My apologies to Jen Geigle Johnson for needing to repost this late as it languished in site errors for some reason.
The roads in and out of Paris are heavily guarded, but the dead have easy passage out of the city. A ragged old woman transports the coffins of the most recent victims of the guillotine and is waved on unimpeded. Later, the same crone watches five French aristocrats step out of the coffins unscathed. not beheaded, but spirited away to safety by that most elusive of spies: the Pimpernel. Or, as she’s known in polite society, Lady Scarlet Cavendish.
When not assuming her secret identity as a hero of the French Revolution, Scarlet presents herself as a fashionable, featherbrained young widow flitting about London. In truth, this facade is merely a diversion designed to conceal her clandestine work in France. Among members of the doomed French aristocracy, the Pimpernel is renowned for her bravery and cunning. But when tasked with rescuing handsome Comte Matteo Durand, she faces an unprecedented challenge: she is falling in love with the man. If ever there was a time to keep her head, it is now—because in a world brimming with intrigue, she is not only one harboring secrets. And if Scarlet doesn’t take care, Madame la Guillotine may finally catch up with the Pimpernel…
I was immediately drawn to the book because I know the author as an intelligent and witty person. I also am a fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which I’ve heard referred to as the first superhero story. (Not sure I agree with that, but if it were written today, it would at least go viral through Upworthy. It’s an amazing story with one of the best characters I’ve ever run across in literature.) And I definitely love the musical version. So when I learned that this Scarlet was about a woman rescuing French aristocrats during the Revolution, I had to see how I liked it.
I think the characterization is the best part of the story. In the original, the titular character uses a foppish nature to mislead people about his scheming nature. (One of my favorite lines from the musical is “You’re a nincompoop. I’ve always said so.” “THANK YOU, Your Highness!”) Scarlet comes off in certain social situations as a completely frivolous lady of means who cares for nothing but how fashionable her dress is. She also plays a crazy peasant in the streets of Paris. She shouldbe on a stage, but she’s a widower smuggling the legitime Prince of France to England instead. Her antagonist is a cunning and highly-ranked woman and the interchanges are fantastic to read.
The story, of course, demands a romantic flair. The Prince is unattached and Scarlet is a widow. There’s a lot of era-appropriate interpretations of “Gosh, he’s hot!”, but I didn’t mind it as I sometimes do. When the growing attraction is a contributing factor rather than the main driver of the story, I can stomach things getting mushy.
I won’t say more. You may know much of it if you’ve ever run into that “demned, elusive Pimpernel” before, but you should definitely give this a read.
For the last several months, I have been beset with deadlines. Between October 21 and April 10, I was published in three anthologies. I submitted revisions for another anthology piece. I agreed to be a guest speaker at a chapter of the League of Utah Writers. This is about all I could manage because I’ve been working 40 hours a week, serving as a missionary two days a week and having one day a week off (most of which is spent at church or a friend’s house).
So, with the release of Unspun last week (We were #14 on the Amazon Bestsellers List for Fantasy Anthologies within 24 hours!), I have no imminent deadlines. I’m not rushing in a blind panic through adding a scene to flesh out a storyline or waiting for feedback from my readers who made sure my Jewish protagonist was correctly Jewish. I wasn’t setting up interviews or pre-writing blog posts for release day. Things had been so hectic that I had to step back from my critique group for the time being.
The problem is that I am now in a writing lull. I have started several stories, but haven’t felt compulsively drawn to one yet. Well, that’s a slight lie. Depending on the day, I might be compulsively drawn to work on the historical fiction, travel romance, space opera, demonological murder mystery, paranormal satire, or dragon epic. I have chapters written for some and am researching the living daylights out of others. Last week, in 48 hours, I had an idea for three books:
An undead tomb guard is pissed off because every time he has some of that eternal rest, some idiot archaeologist decides to break into the pyramid and awaken those who defend it. He just wants a day off, so he decides to break the curse and then has to scramble to fix it because he accidentally trapped one of the idiot archaeologists in there with him.
A demon, while possessing a young woman, witnessed the murder of a family member. It affected him so much that he is now a serial possessor who, with the help of an exorcist, possesses various people who might be able to help him find out who killed the original girl’s brother. It’s complicated because the exorcist can’t let his superiors know that he’s enabling a demon who may or may not be repentant, but the good Father does keep him in line by making him go to confession. And there’s also the time that he’s not the only demon to show up for the party in a person’s body.
This one was a dream in which I had a destiny and was told that I had until September 12 of a specific year to work on that destiny. At that point, I would switch lives and destinies with another woman and take over fulfilling her quest. Only on September 12, I showed up in this person’s life to discover that she didn’t exist and had never worked on the quest, so no one was taking over my quest in life and I had no preparation.
So, while I’m in a lull, my gosh, my brain is busy. And this is in addition to “Why, yes, I am working on a sequel to Swan and Shadow. And an anthology based on ‘Just One Chance.’ It just isn’t my first priority.” And “I’m a freelance editor who just finished editing a memoir and a beach romance.” And “I just signed up to be an arts reviewer for Front Row Reviewers of Utah.” And “An agent wants to see Uncertain Glory. I need to send that off to her.”
I’m going to commit to a storyline and work on that starting May 1. May 3, I’ll be teaching on “How to Know Everything and Share Nothing.” Before that, I’ve got a novella to finish editing for a repeat customer and I might be in the middle of editing a YA speculative fiction novella.
Some months ago, I was approached by a writer friend named Kathy. She invited me to submit something to an anthology based on “after ever after.” I immediately thought of the scenes scribbled in my yellow notebook and asked the editors if I could use The Nutcracker. They gave the go-ahead.
