As our group waited for the train, Dr. Eberhardt enthused about the charm and grandeur of our next stop: Vienna.
I got on the train first and selected a compartment. When Zoey and Brad joined me, I huddled into a window seat of the train compartment and turned my back to them. The lush Bavarian countryside rolled past in a blur. I spent too much time analyzing where I had gone wrong to notice much of it. I had to find a way to patch things up with Brad, Zoey and the others if I were to salvage what was left of the trip.
Dr. Eberhardt’s voice called me back to reality. “Giselle, can I speak with you privately for a moment?”
I followed him out to the hall outside the compartment. “I couldn’t help but notice, and the other young men in the compartment with me were remarking on it also,” he began. “It seems that you are having some trouble getting along with the other students. Is that true?”
I nodded. Where was this going?
“It appears to me that most of the tension is between you and the other young lady. Now, my idea is to have you two sit in a compartment and talk through your problems like civilized people. Will you agree to try it?” Without waiting for my response, he continued, “Yes, you’re a reasonable sort. I know you’ll give my methods a chance.”
“Dr. Eberhardt, I’m sorry, but—” I wanted to tell him that Brad was the one I really needed to talk to, but it was useless.
Before I could stop him, the professor had already ducked his head back in the compartment. “Excuse me, Mr. Talbert? I’m wondering if you might excuse yourself for awhile. Your friends in the next compartment miss you a great deal.”
“Uh, okay Dr. E, whatever you say.” Brad gave Zoey a quick peck on the cheek and loped out, giving me a wide berth.
“Now, Ms. Richardson, Ms. Gottlieb tells me that you two haven’t been getting along. What seems to be the trouble?”
Zoey narrowed her eyes and said nothing. I didn’t blame her; the way he said it made me look like a big fat tattletale. Just what I needed.
“Giselle, since Zoey seems to need time to think, why don’t you start?”
I cleared my throat. “Zoey, I think we got off on the wrong foot. I’m not sure what you have against me, but—“
“Not even the slightest idea, huh?”
I wanted to scream the obvious at her. When the trip started, Brad was with me, even though I wasn’t sure I wanted it to stay that way. She had almost flat out told me she wanted him for herself. Somehow she had managed to steal him. But would saying that change anything? Mom’s self help books said to be the bigger person and be willing to admit fault first in confrontations. It was worth a try.
“You accused me of thinking I’m better than you. I can see how you would have gotten that impression, and I’m sorry. Is there anything else?”
“Yeah, there is.” She hurled an ugly name. “And you’re a liar too.”
“Ms. Richardson, please watch your language. Can you explain what it is you think Giselle lied about?”
“She told me she caught Brad, you know, doing it with another girl.”
My mouth hung open in shock. Had Zoey really misinterpreted my comments that first day in the hotel that badly? If the game of telephone had gotten back to Brad, I could see why he would be so angry with me. But what did it say about him that he was so ready to ditch me and move on with Zoey without even talking to me about it?
Dr. Eberhardt stroked his mustache and cleared his throat. “Go on.”
“Well, it’s not true. Brad told me everything, how you are a nothing but a tease and that you freaked out and pushed him away when things went a little farther than your saintly reputation would allow.”
I tried to clarify. “I never said that. I told you, in confidence I might add, that I was afraid he’d end up with another girl and had a dream about it.”
Zoey’s face remained painted with hostile skepticism.
The explanation sounded so feeble, like I was trying to weasel out of a lie now that I’d been caught. How could I fix it? “It’s the truth, though I see you don’t believe me. I’ll let God be my judge.” Now I did sound like I thought I was better than her. I immediately wish I hadn’t said the last part out loud.
“Oh spare me. You’re such a hypocrite. You go around campus saying ‘Oh, look at me, I’m a Christian, I don’t drink, I don’t dance, I never so much as think about sex,’ but I saw you gobbling up that romance novel on the plane, and I saw you salivating over the chance to go to nightclub the other night. You’re no better than the rest of us, and I don’t see where you get off acting so high and mighty.”
I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. “You’re right.”
“I’m not better than you or anybody. I’m the worst of sinners and sometimes I wonder if God might not be real. And to be honest, probably the biggest reason why I don’t drink or dance or have sex or whatever you said is not because I think it’s wrong.”
“Right, and now you’re going to tell me you’re just afraid. Poor little repressed Giselle, right?”
I stared at the floor, then glanced up at Zoey. “Maybe I am scared,” I said.
