At a hundred dollars a day, which is what Robin’s parents advised one should budget while vacationing, a ten-day trip to Europe should cost about a thousand dollars. And that was precisely what Ecotours charged. It included airfare as well. Robin was forty before she suspected that her high school, St. Scholastica’s, might have contributed a little to the pleasure of the eight girls – out of a graduating class of five hundred and twelve – who wanted to see Europe for their spring trip. Only the school’s generosity, surely, explained the cost of it jibing so neatly with Robin’s family’s rather modest expectations. The other choices Scholastica’s offered through other tour companies were cheaper and more popular. Many girls went on the Caribbean cruise, as did most of the teachers who were willing to be chaperones. Some went to Hawaii. A fourth choice, a week in Spain plus one day in Morocco, earned no enthusiasm at all, and was dropped from the list.
A thousand dollars, naturally, did not buy a Grand Tour such as a well-to-do young person of the century before would have enjoyed. Nor did it buy privacy for the eight representatives of St. Scholastica’s, plus their chaperone, Ms. Vollmer. Robin, her best friend Billie, and six acquaintances all had to join Ecotour’s previously arranged tour group of sixty-three girls from a dozen other suburban high schools. When they arrived in Europe they would board a huge coach and those seventy-one thousand living, laughing dollars would see, quickly, what so little money could buy. It bought a great deal of provincial West Germany, a little Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria and Switzerland, and a day in France.
From the very beginning, from the first parents-and-daughters meetings at school in the winter, Robin should have heeded the misgivings rising in her breast. It was not so much that she wanted to go. Billie wanted to go. Robin wanted the reputation for having gone, and did not want Billie to come home and explain Europe to her. Then the other girls’ mothers asked dotty questions – so it seemed to Robin, who had all youth’s harshness and little of its, little of Billie’s, foamy innocence – about whether there was hayfever in Europe (not in the Alps in April, as it turned out), or whether their daughters would be permitted to take their medications there. Then Miss VanDerAa, last year’s chaperone, warned everyone that the tour company’s European courier, Dr. Siegfried Jaschke, was an attractive man but a bit unenlightened about women. And, if the girls wanted to see Dachau, they would have to put themselves forward and ask for it. It was near Munich, but not on the itinerary. In those days World War II was only forty years in the past. The girls all knew what Dachau was.
But with this news about putting themselves forward, and about ten days with an unenlightened continental man, things seemed to be getting grisly and complicated. A whiff of adult choice, adult consequences, was in the air. Then the expense seemed to Robin to grow more catastrophic the more she thought about it. She marveled that her parents were willing to even think about bearing it. Truthfully, the option of Spain, cheaper, hot, rocky, and Catholic as it was, had really excited her. Was she sure the cloudy north appealed? All through their friendship it had become quite a stunt for she and Billie to play the sophisticates, liking opera and snails, and Billie, who loved to sing, was mad to see the places in Austria where The Sound of Music had been filmed. So, Robin supposed, the cloudy north would have to do. The two encouraged each other about what a glorious trip it would be, a thing easy to do in January. By mid-March, when premature homesickness was setting in, it was not so easy. They passed over a slight emotional hump arising when exuberant Billie announced one day in English class that she probably would not be able to go after all. Her parents could not afford it. This was after Robin’s father had already taken her to the bank to get a cashier’s check for one thousand dollars, payable to Ecotours. Robin acted shocked at the disappointment. In fact she felt partly relief, and partly a thin spear of ecstasy, at the idea that she might not have to go then, either.
But everything worked out. Billie’s parents found the money. The itineraries arrived: ten days in April chock full of activity. Luxembourg, Trier, Koblenz, Wurzburg, Rothenburg, Schliersee, Munich, Oberammergau, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Vaduz, Lucerne, Strasbourg, Metz, and back to Luxembourg. Return to Chicago, April 10. Robin had to go. The last, worst omen of all was that her period postponed itself for ten whole days, to flow the very morning of departure. She hurriedly re-packed her carry-on bag. Who knew what European women did at these times? Who could fancy wandering through European drugstores trying to puzzle out the German for "feminine protection"?
As the Icelandair jet peeled down the runway in the evening rain, she would have sold herself to be sitting safely home again, with her family and her gray cat.
