Once upon a time, thirty years ago, my Mother gave me the best present any daughter ever received. I was twenty two attending college on a quarter system about to transfer to a Catholic college on the semester system. It was about to be my spring break. Our small college had a couple of professors who took a group of students on a European tour every year. I would actually have to show up for the new term a week late. The sociology professor, Hans, was German. Our language professor, Dave, spoke French. We called him Westy, a shortened version of his last name. This year they were going to northern Europe. To go inexpensively, we’d drive to Canada and catch a flight to Amsterdam where we’d meet our bus driver. We had just ten days to explore, staying in Berlin one night, two nights in Paris, and back to Belgium. From there we’d head back through Frankfurt and home to Canada. Mom paid for that trip. That time I spent in college (we still called it college thirty years ago), was for me a period of deep confusion and lack of direction. My oldest sister called them my invisible years. I didn’t correspond with any of my family. I didn’t see them unless I had to. Not only did I not know what I wanted to do with my life, I had no idea who I was. Maybe Mom knew that, I don’t know but if it had been up to my Dad, of course, I would NOT have gone. There were things Mom believed were important for her girls. This trip for me was one of those things.
So it began with a caravan of cars full of country kids, some parents, a few adults from all around northern Montana, mostly strangers to one another, heading to Canada. Montana is a big state. We’re the fourth largest state in the Union behind Alaska, Texas and California. But we have the least amount of people. We have a lot of forests and plains and mountains and grasslands. In 1979 when I graduated from high school, Montana boasted about 500 thousand residents. Farming and ranching was and remains the state’s number one industry. At that time, we boasted two whole universities: the University of Montana Grizzlies, in Missoula, and the Montana State Bobcats, in Bozeman. It was assumed that most kids who graduated from Big Sandy High School would attend Bozeman. It was all about agriculture. I and about two others from my graduating class of thirty eight went to Missoula. We were the rebels. Even our principal and a teacher or two made mention of Missoula’s reputation and it is still known for an extremely liberal point of view. Students wore Birkenstock sandals and the girls didn’t shave their legs or (I assumed) their armpits. They were “au naturale”. Imagine a country girl’s astonishment to see rag wool socks on feet wedged into thongs under double tea length cotton skirts in the middle of winter! Everyone in Bozeman wore cowboy boots and Wranglers. It was beer versus pot; art and theatre versus ag-business; environmentalists or tree huggers (unless you were in the forestry program) versus econ and business majors. Both schools boasted excellent athletic and music departments. I had no idea which school was better for me. I hadn’t been a good student in high school except in English. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Helen Hashley, was the first teacher to throw me something onto which I might cling. She told me I was good at writing. She gave me the incredible gift of recognition and encouragement. To this day, whenever I sit down to express myself through the written word, I send a silent thank you to her. It was the only subject at which I had any measure of success. My eighth grade English teacher, Grahame Nicolson also boosted my esteem in that regard, and I was one of the few students in high school who actually looked forward to Mr. Lawrence Green’s senior English class. But years later, contemplating university, I wasn’t sure my application would even be considered. My SAT scores were nothing to brag about, but interestingly enough to now note, the high end scores in my writing and verbal skills matched my scores in mechanical aptitude. I enjoyed science, but thought I was dumb. It wasn’t until I took an intelligence test at university for a friend getting his psychology doctorate that I ever considered anything else. In high school, I had no guidance. I had not enjoyed a shining record even though I was in Girls State, President of the Speech and Drama Club, first French horn in the band and a member of the Sandy 16 choral group and from which I actually made it to All State Choir. I put my energies into the drama club and music although in that, as in most areas of interest, I felt like the world’s biggest fraud. I developed an eating disorder. I recall U of M’s career fair for incoming freshmen with a painful clarity. I wandered aimlessly through the stadium where it was held going from one table to another, picking up a pamphlet here and there, when across the way I spied “Aesthetics”. Since I knew what the word meant, I ventured over. Clearly, very few students visited that table. The good looking, smartly dressed young man beamed at me, but our exchange was brief. My shrug of disinterest and stubborn false self-assurance bloomed out into the full, aloof, unapproachable demeanor I had built so carefully to protect myself until the poor guy behind the table shrugged as well and offered me another pamphlet and I strutted off. Wrong turn, dearie, a tiny little voice in the very back of my brain mumbled. There were miniscule little signs all along the way that I ignored. I double majored in drama and English. The drama prof, my advisor, was weird and may have been sexually harassing some of the students. Once, entering class, we found him in a kind of loin cloth standing on a wooden straight back chair in the middle of the room, one foot on the back, the other on the seat, balancing the chair on two hind legs. He didn’t harass me, but I spent an uncomfortable hour crying in his office once trying to figure out some answers. He was useless. University classes were mostly easy, but my entrance scores betrayed me and I had to suffer through bone head math – a class in which the professor badly needed some sensitivity training in harassment. There were weird experiences in theatre, excepting stage design because I knew how to handle carpentry tools, and a brief stint in broadcast media. An overall dissatisfaction and disappointment in my English courses, and my resolute wall of fear and mistrust kept me hidden from the successful writers in my creative writing courses from whom I desperately wanted recognition. My big time poetry professor told me I was not a poet but wrote lyrically. What he should have said is that I did not write poetry like HE did. I felt like he was more interested in his own experience than teaching any of the rest of us how to write. So, floundering and miserable, I transferred out of Missoula after one year. And then I was really lost. I went back home to the ranch.