Three drafts later, I sent in a literary piece centered around mourning rituals in Judaism. They liked that a lot, but kindly said that an anthology was meant to feel like a meal, with each piece being a dish that fit the theme. My work was good, but I was the only person who did not include an action/adventure plot. I went back to the grindstone and worked out how to turn a time of personal crisis into a time of spiritual and physical danger.
That piece, “Ethical Will,” is one of the stories included in Unspun today and I love the result.
So why did I think to work out a different resolution to The Nutcracker? There were several things that drew me to that idea.
Changing faith . In the source materials, a young girl receives a nutcracker doll from her godfather for Christmas. All of her adventures happen on Christmas Eve. I wanted to explore if there were traditions from other faiths that had their own “spirit of the season” and that led me to read about Talmudic interpretations of Sabbath observance, the mourning rituals that were a prolonged process, and belief that transcended any sectarian definitions.
Faltering faith. Clara (or Marie in the book) seems to have no problem allying herself with a magical man who escorts her away from home and family for a night. The book makes the whole thing more complicated, but I didn’t want to have too many source materials vying for attention. We live in a world that doesn’t resemble Tchaikovsky and even people of faith have reason for doubt, skepticism, and even suspicion. When the Nutcracker arrives in Lena’s bedroom in the middle of the night, her first thought is how to defend herself against a burglar. I wanted to deal with what we believe in that doesn’t necessarily come with a doctrine.
All flesh is as the grass. By making this a cross-generational legacy and not just the fairy tale of one night, I made it subject to death and struggle. The mother who passes on the nutcracker to Lena was a veteran who came home from Afghanistan and died of cancer. There’s proof that even fairies have an expiration date when it’s mentioned that the Sugar Plum Fairy’s son died at an old age.
Unfinished business. I love stories where the conclusion of the arc is not the ending of the story. That’s part of why the action/adventure element included the original enemy from The Nutcracker.
I remember knowing nothing about the Apollo 13 mission when the movie was released. I was a teenager whose most concrete memory of NASA had to do with Challenger. Nevertheless, I loved the movie. Every time I watch it, I find myself choking back tears while saying “I HATE THIS MOVIE!” every time. My roommate says it’s one of those movies that still makes you feel fear and suspense, no matter how many times you’ve watched it. (I feel this way about 1776 and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, too.)
A while ago, while we were watching it, she mentioned that she had recently read a speech on an internet archive that had been prepared for the Apollo 11 mission. It addressed what the President of the United States would say if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin couldn’t make it back from the moon. It even gave instructions on when a priest was to perform a burial at sea rite for them.
That’s the origin story for “Among the Stars,” which comes out in Something Lost tomorrow. I remembered Marilyn Lovell vacuuming all night while her husband was on a mission and thought about families waiting for news. That became a reference to one mission spouse playing Solitaire all night by the hotel room phone. When I needed a commander with brains and a bit of snark, I named her after a friend from BYU. I even snuck my first Mormon astronaut in, since Reagan’s wife tells him “Hasta vernos con el Rey.” (A line from “Para siempre Dios este con vos” in the LDS Spanish hymnal.)
The story is 1000 words in total because it’s Flash Fiction, but it tells the microcosm of what would have been probably 20 minutes of a movie.
So, it started out as an involuntary thing. I wrote a retelling of Swan Lake, so, of course, there were feathers involved. Then I wrote an anti-fairy tale and the only way to summon a fairy was to burn a black feather over a candle. When Iron Doves came out, I laughed that there were no feathers as part of the story, so no one would know that I wrote “Just One Chance.” The anthology put an illustration of a feather between each story as a reference to the anthology title.
So, then I got to “Ethical Will,” which will be coming out in Unspun near the end of March. I told the friend who got me involved in the anthology that I hadn’t been able to figure out a way to work in a black feather as I usually did. She suggested that the characters use a quill pen for any contract-signing and whatnot.
Instead, I decided to look up if there were extinct birds with black feathers. Lo and behold, there was a Labrador Duck with black and white plumage. I inserted three paragraphs into the story about how at the border between our world and the fairytale kingdom, some flora and fauna wander across the divide and the Labrador Ducks who have been extinct for over a century have been hanging out in a magical world instead. It was two parts Narnia and one part Annihilation, but the editors just approved that new section’s use today and I am feather-tickled pink about it.
So, one of the things I’m nearly ready to put on my works published page is a short story going into an anthology. Back in May 2017, I got an idea for The Nutcracker being the first generation of an ongoing alliance between our world and the place where Sugar Plum Fairies are awesome and flowers waltz. Soon after that, a friend contacted me about being part of an anthology that tells the story of what happens after a fairy tale. I immediately e-mailed my plot proposal to the person in charge and she greenlit the idea.
That’s where it gets less simple. I took my yellow notebook with me to Austria and wrote snatches of this story between journal entries. Then I came home and started writing in earnest.
I’ve been a fan of that ballet since before I was a fan of Swan Lake. I remember watching Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland on TV at Christmas and my dad helped us do grand jetes like Clara in the play room of our Oregon house. I remember seeing it on stage at the Wang Center in Boston as well as at the DeJong Concert Hall at BYU. I still cry every time the Christmas tree grows because it was my definition of magic when I was seven and it’s stuck with me for 30 years. Last year, I saw it at the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago with one friend and continued my tradition of taking that friend’s cousin’s daughter to it at the Utah Metropolitan Ballet later the same month.
So yeah, it’s my Christmas tradition. But this isn’t a story about Christmas. Not in my anthology contribution, anyway. Why? Well, for one thing, the entire premise of the story started with “What would happen if the Nutcracker could come at other times of year?” Also, when I was in 9th grade, my Jewish English teacher gave me a copy of the original book by Hoffman.