The Icelandair flight gave them their first taste of Europe. They were served white chocolates filled with Cointreau, which Billie knew how to consume (she bit off the top and drank the liqueur, then ate the chocolate) but Robin spilled on herself. After-dinner cognac was freely available – for seventeen-year-old American girls. Billie had some. The blond stewardesses spoke Icelandic, did not smile, obviously not caring, not paid to care, how anyone felt. They never cleared away the dinner trays. Billie finally carried hers and Robin’s to the galley herself. For comfort, Robin took out one of the books she had brought to read on the flight, but it turned out to be an unfortunate choice. It was an anthology of short stories based on old episodes of Star Trek. It fell between the seats, and an unknown girl in the row behind picked it up and gave it to Billie, who passed it to Robin. There were giggles. Robin looked at the book for the first time with fresh eyes. Morose painted portraits of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy adorned the cover. What was Billie reading? She glanced over. Maya Angelou. Perhaps that is what gave a person the courage to take her own tray to the galley of a plane and face the European women smoking there. She had a lot to learn.
They refueled at Reykjavik, and shopped in the airport. The stop would only be forty-five minutes long. Left to her own devices, Robin would never have debarked the plane. Forty-five minutes was too terrifyingly small a window to risk jumping out of, so to speak. To even attempt shopping, eating, and using a bathroom in that time, which all the girls did, seemed to her the height of folly. Suppose the plane took off while they waited in line for something and they, any of them, were stranded in Iceland? In Iceland? But no. Everyone exited the plane. She had to also, or else look a ninny. At any rate she took the precaution of sticking to Billie’s side in the airport shops like a cockle-burr, while Billie bought lovely Icelandic wool sweaters duty-free.
Interminable hours later – it was still the same night of the day they had left home, only now it was about eleven o’clock the next morning, German time – the seventy-one girls rode slack-jawed on their coach through Trier. The courier, attractive Siegfried, spoke deeply, beautifully, over the microphone about Trier’s Porta Nigri, a Roman gate. Whenever he stopped speaking, Robin fell asleep. He tried to scold them into wakefulness by pointing out that it was Good Friday and the sun was shining and so be happy – a European would, evidently – but he had a hard time of it. It was on that first day also that he warned everyone about bidets. He recollected that young American ladies on previous tours of his had used them as toilets, much to the outrage of hoteliers who blamed him.
Three more things happened that first day. The girls were let out of the bus to change their own money at whatever currency exchanges they could find. At least ten of the seventy-one invaded one place exactly at noon. Robin knew that Europeans take long lunches and that they were all just about to ruin this man’s for the day. She turned to Billie.
"Look, it’s the first day," she whispered. "We all don’t need hundreds of dollars right now. Why don’t we each exchange ten, so we can get out of here?"
"No," Billie answered. "I want to get it all over with now. As long as I’m here, why not?"
Robin gave up. The shop’s owner waited on all of them, lips pursed, not looking at anyone. Robin longed to say, I’m sorry, but did not know how, and would not have wanted to look insufferable in Billie’s eyes by apologizing, either.
Then that evening the coach deposited them at their first hotel. (The management had very hospitably hung out an American flag on the balcony as a welcome. Two middle-aged women whose elevator opened on the lobby full of seventy-one American girls uttered some stunned imprecation at the sight and then pushed their way through the sea, saying "Schnell, schnell.") Billie had luckily been assigned to a room with friends, as she had requested. Robin, who had filled out the same forms asking to room with the same group, found herself bunking instead with the unknown Meg and Diane, who were friends, and with Maria, whom Meg and Diane did not like. Exhausted and miserable, Robin entered the room, smiled, and said, "Well. I guess we’re sort of stuck with each other for the next ten days." She did not mean to be coarse. She meant, generously, that she was sorry they were stuck with her, for she knew this arrangement was not their choice either. But Meg and Diane, also exhausted and miserable, were offended forever.
And finally that night they had their first dinner in Europe. The famous wiener schnitzel, breaded veal pieces, huge. Remembering Ms. VanderAa’s advice, Robin asked for "kalt milk" and got hot milk. Ever afterward, she hated breaded meat but liked hot milk.
Next day the whirlwind of the tour began in earnest. They barged on the Rhine, Robin wasting her one roll of film taking far too many photographs of small hilltop castles older than America itself. Siegfried pointed out the Lorelei. Billie and the others saw it, but Robin did not understand which rock, exactly, he meant, so she missed it. They saw the bishop’s Residenz at Wurzburg, with its ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo. Robin guessed that an Italian name this far north must mean something, so she committed to memory, not the name, but the look of the horses’ creamy breasts and underbellies as they flew in the blue sky. In after years she would recognize them in art books. There was a beautiful blue and silver room here, too, with many mirrors. Here, also, Robin and Billie accidentally got caught up in a German-speaking tour group – the white-haired man closed the door to the chamber behind them – and listened politely as he lectured to his compatriots. A couple of other girls from the bus had also been caught, but they solved their problem by loudly mimicking his rather pronounced vocal tic every time he paused for breath. Both Robin and Billie wondered how the lecture was going to end without one of the Americans present being killed.
