It’s early December in the Bavarian Alps, and snow dusts the ground like powdered sugar sifted on a cake. Across the water of the Königssee, a glacial lake ringed by a walking path, Watzmann Massif shoots toward the sky, its snowfields gleaming in the sun. I’m hiking with my husband, Walter, and our 17-month-old son, Peter, who is riding in a pack on his father’s back.
The Königssee is one of the cleanest lakes in all of Germany, with only electric boats allowed to ensure that it stays that way. At this time of year the crowds are gone and the silence — broken only by the whispering putt-putt-putt of a wooden launch ferrying sightseers — makes it feel even more remote.
We keep walking and suddenly the far-off notes of a trumpet volley back and forth. It’s a standard feature of the summer tourist season, when the launch captains halt their boats in the middle of the lake and play a few notes to delight visitors with the mountain’s echo effect. The trick is even more enchanting in the crisp winter air, the melody a call of optimism on a day that will grow dark far too early.
We’re deep in a grove of pines when a few decidedly not musical notes sound from inside the baby backpack. I turn around. Peter’s face looks like a sunburned fist.
“Did you pack the wipes?” Walter asks, his shoulders dropping toward his chest. He already knows the answer is no. And I can tell that he understands we also have forgotten crackers and a sippy cup, not to mention a hat and mittens. We won’t get far with one diaper and a dusty pacifier.
This was not the first travel misstep of our young life together. How could it be when one of our shared connections — one of the reasons we knew we belonged together — was our mutual fascination with seeing the world? But in the early days, our daydreams involved only romantic scenes of sipping cappuccinos in a trattoria or watching the sun dip into the ocean. A crying, hungry baby? That hadn’t occurred to us. What we came to realize, though, was that the messy reality of traveling together — wrong turns on foreign streets, language barriers, a baby with a dirty diaper — cemented our relationship more than any technicolor sunset could.
We were living 30 minutes away in Salzburg, Austria, because I’d impulsively applied for a one-year graduate school fellowship to teach at the University of Salzburg. When I got it, Walter miraculously landed a position at the local American international school. With visas in hand, we did no research beyond confirming we could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in an unfashionable but convenient part of town and that the rental income from our Minneapolis home would allow us to travel around Europe during our vacations.
That we were up for such an adventure was curious, given that we had a toddler and Walter and I didn’t have a record of successful travels to assure us that our relationship could handle the strains of the unfamiliar.
The first time we left Minneapolis together, we spent a February weekend at the Naniboujou Lodge on Lake Superior. The snowdrifts were so high that they blocked half the windows and the milk served with dinner — the lodge has a no-alcohol policy in the dining room — acted as a reverse aphrodisiac, as did the fact that Walter insisted on playing Tom Waits’ “Bone Machine” on the boom box in our room. I half expected Jack Nicholson to slice through our door with an ax.
A year later, we headed out again, this time to Kauai, where we saved money by renting a cottage so far from the beach that it was in the middle of a donkey pasture. There were some exquisite moments — hiking waist-deep in lilypads to hidden waterfalls, watching sea turtles slide over the swells in the Queen’s Bath — but on the flight home, the plane began to bounce and jerk like a pogo stick. When the pilot’s voice came over the intercom to let us know that the air wouldn’t smooth out for another four hours, I started drinking. At some point I conked out — and when I came to, the cabin was spinning. Walter asked if I was OK. In my memory he was looking in the seat pocket for a barf bag.
“I think we should get married,” I slurred. It was an interesting moment to bring up a topic we’d never seriously considered. Had the trip really gone that well?
“I think you should probably stop with the wine,” he answered.
• • •
In our third year of marriage, Walter and I were suddenly in the birthplace of Mozart with a toddler, bumbling our way through a new culture where the mail was delivered both in the morning and the afternoon and cold cuts were weighed in dekagrams. For the first month we didn’t need to venture further than Salzburg’s outer limits. Everything, from operating the cash machine to a visit from the pediatrician — who made house calls and recommended putting topfen, the Austrian word for quark cheese, in Peter’s socks to bring down his fever — was an adventure. Walter and I found a babysitter and went to concerts at the Mozarteum and took in the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festpielhaus, home of the city’s legendary summer opera festival. I rode a bike to work on paths shaded by chestnut trees, dropping Peter off at his day care, where children drank herbal tea from their bottles.
Still, there were challenges, including the fact that we had hardly any friends. In Minnesota, Walter and I moved in different orbits. He played in bands. I went to movies and talked writing with women I’d known for over a decade. But now we were getting a crash course in each other’s idiosyncrasies. Walter gave up learning German within days of our move, a fact that astounded me because I was so anxious about standing out as a tourist that I took lessons several times each week. When he called the nearby Chinese restaurant, all he needed to say was “Um …. zum mitnehmen?” (German for “takeout”) for the owner to reply “Ja, Walter” and prepare a chicken and vegetable stir fry. He also loved his video camera, pressing it against his face everywhere, including the lobby of a country inn where guests wore smoking jackets to dinner.
What we didn’t fully understand was how much these flashes of plot would one day coalesce into a larger Story of Us, a narrative of how two independent people figured out how to be together. We ventured to small towns across Austria as well as to Vienna, Munich, Budapest and Prague, where Peter got a stomach bug and threw up all over our hotel room, beneath a painting of a sad clown, who at least seemed to empathize with our predicament. We spent Christmas in Kitzbuehel, and New Year’s in Sicily. We met up with my father in Scotland, where his mother was born, and a visit to a military museum revealed that his grandfather was not the war hero we’d believed him to be.
While the exhilaration of experiencing so many new places certainly made us closer, the deeper truth is that it was the logistical stresses of our trips that most meaningfully deepened the connection between Walter and me.
No matter where we visited, there was always something that didn’t go as planned — whether it was getting stuck in a tiny one-way alley in Syracuse or a restaurant that didn’t have highchairs (that would be every eatery in Vienna). We never learned how to simply brush off the glitches — there were some Vesuvius-level blowups — but we did discover that our marriage could withstand a lot of tension, and that we could even laugh about it days and even years later.
Our last trip of that year was to Oia, the Santorini town with whitewashed walls and blue church domes that appears on every Greek travel poster. We had our predictable mess-ups, including a hotel room that I’d booked which had no air conditioning. (“In Greece! In August!” Walter muttered as he rolled up a magazine to swat the mosquitoes that were using Peter’s body for target practice.) There was also the small problem that it was a honeymoon spot, and everyone could hear our child shouting “Peter! No! Like! Greece!!!!!” every night from his crib.
When Peter wore himself out, Walter and I would grab the baby monitor and head outside to watch the sun slip over the horizon into the Aegean. The other couples were wearing pressed dress shirts and skimpy dresses, their cheeks pink from long days in the sun. Their days were magic carpet rides of swimming, eating, sunning, having sex and sleeping. Who could blame them for not wanting to associate with the ghosts of vacations future?
So we kept to ourselves, drinking Greek wine and wondering aloud what life would be like when we moved back home.
We had no way of knowing that this was just the start of a life together that would take us all over the world. Or that the little boy sleeping in our room would fly by himself to Munich when he was barely 15, a declaration of independence that was bittersweet for the parents who had carted him across Europe. We just knew that our year of magical misadventures was coming to an end and that it had given us something much more profound than a honeymoon.
It’s easy to get swept up in each other when things go as planned. But when they don’t, and you still want to try again and again and again? That kind of relentless optimism can only be described as love.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis writer and co-author of the Unbored series of family activity books, including “Unbored: the Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.”