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Southern Europe: Abridged

On May 7th, 2011, a prime day for a wedding, I, as my godfather would say, made an honest woman out of Nicole Erin Liberty, entwining our paths on this journey of life. Since then, our life has been anything but boring. To say that we lead a busy lifestyle would be a gross understatement. So when it came time to pick a honeymoon, a week lounging on a beach in Cancun didn’t quite seem to be our style. Instead, we chose to cross the big pond for whirlwind two-week tour of southern Europe. In that time, we planned to visit three countries, twice as many cities, climb, sight-see, catch up with friends, decipher public transportation, experience culture, and somewhere in there find time to relax. What we got was a lesson from the international travel school of hard knocks, memories to last a lifetime, and, shall I say, surprises. Some of them were welcome, some we would have happily done without. What follows is the condensed story of those two weeks told with the brevity that embodied the trip itself. Enjoy…

Our arrival in Munich gives us our first taste of the modern, yet intrinsically mechanized German culture. While we can cut some slack for the utilitarian ambiance of public transportation facilities, there is still something very industrial about Munich.

A slight moment of panic and confusion about securing and using our first European train tickets, but thanks to assertive action on my wife’s part, we hitch a ride out of the airport, despite knowing nearly no German. A short transfer in Munich Hbf gets us in transit to the picturesque German countryside. On to Fussen.

En route Fussen, enjoying the scenery.

Fussen, while a tourist hub, is quaint and has charm. We enjoy the hospitality of hotel Sonne including a sampling of German-style potato pancakes, great wine, and hearty bier. My Dad would love to be here! A unique room overlooks the market and we listen to the bustle of the small German town enjoying evening drinks and gelato. We are close to Italy and the local culture hints at the proximity.

Then next morning we rent bicycles and visit the local castles. While an imitation of it’s 14th century counterparts, Neuschwanstein castle, haling from the late 19th century, is a architectural and artist wonder; impressive in both its size and ornateness. After our ride home in an afternoon downpour, we enjoy a hot shower and another traditional German dinner before our early departure the next morning.

Neuschwanstein castle outside Fussen Germany

A taxi provides passage to Austria, destined to meet our friend Sandra. It will be great to see a familiar face, especially hers. It is one that rarely lacks a smile and is always eager to welcome you. Reutte is where we begin our second train journey that takes us to Innsbruck. And after one of the more technically challenging phone calls I’ve had to make, we rendezvous with Sandra and immediately shove off to China Wall for limestone sport climbing. More beautiful mountain scenery, previously known to me only in pictures. On our walk back to the car, Sandra, on a whim, requisitions eggs from the farm we passed on the way too the wall. They are still warm!

The road to China Wall.

The next morning brings Zillertal, in the Tirol region of Austria. I can’t help but notice the resemblance to Clear Creek, but without the off-putting highway noise or graffiti. I feel like I’m in the Lord of the Rings. We enjoy world-class cragging and conversation about some of the more unsavory aspects of our respective cultures. Turns out America isn’t the only country with rednecks.

Zillertal sport climbing

Brief sight seeing in Innsbruck and amazingly generous hospitality from Sandra fills the next two days. We leave our friend too soon, but much to see. Rolling stones and all that…

Adventure in Arco, or something of the like. You say poor planning, I say scenic walking tour combined with securing sleeping arrangements. Never mind the 60-pound load. While, admittedly, it is unproductive to end the search less than 100 meters from where it started, the experience made for a great story.

Regardless, insanely beautiful countryside and narrow, cozy italian streets littered with cafes, swank fashion, and more than seven climbing shops within two blocks. We happen upon a friendly innkeeper running a modest pension. Once again, hospitality abounds. We try out some climbing for one more day, but are stymied by frustration at polished routes having seen thousands of hands and feet. Turns out the only crags within walking distance also are the most popular. The glasslike holds drain all the fun out of the experience, so we decide to call it a day, enjoy a shower and coffee, and take the late morning trian south, further into Italy.

Florence is a bustling tourist hub, littered with history and pick pockets. We enjoy the guilty pleasure of an American hotel, far removed from the downtown busyness. There, we have a nice dinner and too much wine and scotch. The next day is our first true sight seeing day. We stroll the streets of Florence, marveling at the architecture from the dawn of the Renaissance. The Duomo Museo provides an informative introduction to its namesake cathedral and allows the line into the Duomo to dwindle. We are fortunate to experience only a 10 minute wait to hike the 450 steps to the roof of Florence. We get an intimate look at the work of one of history’s finest artists, Michelangelo. Photos from the top are spectacular.

A view of the Duomo - Florence, Italy

At the bottom, we find vibrant ink drawings from a street vendor to remember our trip and authentic, both in its taste and preparation time, Italian pizza to fill our empty stomachs. A post-lunch stroll takes us through the Piazza Republic and onto the Uffizi gallery. Centuries old art work from the likes of Botcelli and Michelangelo await us inside a building that is itself art. More gelato, then back to the hotel for a bath to soak our tired legs. In the morning we’re off to Vernazza, located within Italy’s Cinque Terre.

The next day begins with an early shuttle back into the heart of Florence followed by some entertaining people-watching that fills the time in the train station while we wait for transport. Florence, while beautiful, is a bustling town. Cannot wait for relaxation just around the corner.

Train rides take a turn. Florence was beautiful, but at its core, somewhat dingy and unsettling. The turbulence of a city with centuries of continuing densification and that stark contrast to every experience within the past week can be somewhat of a sensory overload, and rumors of petty crimes on tourists compound the uneasiness. The train ride from Florence to La Spezia is not a relief from that. Yes, the Tuscan countryside is beautiful in its own right. But in this region, you’ve officially left the charismatic Italy for a while, mingling with the full spectrum of locals.

