Sunday, May 29, 2016

#15. Austria. Zell am See.


As a young guy growing up, I was completely taken away by the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. It's incredibly filmed and written, and based on the true story of one of the most courageous groups of men this world may ever know. I can remember watching it week after week as it aired, wondering where the men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne in World War II would end up: Normandy, Belgium, Bastogne, Berchtesgaden. Eastward they moved as they fought back the German army by hard fought attrition. After 11 long months, spent in the frozen woods of Bastogne, or storming Nazi occupied towns like Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Eindhoven, and Foy, these men finally saw their tour of duty come to a close in the southeast corner of Bavaria in the German alps. The final episode of the series was called Zell am See... After those 11 hard fought months, they found that the end of their long road was in this small Austrian town on a mountain lake in northern Austria. Swimming in a clear blue water, living life as normal people, all under the shadow of the Austrian alps in a land where there was finally peace was the way these men were to end their European tour of duty. I remember thinking.... what an incredible end to this epic story. To fight within an inch of your life for an entire year and then wind up here. This vision of Austria became ingrained in my mind: Rest. Peace. Overwhelming mountains and rolling green countrysides.

When we arrived in Austria, I can't say that this was at all my first impression. Unlike Easy Company who arrived by truck in the foothills over the Bavarian alps, we popped up in the middle of downtown Vienna at the Wien Rennweg metro station. With the wind in our face and a map ripped out of the guidebook, we made our way around the city in search of a place to stay.

"Wir haben eine Reservierung unter dem Namen Grimes" I said to the front desk lady, intent to show off all I could remember from my two week crash course in German.

"Welcome to Vienna, Herr Grimes," she said with a smile, "Not to worry, we all speak English here."

And so ended my attempts at German for the trip. Vienna was just as picturesque and romantic as one may expect: horse drawn carriages, palatial Habsburg estates, crowds gathered to watch opera on the street. Mile after mile we explored the city until our (ok... my) feet would allow no more. The next morning we grabbed our Volkswagen Polo and headed up the Danube River valley.

Each town we passed had its own story to tell. First Dürnstein, the barely noticeable riverside medieval village whose hilltop castle imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, the kidnapped King of England in 1192. Then there was Melk, a small an otherwise unimpressive little town, but home to the largest Benedictine Abbey in the entire world. Town after town we passed, stopping at some, others no. I barely noticed a sign as it flew by along the road as we headed further up river: the concentration camp of Mauthausen; the chapters all of the World War II history books I'd read started to become tangible as I saw where these stories unfolded. Linz: the birthplace of the man himself whose perverted mind first dreamt up the Final Solution in Lansberg Prison. Then Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, idyllic in every way except for the inability to find a parking spot anywhere near your intended destination. I mean it was sixteen, going on seventeen minutes until we even had a clue, and when we did find a place where the car fit it was really far, a long long way to park.

And so further west we went up and into the Bavarian alps. Our chosen route was well out of the way and added more than a few hours to the journey towards our final destination of Munich, but there was a reason. As we finally exited the highway and saw the signs, I imagined us not in our tiny Polo, but in the back of deuce-and-a-half with the men of Easy Company. As Zell am See unfolded in front of us I imagined not the ritzy resort town which wealthy Austrians spend their summers in fancy modern condos, but a sleepy old town, newly enjoying the prospect of peace over Europe, probably apprehensive to welcome American soldiers who'd freshly declared victory over the soldiers who were their husbands, their sons, their fathers.

I could picture Dick Winters diving into the lake, Shifty Powers bagging a deer up in the surrounding woods, Doc Roe staring up at mountainside trying to forget what he'd seen in Bastonge. Our time in Zell am See was very brief, just a stop along the way to our next destination, but to me it was in a way the end of a long journey; this journey I'd pictured in my head for years. Even though they'd been gone for 70 years, I finally got to share that moment with Easy Company. I pulled back the flap and jumped into the back of the deuce-and-a-half, its diesel engine rumbling to a start as it began to make its way out of town. Before long it again became that little white Volkswagen Polo, and just like that... we were back to reality.


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