I knew I wanted to start the story when the main character inherits the old family doll in her mother’s will. It would be something that was tied to her memories of her mother. I had this mental image of the Nutcracker Prince showing up when someone was sitting shivah and immediately started looking up Jewish mourning rites. (I was also inspired by a book called Kaddish, about a man doing the prayers for the dead for his father for a year.)
I found things like the three stages of mourning and the story became a three-act tale based around those things. I also discovered a Talmudic tradition about inviting the angels of Shabbat to enter a home and what would cause a good angel or a bad angel to visit.
So long story short, because I wanted to see Mikhail standing around in his costume, awkwardly eating a sandwich while someone’s grandmother talked him up as a friend of the family, my main character became Jewish and then the rest of the story fell into place around it.
The complication was when I sent in this beautiful story of coming to terms with grief and the editors went “This is great! But everyone else wrote an adventure. Can you put a quest in?” I was emotionally invested at this point, so I said “Sure!” One friend worked out all the creepy details of the threat to the main character with me on New Year’s Eve while we confused her daughter by discussing everything from Sanskrit to possession to Dissociative Identity Disorder to vernichtunskrieg.
So now, the Nutcracker is in the 21st century, the Mouse King was a shape-shifting sorcerer, a Tchaikovsky ballet has a Facebook reference in it and my “short story” is actually around 50 pages long, but HEY! It’s shorter than 300 pages!
I just turned in a draft after getting edits from people who corrected my use of ellipses, but also suggested a joke about Mother Ginger and her giant skirt and kept laughing at my modernisms. I’ve really enjoyed writing this story.
It’s very rare that I get to see a book come together throughout the process. Admittedly, it took me 13 drafts (most of them proofreads before approving the book or deciding on an ending) to publish mine, but if I get to read an unpublished manuscript, it’s usually about to be sent to press.
Enter Jenny. She had let me proofread an anthology a little while ago and complimented my ability to catch things that some others didn’t. Flattered, I said yes when she asked me to proofread her Middle Grade novel.
I liked it a lot in those earlier stages and was glad when she felt comfortable asking me to help her brainstorm ideas on my substantive edit side of things. I was never offended when she wanted to bounce a revised sentence off of me because I was quite fond of the book. As I was leaving my volunteer job, today, she sent me a document to proof-read that was a lot shorter, but made me happy: The schedule for her launch party. I was so happy to go to her online book launch, so am going to give you my review from the perspective of how I saw it with a few delving-behind-the-scenes moments to clarify.
Playground Treasures is the story of two children on opposite ends of the caring spectrum. We have Kendall, who accepts abuse from his adoptive parents because it will protect his foster brother. On the other hand, we have Lorelei, whose greatest trauma seems to be her brothers’ propensity for making her do their chores.
In the middle of this polarized scenario, we have an additional issue: Kendall reaches a breaking point and runs away from home. Not only does he spend the bulk of the book trying to live in a sewer pipe, but he struggles to evade recapture by the Jaspers, his foster family. He also is trying to find a family feeling with his new friend, Lorelei.
Both protagonists are delightfully realistic. They think like pre-teens in spite of sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Their internal monologues align with that as well and, quite frankly, you can tell that the author is a schoolteacher because she just gets the mind of someone that age.
What impressed me most from the first draft that I saw to the finished product is the subject matter. I have seen a lot of authors ride the almost-comedic coattails of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number 4 Privet Drive. The antagonists are exaggerated and unrealistic because then the reader will get it when the really good people come along. Frankly, I get tired of people having so little faith in their audience, so I love that the antagonists in this were more than one-dimensional tropes.
Moving on from the psychos, though, in one conversation, Jenny commented that she wondered whether she should “kidify” the darker parts of the book. I remembered the level of how it was depicted and personally believed that it was a very effective way of communicating the fundamental signs of a problematic family situation and ways in which ta person can resist without actually fighting I remembered E.T., where I found the arrival of the government traumatic and tragic, but as an adult, I recognized the desperate effort the adults were doing in an untenable situation. I feel like this book is something that children can read and draw lessons from, while it can open up avenues of discussion for parents to discuss such topics as bullying, compassion, trust and friendship with their children.
I remember being a Sunday School teacher. It was one of my favorite assignments and since I had a small class, I knew my students pretty well. One Sunday, a student approached me and apologized for making me angry. I couldn’t remember any such incident, so I asked for clarification. He said that he had been at an intersection earlier in the week when I crossed and honked his horn to say hello. I had glowered and thrown up my hands at the driver’s impatience in honking at me.
In high school, I was very publicly Mormon. In my first school, I was the only member of my church who attended the school and in the second, my sister and I were the face of our faith. We knew that we were being watched by everyone from our friends to strangers. This was brought home when the headmaster told me that as far as he could tell, I acted just like a regular Christian.
Last year, in response to the culture of hate and antagonism that was arising because of presidential election season, I established a group called “Worrying Signs, USA Edition” to document actions, words and crimes that did not represent the America that I had faith in. (This is an approved off-shoot of the Worrying Signs established in Britain after the Brexit vote.) We now have hundreds of members and they contribute evidence of the reprehensible on a daily basis. They are taking their voice and speaking against injustice and they make me proud.
This brings to mind a talk I gave several years ago about “The Mormon Moment.” A newspaper article I had read discussed the increasing prominence of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and I said that each of us had to decide what to do with our own Moment.
I feel as though this is equally as true in terms of writing. We should not put to paper what does not represent us or our convictions and represent those things as truth. It doesn’t matter which faith you profess or if you are coming from your own moral code without reference to a specific higher power.
I went into two interviews last week, both of which would require me to be the public face of a particular organization. I am qualified for the positions, but I feel grateful that I did not leave the interviews and start scrambling to hide writings that would stand in opposition to their values. I don’t have any steamy sex scenes that I hope the interviewers never find or characters who speak profanity as a second language.
