Shortest but Steepest
Unescorted roaming. It was part of a quote that Mamma had memorised and an activity to which she aspired in her own life. But as a working mother with two grown children and a semi-retired husband who regarded her as his primary source of entertainment, it was not an easy task.
Mamma and I had always dreamed of doing some unescorted European roaming. We had been to Europe as a family, but longed for the Nirvana of being able to go on our own, to roam unescorted through the shopping districts and art galleries of Europe at our own pace. We finally got the opportunity when Mamma was asked to attend a conference in Europe. Before departure, my father gave me strict instructions: "Call every three days; only use the Amex gold card in dire and life-threatening emergencies; and make sure Mamma does not over-exert herself - you know she's nearly 60 and tires easily because of her kidney problems." And just like that, we were off, unescorted.
Our hotel in London had an impressive lobby, a great view over Russell Square, and scary rooms with mustard carpets, blue curtains and faded red bedspreads. On the first morning, Mamma blearily opened the door to a knock at 07h00, to be greeted by a woman whose entire lower face was tattooed. "'Ousekippin!", barked Tattoo Lady. "No thanks!" replied Mamma and shut the door quickly. The coffee was pure chicory and the toast rubbery, so we made an informed decision to eat at in the park.
By the Tube station sat the most dejected beggar in London, head hanging, clothes ragged, and accompanied by a Jack Russel terrier with a doleful expression and a palsied shake to its paw. We simply had to drop a few coins into his hat. The following morning, while we breakfasted on supermarket croissants under the plane trees in Russell Square, the shrubs near us rustled and parted. Out stepped our beggar, looking hale and hearty and stretching expansively after a good night's rest in his bower. He threw a tennis ball across the square. Like an arrow from a bow, his dog shot out of the bushes in pursuit, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We had encountered our first canine con artist.
In Vienna we awoke every morning to the sound of church bells and vowed to eat more pastries than the previous day. We would take the tram into town in the morning with a packed programme of cultural activities planned, and then get sidetracked by the sight of pastries and the smell of coffee - Sachertorte and Golatschen; melange and fiaker - and spend a happy hour in a coffee shop. We visited the Belvedere Palace, where we stood transfixed before Gustav Klimt's The Kiss until the guard started regarding us with suspicion. We discovered Keith Haring by accident when we visited the KunstHaus Wien; we puzzled over the installations in the modern art museum. We bought tickets to see Mozart and Vivaldi performed in the Minoritenkirche. Outside the hotel, we hailed a cab and asked to go to the MinoritenKirche. The driver drove barely two hundred metres and around one corner before stopping and, speaking very slowly as he was clearly dealing with idiots, saying: "Das ist der Minoritenkirche."
Leaving Innsbruck in a rented car, we got hopelessly lost. "There is no Schwangau", the Avis rental woman had smirked, meaning: "if it's not in Austria, it doesn't exist". I heard my mother use the F-word for the first time. But we got to Schwangau, emotionally and physically unscathed, and delighted to find we had a view of Neuschwanstein castle. The next morning, we decided to walk up the hill to the castle, not via the route marked "shortest but steepest"; not on the road with the horse-drawn carriages; but on the easy, gentle contour path. The map was clear, but the signposts were not, so we followed a woman walking with a crutch. Surely she would be on the contour path? After an unexpectedly strenuous walk, we finally crested the hill at the base of the castle walls. "If that was the easy route, I'd hate to see the steep route!" gasped Mamma. To my right was a little signboard for people choosing their path down. It read: "Shortest, but steepest path". I pointed mutely at the sign, and Mamma and I both collapsed in giggles. We had managed to contravene my father's strictest instructions, and we had survived.
A year later, Mamma would have an even steeper route to walk. Her kidney failure and the subsequent indignities of dialysis would slowly strip her of her capacity for enjoyment and, eventually, her life. But that sunny day in Bavaria, we felt as if anything was possible and as if we had the world at our feet.