Somehow they were able to rejoin the bus. They proceeded early in the tour to Innsbruck, where they saw beautiful white buildings trimmed in curlicues of orange and pink. Their bus passed a political demonstration in the street, which the temporary lady- courier speaking on Siegfried’s microphone nervously explained as a "peaceful demonstration ... for peace ...." When she took questions later from the girls, one asked her if there were any slums here. The two friends rolled their eyes and wanted to die from embarrassment and told each other so. They passed a synagogue.
As early as this, St. Scholastica’s alumnae had cohered to become the most forward of all the small groups on the bus. They sat up front, and looked around cheerfully. They, especially Billie and her new and growing friend Meg, had begun to pay a great deal of attention to Siegfried and also to Harry, the driver. Ms. Vollmer’s husband was a native German; perhaps they felt that gave them an acceptable adult connection to these men. Perhaps they were mature enough to cope with the foreign adult male, or perhaps they only thought they were. Billie’s superb figure and bright smile often got her mistaken for a thirty-year-old at home, and Meg was much the same, only tougher in face and manner. Siegfried’s tanned cheeks and rippling gray hair smote them. His being a man of nearly fifty, and knowing nine languages – not that anyone was likely to quiz him in Polish – smote them all. It was not long before Billie was sewing buttons on his trenchcoat, and Meg using her German phrase book to compose notes saying "Let’s get to bed," and stuffing them in the coat pocket.
And because of this and as early as this, Robin and Billie’s friendship suffered. Meg had come on the scene, and in her Billie had found the friend of her heart. They were wonderfully alike, happy, robust girls, loving nothing more than to laugh. By comparison Robin was a bit of a schoolmarm, and a jealous one at that. She and Billie had only met because their last names began with the same letter and so they had ended up in line together to take the freshman entrance exam years before. Robin now could not abide her friend’s camaraderie with this silly, late-come virago. Meg for her part thought Robin a mirthless stick. Robin drifted away a little, and joined other friends, helping to make up a new trio of skinny, athletic misfits. Compelled into friendship for survival’s sake, they were no match for the remaining five buxom private-school roses, all perfectly willing to shop and sing and flirt and drink, in English, in Germany for as long as the tour lasted.
In Munich they pulled into – and then out of – the mammoth colonnaded plaza where Hitler held some of his first big rallies. Robin tried to listen to Siegfried say which of the rows of columns were Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, but she could not hear over the talking inside the bus. They passed the ten-year-old Olympic Village, built on rubble from the war. A new guest tour guide graciously mentioned Mark Spitz. Being in Munich meant it was time to ask Siegfried to take the group to Dachau. Meg did it, suppliant but proud. Off they rode through high sun-streaked woods to a place that, fifty years earlier, people would have prayed in terror to avoid.
The bus entered a large gravel court and stopped, and the eight Scholastica girls and Ms. Vollmer got down. Siegfried had told them they could spend forty-five minutes here.
After passing a tree-shrouded gate area they walked across another big graveled courtyard, where, the brochure informed them, thirty thousand prisoners could be assembled for roll call at once. Foundations of the old barracks were marked by narrow concrete piers laid out on the sunny stones. A small concrete room, with a drain in the floor and a ceiling appearing about to bow in, was the gas chamber, never used, so it was claimed. A stone on a quiet path bore the chiseled word "Krematorium." Some of the girls claimed they could smell something. Private homes were clearly in sight about a half mile away. Were they new or old?
They saw the museum with its one striped uniform hanging under glass. There were two or three large photographs, time-lapse, of the surprised-looking face of a Jewish man under medical torture. In the second picture he closed his eyes. They saw also the ugly metal sculpture of corpses, and the ugly brick chapel meant to look like a chimney
Crunching to the bus across the prisoners’ courtyard, Robin wanted to bend down and take some white stones as souvenirs, but feared it would not be allowed and was unseemly. What would she say if her family questioned her about the rocks on her bookshelf? Oh yes, they’re from Dachau. "God," Wendy said, "can you believe it? Hitler might have walked here." Robin gave her a glance of great contempt. Meg was very quiet.