There are places and times for things that I cannot support. I am writing a murder mystery and there is strong xenophobia within the community. I have plans for a series in which there are government-sanctioned genocides. But I aim to cause a cognitive dissonance with the reader so that they realize that this is not the way things are meant to be.
I hope that I can continue to keep my integrity and encourage anyone who wordsmiths to do the same.
Thanks to a friend, one of my goals for this week is to kick off the review section of this blog. I’ve got several books that I just finished reading and some that I am halfway through, so I thought I’d start with a more recent one by an author that I’ve read for years.
I have a semi-long and quite emotionally-charged association with the works of the person who writes under Seanan Mcguire and Mira Grant. If you read this blog before the great site crash, you might have noticed my review of her Newsflesh series. What you should know first is that I’m addicted to the way her dark surrealism feels like absolute reality. In Newsflesh, the realism had to do with the zombie Rising and the world that emerged from that terrible time. It made sense that isolation and xenophobia ran rampant and that blogs replaced CNN. The science was interesting and it seemed plausible because she’d done her research.
Recently, this author won the Hugo for Every Heart A Doorway. The setting greatly resembles a refugee home for mythological figures. It is something like a place where Persephone could deal with her guilt for having to leave her mother for part of the year or Io could have talked about how she has to learn how to stop acting like a cow. The students at this school have all experienced the supernatural and are trying to move on from it in most cases. The central figure is someone who, like Persephone, served at the pleasure of the lord of the dead and has to find her place among the living. A central conflict evolves around the fact that, very plausibly, people don’t always understand that they should have escaped the terrifying circumstances that were their realities.
I love this for many reasons. It’s psychologically complex and somewhat allegorical. The “normal” is abhorrent to the reader and the characters’ loved ones. Most of all, I love this because I am absolutely sick and tired of the benevolent alternate reality. Let me explain using Narnia. Sure, Edmund is deceived by the White Witch and Lucy’s good friend Mr. Tumnus is abducted for his collusion in Narnia, but the animals are willing to help the daughters of Eve and the sons of Adam. They speak English. They eat food that you could find in Britain and even have my personal favorite, Turkish Delight.
I have, for years, been developing an idea in which a girl finds her magical other world and the ruinous consequences give her PTSD and malnutrition. She was treated as a spy and condemned to be a prisoner of war because she was not one of them. I feel like Seanan approached with great finesse the idea that the magical is very often a malignant thing to be suffered, survived and then subdued.
The characters are rich, yet flawed. The plot keeps you guessing, but comes to an intriguing ending.
I’ll be starting some book reviews this week and that makes me happy. I got to read some awesome things and even had an enlightening conversation with one of the authors about the reasons for a particular characteristic of her book.
For now, I’ll be giving you a brief summary of why I’m so tired this summer. This won’t be my complete travelogue, but a few stories and a lot of pictures. This is the short version distilled from my yellow notebook, which also contains a story based on The Nutcracker that I still need to type up. And it excludes the scores for our Crazy Eights tournaments.
The story really starts before summer, when I flew from Utah to Philadelphia and then on to Paris. Above is my picture of my faithful companion, given to me by my very young niece for Valentine’s Day. My niece is named Emilie and while everyone in the family calls her Emmy, I call her Milie-bear. It’s never really caught on, so I named the bear that as well and brought her along with me so that when Emilie has to look at my pictures, she can be excited that she knows someone in the pictures. (I took seven pictures with the bear and she squealed when she saw it the first time.)
At the second airport, Mom saved our skins first by realizing that we’d missed the boarding call for our flight to Paris and getting me on the plane from Philadelphia 3 minutes before they would have given our seats to someone else and pulled our luggage.
Our original plans were to check the train schedules and make our reservations to take the train to Germany before going to lunch and seeing some sites. Unfortunately, that got sidetracked by us discovering that the next train left very shortly. Mom immediately booked us on that one and we barely made it.
Before then, though, we found this piano sitting in the Gare de l’Est train station saying “For your enjoyment” and I sat down to play a Beethoven sonata.
We settled in for a long train ride, since we didn’t have to change lines until just over the French-German border.
We disembarked in Karlsruhe, Germany and I immediately discovered that the store in the station had the best drink ever.
Anyone who’s traveled with me in Europe knows that I have a Fanta-dar like a very sugar-obsessed bat. It tastes little like the one in the US and I’m told that the elderberry version is even better. Our next stop was Munich, where I sprinted across the large train station, bought an I <3 Munchen keychain to match the notepad that I had when I was 7 that said the same thing. I made it back just in time to catch our last train of the day.
My dad has a million Marriott points due to his travels for business, so he kindly offered to book us a hotel along the way. This was one of the few places where hotels weren’t already covered by our hiking tour fees and it was eclectic. And by eclectic, I mean they had really weird taste in art…
But the scenery was gorgeous from the rooftop pool. It was still evening, so we went for a walk in a nearby park.
And came home to the hotel, where we discovered the collection of Bavarian cuckoo clocks.
Milie-bear on the prowl for a cuckoo. Even in our room.
The next day, we had places to be, but after a large breakfast, we did make time to go down Kaiserallee and spend time in the rose gardens along Lichtentallerallee. As we’re both musicians, we liked the street being named for Schumann.
The place we had been talking about for months, however, was our next stop. Whenever I told people we were going to Austria for a hike, they would ask me where and I’d respond…
In Seekirchen Am Wallersee, we had dinner and were accosted by a bridal party who were continuing the tradition of selling trinkets to pay for the wedding. I gave them two euro and got a small tote in return.
