The second equinox hangs in the air, suggesting balance between dark and light. As the earth rotates through its even-handedness I am preparing to take a short break from the whitest metropolitan area in the wealthiest nation to visit a region infamous for the systematic murder of racial, religious, and other minorities: Central Europe. Our long time friend M will be joining G and me while we are stationed in Vienna, the birthplace of Alfred P. Adler, my university’s namesake and Jewish refugee who moved to the U.S. in the 1930s in anticipation of the horrors of the emerging fascist regime. The equinox paired with Adler’s principles of gemeinschaftsgefhül—roughly, we as humans are whole within our community—create a useful framework for me to wrap my journey. Lately I’ve been feeling the need to find balance in myself as a part of my community amidst its extremes.
Last Wednesday I woke up in someone else’s bed. It’s too soft, but so cozy I sunk into the layers of plush bedding curled up on my side. I breathed deeply, first expanding my lungs, then deep into my belly. I rolled onto my back and continue to breath. Finally I took one deep breath and felt the soft bamboo sheets with my fingertips. Snuggling under the covers in M’s guest room I estimated the number of hours that would pass from that moment until I could lay down in a real bed again: about 36.
Slowly I tripped out of bed, doing my best to tiptoe through a dark, unfamiliar room without making noise. The calm quiet in the house was a marked contrast from the previous night’s anxious frustration in search of seat assignments and boarding passes. I took extra time to shower and dress, knowing my next opportunity to bathe would wait even longer than the next flat surface where I could stretch out and close my eyes. I wrapped myself in a long knit dress and sat down on the living room floor to stretch while M finished assembling her things and G rose and prepared for the journey.
“Alexa, play It’s the Best Day of my Life,” M called to the black cylinder on the counter.
Oh-oh-oha, ah-ah-ha! Any other day I might have been annoyed by that much energy and noise at 6:15 in the morning, but not today. Certainly it would be the best day of my life. As I contemplated my goal to live every day better than the one before I felt a twinge at the length of the day we were anticipating. My alarm woke me at 5:00, and in about 40 hours I would next be hearing the 5:00 morning rise chime. Most days I wish for a little more time, a few more hours to take care of one more thing, but now faced with an actual opportunity for extra time I found new appreciation in an ordinary 24-hour day.
We were all ready to go a full 12 minutes before M’s neighbor arrived at the scheduled time to ferry us to the SeaTac terminal Finally I heard someone call, “She’s here.”
The sky was dark and heavy raindrops poured from the sky in a steady stream. We had plenty of time, but still, I-5 at rush hour before an international flight is anxiety inducing. Our pilot navigated smoothly off the freeway, onto state route 99. and through a series of green lights up to the airport doors. Easy sailing.
After we thanked our friend and said goodbye we wandered inside to find our gate assignment. We passed through the TSA security screening quickly, and found our gate at the very end of the terminal corridor. By the time I found tea, a postcard, and a letter drop on three different expeditions I made up a few paces from the morning walk I missed.
We heard our boarding call and found our seats at the very back up the airplane, up against the wall. I squeezed into the center seat, though upon settling discovered the seat felt quit spacious relative to some flights I’d taken. My knees did not hit the seat in front of me, and my feet only touched the floor if I sat forward. A comfortable seat with my friends on an international flight really was the best day of my life.
A few hours later we changed planes in Chicago, the city of Adler University’s home campus. Seven hours after that we stumbled through the Dublin airport looking for a place to rest for a couple of hours. In Seattle I had been looking forward to washing down a buttery Irish scone with a cup of black Irish coffee, but in my exhaustion I could barely look at the scone. G and M collapsed at a café table while I fetched three scones, black tea, and a bowl of hot Irish porridge and honey. Slowly we grazed through our snacks and took turns excusing ourselves to the washroom for a bit of internal relief, and a splash of water over our faces and hair. The long flight and fatigue had left my whole body swollen and tight. So satisfied to be back in Dublin, even if just the airport, it was still the best day of my life.
M and I took a walk through the airport while we waited for our next boarding call, trying to shake the last two flights and prepare for the final leg of our journey. We returned to the gate. I breathed deeply into my chest, then into my belly. Again. And again. And again. “Aer Lingus flight 123, now boarding.”
A few hours later we were herded down the back stairs of the airplane, onto a shuttle, and into the Vienna airport customs station. G passed through the agent at the counter quickly. M walked up to the counter next.