They boarded and drove back to Munich for lunch at a beer hall. It was Easter Sunday. Robin had the best sauerkraut she had ever tasted, and Meg and Billie sampled huge snifters of dark beer until the embattled waitresses cut them off. This meal was a rare pleasure, because eating and drinking in Europe had proved, for Robin at least, quite a trial. Ecotours’ package included a ready dinner every night, plus this one lunch, but it had not occurred to Robin that this meant every other meal was her own responsibility. She was mortified to order food in English from these people in their own countries. Compounding her trouble was the fact that she was
always a very slow eater, not unlike Europeans, really. She knew she could never finish the meals her friends could in the time they could. Hating to waste her money and then raise eyebrows at the end of a half-hour lunch by wasting food, hating as well to be archly accused of dieting, she fell into the habit of ordering quick sweets while everyone else, even tense Lisa and silent Ann, ate properly. Billie, the soul of kindness, sensed her friend’s predicament, and brought her up a croissant with a packet of currant jelly almost every morning.
Billie generously brought them, because as the trip wore on Robin fell in the habit also of seeking out privacy whenever she could, no matter if it meant going hungry. Billie felt sorry for her. Robin rarely breakfasted with the other girls and never went out in the evening with them. Part of her search for solitude was simply in her nature, and part came from habits formed living in a big family, where company was a given and isolation a treat. And part was the wretchedness of her situation. She gadded about with these girls, dined with them, slept with them, or tried to sleep. That was enough. She still roomed with Meg and the offended others, and Meg had a habit of staying up late smoking and singing, loudly.
All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.
Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you –
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag
...Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
She sang, quaveringly. All this company made Robin’s solitary early evenings the solace of every day. Thank God, they all went out every night. She sat alone then, and wrote up her travel diary in peace.
She had to fight for every evening, however, for the girls did not like her sitting alone in the hotel room after dinner while they went out to drink or, once, to swim. How could anyone not want to swim in the hotel pool? But it was just things like this that were so complicated. No one understood. Robin was not cosmetically prepared to swim at a moment’s notice. Evidently they were. And her contact lenses were so uncomfortable that she took them out every evening, early. Of course she could swim with glasses or without them, but neither was a pleasure, and what if she lost them while they all played some stupid game? No, she did not want to swim, or drink, or go out with them, anywhere, ever. They took the keys with them and locked her in with her blessing. What if she wanted to go out? they asked. What if there was a fire? She was taken aback by that, but reflected years later that there had been no danger. She could always get out, she simply could not lock up again behind her. And she could not understand the first question at all. What kind of eighteen-year-old girl would have the slightest desire to go out alone in a foreign city at night? Where would you "go"?
Finally bowing before her determined, strained cheerfulness, they let her alone to write her diary at night. She had already happened to tell them she had made it a rule not to burden it with personal comments.
They came to Schliersee. It was a pretty town beside a lake ("see"). One afternoon the eight Scholastica girls walked out at leisure there. Robin wanted to see the lake. She could glimpse it, trembling in faint sun, through the trees and houses. If this had been a vacation with her parents, they would have gone to see the lake. The girls, however, were looking for a bar, in town, to go drinking. They drank every night, but today was the first day they had been free to go out purposely to hunt for the evening’s bar in the afternoon, in daylight. To do it right. Robin, savoring in anticipation her night in, accompanied them for form’s sake.
They walked along through the quiet gray streets still spotted with old snow. One orange car, with skis strapped to its roof, drove past.
Robin walked a little ahead of the group, who ambled along very slowly. In a few minutes the silence caught her attention. She looked about. She was alone.
She turned around and saw them. All seven had stopped about twenty yards back, at the driveway of the house where the orange car had parked. Two men had gotten out of the car, two private citizens, returning home from skiing, and had been accosted by the seven. They encircled them so closely that Robin could not see the men in the crowd. If the sexes in this encounter had been reversed, two women would have screamed for help. They clustered around the men for about five minutes.
Robin was dumbfounded. So they were hunting for a saloon, but they could stop for a few minutes to hunt down men. Was this what she was missing when she avoided their evening adventures? And they thought she was odd? The display brought, for the first time, a not very nice word about them into her head. She stood there alone and made a universal gesture of public bewilderment at the sky, hoping that some native peering out his parlor window would see it, and know she was different. Of course she was. She kept her distance from the group until the girls let the men go and swaggered up to her in a body like sailor queens having just received tribute from a conquered port.
