PHOTOGRAPHY BY BERT HEINZLMEIER
We are 31 going on 32, cousins born 10 months apart. Nora and I board a tour bus in rainy Salzburg, a Baroque gem at the foot of the Alps, all green patina church domes and hourly choruses of church bells. Her mother and mine are sisters, and the two of us are sisterlike, our lives as linked as kids in matching playclothes. The bus is a small United Nations, carrying passengers from Portugal, Indonesia, Brazil, China, Wisconsin, Bahrain, Kansas, Singapore, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, and England whou2014like usu2014have come to Salzburg on a very particular pilgrimage. We look through the busu2019s rain-streaked windows up to the Nonnberg Abbey, the oldest convent in the German-speaking world, as our tour guide explains that itu2019s where our real-life protagonist was a postulant. She raises the volume on the onboard TV, switching to a scene set in the abbeyu2019s interior (though it was actually filmed on a soundstage). Like so (la ti do), our bus is alive with The Sound of Music.
Our mothersu2019 mother, Nana Fitz, used to call Nora and me the u201cJoy Girls.u201d The moniker appeared without explanation at the end of her life, around the time Nora and I entered our 20s. I relished it as a signifier of our allegiance, as a sign that weu2014unmarried and ambitious, avid travelers and social planners par excellenceu2014could be joyful because we insisted upon it as a right. In a certain light, Joy Girl could be a critique, connoting immaturity, selfishness, flippancy. But Nana said it with a hint of wonder, as if she couldnu2019t quite believe the kind of girls we were able to be, or the women we were becoming. She said it having been a Joy Girl once too.
On-screen on the Original Sound of Music Tour, a group of nuns shake their heads in similar disbelief. u201cHow do you solve a problem like Maria?u201d they ask as we drive away from the abbey, following the Salzach River out from the old city center. The young noviceu2019s faults are many: torn clothes, tree climbing, singing in the abbey, tardiness, over-enthusiasm for meals. u201cSheu2019s a headache,u201d one nun complains. u201cSheu2019s an angel,u201d another insists. The Mother Abbess, in a bit of musical theater wisdom that both lifts up and breaks my heart, equates them: u201cSheu2019s a girl.u201d
Like nearly everyone else on the touru2014the second full bus dispatched this rainy off-season morningu2014Nora and I have loved The Sound of Music since we were girls. Gorgeously shot on location (thereu2019s a reason weu2019ve all come to Salzburg), set to unforgettable music (try getting it out of your head), both romantic and anti-fascistu2014whatu2019s not to like? As adults weu2019ve loved doing Sound of Music things together: going to an outdoor sing-along and braiding our hair in a vaguely Alpine manner, seeing a stage revival when it came to our hometown and echoing the words under our breath. One year, I hunted down a commemorative plate on Etsy and found a shop that carried the real-life von Trapp familyu2019s Vermont-made cheese for Norau2019s Christmas present. Nora has joked that the only last name sheu2019d take in marriage would be von Trapp. This past summer I quoted from the song u201cSomething Goodu201d in my maid-of-honor toast at her wedding: Like Maria and Captain von Trapp, Nora and her husband must have done quite a bit of u201csomething goodu201d to earn their love. u201cConfidenceu201d is Norau2019s and my (badly sung but deeply felt) go-to karaoke duet. Itu2019s also a song I regularly listen to when I need a boost: u201cWith each step I am more certain/Everything will turn out fine.u201d I love that Nora and I share this, but I love it even more because, in addition to its beauty, it speaks some sort of truth to me. Maria, when she spins in that Alpine meadow in the movieu2019s iconic openingu2014hungry, happy, heedlessu2014is the ultimate Joy Girl.