As we near the coast, Italian train users dwindle, but the number of Americans, British, Australian, French, and Spanish remain constant. A stroll down the aisle is a run through the language lottery. Be prepared to offer all forms of “Hello.” We all wait at the train depot for our last leg into the Italian sister of the French Riviera.

The beautiful seaside Vernazza, Italy

On the opulent train to Cinque Terre, the initial moments are confined to the blackness of a tunnel. This is broken by a brief glimpse of the Mediterranean coast as the tunnel passes a window that provides a preview of the awaiting beauty. Suspense-laden gasps and anxious chatter fills the train. Then, after hours of blasé countryside, we are suddenly greeted by the brilliance of the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea and visibility beyond the horizon. We have arrived.

The local flora

The next two days are a mix of strenuous hikes between Cinque Terre towns, house wine, beach picnics, and afternoon dips in the ocean. A text-book honeymoon experience. There’s even promise of climbing within a reasonable distance. The first setback of the trip involves a sting from a sea anemone and rudimentary surgery in the room, care of a sewing needle and alcohol wipes. No trouble, it comes out and we get a chance to check email and connect with home for a moment.

Panic. The first emails that are downloaded say call home when you can, then call soon, then you NEED to call now. My trepidation hurries my pace to the only pay phone in town despite the pit in my stomach that drags me down. The call delivers crushing and unbelievable news from Mom, “I didn’t want to have to tell you this over the phone, but your Dad died. Please get home as soon as you can.” Disbelief.

I hang up the phone. Dumbfoundedly examine the square to see tourists enjoying wine backdropped by the peaceful Mediterranean sunset and instantly realize I need to retreat before the emotional meltdown. The one-block walk to our room is bewildering as I stumble past jovial faces and attempt to understand how my life has changed forever. My new wife is even more bewildered as she watches me fall apart in her arms and mumble the news between sobbing.

Luckily she understands what needs to happen to get us home. We pack and hop the first train back to La Spezia. This proves to be an arguably poor decision as we are stranded in Pisa between 11 pm and 2 am. As it turns out, Pisa is not the town to linger in despite the time of day. In the middle of the night, sitting on all your possessions with no law enforcement within sight, it’s terrifying. Luckily we land on a crowded overnight train to Rome where a flight home awaits for our arrival.

We arrive in Rome to a cloudless sunrise, surely to be an ideal day to experience the history of ancient civilization. Unfortunately, history will continue to unfold for a few more years until we can return. All that is in store for us in Rome is a dizzying cab ride from a world rally championship hopeful, a drive-by of the Colosseum, and hope that we make it to the airport in time for our flight.

At the airport, we learn that we have arrived in time. Thanks crazy cab driver. For the first time, our itinerary is out of our hands and certain to land us in the States in short order. It was my first chance to begin to process the last 12 hours. And once the adrenaline subsides, hysteria and mourning take over.

And then, the questions.

How does someone who was dancing at my wedding two weeks ago deteriorate in two days to the point of death? Why did this have to happen while we were so far away? What now?

Then rationalization.

This isn’t how it supposed to be. I was supposed to see him next Sunday to trade stories over coffee. He was supposed to be there to give me advise on marriage and watch my brother, who has overcome more than his share of adversity, graduate high school third in his class. He was supposed to shake my hand at the birth of my first child.

Then, upon the acceptance that none of this will happen, I sink into the deepest pit of despair I’ve experienced.

A proud father. Photo Credit: Lucas Marshall

Our arrival home, after nearly 36 sleepless hours of travel, takes us straight to my childhood home where we are met by the tortured faces of my mother, brothers, and sister. And with the viewing and funeral to follow, the tide of sorrowful faces continues to rise for the next three days. What I will say of that incredibly painful time, was that the service for my father was an achingly sublime testament to the person he was. This was his final gift to us: the genuine display of his humility and love that was reflected in the tearful eyes of every one of the hundreds who attended his funeral. It was the embodiment of the inspirational and unattainable level of his greatness to which we can aspire, but never achieve.

Even at 70 years old, that man can light up a dance floor. Photo Credit: Lucas Marshall

As is my tendency, I struggle to find meaning in his passing. Why did this happen? And why did it happen when it did? Are we supposed to walk away from this with some personal betterment that was only available under these circumstances? Was this how it was destined to transpire? But as is so often the case, the investigation has turned up fruitless. Two days ago, we celebrated the one year anniversary of his passing. In the year since his death, the best explanation I’ve conjured is there is no explanation at all. In less than a week, my father went from a healthy 70-year-old man to losing his life to septic shock. To some extent, I still struggle to come to terms with this. Regardless of whether I do or not, the facts of life remain. People die and more are born. They revel in life’s joy and suffer through its misery. The infinite number of dichotomous possibilities are all reminders of the fragility of human life that is blindingly evident in daily life. Cherish your time, but moreover the people who accompany that time with you.

There never seems to be enough

At the end of it all, the only evidence of our existance is the aftermath of our words and deeds and the impressions we’ve left in the hearts and minds of the people around us; that is, a person’s legacy. What is my father’s legacy? His is the example of unfailing love for life, the people in it, and all the implications thereof that have been crystallized in the hearts of family and friends left behind. We miss you every day Dad. Or should I say, Grandpa.

Adam Scheer - Thanks for sharing this, Chris. Your thoughts toward the end of the piece are a great testament to the awesome person you are and the legacy your dad has left.

I hope to see you soon and revel in our time.May 31, 2012 – 11:03 am

Tyler - Chris, thanks for letting us feel and hear some of your experience. This is a heartbreaking and powerful reminder to cherish our lives and the people around us. You are yourself an example of how great your father was. I’m sorry I didn’t meet him.May 31, 2012 – 6:42 pm

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