Isabel Bearman Bucher
© Copyright 2009 by Isabel Bearman Bucher
When I was a brand new teacher, way back when, I listened to one of my co-workers describe something called a “home exchange.”
“Home indeed,” she chuckled as we shared recess duty. “They had our little house for a month, and we had their family castle in Devon. While it was a ‘little castle,’ so to speak - a castle is a castle. It was complete with Waterford crystal and Wedgewood china for everyday, thank you very much!”
I tucked that idea away, and three decades later, when the kids grew up and the beloved dogs died of old age, husband Bob and I joined a home exchange organization. We began to live the lyrics of that wonderful old 1961 song, “Moon River,” sung by Andy Williams - “two drifters, off to see the world.”
Loving adventure and really wanting to make a place ours, since 1998, we’ve exchanged digs, walked green roads of Ireland, run from Swiss cow herds in the Alps that only wanted human companionship, and found my northern Italian roots, tailing the back of an impossibly small car loaded with Sunday Italians. Like some sort of mythical hydra, all their hands pointed out the right side of the car to the sign that bore the town name I’d heard all my life from my grandparents. We’ve ridden busses all over Cornwall, took a pony trap in the Dingle, jostled on rusted trains into outback Hungary and dashed for U-bhans in Vienna. We’ve walked countless miles, some of which were in a totally “lost” condition, in just about every place. Lost is a given, and “lost” always equals adventure. In the Austrian Tirol, on a narrow mountain road, a group of vacationing, wildly vocal, muscular Italians lifted our tiny car and turned it in the right direction, when Robert was clearly about to back it over a 2,000 foot drop. Like the great Daniel Boone, who stated he was “never lost, only a mite confused,” we finally took to bringing a compass because one can’t ever be sure which way is up ... or down, whatever the case. But, the time we got on the wrong-way boat on the Danube remains as our most hysterical adventure.
In early July, we arrived in the middle of Vienna, exchanging our New Mexico home with a jovial Austrian whose weird digs comprised the entire top floor of a cement block apartment house at the central edge of the fabled city. We could lean over the front balcony and see the gorgeous Schönbrunn Palace, just down the street. As the days went by, we settled in, ate wonderful food anywhere, walked the Vienna Woods, waltzed with neighbors in family-owned pubs called “heurigern” and saw art of incomparable beauty at every turn. One fine, cool July day, now feeling very much at home in this gorgeous city, we confidently navigated three bus routes that lead us, finally, to the south station where we boarded a train headed for the port that would provide us an all-day boat ride down the Danube. Aboard the large, spotless steamer, amidst a rainbow of people from all over the earth, we were lulled by the ancient scenery and precise terraces . Grapevines rose up the hillsides, and like a musical score, the vista was dotted with houses. Brilliant blue onion-shaped church towers rose from in the middle of the slate-roofed medieval towns. Scores of recreational bikers pedaled the fine roads on either side of the great river; walkers tapped hiking sticks, tipping felt hats crowded with pins, and fuzzy hat ornaments. When we reached the tiny hamlet of Dürnstein, we got off to hike up to an ancient castle at the high point of the city. History told that Richard the Lionhearted had been imprisoned and held for ransom for two years, until he gave a bribe of land. Every step of that trail brought magnificent changing vistas and we were sad to stop when boat whistle hooted, hurrying everyone down the steep path to the dock as ticket takers rushed us aboard. Seated comfortably in the dining section, we settled down for the return trip north to Vienna.
Then ... .
“Bob!” I whispered in a hushed tone when the boat got to the middle of the river. “The boat’s turning around!”
Bob just looked out the front of the boat.
“Bob!” I whispered somewhat louder, because by now, we were pointed down river. “The boat’s going the wrong way!”
He continued to look out the front.
Finally, panicked, I said very loudly, “BOBTHEBOAT'SGOINGTHEWRONGWAY!”
“Oh goshdarnit Isabel!” he replied. “I KNOW it’s going the wrong way and what are we supposed to do now - jump overboard!”
What he was really worried about was that someone would check our tickets and discover that we’d gotten on the much longer and more expensive tour.
We looked at each other, still panicked.
“Oh nuts,” I said, after a pause. “Order a bottle of wine.”
We did, and by the time we arrived at next town, some two hours later, we were doing a wobbling two-step, laughing to beat heck, as we disembarked.
“Hey!” We reasoned, in a giddy tone. “We have our plastic’ we have our passports, our camera - so - we’re OK!”
We wandered by an old American Chevy that bore the town name of Spitz. It was bedecked with dozens of blooming flowers, and a 70's Chicago license plate. I looked vainly for the large green I denoting the tourist office, because there, someone would always speak English and would always be helpful. Two policeman approached. In my very limited German, trying to hide my tipsy condition, I told them that we’d gotten on the wrong-way boat by accident, hadn’t paid for the expensive ticket, and got off as soon as we could. After they’d had a good laugh, they congenially pointed out the rather obscure tourist office, and wished us a good day. With a nice B and B rent slip in our hands, we began to follow the directions the tourist worker had given. Forty minutes later, we were still wandering all over to heck and gone, now at the edge of town on our way to absolute nowhere, coming from nowhere.
“Wrong-way boat lost again! ” the policeman hollered out the window.
“Ja! What else is new?” I replied.
“Get in the car.”
They drove us to our B and B and knocked on the front door. When the owner saw the two policeman, she turned white, then looked around the side of one of them, at us, with suspicion written all over her face. We were standing, absent any luggage, in her picture-perfect front yard. Other people were peering out of peaked windows, and two more approached from the terrace where they were having Jause, the sacrosanct Austrian afternoon coffee break.
After a lengthy explanation from our saviors, the innkeeper smiled broadly and gestured to one of her guests, a friend who spoke perfect English. From there, we waved a cheery goodbye to the policeman and learned about the town. A few hours later, we took her suggestion and ate the most perfect meal we had during the entire Austrian home exchange. It was some sort of marinated game meat. Later, in a spotlessly clean room, we snuggled under a peach feather quilt and slept peacefully until morning. We walked the town in earnest then, learning what we could about the beautiful village of Spitz, and later boarded a train which made all our connections to Vienna, waving wildly to the two policeman who paced our squeaky old chug-a-choo-choo until it was out of town.
Later, after a wonderful wander all over the Austrian Tirol, smarter and braver, we returned to Spitz, stayed in the same B and B, found the same people involved in their Jause, which we happily joined. Of course, we ate again at that marvelous restaurant and found our cops.
When we think of our adventures, it’s this very thing that makes us love the entire business of home exchanges, and being on our own, with a little help from human beings, possessed of wry senses of humor, who are equally kind and courteous and who try to be helpful and care that others find comfort. Bless stampeding cows, muscular vocal Italians, policemen with senses of humor and wrong way boats. We’ll always be two drifters, off to see the world, because there’s such a lot of world to see -
Lost? Of course.
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