Well, it was a nice respite, but even I knew I couldn’t hide very long. A high school class mate and neighbor from up in the mountains decided to go to nearby Havre to work and needed a roommate. I spent a great deal of time in high school at her house. Her folks had nine kids and they never noticed another one hanging around once in a while. Plus, her Uncle and my Dad were buddies. So, off we went to find an apartment, move in our meager stuff, and get jobs. I also went to school at Northern Montana College part time. She went to cosmetology school. There in NMC’s tiny English department I actually began to learn something – about myself. The professors, some with prestigious credentials, presided over classes of eight or ten students. For the first time ever, I enjoyed conversations about complex ideas and themes in literature with my contemporaries.
My roommate and I shared enough common history to make our stay together a great deal of fun. We even had another gal from high school join us for a time. We met other young women in our building and had more fun. There were boyfriends and drinking and time went by. My roommate moved on to bigger and better things and I moved into a tiny little apartment by myself and got a yellow tabby kitten I named Sarge but called Baby. He was there through my invisible years of over eating, over drinking, and toying with drugs and promiscuity. I was in trouble and no one ever knew it. I managed, much to my amazement, to earn the Jane Buttrey Memorial scholarship for the English department two years running. It was during this bleak time that one of my college professors, teaching writing incidentally, told me he had suffered from clinical depression and perhaps I might be slogging along those lines myself. I sought out a psychologist, got some helpful drugs, and started to come up for air. I met a handsome highly sensitive guy with complementary emotional issues from Great Falls and decided it was time to move on, hence my transfer from Havre to Great Falls, and the corresponding trip to Europe.
So thirty years ago in March of 1984, in Westy’s car, I and three other people joined a convoy of other cars full of intrepid adventurers heading to Calgary, Canada. I looked forward to what I thought would be a lovely diversion and a rounding out of my not quite fine arts education. It was in the duty free shop at the border in Sunburst, MT, that my sociology professor, Hans, while buying wine or vodka or something like that, said to me, “Dieter [dee ter] is going to like you.” My response? “What’s a ‘dieter’?” Hans, a traditional looking German, tall, mostly bald, with little brushy salt and pepper eyebrows and mustache and twinkling blue eyes behind his specs, guffawed loudly and told me Dieter was our bus driver. So, I tucked that little nugget into my imagination and settled in for the hop across the pond.