They resumed the hunt. Robin walked with them, speechless. Of course they must go on, to find a place to drink. If Europe for her would be encapsulated in this awful memory, it appeared to be encapsulated, for them, in this: you could drink. You could drink. Dear God, you could drink. Robin wrote it all bitterly in her nocturnal travel diary, beside the tender descriptions of tanned and graying Siegfried. She wasn’t very fair-minded. Dear holy God and holy saints and Mary in heaven, you could drink. You could drink. In Europe, you see, you must see, you could drink. There was no drinking age. You could drink. You could have wine with lunch and beer with dinner. Or vice versa. You could walk into a bar and drink in the afternoon. You could drink before dinner, you could drink after dinner. You were seventeen and you could legally have a drink.
She wasn’t fair. Possibly they sipped – not drank – because they were sophisticated enough to want to fit in, unlike herself, who was childish and didn’t care. Ms. Vollmer, who accompanied the group everywhere but could do little else, lacked the heart also to tell them that she suspected, after one taste of "weisswine," they were being served vinegar because they were American. What they loved was not so much drink but the freedom – the intoxication – of hunting for it and indulging in it publicly. It was like a fairy tale, a dream from which you never woke up and in which you were never carded.
The girls on the Caribbean cruise at that moment could drink, too, probably, being in international waters and all, but it was not the same for them. They were mostly confined to a ship with a lot more teachers as chaperones. The girls in Hawaii could not drink at all. This, Europe, drink, men, it was unprecedented. Girls whose homes had not exactly been awash in the study of Old World provincial capitals (what on earth was a bishop’s Residenz?), but who had been reared to view alcohol as a forbidden Dionysiac glory, were sent to Europe and faced with a choice, symbolically speaking, between provincial Old World culture and alcohol. A few
nodded briefly at culture, but most instinctively drank with rapture, or at least stuck (like cockleburrs) to those who drank with rapture. They did not get drunk – "I don’t like this, it’s not horrible but it feels weird," Wendy said on her one tipsy night – but they searched for drink. Searching for, loving, thinking about drink crowned each day’s happiness, as much as solitude crowned Robin’s.
Robin called them a bad name in her head, but they were not, really. They were young. Not necessarily by European standards. Not like the German children who take their exams, for better or for worse, at fifteen, and have it decided then whether they may go to university or not. Nor like French girls who are taken to the gynecologist for their first birth control pills at about the same age, few questions asked. Life has begun. "When you are eighteen, you are an adult in Europe," Siegfried said. No, not like that, but they were young. They had grown up with milk and water, that was all. We only know what we know. They had also grown up surrounded by trees and houses, not by castles and statues left over from a time when people – children – had to fit in to a larger scheme, or maybe die. Siegfried scolded them twice over the coach microphone, not for drinking but for returning to the hotels laughing, rambunctious at night, disturbing people’s sleep. "Europeans have a right of silence after ten o’clock," he said, almost whining. No one heeded him. You don’t tell people what to do.
Robin, too, had a drinking problem, but her problem was what to drink. European restaurants do not serve water. Siegfried said it symbolized poverty. They absolutely did not drink milk. It was for babies. Tea and coffee were almost never seen. She hated the taste of wine and beer. She also hated Coke, but drank it by the quart, warm, because there wasn’t anything else. Coke with that delicious sauerkraut and dumplings. What an idiot she must look. Especially when the embattled waitresses forgot to bring it and Billie, everlastingly decent, went into the kitchens and fetched it for her. How glad, how very glad she would be – maybe how very glad they all would be, for when was the last time they had, any of them, asked each other how things were? – to go home.
It would have been pleasant all along to interrupt this recitative with an aria, for Billie and Robin’s opera-loving sakes, with action. It would be pleasant to say, that one of the girls met the love of her life on this trip, a German boy, and stayed behind to marry him and live forever in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, population 4000. It would be pleasant to report that Ms. Vollmer ran off with Harry, or that something alarming happened – at a peaceful demonstration for peace, perhaps – and the girls had reason to use Siegfried’s casual instructions as to how to recognize a policeman. But life, particularly for the young, can sometimes be just a matter of long befuddled gawping. It can be endurance, far more than adventure. The recitative went on, outside their control, in chants and halts, rather Wagnerian – rather German.
They all convinced themselves they were having a wonderful time. There was, psychologically, nothing else to do: either wrest an emotional triumph out of nerves, or else cry to be taken home. They did see many interesting things. They rode a cable car up the slopes of Mt. Titlis, its snowy peak lumped high above fog. They walked the cobblestone streets of medieval Rothenburg as churchbells chimed. They visited cathedrals, and bought warm pretzels and ate them in the square. In Lucerne there was a six-hundred-year-old covered wooden bridge to walk across. They talked about how many peasants, or princesses in pretty gowns, had done that, and and Meg and Diane and Lisa – for sometimes the misfit trio and the buxom quintet mixed – had a fine lunch in Lucerne, the wine poured in green knob-stemmed glasses. (And more Coke.) Robin ordered "ravioli al burro" from the menu without fussing, hoping it meant ravioli with butter. Hoping, as well, to make up for Diane’s rudeness. A kind young waiter had noticed her struggling with the language, and had said, "I want to help you." Diane turned on him a face literally, shockingly like Botticelli’s Venus and cooed, "I don’t want your help." What she ended up eating, Robin did not notice. Evidently it was not poisoned. Her own ravioli came with butter and she devoured it. They saw more castles and more churches, and ate Black Forest cake in the Black Forest.