“My first stamp!”
“Say eins, M!” I called.
“Eins!” M turned around and smiled, and strutted past the booth.
My turn. I stepped up to the young agent in a military-looking uniform at the counter.
“You just heard the extent of my German language. Sorry.” After the fog of travel the only other word I could think of in German was a smile.
“Können lernen,” the agent looked at me and smiled in return. My eyes popped opened wide, as if they could translate for me.
“You can learn,” he repeated expanding his smile.
“Right! Können lernern.” Of course. “I know those words. Of course I can learn. I promised my spouse I would not say the world scheiße in front of you. That’s the only other word I know in German, and I can use scheiße correctly in a sentence. But really, I won’t say scheiße in front of you.”
The agent chuckled and smoothed the stamp over my passport without a word. He just grinned.
“Enjoy your stay.”
I caught up with M and G, feeling deliriously fatigued. We stopped for a restroom break and to take account of our mental faculties before making our way out of the airport. In Seattle I had been determined to take public transit to our airport so I could start to get oriented to the city immediately. M had been advocating for a cab since Dublin. G just shook his hazy head when I asked about trying to negotiate the transit system. I felt more collected than the sum of G and M at that moment, but certainly my sensation of consciousness was a mere illusion. Without a doubt by then I was feeling quite ripe.
We hailed a cab and sat quietly through afternoon rush hour to our Döbling apartment. Eventually the driver turned on the radio to a classical station, which seemed appropriate as we wound through the streets previously occupied by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Haydn, and other influential musicians.
More than anything I wanted to brush my teeth, wash my hair, and bath. As we staggered into the apartment I could not even summons that much energy. Instead I laid down on the first clean surface and set my alarm to get up in 45 minutes to prepare for a faculty meeting. Eventually, my meeting led into my online class, and before I could get ready for bed, an hour-long call with a student. Despite having been on the road for two full days and traveling somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,000 miles I felt like I had not quite left home yet. Still teaching from Alfred Adler’s home town was the best day of my life.
I was in such a daze the next morning I scarcely remember the day. We found Frühstuck in the neighborhood business district to our west along Sieverzinger, picked up some groceries and supplies, and wandered back to the apartment to rest. We ventured back out to explore the neighborhood to our east in Grinzing. I think I may have cooked dinner for M and G that night when we returned home, but the fog was quite heavy by then so maybe someone else cooked for me. It really was the best day of my life, even if I could not remember what day it was.
Determined to make the most of my time in a the highly politicized center of the western culture and intellect, Saturday morning I rolled out of bed before 5:00 in the morning. Like any ordinary day at home, I stretched, bathed, dressed, and tiptoed out for a walk. Dawn had not quite broken yet as I strolled down the manicured path through the industrial contemporary apartment complex. Still veiled by fatigue and disoriented I only opened the gate the third time I tried.
Döbling rests along the northwestern edge of Vienna where the vineyards back up into the Vienna Woods. Standing on the corner in front of the apartment building I looked up the street where the neighborhood disappears into the hill. The clear, crisp sky was just starting to warm into a soft, pale blue. I started up the narrow street with miniature sidewalks of cobblestone on either side. The morning air was cool and crisp. I took off my outer wrap to feel the morning air on my arms after leaving our well-insulated, overheated apartment. I turned around to gaze at dawn misting over downtown Vienna. I inhaled the cool, crisp morning air and felt it pass my sinuses and roll down to inflate my lungs and diaphragm.
I continued my trek upwards. Each driveway seemed wider or longer than the last. Each house seemed larger and more elaborate. Some homes had assuredly been standing for centuries, while most sported more recent construction.
Saturday morning seems so quiet everywhere in the world. With each step I wished to leave the stillness undisturbed. I felt as if my morning was the first new start after a 72-hour continuous day, but I wanted that moment to last for an eternity.
I emerged onto a narrow paved path with a green vineyard sweeping the hillside to my right. I paused and breathed Vienna’s crisp morning air and continued upwards to rejoin the street where it narrowed to a lane flanked on both sides by vineyards.
I found an opening in the vineyard fence and turned to the east. The sun peaked through the misty haze over downtown Vienna and reached its rose-colored flare toward me over the vineyards. If I had died in that moment I would have been all the more grateful for it. I had finally arrived in Austria. With my friends. Today was still the best day of my life.