You know that feeling of excitement as you use your passport for the first time? I felt like I had been planning this moment for my entire life. . . to experience other countries, other cultures, other ways of life. To finally have my chance to fulfill my life’s dream of crossing an ocean and just to blend in like a local wherever I traveled.
I had planned everything months in advance: business class air (on points), EuroRail multi-country train passes, private tours, and the list goes on. It was just the two of us, and we’d start in Amsterdam, find our way to Austria, and end in Zurich before heading back home. And I had my secret weapon with me the entire time: my personal translator (my husband— we’ll call him Archie).
You see, Archie is a first-generation American. He grew up speaking two languages that would help him throughout his life. I grew up (in east Tennessee) speaking two languages too, but with the second being Southern, I was limited in the amount of help I could provide during this new adventure.
After a couple of full days of touring in Amsterdam, we made the long journey (about 10 hours in total) from there to a quaint little ski resort town, just outside of Salzburg, St. Johann im Pongau, Austria. We were traveling during shoulder season (October) as we often do to avoid tourist crowds and to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries.
We were set to spend seven nights in this quaint Austrian Alps town, where no one spoke english, and you truly felt like you were in a foreign country. . . and because I had Archie, we were able to blend in with the locals, eat and drink like locals, and to make our way by train to go sightseeing in Salzburg and Munich. And while using our cute little chalet hotel as home-base for the week, we also had the advantage of being able to do laundry about half-way through.
There was this hallway outside of our room that had easy chairs and a side table, and you could hear the washing machines and dryers working away on their tasks at hand in the room behind it. This spot was a great place to sit and read up on what plans one could make for the next day. But my oasis for multitasking was soon interrupted.
I started to hear voices, sounding human but at a higher pitch than normal, and they’re getting closer. Could it be ghosts of skiers from years gone by (cause it felt like we were the only guests in the entire hotel)? In a split second I surmised two options:
run back into my room and wait for the voices to pass
run into the laundry room on the other side of the hallway wall and hope the voices didn’t enter
In the seconds that it took to formalize my next actions, it was too late. They were coming around the corner, and I had no place to go, except shrink down into my easy chair and lower the cover of my book, in hopes that they wouldn’t see me in their path. And it worked— or so I thought.
Archie and I had had the perfect European culinary and sightseeing journey until . . . (🎶dun dun dunnn🎶)
These two older women from Long Island, New York— who, apparently (I’ll explain later), had been knocked unconscious by their husbands before being taken to the airport, boarding a plane, landing in Austria or Germany, and waking up in this mountain hideaway— came striding by me in their desperate search to find the laundry room. As they turned the next corner, following the sounds of a washer and dryer, they shrieked with joy that their quest had not been in vain.
But it was a short lived moment of joy, as it soon turned to an anguished cry— the likes of which will play over and over again in my head. It was as if they had come face to face with the greatest tragedy man has every known. How could this have happened to them? What did they do in a past life that would bring them to this moment of despair? And how would they overcome this enormous obstacle?
It was about this time that Archie came out of our room to check on me and my summary of where I thought we were in the process of the wash cycle being completed. I immediately explained to him the situation, and the urgency of his help needed. He was the one person that could turn the corner, literally, of the despair of these helpless women in the laundry room.
You see, he not only spoke and understood German, but he could read and comprehend it as well. And as the instructions for the washer and dryer were only in German, he could now serve as the laundry savior that the world— or at least our little corner of it— needed.
He only spent a moment in the laundry room with them, as I hadn’t packed ear plugs for us for this trip, and the shrill of their speaking voices would make a man’s ears bleed if exposed for too long. He hurriedly left our processing laundry in the room and returned to the quiet oasis of our hotel suite, leaving me in the hallway to continue my job of alerting him once our loads were done. Being distracted with multitasking as I was, I had raised my guidebook back up in front of me to continue to research what the following day would hold for us, losing track of where the voices were coming from as well. And this was it— the fatal mistake that I would regret for the remainder of my days. Or at least my days at this hotel.
They saw the title of my book was in English, which prompted them to bend down and come within inches of my book to ask “Do you SPEAK English?”
I sat there frozen. Do I respond with just a look of puzzlement? Do I dig deep in a hurry into the tender years of my youth spent watching Sesame Street to answer with a “yo no hablo ingles?” Do I act as if I don’t even hear or see that they’re there?
I blanked and used the only foreign language skills that I had for these Long Islanders. “Yes, ma’am, I do.”
You would have thought I had just called out the winning numbers at her Thursday night bingo game. “OH THANK GOD! Finally someone who speaks ENGLISH.” (Or at least a dialect that she could understand is short doses.)
Had these women not known that they were coming to another country, and not all countries speak english? Hence, this is why I proposed they must have been kidnapped by their husbands (which we met the following day at dinner).
We would come to find out, on future days ahead, that Archie would serve not only as my personal translator, he would serve as theirs as well— but it was not a selfless deed. You see, they were headed to Vienna on a train the same day we were headed to Zurich, and Archie understood from the German announcements over the loudspeaker on the platform that the next train was not the one they wanted. It was ours instead. We couldn’t risk the next four hours of our sanity if they got on the wrong train.