Somewhere in the blur before their last day Robin photographed Patton’s grave. She found herself awestruck at the vividly painted cars and buildings, and at the wayside shrines and crucifixes along mountain roads. Woodcarvers’ shops in Oberammergau, where the Passion Play is performed, were decorated with bright murals of St. Luke. She was awestruck, too, by Austrian and Swiss merchants who did not give perfectly correct change for every purchase if they were not able to. Siegfried said this was normal. Robin thought it magnificent. Her older sisters’ horror stories of having to stay late at work to "balance your drawer" made her wish they could see what real freedom was. A few pennies don’t matter, she said exultantly. What do they matter when you are a human being and you want your lunch? Hard-headed Billie, on the other hand, thought the habit, and Siegfried’s smooth excuse of it, very suspicious.
Robin bought a little Austrian crystal pendant at a town beside a rushing ice-green river. It was her only purchase if the ten days, apart from a few postcards and chocolates. Everyone else stood in line every day to buy jackets, binoculars, boots, and glassware. "I thought you wanted to see Europe, not buy Europe," Siegfried marveled over the bus microphone. "Still, it’s good for our economy." Wendy’s new leather coat went missing from a hotel room early in the trip. She called the hotel from their next several cities to ask about it, which Robin thought nervy, but the coat was never found. Robin had to murmur sympathy, but privately felt satisfied that Europe, like a wronged woman, had been avenged.
For herself, she might never have thought of buying he pendant, but the trip was drawing to a close and frankly she panicked. If her friends were all shopping and happy, what a pity it would look if she were to go home empty-handed. Everyone would ask why. She had to muscle her way into a line of girls in the shop to get at the jewelry rack, explaining that she wasn’t cutting in, she only wanted this. Then she went around and stood in line, too. The ice-green river rushed outside in the distant sunlight. The pendant, etched with edelweiss, was pretty, but she didn’t want it, and all her life scarcely ever wore it. She wanted to fit in. And despite this it was so important also that Siegfried and everyone understand she was different, she was genteel. She pronounced this word on the bus during, at long last, an argument one day and Billie snapped at her for it. They apologized to each other a few minutes later, but they both knew Billie did not have arguments like this with Meg. Happy, singing, tender Meg. They sang together sometimes.
In Switzerland everyone went to a big crowded restaurant to eat fondue and hear some professional performers yodel and play ancient Swiss instruments. One woman swirled a coin in a metal bowl until it rang like cowbells. Before they arrived, Siegfried told them that traditionally, a woman guest who loses her bread cube in the fondue pot must get up and kiss every man in the room Poor stupid Robin took this terribly seriously, envisioning herself losing her bread, being seen, and then being pawed randomly. At the party, Meg and Billie and Wendy laughed and squirmed, trying to knock each other’s bread off their forks into the pot. Billie turned to attempt the same trick on Robin’s fork and Robin wanted to scream at her.
Then a curious thing happened. A man approached her from behind, placed a coin on the tablecloth beside her plate, said something in German, and vanished. What in the world? Robin’s hair that night was an even greater mess of long tow kinks than usual; perhaps he wanted to tell her she looked like a Rhinemaiden. Perhaps not. Perhaps he wanted to use for her the same mean word she used in her head for her friends, sometimes. Ms. Vollmer appeared instantly beside her. "Don’t worry," she smiled. "If he tries anything – I take karate – I’ll beat him up." Billie had a similar experience later. An elderly man came up to her in a busy city street and spoke vociferously, gesticulating, in German. No one ever knew why.
Salzburg was best of all. They rode a wooden slide down into the salt mines. They toured Mozart’s house, and while they wandered the rooms a lady sat down and began playing his music on his piano. Siegfried hurriedly summoned the Scholastica girls into the room– they were the only ones who cared – and paused only to stare expressively at another pair from his anonymous busload of seventy-one, slumped on a bench, refusing to budge for the honor cascading out upon them.