The next day, we set off on the Jakobsweg from the train station. Because this is a pilgrimage trail, it goes through long expanses of countryside, a few forests and sometimes the roads behind people’s back yards. We would often pass by a barn and occasionally, if the trail wasn’t clear, a farmer would give us instructions. The difficulty was that we had a guide that would say things like “After the green summer hut, take a right and follow the lake until you get to the fork in the road.” It wouldn’t say how long that would take and sometimes, the green summer hut would have been painted blue. Most memorably on that first day, there was a copse of trees on the guide and someone had built a large house at that landmark. At one point, we took a trail that didn’t seem right, so we found someone to give us directions. That person then told us to get in the car and drove us back to the trail that we were right to take and wished us well. It was also on that trail that we met a man named Ralph who was going to hike Jakobsweg all the way to the sea in Spain, where it’s called El Camino del Rey Santiago.
Because we were still getting used to the way of traveling, disputes arose over what made sense vs. what the guidebook said. Mom read one instruction and said “I have a gut instinct in my heart of hearts that we’re supposed to be down that hill.” When we found out that it wasn’t the case and that my insistence that we were supposed to be on the higher path was right, I got very frustrated. We got to the top of our steepest climb of the day and I literally could not breathe because of heat exhaustion. It was 5:45 and we knew we would not make it to our hotel by 6, which meant we had to call them internationally and make sure they didn’t panic at our absence. As it happened, just around the next bend was a splendid view of the town we were heading for. We would have been there at 6:00 if we didn’t then have another disagreement over where the hotel was. I said that we had to take a right on Altenwienerstrasse and she said we needed to go under a bridge first, which was from the next day. A couple who had just finished golfing set the record straight and insisted on taking us two miles back.
This first day should illustrate that while the claim my friends made that everyone in Germany and Austria knows some English is a downright lie, the people are extremely kind to visitors and patient with them. I studied German for months before the trip, so could ask for directions and understand responses, but no one made fun of me for asking for them to speak slower.
We got to the hotel and Mom intended to do a good deed. Earlier that day, she had asked me about plans for after the trip. I talked about getting a Brazilian lemonade at my favorite restaurant in Orem. Well… Mom didn’t know as much German as me, so when she saw this bottle in the hotel fridge, she decided to make amends for the very tiring day by buying me a lemon-flavored water.
I came back from taking my bag to our room to find that Mom had nearly polished hers off, cracked open my bottle and drank deep. Then I started coughing because it was definitely not water. I glanced at the label and understood the word for beer. We quickly explained to the receptionist that we can’t drink alcohol because of our faith and she graciously let us swap them out for water for Mom and an ice-cold Coca-cola for me. Mom also announced that she was going to let me get a really good night’s sleep by getting another room for 41 euros.
The next day, we left our bags at the front desk and were given a packet of papers that the tour company should have sent to us at home. Included was a guidebook that had the same pictures, but was in German. When I looked it over, I noticed immediately that gone were the instructions of “Take the middle fork in the road after you pass the goat enclosure” and it gave street names, distances between landmarks in kilometers, etc. When writing up my review of the tour company, I specifically mentioned this unfair bias.
The next day was also easier because, apart from having survived nearly 19 miles of walking after all our swings and roundabouts, this was an 8-mile trek to Salzburg. We left before 9 and anticipated getting there by 1, stopping to see a beautiful church up a hill.
The main problem of the trek that day was that I’d woken up with chest congestion and difficulty breathing. The pharmacist down the road told us to go to a hospital so I could get an inhaler, but that wasn’t an option, so we just took it slower.
The hill down into Salzburg was paved, but extremely steep and by the time we reached the bottom, I had a pulled calf muscle and even touching it made me whine in pain. At least my feet only had one blister and that wasn’t painful.
At mile 6, we reached the outskirts of Salzburg and found the sign instructing us on how to get to the church. At that point, however, the heat exhaustion that had started the night before made me ask if Mom could go to the church, take pictures and I’d meet her back at the bottom of the hill. She noticed that I was looking very ill, so made me sit down while she went into a Gasthof (guesthouse) and called a taxi for the last two miles to the hotel. I was too tired to argue.
At the hotel, we first had a weird experience. The hotel is near a theater, so all of the rooms had names of operas. We were first given a room and opened the door to find someone else’s luggage inside. We went downstairs and were given a key to our room, Carmen, by the horrified receptionist. This became even more complicated the next morning when we were packing up and discovered that someone else’s hiking backpack had appeared in our room. We brought it to the front desk and were told that the owner had reported it stolen from her room. So…yeah. They were awful at room security.
Upon arriving at the hotel, Mom opened the minibar and gave me an orange Fanta. We were supposed to meet a family who had stayed with my parents when the daughter competed in the Gina Bachauer competition, but I was still feeling ill, so Mom went to lunch with them, bought hiking poles of her own since mine were making my life easier, and let me sleep. I didn’t mind because I had no appetite, but she claimed it was fantastic Chinese food.
To give you an explanation of the next few hours, I have to first say that my cousin Mary Ann married a great guy named Rob who teaches German at my alma mater, Brigham Young University. Not only do they raise their kids to speak German and English, but they spend every summer running the BYU study abroad in Vienna. Mary Ann messaged me a few days before the trip and said that they would be in Salzburg for two days and it would be great if we could meet up with them. We just happened to be arriving in Salzburg on one of the days that they would be there.
We took a very winding route from the hotel to the Sternbreu on the other side of the river and found them just finishing dinner. We invited Rob and Mary Ann to have dessert with us and they suggested we have dinner as well. I had half a small cup of red pepper soup because I had no appetite and told Rob this. He immediately ordered me an apfelsaftspritze, which he explained was apple juice with spritzer water and what he used in place of Gatorade to keep refreshed in Austria. It immediately became my go-to thing instead of orange Fanta.
