one flight, it would go on another. From there, they would coordinate to get it to its proper destination, ideally before the owner of the cargo arrived. But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Like now.

“This happens every time I come to Paris!” Lauren moaned.

“How often is that?” I asked. Every time you come to Paris? What an odd choice of words. How often do you come to Paris? I couldn’t relate.

“This is the third time. The first time was when we came on vacation,” she said, about the first trip to France she and Sophia made when Lauren was 12. “Then the second time was when we took a class trip in high school; they lost it then. I was the only one in the group without luggage. And now, this time.”

I did feel bad, a little bit. I had mine and it’s hard to feel bad when you’re not inconvenienced. I was very grateful my bag made the trip with me on the same flight. But it is also hard to generate a lot of sympathy for someone so young who has trouble “every” time they come to Paris. That would be like me saying “every time” I go to the grocery store I would invariably be stuck with the worst cashier ever hired by anyone. It was a bad analogy, I admit, but I’m blaming it on the jet lag. And maybe a little jealously.

The big fear was that Lauren had put her cell phone in that suitcase, the cell phone equipped to be used in Europe. How would we contact Sophia?

Within moments, Lauren said, “Never mind, there she is.” Lauren walked away, leaving me standing there looking like Europe’s worst nightmare: A jet-lagged American tourist.

Never mind what? There who is? Where did she go?

Sophia, the always prompt and vigilant Sophia, was there! When she arrived, she began walking toward baggage claim. She was calling my name and even waving her arm, beckoning me over to where she was standing. I literally did not see her. I was in Paris—I don’t know anyone here.

She and Lauren went to an airline representative and learned the next flight over the Channel was airborne now and would be landing within the hour. They could not verify if the suitcase was on that plane. Sophia was optimistic and it was decided we should eat lunch here at the airport and wait for the bag.

They had a Burger King in Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris! My little Midwestern brain was about ready to explode. This was just too surreal for me to comprehend.

We found a table near a window and Lauren filled Sophia in about what was going on at home with the dogs, the parents, the siblings, the mail, life in general. I was silent as it was taking all of my concentration to chew my hamburger. What was wrong with me? I’ve eaten a hamburger before. It’s not like a French burger is different from an American burger, especially at Burger King. How long does jet lag last?

Sophia described the rental car to us. It was smaller than she had hoped, but sufficient. Almost as an afterthought, she asked me, “You drive a stick, right?”

Do. I. Drive. A. Stick?

Like a Stick Shift.

In. A. Car.

I think I grunted when I finally comprehended. “No,” I managed to say.

“Never?” Sophia asked, a little surprised.

“No-o,” I responded. I really must have bad jet lag. I thought my response of “No” to the question “Do I drive a stick?” was pretty clear and to the point. Maybe I misunderstood. I asked Sophia, “Why?”

“Because cars in France come with manual transmission because of the mountainous terrain.” Sophia looked at her daughter. “You can drive a stick, right?”

“I haven’t since I was 16. But I can pick it up again.”

Sophia and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “No,“ Sophia said, “you are not going to try to ‘pick it up’ driving through the Alps.”

With only one driver now, instead of three, the original plans would have to change. While we waited for Lauren’s suitcase, Sophia opened a map she had in her shoulder bag. Italy was out, Switzerland was out. We would head into Germany for a short trip and then spend the remainder of the time in France. Our eventual Bavarian destination: Munich.

Such detail and such planning—all I could say was “Aye, aye, Captain!” I think I even saluted. I mean no disrespect—this was so exciting and it sounded so simple. Sophia appreciated the moniker and, as she often jokingly called me “Professor”, Lauren began to giggle. “Well, we have our Skipper and our Professor, so do I get to be Ginger or Mary Ann?”

“More like Gilligan,” Sophia teased her daughter.

“How about ‘Little Buddy’?” I offered. I was starting to make sense—the jet lag must be waning. Or the caffeine from my drink was kicking in. I was becoming coherent. As much as I enjoyed watching Gilligan’s Island in reruns, it’s not an image people want when you’re on a trip. After all, those seven people were just going on a three-hour tour.

A three-hour tour.

That little earwig ended up becoming the theme of this trip. Welcome to Europe, Jane Smith.

A few days later, after our arrival in Munich, Lauren and I raided the hotel’s rack of brochures for tours and events happening in the area. Both of us had expressed an interest in seeing Dachau, the infamous concentration camp which was near Munich. In fact one company offered three daily tours, leaving at various hours. “We could do this in a half-day,” I said, not thinking. “It’s only a three-hour tour.”