The Sound of Music is one of the most successful movie musicals of all timeu2014critically, winning five Oscars among many other awards, and financially, earning a total worldwide gross of $286 million, a record at the time. Nearly everyone in the world has seen it. (Certainly the entire world is on our tour bus.) Yet thereu2019s a strange exception: Austrians. Salzburg, instead, is a Mozart town, its native son plastered on nearly every window in the historic center. Nora and I sample Mozartkugel (chocolate and marzipan balls) and attend a Mozart dinner concert before our scheduled Sound of Music day. During my six days in the country, the only Austrians I meet who have seen The Sound of Music work in the tourism industry; they had to watch it for their jobs.
Still, itu2019s a pleasure for the two of us to be on our own in Salzburg. Nora and I take exceedingly silly pictures, grimacing and jumping: Nora singing u201cDo-Re-Miu201d in Mirabell Gardens, a 17th-century Baroque landscape designed for one of Salzburgu2019s ruling archbishops; me frozen mid-run down the lane in front of the von Trapp house (at least, the house used for the front exterior shots in the film), a carpet of wet gold leaves beneath my feet. This is the kind of trip we often used to take in our 20s, before we met our significant others. Looking out over the city from the tower of its medieval hilltop fortress, the Festung Hohensalzburg, we talk about the house Nora and her husband might put an offer on and where my partner and I are looking to move to ease a long commute. Puncturing the sugar-and-egg-and-air-whipped peaks of a Salzburger Nockerl in the restaurant at the Hotel Sacher, we talk about our friendsu2019 and familyu2019s babies and pregnancies, and what our own might look like, and how soon. In the graveyard behind St. Sebastian, where Mozartu2019s father and wife are buried, we talk about names. With all thatu2019s before us, I donu2019t know when weu2019ll be able to take a trip like this again. Babiesu2014weu2019re on the brink.
There is a lot more singing on the bus than I expected, but if itu2019s a test, itu2019s one weu2019ve studied for our whole livesu2014even u201cThe Lonely Goatherd.u201d Our tour guide runs up and down the aisle with a microphone, pressing riders to yodel along with the music. She has a long-running dialogue with the movie, one that only someone who watches these clips twice a day every day must have. In u201cDo-Re-Mi,u201d when Brigitta protests to Maria about the syllables theyu2019ve been asked to memorizeu2014u201cBut it doesnu2019t mean anything!u201du2014our tour guide rolls her eyes and asks, u201cWho cares?u201d with the practiced air of a stand-up comic doing an old routine. I look out the window, my eyes as misty as the air, feeling so grateful to be on this goofy bus, to do this thing my cousin and I have talked about for years. Nora, jet-lagged, naps in between songs.
The whole tour coos when we round the corner from the bus parking lot to see the gazebo. Prominently featured in two songs, u201cSixteen Going on Seventeenu201d and u201cSomething Good,u201d the gazebo is one piece of Sound of Music history people can get up close to. (Most of the houses used to film exteriors are still private homes.) Itu2019s also where most of the movieu2019s kissing happens. Given to the city of Salzburg by the movie production, it was originally located next to one of those private homes but had to be moved to a nearby park due to the sheer number of visitors. Fans could go inside until it was locked recently. (Rumor has it that a contributing factor was an 80-year-old American woman tripping and breaking her ankle while leaping from bench to bench, as Liesl, the eldest of the von Trapp children, does in u201cSixteen Going on Seventeen.u201d)
Itu2019s still raining and, with each stop, we are getting progressively wetter, but we comfort ourselves knowing that Liesl also gets soaked during her iconic number. u201cSixteen Going on Seventeenu201d is a song we love to sing along with but hate to think about. First, itu2019s a duet with Rolfe, Lieslu2019s half-pitiable, half-loathsome Nazi boyfriend. Second, Rolfe doesnu2019t seem that into her; heu2019s always avoiding her attentions. Third, have you heard the lyrics? u201cYou need someone older and wiser telling you what to do.u201d Yeah, right, Rolfe. He calls her unprepared, timid, scaredu2014all discordant words for a young woman who shimmies up drainpipes in thunderstorms and aggressively pursues a mansplaining delivery boy who prefers lecturing to kissing. Liesl, in her way, is a Joy Girl too.