After dinner, we met up with the family Mom had hosted at the famous Mozarteum music school. The daughter was a pianist and her brother tried to play piano, but wasn’t very good at it, so switched to flute. It turned out he was a prodigy as a flutist and his sister was a prodigy on piano. So they took us to a practice room and the brother played on flute and the sister played some Liszt that I could never manage in a million years.
Rob and Mary Ann were then kind enough to show us a quicker way to get back to our hotel and walked us back, showing us some interesting places in Salzburg along the way.
The next day, all we had on our agenda was seeing Mozart things and hiking to the next place. While Mom checked out of the hotel, I ran up the street to an Apothek (pharmacy) to see if they had anything for the chest congestion that now had a nasty cough. They immediately sold me a cold medicine that had controlled substances and gave me water to take my medications with. I was stunned, since in America, they would have had it locked up behind the counter and kept track of who was buying it because you could use my cold medicine to make meth. By the time we left Salzburg, I was finding it easier to breathe.
Across the street from the Mozart Wohnhaus (where he lived, rather than the place where he was born nearby), I found St. Andrew’s church and took a picture to show my nephew by the same name.
We bought our headsets and tickets near this sign and headed upstairs to see the exhibits. Mom immediately pestered me to put on my headset and I didn’t realize why until I heard that the introduction was the music from his Piano Concerto No. 21, which is the only piano concerto I’ve ever performed in public.
We got to see instruments and furniture and learned about his various tours and compositions and relationships. There was even a children’s hands-on section, which obviously didn’t have any of his instruments for handling. I bought some souvenirs for friends, an Eine Kleine Nachtmusik shirt for myself and a LOT of postcards.
After we left, Mom asked for directions to an ATM at a stationery shop and I told her I was going to stop to take a picture just outside the door. She hurried off without me and I had to go back and find out where she had been told to go, which was two blocks north and half a block east. The picture above is of the birthplace of Christian Doppler, as in the Doppler Effect.
We then stopped in at the Mirabel Gardens, which are recognizable as the place where the Von Trapps sing about “Do, a deer, a female deer” and dance around fountains.
Once we were back on the road, we found the way marked by lovely vistas, hard climbs through somewhat dense forests and a few hamlets with anything from horse pastures to small restaurants. Having discovered my Austrian Gatorade, when we stopped in one hamlet, I bought us both apfelsaftspritze. This isn’t to say that I didn’t drink lots and lots of water along the way, but it had the same pick-me-up effect of me drinking a Cherry Coke. (Earlier in the trip, a waitress had asked if I wanted my mango juice with water. I’m wondering if she meant spritzer and that would have made a lot more sense than watered-down mango juice.)
So, here’s where I’m going to get less detailed. I remember reading a book by Terry Pratchett in which he says that cartographers described a region as MMBU or “Miles and Miles of Bloody Uberwald” because that was really all there was to say about it.
Austria and Germany are certainly not unremarkable, but we spent a lot of time keeping pace and looking for landmarks. Quite a few times, though, I would stop a few hundred feet further along the trail from Mom and call back “Postcard view ahead.” We would pause to catch our breath and take pictures. Almost all of it should have been on a postcard, but there were some really remarkable views.
Even flat places were cool.
Some trails were trickier than others.
All along the path, we would stop in small pilgrim churches, built by people of faith who had come that way before us.
Even more frequent were small family memorials. They would mark the place where a relative died.
Or some important vision.
Only once did I find a shrine with a kneeling bench for any weary pilgrim who would want to pray and I loved that one best of all.
We didn’t stop for a lot of selfies, but we did take pictures of each other to mark our passage.
But Mom has said (and I agree) that it was challenging to not become blase about the whole wonder of God’s creations. We were constantly surrounded by views that made us feel like belting “The hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiills are alive with the sound of music!” I felt guilty for coming across a valley surrounded by stunning hills and not-so-distant mountains, where we could see cows roaming free and walked through entire towns in less than ten minutes and sort of thinking “Oh, another one?”
One prime example of this was on the day that we had to briefly hike through Germany on the trail. We knew the name of the town where the border could be crossed and followed the signs, but we found ourselves in Germany without ever finding the border. We had stopped at a strawberry field to use their restroom and make sure we were headed in the right direction and apparently at that point, if we had not followed one specific path, we would have known when and where we invaded a new country.
My German got more proficient as we went along as well. Mom and I still hopefully asked “Sprechst du Englisch” at times in case the person could help us in our own language. But in Germany, we went to a biergarten for dinner and it took a lot of interlingual searching for words that we both knew to determine which dishes did not have brandy or wine in them.
We discovered that three-star was hotel lingo for “no elevator,” but none of the hotels that we were booked into by our tour company were at all substandard. We had pretty much the same breakfast everywhere. We would wake up and in the dining room, we’d be offered rye bread, deli meats and cheese, fruit and jam. The waitress would ask if we wanted coffee and bring us hard-boiled eggs in an egg cup without prompting.
Mom caught my cold and had a longer time of it, but my struggle was still with the heat exhaustion and the attendant lack of appetite. Sometimes, I would have an apfelsaftspritze just because it had calories and didn’t make me feel overstuffed. We packed seven bags of trail mix per person and I ate one, while Mom got through three. I wanted to eat more, but just couldn’t.
After that first tempestuous day of navigating, we did pretty well. The Jakobsweg signs grew more frequent and there were signs that gave us clues as to how much further we had to go, giving us more motivation. At one point, the book said to take the fussgang (footpath is the literal translation, but it is a pedestrian district) to get back to the trail from the hotel and Mom insisted that it meant we needed to go through the shopping district. She asked three people, two of whom agreed with me. The third said “Oh, yes, the fussgang means the footpath that has shops on either side.” She then agreed that we needed to take the pedestrian district footpath because it fit both of our definitions.