Lauren and I exchanged a glance. We both knew this was not funny. The hundreds of thousands of innocent people who were forced to enter those gates absolutely had no humor in it. Then why were we thinking of that other three-hour tour made popular on television?

Our “Skipper” piped up. “I’ve heard about those tours. You have no problem getting a bus to Dachau, but it’s difficult getting one back.”

“Isn’t that what they told the Jews in 1944?” Did I say that out loud? Lauren tried not to laugh. I bit my tongue.

“What?” Sophia asked. At this our “Little Buddy” laughed out loud. Sophia did not see the humor and she admitted she was only half-listening. She had been told by other tourists who actually did travel to Dachau on those tours that they had a difficult time getting back on the return bus. But, always the Skipper, we could add a trip to Dachau to our itinerary and, as we had the rental car, we could visit there on our way back to France.

“Oh, well, that will work, too,” I said. I looked at Lauren, and continued in a quieter voice, “At the very least they can trace the rental car if we don’t return.”

She laughed again.

We decided to return the excess pamphlets back to the hotel lobby while Sophia showered. As we placed them in their respective slots we discovered one we missed the first time: a half-day tour of “Hitler’s Munich.” It could be combined with the Dachau tour for a lower price. “What is that tour about?” Lauren asked.

I glanced at the brochure, paraphrasing. “Munich is near and dear to Hitler’s heart because he lived here, blah blah blah.”

“Near and dear to his heart?” Little Buddy was near hysterical with laughter. After studying in Munich for three months while she was in college, the city was also near and dear to her heart. But, she hoped, that was where the similarity ended.

But the first order of business was booking a tour to Salzburg, Austria.

Austria! I’m going to Austria! As in the birthplace of Mozart Austria! As in The Sound of Music Austria!

As in Not Indiana!

Salzburg was actually fairly close to Munich. The tour was billed as an all-day affair, lasting about 8 hours. It would leave first thing in the morning, so as if the jet lag wasn’t enough to encourage an early bedtime, this trip would.

I’m going to Austria for eight hours! Alert the media!

We boarded the bus about 8 a.m. and were told we would be returning to Munich about 7 p.m. “That means this is an 11 hour tour,” I said. Our tour guide announced we would be taking a boat trip on Lake St. Wolfgang, which was the difference in time. A difference of three hours.

“OK,” I said, “Call me paranoid, but we’re going on a three-hour tour, involving a boat?”

“You’re paranoid, Professor,” The Skipper said. Little Buddy was in the seat in front of us, already fast asleep.

Our walk through Salzburg was wonderful for me; others might not be that impressed. We didn’t really go into any of the buildings due to the lengthy lines to get into any of the Mozart-related buildings such as the museum and birthplace. Clark, our tour guide and bus driver, pointed out the buildings related to The Sound of Music (we saw the mansion up a mountainside, the church was outside of town and was more of a drive-by viewing as we headed to Lake St. Wolfgang. “Look to your right—that little building was the church,” Clark said. But I didn’t care—it was closer than I’ve ever been to these things. Baby steps, Jane, baby steps.

Words cannot adequately describe the majestic beauty of the Alps, the blueness of the sky, or the serenity of the lake. I had never experienced anything quite like it. We had some time to walk through the quaint town of St. Wolfgang before returning to the rest of our tour group at the pier. This wasn’t the south Pacific, but it was a paradise.

“Our boat ride will take about 30 minutes and the bus will meet us in St. Gilgan,” our tour guide said.

The Skipper looked at me. “Did he say Gilgan or Gilligan?”

Before I could answer, a small motorized boat approached the dock. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a small, white boat with an enclosed cabin in front. I began searching the boat, looking for the name of it. It surely couldn’t be …

“Well, we can now say our ship has come in,” Little Buddy giggled.

“Is it me, or does that not look like the S.S. Minnow?” I asked.

The tiny ship was not the Minnow, in either name or behavior. There were plenty of seats on the deck, where the passengers could sit and soak in the grandeur of the scenery. If there was one place to be shipwrecked, this was it: The blueness of the sky, the coolness of the breeze, the colors of the flowers in the window boxes of the chalets. It was a perfect view.