In the blur of getting my passport and picking luggage and finishing my finals and being ready to move into a new place in a different town upon my return, a week late for the first week of the next semester, I never once felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I needed something. Maybe this was it. I had flown before but never overseas. So when the rainy clouds over Amsterdam parted and I could see the ground, I was struck by how green everything seemed. Clearly these people did not experience the dry, cold, frozen grey of winter like we have in Montana. It was March. Maybe they had had some of that and now this was spring, I did not know, but the green drew me like a siren’s call. We wandered as a group, wrinkled and yawning, through customs, gathered our bags (although one older couple had left theirs sitting at the airport in Canada) and bunched around our guides awaiting the next step. We would head to our hotel first, deal with our jet lag, and begin our European road trip first thing tomorrow. Tonight we would explore Amsterdam a bit but first we must meet our bus driver. My roommate, Lillian, was a woman in her mid-fifties who was friends with our professors and on this excursion by herself. She was lovely, open, charming. Of course all our accommodations and the agenda had been settled before we ever left home, so all we had to do was find our niches in the array of personalities and keep up. Our bus driver was introduced to us all. He was a longtime friend of Hans. Dieter appeared tall and slender with short straight dark hair, a saucy mustache hiding a wicked grin, and eyes the color of water. There was some joking about him being a Bavarian and therefore a bit wild. We meandered out of the airport to a large tour bus waiting curbside. Almost everyone else my age on this tour had either a friend of the same age or a parent along. I was rather under the protection of my two professors and of course my roommate.
Almost immediately, a small group of us separated ourselves out of the pack. My professors had been doing this long enough to get a read on the group. As it turned out, my professors, Lillian, Dieter, and myself all went together to a restaurant. We walked Amsterdam’s narrow cobbled streets glistening from the recent gentle rain through the famous red light district to a place that I cannot now recall enough to describe. We ate cous cous and drank a lot of wine, and got to know one another better. While Dieter and Hans were longtime friends and of course shared heritage, Westy was kind of on his own. Shorter, with longer greyish hair, a round face and an ample mid-section, Westy spoke French fluently, and used his jovial personality to the best advantage. They all three were seasoned travelers and loved the experiences each new city and tour group provided. Lillian and I got along fabulously. She was not introverted or imposing, she was shorter than I with a soft brown bob and lovely green eyes. I would have guessed her heritage to be Irish. She had a marvelous laugh. The five of us had an amazing first evening and sang loudly, passing our wine bottle around, on our walk home. Hans had been correct. Dieter did like me and I felt like a flower in the sun under the rays of his attention. The canals and Anne Frank’s tiny attic safe house in Amsterdam kept us busy the next day. The Van Gogh museum provided the biggest surprise however. Living in a rural state I had never seen art that wasn’t western. My education had not, sadly, included any kind of training in art. CM Russel was our artist of renown and his work looked like everyday life for me: horses, cowboys, cattle, tromping along dry wind scoured river bluffs. But Van Gogh’s strident flowers in a field, rough, almost blotchy portraits of skeletal visages left me stunned. His bold colors and breadth of strokes seemed less than delicate. I didn’t know an impressionist from a modernist, but Van Gogh’s images jangled in the forefront of my imagination for days.
And then there was an hour or so when our individual time allowed us to do as we pleased. Dieter and I took a boat ride on the canal alone. It is extraordinary to describe your life to someone whose first language is not English. There is no room for subterfuge, innuendo, exaggeration or denial. To be understood, one must strip the colloquialisms and idiosyncratic expressions from one’s conversation. To be understood, one must use simple language, simple sentence structure, and common vocabulary. In short, one must tell the truth. It is not as easy as it sounds. For some of us, it is nearly impossible. For those of us who have always hidden behind the “hint and hope” communication method, being up-front and direct is a bit of a stretch. Expressing one’s feelings, emotions, vague interpretations of the hearts’ desire in an appropriate fashion proves difficult if one has no exit plan, no hedge, no penchant for vulnerability or, horror of horrors, experience with intimacy. But the real trick is to listen to what you say about yourself. It’s the kind of thing you don’t think about, I guess, until the questions are posed. Somehow it became more clear that what I did and how I lived my life at home were not WHO I was. I talked about home and my family and the ranch and school and began to hear how the responses were what I’d heard other people say, but I had no idea if I meant them. All I knew is that I felt more comfortable in the sunshine between Amsterdam’s ancient edifices whilst floating on the canal with tulips and trees blooming on all sides than I had ever felt anywhere else in my life or at any time. Aware only of an extraordinary feeling blossoming in my heart and mind, I chalked it up to the nature of this new experience. And I gave it no consideration at the time. I did not for an instant think it was anything other than a girlish adventure. Well, girlish adventure it may have been, but that was only the first couple of days and I felt myself roaring awake, as if up to this point I had been a ghost or a shadow, my spirit somehow in hibernation. I was about to turn twenty three and Paris was on the horizon.