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 who—like us—have come to Salzburg on a very particular pilgrimage. We look through the bus’s rain-streaked windows up to the Nonnberg Abbey, the oldest convent in the German-speaking world, as our tour guide explains that it’s where our real-life protagonist was a postulant. She raises the volume on the onboard TV, switching to a scene set in the abbey’s interior (though it was actually filmed on a soundstage). Like so (la ti do), our bus is alive with The Sound of Music.
Our mothers’ mother, Nana Fitz, used to call Nora and me the “Joy Girls.” 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 we—unmarried and ambitious, avid travelers and social planners par excellence—could 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 couldn’t 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. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” they ask as we drive away from the abbey, following the Salzach River out from the old city center. The young novice’s faults are many: torn clothes, tree climbing, singing in the abbey, tardiness, over-enthusiasm for meals. “She’s a headache,” one nun complains. “She’s an angel,” another insists. The Mother Abbess, in a bit of musical theater wisdom that both lifts up and breaks my heart, equates them: “She’s a girl.”
Like nearly everyone else on the tour—the second full bus dispatched this rainy off-season morning—Nora and I have loved The Sound of Music since we were girls. Gorgeously shot on location (there’s a reason we’ve all come to Salzburg), set to unforgettable music (try getting it out of your head), both romantic and anti-fascist—what’s not to like? As adults we’ve 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 family’s Vermont-made cheese for Nora’s Christmas present. Nora has joked that the only last name she’d take in marriage would be von Trapp. This past summer I quoted from the song “Something Good” 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 “something good” to earn their love. “Confidence” is Nora’s and my (badly sung but deeply felt) go-to karaoke duet. It’s also a song I regularly listen to when I need a boost: “With each step I am more certain/Everything will turn out fine.” 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 movie’s iconic opening—hungry, happy, heedless—is the ultimate Joy Girl.
The Sound of Music is one of the most successful movie musicals of all time—critically, 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 there’s 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, it’s 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 “Do-Re-Mi” in Mirabell Gardens, a 17th-century Baroque landscape designed for one of Salzburg’s 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 friends’ and family’s babies and pregnancies, and what our own might look like, and how soon. In the graveyard behind St. Sebastian, where Mozart’s father and wife are buried, we talk about names. With all that’s before us, I don’t know when we’ll be able to take a trip like this again. Babies—we’re on the brink.
There is a lot more singing on the bus than I expected, but if it’s a test, it’s one we’ve studied for our whole lives—even “The Lonely Goatherd.” 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 “Do-Re-Mi,” when Brigitta protests to Maria about the syllables they’ve been asked to memorize—“But it doesn’t mean anything!”—our tour guide rolls her eyes and asks, “Who cares?” 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, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “Something Good,” 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.) It’s also where most of the movie’s 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 “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”)
It’s 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. “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is a song we love to sing along with but hate to think about. First, it’s a duet with Rolfe, Liesl’s half-pitiable, half-loathsome Nazi boyfriend. Second, Rolfe doesn’t seem that into her; he’s always avoiding her attentions. Third, have you heard the lyrics? “You need someone older and wiser telling you what to do.” Yeah, right, Rolfe. He calls her unprepared, timid, scared—all 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 Captain’s wedding. It’s a beautifully shot scene, but it’s also more somber, signaling the movie’s shift from light romance to darker political thriller. Maria’s former sisters prepare her veil, one very different from their own, and then watch her glide away, down the aisle, from behind the cloisters’ bars. It took me many years to realize the implications of this cue: Her processional music is a reprise of “Maria.” “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” the nuns sing, now as if a hymn. The answer is before us: with a husband and children.
Maria’s 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 “Edelweiss,” 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: “Wait a year or two.”
“Gone are your old ideas of life,” this more demure and polished Maria sings about the future that awaits Liesl, her hands folded on her lap. “Old ideas grow dim. Lo and behold, you’re someone’s wife, and you belong to him.”
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 Maria’s ruffled hair and curtain clothes, Liesl’s mud-streaked dress. What does the future hold for Joy Girls like these—like 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 marriage—at age 20, in 1942, to a charismatic Navy lieutenant—was equally shaped by her husband’s work and war. It’s 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 don’t 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 joy—for 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 children’s and then the Captain’s. I cannot imagine Nana’s life without the radiant, unwavering love of her husband, who called her “my bride” 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 we’re 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 abbey—that she is unpredictable, flighty, wild, inscrutable, pestering, a whirlwind—are 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, she’s reaching neither a solution nor an end point; her new position is a window opened to someplace else, a path that she—and Nora and I—will determine on our own. Maybe even, climbing the Alps into freedom with her family at the movie’s end, a new kind of joy.