All the tourists returned to the bus for the trip back to Munich. It was a hot day, and the bus was even moreso, being locked up while we were sightseeing. Sophia, Lauren, and I were seated on the upper deck of the bus, along the back, where there was a five-person bench. We opted for that rather than two seats together, separated by the aisle, since there were the three of us. Clark, who was the only American besides us on the trip, apologized to everyone about the temperature. He assured all of the passengers that the air conditioning would soon kick in and cool the double-decker bus. It would take a while before the cool air rose to the top deck and he offered people seats on the main deck. A few descended, but we stayed put. We didn’t have air conditioners at home, and Europe isn’t known for its artificial cooling systems, so it wasn’t an unbearable situation.

Before we crossed the Austrian-German border, the bus pulled off the road. The motor was still running, but I noticed Clark had exited and was pacing frantically along the side of the bus, toward the back of the vehicle where we were sitting, out of sight of the other passengers. He was speaking on a cell phone.

“This can’t be good,” The Professor in me whispered to The Skipper.

Suddenly, the bus motor stopped running. The silence was almost deafening and the heat was stifling. Not wanting to cause a panic, because we weren’t sure how much English the other passengers understood, Sophia and I looked at each other and mouthed the words, “This can’t be good.”

I again looked out the window.

Clark was pacing even more frantically, speaking on the cell phone.

I tried to mentally do the math, which as I’ve said isn’t my strong suit. We were about two hours away from Munich. It was rush hour. By the time a new bus came to pick us up and return us to Munich, it would likely be about four to five more hours. Not exactly the three hours that we should be stranded but enough with the coincidences. Five hours is more than three hours and therefore there is no connection with that certain television show. And besides, this was a bus, not a boat.

The bus soon started and shortly we were on our way, sweltering. Nothing was explained to us until we returned to Munich hours later and Clark told The Skipper that the bus had overheated. Even with the air conditioning off, it was still in the danger zone. That’s why he had pulled over and Clark tried to call the office. It was suggested he turn off the motor for 10 minutes and try again. They were able to nudge it along, slowly, through the Alps to Munich. Ironically, the trip ended after 10 ½ hours, not the 11 hours proposed at the start. So, no three-hour increment.

“Are you ladies planning any other tours during your stay in Munich?” Clark asked.

“Yes,” The Skipper said, “tomorrow we are doing the castle tour.”

“So am I,” Clark said. Sophia and I smiled. Clark was handsome, somewhere around middle age. It was just a bonus to we two single women. “But there are two tours going out tomorrow—mine and one solely in German. Make sure you get on the right bus.”

“Oh, we will,” I said, semi-flirtatiously. “See you then!”

Where did that come from? I’m flirting with total strangers in Europe?

As we were heading back to the hotel, congratulating ourselves on our luck at having Clark as our guide for two tours, Little Buddy Lauren couldn’t take it anymore.

“You two are acting like some 40- and 50-something year olds.”

Sophia and I stopped and looked at each other. Was that an insult? Granted, the truth hurts—we were in our 40s and 50s—but it kind of begged the question: What should we be acting like?

“Jealous?” The Skipper asked her daughter.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I added. Lauren sighed and walked ahead of us. Sophia sped up, trying to keep her in view. We had lost her twice already on this trip, both times on our first day while touring a church in Reims, France and later in Stroudsberg. Lauren wasn’t really lost; we had just lost sight of her for several minutes.

“Give me that cow bell you bought in Salzberg,” Sophia told me. “We need to tie that around her neck.”

The next day we toured two of the castles of “Mad” King Ludwig. We would begin at Lindenhof castle, go to Oberammergau for a short visit and then to Neuschwanstein castle where we would spend three hours.

“Does it seem like we have a recurring theme going here?” I again asked.

A second theme began to emerge during the visit to Lindenhof, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. King Ludwig was mad, and also very weird. The king had a tree house on the grounds of Lindenhof. He was a huge patron of the arts, especially composer Richard Wagner, even having a piano specially built at Lindenhof for Wagner, at taxpayer expense, of course, which Wagner never played.

Lindenhof was also referred to as a mini-Versailles. Ludwig was a Francophile, and the decorations inside and outside the castle attested to this. One room had a wall of mirrors, there were portraits of the French royal couple throughout the palace, and even a fleur-de-lis made out of flowers behind the castle. It was almost like he never grew up, I thought. Granted, it was 2004—things were very different during the 1800s.

As we traveled to Neuschwanstein, we learned more about the Bavarian king. He was born Aug. 25, 1848.

