How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – Finale

During that last week together I wasn’t the only one who figured out that six months apart was going to be way too long. I actually flew out of Sydney a few hours before she did, which meant the six months I’d planned to spend there was cut down to 2 ½ months. New Zealand, where I had originally hoped to spend three months, got cut down to six days (and even that was too long). Two weeks in Fiji got hacked down to two days and then I was back home.

Claudia, meanwhile, had a layover in Rome on her way to Zurich and who was waiting for her there in the airport? The heartbroken ex, by then sure something was going very wrong with his plan to win back the woman he’d so foolishly dumped. He’d flown all the way there, had the big bouquet of flowers and everything, only to find out she’d moved on. (I have to believe she enjoyed that, at least a little!)

When Claudia got home she told her parents about me and then asked them if I could just, you know, come live with them for six months (she’d moved back home after the break up with her ex). Now, these are nice, solid, normal conservative Swiss folks and Switzerland is the kind of place where you don’t hear people inviting you to come on in, put your feet up on the coffee table, open the fridge and make yourself at home (as we’re known to do here in the West). There was no earthly reason for them to agree to take in their daughter’s long-haired, unemployed boyfriend that she just barely met in Australia!

And yet, they did. Further proof there was some kind of divine hand behind all this. (Probably getting a good laugh too.)

About a month after parting in Sydney, I landed in Frankfurt, Germany, where I planned to hop a train down to Zurich to meet Claudia. The plane came in a few minutes early and I was able to catch an earlier train. Everything was looking good.

Except that when I got to Zurich, there was no Claudia. Instead, there was a woman who explained to me in halting English that Claudia had gotten off work to go to Frankfurt and surprise me and arrived a few minutes after I left.

Those six months in Switzerland were a little rough on all of us. Things weren’t always rosy between my future in-laws and me, but somehow we weathered it. A couple side trips to visit my brother, who was living in Hungary at the time, helped keep us all from killing each other, but mostly we just sort of stuck it out.

It was difficult for Claudia and me during that time too. In our month apart I’d managed to reassemble a lot of my defenses and I wasn’t nearly as open again. (I don’t know if I’ve ever been as open and vulnerable as I was in those two magical weeks in Australia.

And it was not your usual courtship, where you meet someone you like, date a few times, date a few more, then maybe decide to live together and try it out. Instead, we were basically flung together, living together under her parents’ roof. During the day while she was at work we were apart, but the rest of the time we were together, trying to navigate all the pitfalls that accompany any new relationship, while dealing with keeping her parents happy.

I also had some real money problems while I was there, but not the kind you’re thinking. When I got back to the States I busted my butt and got a couple of weeks of work in, trying to put together some cash for Switzerland (In the two weeks with Claudia in Australia, I spent more than I did in the previous two months. Them last minute plane tickets ain’t cheap, I’m telling you.) I figured when I got there I could find some work teaching English or something and I could sort of pay my own way.

Then I got off the train in Zurich and got a serious case of sticker shock. A Coke was like five bucks! I about had a heart attack. The money I’d brought was going to last me about thirty minutes.

Claudia was making good money and so she naturally told me not to worry. She’d pay for whatever I needed while I was there, even give me some spending money. I went along with it, but it was hard. I’d been raised to pay my own way. For sure I wasn’t supposed to let a woman pay for me. I felt guilty about every Swiss franc I spent. Every week when she tried to give me more money it would turn out I still had most of what she’d given me the week before. I just couldn’t make myself spend it.

Finally she chewed me out. If the situations were reversed I’d pay for her, right? Well, yeah, but that’s different. Why? Uh…because I’m a man? It got a little better after that but it was still difficult for me. Fortunately I found a few students and managed to pick up a few francs teaching English, which helped me feel better.

After she wrapped up her job the following spring we took off and spent the next six months traveling around the United States. I worked wherever I could get a job and every couple of months she’d head back to Switzerland, where she was evidently so awesome at her job that her old employer would take her back, at the same pay, for five or six weeks. (Those times apart were awfully tough too.)

On about our one year anniversary I proposed. We set the date for a year later, she went home for six weeks of work and then we went back to Australia, where we spent several months hitchhiking around. While down there we also managed to make it to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand and spent a couple of weeks in Tonga.