That night Maria, most misfit of all, stayed in to keep Robin company. This prevented her from writing her travel diary, as she did not like to scribble in a corner, ignoring the girl. Maria was not liked. She was an athlete, a bumptious man-child, worse than Robin in comparison with the buxom roses. But the two of them had a pleasant chat sitting out on the balcony in the dark above Salzburg’s biggest street, watching the twinkling lights of cars and shops, watching all the people who did not know they were up there in the coolness. Robin liked Salzburg. "It reminds me of my room at home," she said.
And so, at length, they went home. They rode one more stretch of the autobahn, listening to old American pop tunes from the ‘70s ("Goodbye, Michelle, it’s hard to die") on the bus’s German radio because they had complained, all except the Scholastica girls, about the classical music Siegfried forced on them. They sped through eastern France, stopping only for lunch. The wait staff began clearing away plates the instant the last one had been laid down. Robin thought they had been told to do this because Americans eat fast, but it did not make this meal any more pleasant than the others had been.
At the airport everyone shook Siegfried’s cologned hand, and called out "Liederhosen, Harry!" to the driver, as they had done every time they saw him for the last ten days. It was meant to be hysterically funny. Harry always smiled. The Scholastica girls gave each man a coffee mug as a parting gift, each with his name on it, each filled with candy. Robin was the one who spotted the mugs in a store, though none of the others would later acknowledge that Siegfried’s gift was her doing. Ms. Vollmer bought a card to go with, and the girls all signed it in their own fashion. Robin and Lisa and Maria and Ann simply dashed off "thank you." The others wrote long excited messages. Ms. Vollmer wrote "We are a fun-loving group!" which Robin hoped was meant to be an apology.
Icelandair took them to Reykjavik and then to Chicago. The strange hush on the plane, just before landing, burst into cheers and applause when the wheels touched down. The Americans were thrilled to be home. Robin was thrilled to be able to stride past all the foreigners waiting to go through an arduous customs check, while she, a citizen, need only say to her fellow countrymen at the gate that she had nothing to declare. (Whatever that meant.) When her parents met her, they remarked how gaunt she looked. She raved about wonderful Europe, and especially about the food. She and Billie and Billie’s parents waved goodbye, and the girls said they would see each other at school tomorrow, Monday. Was it really tomorrow? Blessed thought.
The eight girls gathered together twice more. After graduation Meg and Billie and, of all people, tense little Lisa (who put on full makeup before going to bed – dear God, how did she enjoy her trip?) organized a summer picnic in a suburban woods. It was a deathly hot American day. There were no castles and no mist, only trees and the cicadas up in their heights, buzzing below the sun. The slimy flowing creek seemed not much smaller than the Rhine. Meg did a kindness to Robin in pulling a mosquito out of her eye without dislodging her contacts.
The following December Ms. Vollmer invited them all to her and her husband’s apartment the night before New Year’s Eve. By now the girls had all been four months at college – except Robin, who had stayed home, doing watercolors and submitting sketches to children’s magazines by way of a career – and were full of news of their professors and their studies. "He says I’m a free spirit," Meg smiled at them. Meg and Billie were greater friends than ever, and called each other "woman." Ms. Vollmer served wine and fondue again. Everyone stayed until three in the morning.
When they finally filed out into the dreadful cold, Diane, who had chauffeured them all, looked ahead into the darkness and started to cry. Her hand shook against her mouth. "Oh my God. Oh my God," she said, running. A carload of young Mexican men had smashed into her parked car. Ms. Vollmer lived at the gentrified core of a bad ghetto, so this was a sickening dilemma. God knew who these men were or what they carried. Ms. Vollmer went back upstairs and called the police. Diane tried to get the men to exchange insurance information with her, but they seemed uncommunicative. They were ridiculously underdressed for the winter night. One of them kept repeating, "Shit, it’s cold. We go now, okay? We go now. Shit."
Robin and the other girls returned to the apartment while Diane and Ms. Vollmer, back from her phone call, dealt with the Mexicans and the police. They all called their parents, and Diane’s, to explain matters. Eight sets of middle-aged suburban mothers and dads got a heart-stopping phone call at three-thirty in the morning before learning that everything, so far, was still all right.
Robin was boiling with anger and fear. Meg suggested that they all go back downstairs and stand by Diane in her trouble, or maybe take taxis home and spare her the effort of chauffeuring them all again. From this Robin quickly spun visions of her one certain ride home, Diane, evaporating into the city night, and of the seven of them negotiating with seven taxi drivers from Christ knew where. Probably hers would be the paroled felon. "There’s no need for that," she spoke hard and low. "If the police are there, this will be over soon. They know what they’re doing. And
her car didn’t look that damaged to me. I’m sure it’s driveable." She sounded nasty, even to herself, but the words were out and she couldn’t take them back. She lapsed into silence, like an old injured dog.