August 25th? Why does that date sound familiar?

He died under mysterious circumstances at age 40. He was engaged but never married. For some reason, the portraits of the king in his military uniform looked familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure why.

Clark explained what the tourists should do while at Neuschwanstein. Their tour of the castle was at 3:15, so they had time for lunch. Then, pointing up at the top of an Alp, the passengers on the bus got their first good look at the castle. “It may look familiar to you,” Clark said. “Walt Disney used it as a model for Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland.

“Even though the castle sits some 8,000 feet up, you can still hear the bells of the cows in the valley at that distance.”

“But how will we know which one is our Little Buddy’s?” Sophia said to me, not missing a beat. Our Little Buddy did not see the humor.

We left the bus at the bottom of the mountain. Clark said there were two options up the mountain: one is the shuttle bus, which is always packed, and if you planned on taking it, you should not eat lunch at the restaurant due to the length of time you would wait for an empty bus. The bus would take you to the castle, but it would also drop you off near Marianbrueck, Marian’s bridge, which traversed a ravine which gave an excellent view of the castle. Clark highly recommended doing that. The bus didn’t go to the bridge, but it dropped you off about a 5-10 minute walk away.

The second option was to walk up the mountain. That would take about an hour and a quarter, if you were in shape.

“Sounds like we’re doing lunch and taking our chances on the shuttle,” Sophia said.

Luck was with us—we not only ate lunch, but also got a ride on the shuttle bus up the mountain to Marianbrueck. As advertised, the bus left us a short distance from the bridge.

After a few minutes of walking up an incline, I declared, between heaving puffs, “If anyone asks, we hiked up an Alp. Granted, it’s only for five minutes, but it’s up and it’s an Alp. This counts.”

When we arrived at Marianbrueck we were greeted by a character that can best be described as Heidi’s Grandfather. An old man, in dark green lederhosen and matching green felt alpine hat with grey hair and long grey beard, did add a lot of flavor to the scenery. He also took photos of the tourists on the bridge (for a small fee) in front of Neuschwanstein castle, across the valley. How could we say no?

And why am I thinking of the troll who runs the toll bridge? Or was that The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Man, I need to reread those fairy tales. They do come in handy sometimes.

Inside the castle were photographs of the construction site, during the late 1800s, where men were building the castle on the top of an 8,000 foot mountain, without machines. They were also wearing bowler hats—talk about formal! It was an amazing concept to behold. There were several portraits of Mad King Ludwig throughout the castle as well. Lauren passed me and said “He looks like Michael Jackson in those military outfits.”

That was it! I looked at the portraits of King Ludwig II. That’s what had been driving me crazy. The second theme to the trip was the Michael Jackson connection with Mad King Ludwig. The Treehouse at Lindenhof. The military uniforms. The August birthday. Cinderella’s castle vs. Neverland Ranch. Could Jackson be the reincarnation of the Bavarian King?

After we returned to our hotel, I told Sophia and Lauren about my theory. Sophia arched her eyebrows and began to plan for the next day’s adventure. Lauren offered more support.

“Both were eccentric and wore military uniforms,” she began.

“Both had trouble with women,” I said. “Ludwig never married, Michael never should have.”

“He’s the King of Pop and married the King of Rock’s daughter, which would make Lisa Marie a princess, right?”

“Right. And the King of Pop vs. The King of Bayren. Oh, and the brothers,” I said. “Ludwig’s brother is Otto, Michael has Tito.”

“Both of them spent money on crazy things” Sophia added. She smacked her head--Why was she getting involved in this conversation with these lunatics?

“Both weren’t well liked in their home towns,” I said. Living close to Gary, Indiana, the hometown of the Jackson family, I knew emotions ran more cold than hot toward the family. Lauren added, “Ludwig was obsessed with Paris, Michael named his daughter Paris.”

“Enough!” Sophia said.

The final full day in Munich would be spent at a chateau called Nymphenbourg by everyone except me. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name. I knew it had something to do with nymphomaniacs and came up with Hypo-nympho-land. The site held many attractions. Aside from the museums, chateau and gardens, there was the Magdalena chapel, which Sophia wanted to visit. She had visited Nymphenbourg before, but was not able to enter the chapel.

Two new themes emerged this day. We had become accustomed to everything happening (or so it seemed) in three-hour increments. The Michael Jackson-Mad King Ludwig connections had slowed down considerably. One new theme was that the homes used by the former German royal family were all referred to as mini-Versailles, and Nymphenbourg was no exception.