“Oh really? What could you possibly be afraid of?”
I stared out the window, lost in thought. “I don’t know what I’m scared of exactly … of losing control? Of being judged?” I sighed again. “I’m sorry, Zoey. It sounds like I’ve been really awful to deal with. Can we call a truce?”
Zoey furrowed her brow and didn’t respond until Dr. Eberhardt prompted her.
“Giselle, listen to me,” she said in a softer voice. “I grew up going to church too, and I’m telling you, the sooner you get away from that crazy Christian guilt stuff, the better for you it’s going to be. It’s all a mishmash of made up stories and old cultural taboos anyway, like they said in Religion 101. The best way to get rid of the fear and shame and guilt is to break a few of those taboos and realize that you didn’t die; you weren’t struck by lightning, or anything. I say if there is a God, he doesn’t really care what we do, as long as we aren’t hurting anyone.”
“I believe God does care about us,” I said without much conviction.
At Dr. Eberhardt’s prompting, I smiled politely and shook hands with Zoey. Then he suggested that the seating arrangements be adjusted. I switched to the other compartment, and Brad took Josh back to Zoey. When we were settled in to the new arrangements, Dr. Eberhardt asked me, Tom and Owen to share what of the remaining itinerary we were most looking forward to.
I knew my answer: Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Oma loved to talk about the capital of her home country, building it up until it sounded like a fairyland.
As a small child, I had counted the days between visits to Oma and Opa. Oma would let me help roll out the dough for the famous apple strudel, and as we worked, Oma would tell one of her endless funny stories about Austria. In one, Oma danced with Mozart on a cloud over Salzburg. In the other, she dined with Strauss on the stage of the Wien Opera House.
I tried to imitate Oma’s funny accent. “Where is “veen,” Oma?” I asked one day with a young child’s insatiable curiosity.
“You’d call it Vienna, liebchen. It’s the grandest city in Austria, the most elegant city in all of Europe.”
“Then it’s a real place? Can we go there?”
My grandmother’s rich laughter echoed in the kitchen. “Yes, Wien is a real place, only it is very far away, across the ocean. To go there would be sehr kostspielig, very expensive. You will have to save the quarters your Opa gives you.”
“Oma, why don’t you live there anymore?”
“Well, liebchen, one day, when I was not very much older than you are now, my Mutter and Vater decided we should come to live in this country.”
“And then you came to this house?”
Oma laughed again. “Nein. No. We lived first in Chicago, then Ohio. Eventually I went to college where God gave me your Opa. After we married and our boys had grown, we came here to California. The land of opportunity. Then one day, God gave me a surprise gift, our little Franz.” Giselle already knew Franz was what Oma called Daddy, even though everyone else called him Frank. “And then seven years ago, he gave me the best gift of all.”
“What gift, Oma?” I asked, though I knew the answer.
“You, liebchen.” I felt floured hands squeeze my thin shoulders, and she kissed my forehead. “You have been such a good little helper. Look, the strudel is almost ready. Kirsten is outside with Opa. You go now. Play with them until your parents come.”
I gave my audience in the compartment a summary of times baking strudel with Oma and, when they prompted, a short version of the Mozart story.
I smiled wistfully, finding it felt good to talk and share after so many days of self-imposed isolation, even about a sad subject. “My grandmother died not too long ago,” I said, “just after Spring Break. I guess you could say she’s the reason I decided to come to Elk River. I looked up to her so much, and it was her alma mater. When you announced this trip, Dr. E, I jumped at the chance to see some more of the places she talked about.” I laughed and decided to say something lighter to break the reflective mood I’d conjured up. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it also gets me closer to a German minor.”
“Why stop with a minor?” said Dr. Eberhardt. “Think of what an honor to your grossmutter it would be if you became fluent in her mother tongue.”
I didn’t take Dr. Eberhardt’s comment too seriously. He could turn any passing remark into an advertisement for the benefits of studying the German language. Besides, a German major required a semester abroad. I’d enjoyed the sightseeing aspects of the trip so far, but could I really live in Germany for that long?
“You’ll love Vienna, Giselle.” Dr. Eberhardt added. “Your grandmother’s description, as beautiful as it was, doesn’t do that grand city justice.”
Relief flooded into a smile so big I could barely see. Things with Brad seemed to be over, but at least I’d made some sort of peace with Zoey. Hopefully now I would be able to enjoy every last second in Austria’s capital.