They waited. Meg looked at her and said, in what Robin supposed was her best soulful and mentoring manner, "What are you thinking about?"
Robin grinned crookedly. "Nothing," she replied. It was the wrong answer. Earlier in the evening Meg had remarked how she didn’t like it when people, her dorm-mate for example, said Nothing to a question about their thoughts. You have to be thinking something, Meg said.
Eventually it was over and Diane drove them all home – her car was all right – passing through the projects again, Cabrini-Green, as she had on the way up to the party nine hours before, because her mother had forbidden her to use the dangerous expressway. The eight girls never saw each other all together again.
Robin and Billie remained friends, as did, separately, Billie and Meg. Robin never saw Meg again, either. She was kept abreast of her doings through Billie. Robin got wise and went to college, too, long after the others had finished. Billie graduated from Dartmouth heavily in debt, but visited Europe with her aunt and mother the summer following. This time they did the grand tour, London, Paris, Venice. They loved it.
Robin went on, as the others did, to work, to love, to marriage, to children and running a home. Once in a while somebody mentioned a place she had been. A history professor said the memorial at Dachau was antiseptic. She thought – yes, it is. Another professor said, avoid Rothenburg, it is the worst, most kitschy "best-preserved-medieval town-in-Europe." She thought – no, I liked Rothenburg. I bought two postcards there. In their mid-twenties, she and Billie got together to watch The Sound of Music at Billie’s apartment. The movie was nearly over and the popcorn gone before kindly Billie understood that Robin had never even seen it until now; for her part it was only now that Robin understood what it must have meant to Billie to tour the Mirabell Palace, and walk in the gazebo, at seventeen, where Liesl sings "I am sixteen going on seventeen."
Much later an uncle of Robin’s by marriage, an Englishman in fact, said to her while she and her husband ate lunch with him in Chicago, "You were too young for Europe, weren’t you." She looked at him in amazement. "Yes," she said slowly. "Too young. Too young, too homesick."
She read Daisy Miller, about a young American girl loose in Italy for not much reason. And who makes completely innocent, tasteless comments about men. Henry James punishes her – or perhaps allows her to be martyred – with death by fever after she roams the Colosseum with a man at night. Robin thought, well, that’s close, but we did not die.
Oddly enough, an appreciation for Europe rose in her in the years long after her return. It was as if she grew to miss, or to hunt out relics from, a place she had never been. She began to read its history – dear, oh dear – drink its wine, cook its meals. She ordered French soaps specially from a catalogue store in Maryland. And she never failed to marvel, with some jealousy to be sure, but not only that, at new friends who went there, enjoyed themselves, and didn’t even think twice about it. As if it were their right. You don’t know, she thought. You don’t know where you’ve been.
What had happened, really? It seemed to her that the decision to go to Europe for a thousand dollars at eighteen was the one thing in her life she regretted. And it could not be rectified. She regretted postponing college, too, but she had been able to rectify that. Europe had been her one mistake. But why? It was mysterious, most strange. Merely for a start, if she had not gone, she never would have learned she should not have gone. But the real strangeness was that everything else she had done or had, that everybody has, birth, faith, work, crises and happinesses both major and trivial, had taught her something, if she looked deeply enough. Europe was different. It stood like a rock in the sea of her memory, unmoved, unmoving. She had no desire to go back to it, certainly not without a command of some other language than her own, and yet she felt that if she did go back, this time she would be superb. Really. She had invested too much of her youthful self into that trip to be able to look back and say, well, too bad about what might have been pleasure, spoiled – I’ll go again, and have a better time. That wasn’t the point. She wanted it to have been all right then, and it wasn’t. What did the others think? Odd how they had never spoken about it much. Once, only once, Billie in her thirties made a tiny noise about "not believing what we did then." Robin made a tiny corrective noise about its being them, not her, who had done it. And still they remained friends. Billie did not live in the conditional tense. She already was superb.
Robin thought for years. Finally she had to put Europe aside. It was the very ground on which Mozart and Tiepolo – and Hitler – had trod, yes, the subcontinent on which her ancestors had swarmed for ten thousand years until eight of them made their separate decisions to leave hardly a century earlier. A century earlier she might have spoken any one of half a dozen languages, including German. Yes. But she had to put it aside, finally, in puzzlement as totally unique, unreachable. It was the one experience of her life from which she had learned nothing.