As we entered the grounds of Nymphenbourg, we noticed a strange phenomenon. Hundreds of white seagulls were on the lawn, but only on one side. We walked down the path bisecting the lawn toward the castle.

“Isn’t that strange?” Sophia said about the birds.

“I wonder why they’re all on that side,” Lauren asked. We stopped to look. Nothing was on the left side of the lawn. The right side of the lawn was almost totally white, being covered by the birds.

“Must be union regs,” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s 12:05. They probably switch sides on the hour.”

As we toured the castle, I took advantage of an open second-floor window to look out over the grounds. About half of the seagulls had migrated to the other side of the lawn. I looked at my watch: 12:30.

After touring the castle, we walked outside to the grounds behind and started down a path with the sign for the Magadelena chapel pointing left.

“I know a shortcut,” Sophia said. And off we went, to the right.

After all of the wise decisions and accurate knowledge she had displayed thus far, the final theme of our trip began to emerge: Our Skipper’s debatable sense of direction.

The path was nice, at least it was shaded. The day wasn’t humid, but it was hot.

The shade provided much needed cooling. Lauren wondered aloud why people would be allowed to just roam the grounds, since this was a castle. Weren’t they afraid of vandals hiding until dark? Or, being Americans, are we just less trusting of people?

“There are probably cameras planted in the trees,” Sophia mused.

“Probably disguised,” her daughter continued. “Hey, look at that snail!”

They stopped. What snail?

Lauren pointed to a tree. There it was, at eye level. “Sure it’s not a camera?” I asked, always the skeptic.

We peered closer. The organism was moving, even the tiny antennae. “Nope, it’s real,” Lauren said.

As we continued down the path, Lauren found more snails on the trees. One tree had five snails on its trunk. “That’s probably the camera tree,” I observed, pointing at the slightly curving line of snails. “Five snails? Look at their angle. A little suspicious.”

To our right, there was a real camera, under the bottom branches of a tree, about 10 feet above the ground.

“That must be the fake one then, huh?” Sophia asked.

“But of course. That is too obvious. They wouldn’t have a real camera be a camera.” I said, always one for conspiracy.

We trudged on. Sophia in the lead, Lauren slightly behind, me a few steps father back. For a non-hiker, I was keeping up, for the most part. And they also were learning to walk slower.

“SNAKE!” I yelled.

They stopped. Another second later and Sophia would have stepped on it. “Where?” she asked.

It had already slithered into the brush.

“Awwww,” Lauren said. “It was just a little garter snake.” Had she even see the thing?

“Little? That thing was huge!” I said, probably near hysteria.. To say I was not a fan of snakes would be an understatement.

“It was a baby,” she teased.

“Baby? Its body was the size of my fist. That’s not a baby.”

Lauren smiled to herself and began to tease me in earnest. “So what exactly are you a professor of? If you’re this freaked out by little bitty garter snakes.”

I tried to take a deep breath. In truth, I was half afraid she would double back and try to find the thing. “Writing! You know, the three R’s? And, no the R’s are NOT for reptiles!”

None of us dared to look at the other for fear of laughing. Yes, I knew I sounded ridiculous. But it was a really big snake.

After about 10 more minutes, we came to a brick wall.

Literally.

Lauren and I looked at each other.

A beat.

Sophia pointed to the wall. “The Chapel must be that way. We’ll have to go around.”

“There was that sign,” Lauren said.

“Where?”

“Before the snake” I mumbled.

“Where we started. The sign pointed the other way.”

“Ah, well, then, we’ll try that,” our Skipper said.

So back we went, past the snails, the half mile back to the sign pointing to the chapel. Once there, we began the trek anew. This new path was three-quarters of a mile there and back. So, let me do the math—If we went a half mile and back, that’s one mile, plus another three-quarters, and back. That’s like two and a half miles? In a single outing? Egads.

The Magdalena chapel was a small, brick building built in the 1720s. We crossed the foyer into the chapel, which was entirely covered in coral and sea shells. According to legend, Mary Magdalene emerged from the sea on the southern shore of France, after the crucifixion of Jesus. The entire interior of the namesake chapel was covered with items from the sea. Shells of various shapes formed designs on the coral—intersecting curves, straight lines etc. Small stones formed the outline of “bricks” on the wall, with smaller stones filling in as the “grout” between the “bricks.” The colors on the walls were pastel—tans, yellows, blues, greens. Even up in the cupola were seashells, outlining the panes of glass, with the blues and greens covering the exposed brick. It was a beautiful sight. It was definitely worth the walk. Not the snake sighting part of it, but definitely the two and a half mile walk.

