Once upon a time in Chapel Hill, I was a first-year, undecided Media and Journalism major.
I took MEJO 101 during my first semester like a lot of people my year who were interested in the journalism school–a class that essentially serves as a sampling of the school’s majors: reporting, public relations, advertising, etc.
Little did I know that it was in this class that I would plant a seed that would eventually lead me to my most favorite day in my 21-year-old life. Bear with me.
As part of a creative exercise, advertising professor John Sweeney asked a room of 100+ first years to take a notecard from the front and draw an ad for a place we’ve always wanted to go. I knew exactly what I was going to draw.
Rewind 14 years and you could on any given day bet that I was shoving an old tape of The Sound of Music into the family VCR.
This film is one of the few that inspired me to get involved with the entertainment world. Throughout my pre-school years, it was almost a default option when my mom and grandmother didn’t know how to keep me and my brother occupied.
I would jump from couch-to-couch watching Liesl and Rolf spin in a stormy gazebo, exasperate my lungs trying to sing as high as Julie Andrews at the end of “Do-Re-Mi,” and imagine I could be as elegant as Eleanor Parker one day. But one of the things I loved most was just the look of this movie. In case you weren’t aware, Austria is *expletive* beautiful.
The colors are vibrant, the terrain is dynamic–no wonder why the von Trapps were singing; that place is a celebration of Earth’s beauty (shoutout to cinematographer Ted McCord for capturing it).
So anyway, back to when I was 18 and in class. I knew that when given the opportunity to draw my dream-destination, it had to be the Austrian Alps. I didn’t bother looking up a specific location, so to get my sketch just-right, I copied the first picture I could find on Google Images. Done.
After we reviewed some of the cards that other classmates made, a lot of students crumpled the ads and threw them in the trash. But for whatever reason, I really wanted to hold onto mine. I thought it would make a nice addition to my bulletin board, but I think retrospectively I wanted to use it as motivation. I was going to go there one day.
Throughout the next two years, I managed to keep a useless notecard through various moves and room purges. It eventually made a home in my wallet when I found that I would be studying in London for the fall of my junior year. Maybe this could be my opportunity, I thought.
When I left the States, I was given strict instructions from my parents:
- Don’t travel alone.
- Have a plan when you travel.
I am proud to admit I broke both of these rules.
When it came to scheduling my Fall Break, I knew I had to find a way to get to Salzburg. While I had arranged for group travel to Prague and Vienna, everyone wanted to go somewhere different the last three days of break. This is when I lied to my parents and said that my train ticket from Vienna to Salzburg would be accompanied by two other people from my program–sorry Tom and Meg.
I had arranged to stay in a cheap hostel with strangers in the center of town, didn’t speak a word of German, and really didn’t have an idea of what my 48 hours there would look like. All I knew is I was going to see one of my favorite movie sets in person and that would be enough to drool over.
But then the travel gods did me one better.
Once I arrived at my hostel, across the street from the iconic Mirabell Palace, I was greeted by a host who thankfully spoke English and told me that if I was interested, her business offered day-trips to a nearby lake village, Hallstatt.
I looked up the town on my phone to see if it would be worth my time and let out a gasp so loud that I probably made the host regret allowing me a place to stay.
It was the place I drew on my notecard from MEJO 101 years before.
I rummaged through my wallet and pulled out that creased card to show her. “I would love it if you could take me here,” I said to her. It was the fastest 45€ I would ever spend.
The next day, we woke up early and drove over 90 mph through mountainous landscapes in her red Fiat with her co-worker and black lab puppy.
When I say it was a perfect day, I mean it. The sun was out, hardly any clouds, maybe 60-degree weather in the middle of October, and it happened to be Austrian National Day. Once I stepped out of that car, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Oh, and this:
A fairytale, in all sense of the word.
What was truly special was finding the exact spot of the photograph I had based my notecard off of. I dug the card out once again from my wallet and framed it just so it was in front of the actual site it depicted.
Taking those photos, a lot of thoughts and feelings ran through my mind: a sense of accomplishment to have fulfilled a dream, a deep appreciation for the film that made me want to see places like this, and a moment of sadness thinking about my grandmother–the person who introduced me to that film–and how I couldn’t call her and tell her that I had made it to this place (she had passed away just over a year prior).
It was, dare I say, cinematic. But truthfully, a full-circle moment that I achieved on my own–a moment that I personally sought after to have. I wish I could accurately say what that meant to me.
After a few hours of hiking around the village, I hopped back in my host’s Fiat and traveled back to Salzburg just before dusk. I would be leaving on my plane back to London the next day and wanted to soak up every ounce I could, so I decided to roam around the small town until it got too dark.
I eventually found my way climbing up this giant hill that led to the fortress, Hohensalzburg, that overlooked the town. If I was there on any other given day, I would have lost 10 or 15€ just to go inside, but since it was a national holiday, many sites were free of charge to tourists. Another great opportunity.
I quickly realized how out of shape I was winding through steep hills of stairs and winding paths to reach the top. Since it was near sunset, I was maybe one of eight people roaming around this wide castle.
I reached an outdoor café on the edge of the fortress just around closing time, but a waiter was nice enough to offer me dessert before they would need to shut down.
He sat me at a table on the balcony with panoramic views of Salzburg and the distant Alpine. I ordered a glass of Chardonnay with a slice of Sachertorte and sat in silence. Stunned.
While I acknowledge Salzburg is by no means a gutsy place to travel, I realized I did something throughout those few days that not a lot of people my age would take initiative to do: go somewhere unfamiliar, with no one, no plan, and no strict expectation. To create an opportunity when it wasn’t drawn out for me, and to go in blindly with the optimism that an experience could be completely mine if I had the gumption to pursue it.
Looking out on the sun setting on my favorite day, I hummed some lyrics from one of my favorite movies:
Climb every mountain // Ford every stream // Follow every rainbow // ‘Till you find your dream
Thinking about that day now, I am in need of a new notecard.
One that can take me to my next dream.