In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to Zwettl, a small town in Lower Austria, with the Rotary Overseas Summer Exchange (ROSE) programme. Upon arrival, at 17 years old, the little I knew about Austria could solely be attributed to my obsession with The Sound of Music as a child (my sisters and I performed an absolutely adorable rendition of “So Long, Farewell” countless times on the winding staircase at our grandparents’ house). I was hosted by a small and loving family, the Reilingers, who welcomed me as their second daughter, and the month I spent with them flew by in a whirlwind of sightseeing the Austrian countryside, Vienna, Salzburg, and St. Wolfgang.
I hiked mountains, went to a strudel-making show, and even tried my hand at glassblowing. One of the highlights of the trip was joining a Rotary International Youth Camp for three days, where Julia, my host sister, and I were members of the contingent of fifteen international students from all around the world, including Lithuania, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, the USA, and Greece, among many others. One of the local Rotarians was Princess Anita Von Honhenberg, whose great grandfather was Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (Yes, that Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, leading to the outbreak of World War I), and we were hosted at a reception in Artstetten Castle’s Red Salon. I will never forget perching on a chaise lounge, sandwiched between Julia and a girl from Latvia, as we drank peach tea and listened to the Princess share her family history.
Needless to say, my time in Austria had a huge impact on my understanding of European history and global affairs. When I left the Reilingers, they had truly become family, and a mutual promise was made that we would cross paths again. Little could I have known it would take eleven years until we reunited.
I flew into Vienna at midnight on May 1, 2019. Werner and Malu were there to pick me up at the airport, and as I entered the arrivals hall, I could not mistake them for a minute. Eleven years had done nothing to age them, and our reunion was joyful, despite the late hour and a slight language barrier. “You must understand, we have not spoken English in 11 years!” They laughed. I was equally apologetic, as my German has not improved in the past decade, either!
The next five days flew by in a familiar whirlwind of activity, from ferrying along the Danube in Durnstein, to taking mass at Göttweig Abbey. We went to a modern art exhibition in the woods bordering Czech Republic and Austria, and I was even tasked with “teaching” two English language classes at the Catholic school where Werner teaches. We spoke about environmental sustainability and the students spoke beautifully fluent English. One of the highlights of my stay in Zwettl was simply catching up with Malu and Werner, whether while out for a walk through town, or at the dining table over authentic Austrian cuisine.
On my final evening, we drove into Vienna, and went for dinner at Julia’s flat. Given that the last time we had seen each other had been when we were teenagers, there was a lot to catch up on! We had both grown and changed so much over the past decade, and it was a true privilege to see how well she has done and the happiness she has created. Following dinner, we headed to the Vienna Volksoper theatre, where I sat in child-like wonder watching the Sound of Music live. Adding to the authenticity of seeing the musical on stage in Vienna was that the show was entirely in German.
I spent the evening at Julia’s and after a lovely breakfast of porridge, it was time to say farewell again, this time, with promises of a much sooner reunion.