City of My Dreams
By Morgan Byerley
Some call Vienna, Austria the City of Music. Others say it’s the City of Dreams.
For me it’s the city of beginnings. The city where I learned to ride a bike on narrow sidewalks, clutching the handles of the tiny bike that felt so big. The city where I attended a small Austrian school and teachers read us stories from centuries long ago. The city where I fell in love with Mozart’s beautiful, baroque concertos and learned to play the violin.
The city where everything began.
It’s been 15 years since I set foot in the city of my childhood. It feels both like yesterday and a lifetime ago. Sometimes on days when I’m in a reflective mood, contemplating my path in life, I think back on those early years. Most of the time when I close eyes and imagine Vienna, I see snow. Of course, I know it wasn’t always snowing, but there was something about snowy, winter days in Austria that permanently seared itself in my memory. As if Vienna is the Narnia of my imagination, forever trapped in a magical winter day.
I remember waking up on my 6th birthday and running to the balcony window. It was January 6th, the middle of winter, and soft white flurries were floating down out of the pale gray sky. Without putting on shoes, I stepped out onto the cold, stone balcony where the snow was beginning to stick. The crisp winter air greeted me and I was shocked by the coldness of the stone beneath my feet. Without hesitation, I stuck out my tongue and spun in a circle trying to catch one of the snowflakes. It wouldn’t be until years later that I learned about golden birthdays, your birthday where you turn the age that your birthday falls on. For me it was that snowy day, turning six on the 6th in Vienna.
I wish I could say that all my memories of Vienna are intact, but time and distance leave me with a fragmented memory. Did any of it even happen? Did it really snow on my 6th birthday? Did I really use to my speak German with my friends and celebrate Austrian holidays at school? Perhaps that’s how Vienna will always be – some distant memory, grounded in reality but a city of my dreams and imagination.
When my family moved back to the United States at age six, I never spoke German again. From time to time, I would look through a textbook or try a language app, but never fully studied the language. As the years passed, I lost most of my fluency until I could only understand basic conversations. My life in Vienna began to fade away along with my ability to speak German.
When I began college at the University of Alabama, I finally had a chance to learn German again. I double majored in international studies and English along with a German minor. On the first day of German class, I was both excited and curious to see how much German I still knew. I had opted for German 103, an accelerated beginner class that combined a normal year of German material into one semester. I thought that there was a chance that the German I had forgotten would maybe suddenly all come back.
“It’s all still in your brain,” my dad had been telling me for years. And now I finally found out how much I really remembered and how much I really had lost.
In all honestly, it was challenging. Although I had gone to an Austrian school, I never formally learned German grammar and was surprised to find the complexity of the German language. Sometimes things would come back to me, but I still had to spend hours studying every week to keep up with the material.
As I began to formally study German for the first time, another surprising thing happened:
I began to remember.
As I sat in class and learned new grammar and vocabulary, memories I had all but forgotten, began to slowly return. I remember the day my professor taught us direction vocabulary several months into the German class.
“Links,” my German professor had said, “the word for left.”
I’m not sure why the German word for my left and right sparked my memory but it did. In that moment I was transported back to the narrow hallway of my Austrian school. I saw myself sitting with one of my friends on benches outside the classroom.
“I make a “L” with my hand to remember directions,” my friend had said, “L for links and L for left.”
I remember looking down at my own hands, making a L and trying to remember my left and my right. A challenge every 5-year-old knows too well.
It was a strange memory to remember, but a reminder that maybe my life in Vienna wasn’t a complete dream, maybe it did happen after all.
That memory was 15 years ago. It’s been 15 years of waiting and wanting to go back. I tried to plan a trip in 2020 to go to Austria but clearly that wasn’t the year for travel. Recently, however, I made a major decision that brings me one step closer to Vienna: I submitted an application to study abroad in Germany. Since my university has limited programs in Austria, I decided to study in Germany to take intensive German language classes and study German business culture. On the website, the study abroad program lists one of the many trips included in the program: Vienna, Austria.
I’m not an overly emotional person but when I think of returning there’s a deep nostalgia and longing. “Hiraeth” is a Welsh word I came across recently which means “a deep longing, especially for one’s home.” I’m not sure I can call Vienna home, having only lived there for four years, but there’s no doubt that it left an impact on my life.
Perhaps a year from now I’ll find myself in Europe, speaking German and immersing myself in a new culture. Perhaps I’ll board a train on a cold, winter day and ride 6 hours south to the capital of Austria. Perhaps I’ll start tearing up when we speed pass the border from Germany to Austria. I might even start to cry when my feet hit the cobblestone streets of Vienna. I’ll walk through the city in a daze, walking past my old school, my old apartment, remembering and exploring, in awe of the city of dreams and music.
Looking into that gray Austrian sky, white flakes will begin to drift down. I’ll catch one on my tongue, spinning in a circle and remember a golden birthday from years ago. Maybe I’ll have a single thought: I’m home