We returned to the mansion to explore the attached museums. It was now 2 p.m. and the seagulls were back on the right side of the lawn.

One museum contained King Ludwig’s various forms of transportation: The carriages, the sleighs, and the merry-go-round.

A merry-go-round?

Sophia and Lauren had already turned the corner and entered another wing when I stopped dead in my tracks.

I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it.

To the left side of the doorway into the next hallway, there was a lighted glass display case, with three shelves of noses, in various states of disrepair.

Oh no. It can’t be. Not noses.

An older man sat on a folding chair by the merry-go-round, across the room from the glass case. I went over to him. “Do you speak English?”

“A little,” he replied.

I pointed at the case. “What’s with the noses?”

The man explained it was part of a game the king and his guests used to play. They would ride on the merry-go-round and attempt to shoot a nose off a Roman statue. He pointed to a stone bust on a pedestal near the ride. There were small brass arrows, about six inches long, which riders would use to try to “score.” He pointed to an example on display. It was something akin to the modern day pastime of grabbing the brass ring while riding on a carousel.

That’s why the noses were in such a state of disrepair—some people had better aim than others.

I was relieved. No connection whatsoever to Michael Jackson and his many mishaps with his surgically-altered schnozz. But, naturally, I can’t keep this information to myself. I went after Lauren and Sophia. I found Lauren first.

“I don’t want to go back there I just want to get out of her,” she said, whining with exhaustion.

“Not until you see this. It’s worth it.”

I related the story of the noses, the merry-go-round, and the old man who spoke just enough English to tell the story. The man watched us, not understanding what was being said, but knowing he was part of it.

“Oh, my God,” Lauren said between laughs. “Did my mom see this?”

We went to find Sophia, who was also looking for us. “Where were you two?”

“You have to come see this,” we said in unison.

“See what?” She was skeptical. She had visited this museum before and was fairly familiar with it. What could there possibly be that was so important?

“The case of noses,” I said.

“Case of noses? I thought you two were done with the Michael Jackson references.”

“Not anymore,” her daughter replied.

We escorted Sophia back to the glass case. The old man looked nervous. How many more of these Americans were there?

We soon finished our tour of the museums and began heading to the exit. It was three o’clock.

“Hmm,” I said. “A three-hour tour.”

“And look at the seagulls,” Lauren said. They were still all on the right side.

“They didn’t move,” I said. “They should be on the left side. It’s the odd hour.”

“I wonder why they are doing that to begin with,” Sophia wondered aloud.

Moments later, we learned the secret. A little boy walked through the grassy area and the birds scattered in fright, over to the other side.

“I guess that explains that,” Lauren said.

“I guess the birds are as goofy as Ludwig,” I said.

We headed back to our hotel to pack for the journey back to France. We would be flying home in three days. There were no more three-hour events, no more Michael Jackson connections, and the next mansion we visited was the real Versailles.

We never did make it to Dachau. But that’s OK—I went to Europe!!!

As luck would have it the next summer there came another opportunity to go to Europe. Lauren’s college was offering a cruise of the coastal cities on the Baltic Sea. Most ports of call were limited to just hours, but we would spend two full days in Russia.

Russia!

We would fly into Berlin.

Germany! And Berlin! By now the Berlin wall had been torn down. Holy cow—we would get to be in East Germany. Remember that? The country was unified now, but it’s bragging rights if nothing else.

After traveling up to the port on the German coast and boarding the boat—

“It’s a ship,” Sophia corrected me.

Po-tay-toe, Po-tah-toe. It’s a big boat, all right?

From Germany, we would stop for about six hours in Gdansk, Poland.

Poland! And in the birthplace of Solidarity! Lech Walesa, here we come!

From there we’d travel for a day at sea before landing in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Squee! Where the Czar lived! And I was just reading a book about Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Czar and Czarina. Talk about a coincidence.

The next port of call would be Finland for an afternoon. “That’s all?” I said.

“Bragging rights,” Sophia said.

Then we’d go to Stockholm, Sweden, for about six hours. And after spending the final night on the ship in port in Stockholm, we’d depart from there for home.

Bragging rights, indeed. Now all I need is someone to brag to.

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