In the days when American colleges were still rich enough–at least against the European economies–many of them offered Junior Year Abroad programs as selling points for recruiting students to their campuses. This lure was the main reason I chose Colorado Women’s College for my undergraduate study (well, that and the fact that they gave me a full scholarship). As a German major, I was thrilled at the prospect of going to Vienna for a year. At the time the college had just changed its name to Temple Buell College, after said entrepreneur Temple Buell had promised the school an endowment of $25 million–an endowment that never materialized after several of his former wives sued him for big sums of money. Shaken by this dismal embarrassment, and having lost most of their other donors, the College changed its name back to Colorado Women’s College, and then after years of fighting the inevitable, closed its doors some time in the 80s. My class was the only one that attended the school for the full four years it was known by that name, and the only ones to graduate with a diploma that says Temple Buell College.
But there were marvelous Junior Year Abroad programs while those salad days in the 1960s lasted, when Americans could still live well for practically nothing in Europe. Our group lived with Viennese families and all our classes at the Austro-American Institute, just across the street from the Opera House, were conducted in German. We had fantastic teachers, tickets to the Vienna Philharmonic and the Opera, and excursions throughout Austria and to Prague. This was 1969-70, an amazing time to be in Europe. The effects of the Summer of 1968 were hardly felt in Vienna, which was still pretty conservative and recovering from the War, but stuck in a Habsburgian dreamworld of Franz Josef, Sissi, ball season, Mozartkugeln, and Schlag, but there were signs of change ahead. A trip to Prague, where one could still see all the bullet holes on the buildings of the main square where the Russian tanks had arrived the year before, was a real eye opener for we naive young things from Nebraska and California. And oh, we were so ignorant! We had no idea how privileged we were to have tickets to the Philharmonic, for example, and would sometimes just sleep in rather than go, not realizing there were Viennese who would have died to have the chance to have them. And we were spoiled little rich girls sometimes in ways that I don’t even want to remember now.
But Vienna was the revelatory moment of my life. It showed me that there was another world out there aside from suburban Los Angeles or cowtown Colorado, one of culture, old traditions, real art and beautiful buildings. And of course, there were boyfriends, which had more to do with the time of our lives than with Vienna per se, but we were liberated in Europe in a way that was different than it would have been in the States then. I had my first serious romance in Vienna, which certainly helped my German, and taught me a lot about young love and, eventually, heartbreak. Vienna changed my life, and set me on a path that determined my career as an art historian and my sense of self.
The Institute hired as our art history professor Anne von Spitzmueller, who everyone called Spitzi. She had been the first woman curator in Vienna, at the Albertina, and then at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and she was absolutely inspirational. I will write more about her at the end of this visit, as one of my “Three German Women” project, so I’ll not go into details here. Our other teachers were just as good, even if we didn’t realize it. The German teacher, Frau Bernhardt, introduced us to Austrian literature, and only spoke to us in German. The music teacher, who was an American, actually had Nicholas von Harnoncourt come to our classroom to talk about Baroque instruments.
The photo above is of that very classroom. I took the photo last Friday, when I came to the Institute–still at the same address–for an English-speaking meeting of AA, 46 years after I was last in those rooms, and now for a very different purpose. My, my, what memories, and how the world turns! It also gave me pause to remember that it was in Vienna that my drinking career began–it was so elegant and such a grown-up thing to do. I could never have known then that many years later, the elegance was all gone for me, and only the craving remained. But oh, the gratefulness that I let it go, almost 20 years ago, and that even here in Vienna, I could find that fellowship that helps me to remember why I had to let it go.
The most amazing thing is that before the meeting, I went into the Institute’s office just out of curiosity, and when I told the secretary I had studied there 46 years ago, the woman in the next room came out to say that she was the wife of the Institute’s director back then! Her son was now the director, and she could tell me all about the people who had been there at that time. She also told me that the Institute was having a reunion next year of Colorado Women’s College students who had participated in the programs back then. She was so pleased to meet me that she immediately signed me up for the Institute, and when I offered to give some lectures to their students–now mostly classes for German speakers wanting to learn English–she was most enthusiastic about the idea. So I’ve come full circle, back to the place where my scholarly life began.
I love Vienna!