My favorite compromise of the trip was when we got to the town before our daily destination of Waidring and Mom offered to buy me something cool before we finished. After plying me with a fresh fruit smoothie, she announced that there was a bus that would get us from a couple of blocks from the ice cream parlor to Waidring. I was feeling happy with the world, but like I’d gotten in a good deal of exercise, so we took the bus a few kilometers. That was also the night that the little hotel had us in a two-room suite with a private balcony. We got dinner and brought our desserts back to the room so we could have a wild tournament of Crazy Eights. (Mom and I went on a four-country trip in 1999 and played Crazy Eights on every single train that wasn’t a subway, so we continued the tradition.)
On the last day, it was 95 degrees and cloudless. We walked along a river to get to our final destination. As we got to the outskirts of Sankt Johann, our last stop, however, there was another “let’s go under the bridge” situation as there was on the first day. I was unable to feel like I was getting any oxygen and water wasn’t rehydrating me and Mom wanted me to go upstairs to the grocery store to ask for directions with her. I lay down on the stairs instead and asked her to do that. Two men came by and tried to convince me to let them call an ambulance so I could be treated for my heat exhaustion, but we were within mere miles of finishing the 76-mile trek and I wasn’t giving up. After about ten minutes, I went upstairs and found that Mom had not only gotten directions, but bought me a Coke to give me the extra energy that water wasn’t giving. The coke also helped the migraine that was coming on.
We got going again and stumbled into the plaza where the church of Sankt Johann was the end of the Jakobsweg trail in Tirol. There was a stone fountain with “trinktwasser” on it, so we refilled our water bottles and drank directly from it. I went into the church, bought postcards and paid to light two candles, one out of gratitude for our arrival and one to pray for the rest of our trip. It also continued my tradition of lighting candles across Europe, which I’ve now done in Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Germany.
I left the church and stuck my head under the spigot of the trinktwasser fountain. I also filled my cap with ice water and put it on my head, which was a trick I had used for the whole trip. We then walked through a busy shopping district to our hotel. A young woman in a dirndl with nordic braids checked us in, grabbed our suitcases as if they were only a few pounds each and jogged up the stairs. Once we had showered and unpacked what fresh clothes we had, we took her recommendations for a Chinese restaurant around the corner. I had duck of eight treasures and mom had orange chicken.
My fortune cookie message, which I keep on my desk at work as a reminder, said in English and German, “At this moment, you are unbeatable.” I had hiked more than 70 miles in two countries in seven days and had two blisters, bruised toenails and heat exhaustion to show for it. So yes, at that moment, I was unbeatable and any time I think I’m not very cool, I remember that fortune cookie.
The next day, we had directions on how to get from Sankt Johann to Bern, Switzerland. Mom, before the trip, had asked where there were LDS temples in Europe. I found that we could very easily stop by the one in Switzerland to do temple work and even stay in the patron apartments for only $40 for the both of us. I booked us for the day that we left Sankt Johann.
We got to the train station and took the first train. At the next station, both our tickets and the conductor said to take the train leaving from platform 2B. We checked on platform 2B and were told “Yes, yes, you can take this train to go to Zurich.” When we were well on our way, the first announcement came on the intercom that “This is the express train to Salzburg.” In a panic, I found another conductor and found out that we were going in the opposite direction of where every person had told us we were going. We got to Salzburg and found that we could get to Bern that day by taking 5 trains instead of the two we had intended and still get to Bern around 8 p.m. It meant that instead of spending the evening and the next morning serving God, we would only have time to go in the morning. I found a wi-fi connection and was assured that we could still stay in the patron housing if we were only going to the temple in the morning and we could go to the patron housing if we called the security guard from the gate. All was not lost.
In Innsbruck, I read the story of Douglas Addams having the inspiration for Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that town. We took a train to Geneva as well as Zurich and I bought chocolates for myself and friends back home. (The chocolates for the friends melted before I got home, unfortunately.) We even crossed through Liechtenstein because of the route we were taking, but did not have a chance to get out and be tourists. So that’s why I said I went to four and a half countries on this trip–France, Germany, Austria, sorta Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
At 8 p.m., we got to Bern and I knew from the directions from the temple housing coordinator that the temple was in a section called Sollikofe. Mom disagreed and said that the mailing address said it was in Munchenbussen. I showed her the e-mail from the coordinator and she agreed that we should take the light rail to Sollikofe.
Upon getting off the train, I said the directions said we needed to take a left from the station to get to the Tempelstrasse, where patron housing was located. She, however, spotted a bus to Munchenbussen and we stepped onto the bus. The bus driver refused to give directions unless we were going to Munchenbussen, so I had to pay 9 francs 20 centimes to find out, once he had started driving, that yes, this bus went to Munchenbussen, but he had never heard of Tempelstrasse. He said to get off at Munchenbussen and we could ask directions there. We had taken five trains and were possibly getting lost because no one would listen to me. I started crying out of exhausted frustration, but shut up and took a seat.
It was at that point that kindness of strangers again intervened. The woman behind us heard that we were looking for Tempelstrasse and said she knew where it was. We got off at Munchenbussen with her and she said that if we had taken a left out of the station as I said, we would have walked half a mile and arrived at the temple. She then steered us to her car, put our bags in the back and drove us to Tempelstrasse. She refused our offer of gas money.
While we waited for the security guard to check us in, Mom took my camera around the hedges and took a beautiful picture of the temple at night.
The security guard spoke French when he showed up a few minutes later. The check-in person spoke German. I got directions to the elevator from a woman in Portuguese.
I told Mom that I was too frustrated with the entire day to stay up, so I took a shower and fell asleep while she was hosing down after me. It was more polite than what I wanted to do, which was burst into tears and yell about having gotten here so late. I didn’t want to ruin our night staying in a dormitory set aside for people exercising their faith in God.
