Thirty-five years ago, travelling around a bit, I decided to go to Salzburg. Now I can tell you that I went for the architecture, for the art, for the connection to Mozart, but that would be a lie. I went for one thing and one thing alone: to go on The Sound of Music tour. When I was a boy growing up, each spring The Sound of Music was on television, and I never missed it. And then, after the advent of the video recorder, I didn't have to limit myself to once a year. I watched it over and over and over again, knew every word of every song, and a huge chunk of the dialogue as well.
I was - at 19 - the youngest person on the tour by about a good fifty or sixty years. One guy on the tour - a Canadian named Jack - said to me "When I was your age I was chasing girls and getting drunk every night, not going on some stupid tour." His wife, Janice, smacked him hard on the arm and started berating him for his lack of enthusiasm. "How'd that turn out for you, Jack?" I asked, and the rolling of his eyes seemed to signal both defeat and resignation.
My enthusiasm more than made up for Jack's apathy. I thought I would burst as we made our way to the places of the film, so familiar even if I had never been there before. I sat in the gazebo where Rolph wooed Lisl and sang You Are Sixteen Going on Seventeen. I dipped my hand in the fountain right where Julie Andrews had done so, and sang I have confidence in springtime! I was in a boat where the Von Trapp children all fell into the river. (Our tour guide, Ernst, protectively held his arm out because he probably thought by that point that I was crazy enough to jump in the river. Darn that Ernst for holding me back!) I stood under the stage where the family sang Edelweiss just before heading over the mountains to freedom. And, of course, I twirled on the very hill where the great sweeping opening begins: The hills are alive with the sound of music.
"You do understand you're twirling, don't you?" asked Jack, shaking his head in disbelief.
"What's your point, Jack?" I asked. "It's hard not to be excited here, especially when the sun is out like today. You know the sun, it's made up of rays ..." and then I began to sing Ray: a drop of golden sun.
"You're an odd boy," said Jack, which prompted yet another slap from Janice.
We then went to the abbey where Maria had been a postulant before she figured out that her true vocation was to be the Captain's wife and the stepmother to all those Von Trapplets. And there we got to meet an American nun who was there on sabbatical, named – I kid you not – Maria. She was not dressed like the nuns in the film – she had on a white blouse, blue skirt, and no veil – and I have to say I think she was the poorer for it. She didn't seem too interested in anything to do with the film, but instead wanted to talk about the history of the abbey. It was interesting, but not really what I had come for. Jack said to me under his breath, "It's gotta irk her that she wants to talk about ancient history when everyone else just wants to talk about that damn film.” Janice slapped him.
Sister Maria had heard him - the people out in the plaza had heard him as he wasn't exactly a shrinking violet, our Jack - and she just smiled and said, “No – not at all. God is present here; I can't be upset when people are brought here to find him.” Jack nodded and gave a humph and I sang quietly in his ear How do you solve a problem like Maria?
The tour ended, and I thanked Ernst, who seemed to be hanging around hoping for a tip. I was staying that evening at a place just around the corner from the abbey, and so I walked back to the abbey hoping to catch vespers, but was too late. I went to a pub nearby for some supper and ran into Jack and Janice. "Do join us," said Janice; Jack rolled his eyes. I told them I had some writing to do, but not before saying that I hoped they had schnitzel with noodles on the menu, as, with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kitten these were a few of my favourite things. I hummed as I walked away.
I ordered schnitzel and a beer, and took out my journal. I wrote: 'God is present here - I can't be upset when people are brought here to find him.' What a great lesson. I suppose the challenge for us all is to be people in whose lives others might just enter and find God - however that happens.”
So I wrote in 1985, and so I still feel in 2020. And so, I hope, I shall feel until I have climbed every mountain and forded every stream, until I say for the last time so long, farewell, auf weidesehen, adieu to you and you and you.