The last stop on the tour is the town of Mondsee, whose church serves as the backdrop for Maria and the Captainu2019s wedding. Itu2019s a beautifully shot scene, but itu2019s also more somber, signaling the movieu2019s shift from light romance to darker political thriller. Mariau2019s former sisters prepare her veil, one very different from their own, and then watch her glide away, down the aisle, from behind the cloistersu2019 bars. It took me many years to realize the implications of this cue: Her processional music is a reprise of u201cMaria.u201d u201cHow do you solve a problem like Maria?u201d the nuns sing, now as if a hymn. The answer is before us: with a husband and children.
Mariau2019s light dims in this last part of the movie. No longer a problem but a helpmate, she cedes the story to her heroic Captain. She stands behind him in Nazi car beams. She adds her voice to his as he falters singing u201cEdelweiss,u201d an invented (albeit lovely) Austrian anthem. Liesl, meanwhile, gets her own reprise. With Rolfe ghosting her in favor of the Nazi party, she turns to her new stepmother, just back from her honeymoon, for advice. How do you solve a problem like Liesl? The song answers, as the nun-turned-wife counsels: u201cWait a year or two.u201d
u201cGone are your old ideas of life,u201d this more demure and polished Maria sings about the future that awaits Liesl, her hands folded on her lap. u201cOld ideas grow dim. Lo and behold, youu2019re someoneu2019s wife, and you belong to him.u201d
Nora and I watch The Sound of Music in our room the night before the bus tour. (Naturally, the lovely Hotel & Villa Auersperg has a copy for guests to borrow.) At this line, we look at each other in solidarity, in revulsion. We miss Mariau2019s ruffled hair and curtain clothes, Lieslu2019s mud-streaked dress. What does the future hold for Joy Girls like theseu2014like us? Can you be a Joy Girl and a wife? Can you be a Joy Girl and a mother?
Nana Fitz was born 17 years after the real Maria von Trapp, but her marriageu2014at age 20, in 1942, to a charismatic Navy lieutenantu2014was equally shaped by her husbandu2019s work and war. Itu2019s not hard to imagine what kind of Joy Girl she was: Her red lipstick looks as black as her hair in the old photos of her and Papa at Coney Island, sticking their heads through a cardboard cutout of a lifeguard holding a mermaid in his arms. Her chin is turned upward, regal, and she looks down at the camera sideways, as if deigning it a glance. She knows she looks good. I donu2019t know what date she would have considered the end of her girlhood, but I do know that shortly after that picture was taken, her husband left for the Pacific. And when he came home, so came children. Five of them.
Girlhood, I readily admit, neither can nor should be held on to forever. But I wonder about joyu2014for Maria, for Nana, for Nora and me. Watching The Sound of Music, how can I not be glad for Maria when she finds the von Trapp family? Her life is suffused and transformed by their love, first the childrenu2019s and then the Captainu2019s. I cannot imagine Nanau2019s life without the radiant, unwavering love of her husband, who called her u201cmy brideu201d till his death, or of her fierce clan of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Watching Nora get married last summer was one of the happiest days of my life. My own life would be so much smaller and poorer without my partner to share it and build it with. Yet for everything Nora and I have gained, I still mourn what weu2019re about to give away: our time, our autonomy, our independent travels. But not enough to walk away from what we have.
In truth, Maria was never (nor is any other girl) a problem to be solved. The litany of her vices at the abbeyu2014that she is unpredictable, flighty, wild, inscrutable, pestering, a whirlwindu2014are so quotidian, so common to all human experience, that any girl without them (at least sometimes) would not be human. When Maria chooses to take on the traditional roles of wife and mother, sheu2019s reaching neither a solution nor an end point; her new position is a window opened to someplace else, a path that sheu2014and Nora and Iu2014will determine on our own. Maybe even, climbing the Alps into freedom with her family at the movieu2019s end, a new kind of joy.