The next morning, I woke up before dawn and took a picture from our two-bed dorm room window.
We took the elevator to the basement and found the only vending machines that I have ever seen with pictures of the temple where there’s usually an ad for 7-Up or Diet Coke. We left our luggage behind the security desk since we had to check out before we went to the temple. Sleep and water had calmed me down a lot and I felt like myself again by the time I changed into my floral skirt and linen blouse so I could go to work.
Walking a few tenths of a mile, we arrived at the temple and were directed in German where to find the audio headsets for foreign visitors and the ceremonial clothing that we wear while doing temple work. The understanding temple workers said that they had a lot of Italian patrons coming to serve in the temple that day.
This proved true. The session was in Italian, though we heard the translation in English and were able to use printed English text for our part in serving.
After the session, I went to the baptistry while mom went to do other work because she had a rash and couldn’t do baptisms. When I got there, I let them know in my fledgling Italian that I had twenty names for deceased family members and they said I could be baptized for ten. (For anyone confused, in my faith, we can do proxy baptisms and other ordinances in the temple for family members or others’ family members if we have already made covenants ourselves. In this case, they were all people from my dad’s side of the family, some of them American, some German or Swedish.)
While waiting, a woman came over and said that a young woman from Italy would like to do the remaining ten baptisms that I had brought names for. I agreed immediately, grateful that she was willing to help. The baptisms themselves were performed in Italian, starting with “Sorella Olsen” and being done on behalf of people whose names were very foreign to the Italian brother, such as Katie Scott and Alice Gertrude Edwards.
After leaving and retrieving our luggage, a woman working at the dorm offered to drive us to the train station. We accepted and got on the first of our trains to our last time in Paris.
We arrived around 5 and I had communicated with the person who was our AirBnB hostess to let her know when we’d arrive and she gave us directions from the Bondy stop on the train to her spare apartment. It was then that the low point of the trip happened. (My sister-in-law Megan says that everyone has one and to not feel bad that it happened to us.) We were in Gare de Lyons, one of the largest stations in Paris and only I knew the address of the apartment. Mom stopped to ask for directions and I followed her, but we got separated by rush-hour crowds. I tried calling out, but she kept walking and I couldn’t get to her. I tried returning to the escalator where we had stopped for directions, going to the Metro, which we needed to take, but she showed up at neither place. I walked the station for half an hour and couldn’t find her. I found a volunteer for a charity for the homeless who let me know where I could ask for a passenger to be paged. I went upstairs and asked them to page Rosemary Olsen to platform 19, where our train had arrived, in ENGLISH. They assured me it would happen. I heard the announcement for Rosemary Olsen to come to Platform 19 two minutes later in French. She still didn’t come, so I tried calling her phone. My dad picked up because her phone was being forwarded. The wi-fi wouldn’t connect, so I couldn’t text her. I got him to text her on her iPad and tell her I was waiting at Platform 19. I’m not proud of how much yelling I did in the course of all of this, but we wound up not spending any time in Paris except in train stations in the two days that we had there and to be fair, she yelled back at me. Mom insisted we take a taxi to Bondy, which is between Paris center and the Charles De Gaulle airport. We met our incredibly nice host, Tanya, and her husband and two daughters, none of whom spoke anything but French, but I was prepared for that because of the AirBnB conversations only happening in French.
We went downstairs for dinner, but I got chocolate mousse and went back to the apartment while she ate dinner. I slept on the couch because I didn’t feel like yelling again. Like I said, not proud of it, but after four and a half countries, seventy-six miles, very little contact with anyone else and me having to use my conversational skills in Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian to get us around, I had reached one of those breaking points where if I heard one word spoken to me, my hair would probably catch fire. Mom left money for my chocolate mousse on the coffee table to apologize for how disastrous the evening had been.
It has to be said at this point that the word “trooper” is insufficient for Mom. She’s in her 60s, but is in better shape than me. She learned early on how to travel without unleashing my “disagree-with-me-one-more-time-and-I’m-not-translating” demon. She kept my heat exhaustion from turning into something worse and knew when to make amends, even if it meant buying me the first beer I’ve ever had, since I was baptized Mormon at 8 and have never been tempted to go alcoholic. She even gave me a leg rub when I had the hellacious muscle pull in Salzburg. And we took turns buying each other those apfelsaftspritze, but a lot of the time, she would give me half of hers because she knew it would help me more. And when I discovered that I could get through days a lot better if I listened to music and spoke less frequently, she did the same thing. And she did it all while not speaking much German or French and losing a hat, earphones and I believe two pairs of shoes.
The next day, we got to the airport by cab in plenty of time for our flight. I went to Starbucks for a muffin and found myself behind a group of Americans. I pointed to a girl’s shirt and said “GO BYU.” Confused, she looked down at the cougar logo and asked how I knew. I said, “Um, I went there” and she was thrilled because her older brother was going to be a freshman as soon as they got back from vacation. On the way to Starbucks, I noticed another “for your enjoyment” piano, but it was Mom who decided to sit down and play Debussy’s Clare de Lune before our flight.
We stopped in Heathrow, where I tried to buy a British policeman teddy bear, but their card reader was broken and I couldn’t run across the terminal to the ATM, run back and run to my gate and not miss my flight. But it was the first time I’d spoken to a stranger in English for more than 2 minutes in 2 weeks.
I got home after midnight to an empty apartment–Katey was in Baltimore for the weekend–and a surprise treat on the table.
I poured the contents of my duffel into the laundry and inspected my blister.
That done, I ate some of my giant gluten-free chocolate chip cookie and went to bed.
Best of all, I discovered that the local German restaurant serves apfelsaftspritze.