From there it was back to Switzerland and she went back to work while I studied German and wrote and we prepared for the wedding. We did have time for a few weeks traveling around Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia).

On August 29th, 1995, in Winterthur, Switzerland, we had the first of our three weddings. What? You mean most people don’t have three weddings? Well, by now it should be clear that we aren’t most people. The first wedding was the civil one, only immediate family, in the clerk’s office. Then, a few days later, on September 2nd, we had the big church wedding. (Sometime I’ll have to tell you how they tortured me for that one.) Finally, in mid-October, back in Arizona, we had a third wedding for all my friends and family who couldn’t make the other two.

And that, children, is how I met your mother. We’ll be married 20 years come this September. We’ve had our rough patches, things the romantic comedies and fairy tales never mention, but we’ve stayed together through it all and we grow closer every year. If I could wish one thing for you boys, it would be that you are fortunate enough to meet a woman as special as your mother.

And that you have the courage to take the leap when the opportunity comes.

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 7

So Claudia came walking up with this guy, talking and laughing, and my heart just fell through the floor. I suddenly wanted nothing but to run far, far away. I was the world’s biggest idiot.

Then she looked up and saw me.

She made this little sound, dropped the bag she was carrying, and ran to me, throwing her arms around me.

(In Claudia’s words: I couldn’t believe that Eric was there. I just never expected to see him yet. I’d been missing him so badly and there he was. I wanted to cry, giggle, and babble all at the same time. I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.)

In that moment, suddenly everything was all right again. I’d made the right choice. I wasn’t imagining things. She actually did feel about me the way I felt about her. It was the most intense, unbelievable feeling.

(I did feel a small pang for the poor guy who was left standing there awkwardly, suddenly the biggest third wheel in Cairns. But Claudia told me later he was trying to score points with her, even though she’d told him about me, so I didn’t feel too bad for him.)

Then, in the middle of the night, Claudia woke me up, thrashing around. I touched her and she was burning up, moaning, practically delirious. She was complaining of pain in her ear but other than that she didn’t make much sense. Alarmed, I made her an ice bath and got her into it, knowing I needed to bring her temperature down. It worked, but it was still pretty much a sleepless night from then on. I sat by her and held her hand, wondering what else I could do, telling myself over and over that she was going to be all right.

She wasn’t much better in the morning. She had trouble standing and was very dizzy. Standing also made her head hurt a lot more. I asked around and found a health clinic and got us a cab. Just getting her into the cab was difficult. It turned out she had a serious ear infection, picked up while diving, which explained the pain and dizziness.

She was supposed to fly out of Cairns later that day, down to Melbourne, but with the ear infection flying was clearly out. After picking up her prescription at a pharmacy, I got on the phone and got her plane ticket canceled. Then I had to get a hold of the friend she was going to see and tell him not to expect her.

All in all it was a pretty trying 24 hours. To go from the absolute euphoria of once again being back together to dealing with a fairly serious illness was definitely an emotional ride. But it also made me extra glad that I’d followed her, since otherwise she would’ve had to navigate that all by herself—which can be pretty hard to do when you’re in a foreign country and there’s no friends or family to help out.

By Tuesday Claudia was well enough to catch a bus and start moving south. Before we left she had to make her promised weekly phone call to her ex. After the call, she was pretty broken up. She basically stumbled to me and fell into my arms, her eyes closed. It was pretty heartbreaking. I wanted to help her. I wanted to protect her. But she had made it very clear that this was something she had to handle on her own and I knew I had to respect that.

Earlier Claudia had told me that after she left Australia she was going to Spain for a week before going back to work. I, of course, tried to talk her out of Spain to spend another week in Australia. After her phone call that afternoon she admitted to me that she’d refused to cancel the Spain trip because she and her ex had planned to go together and if she canceled the trip he would cry and she couldn’t bear to hurt him that way. She wanted to tell him about us in person and not over the phone.

That hit me pretty hard. I’d just taken a huge leap to follow her and now she was telling me that she’d been hiding this from me. In my fear, I was looking for a way to pull back from her and this gave it to me.

From my journal: “When I heard this something inside me pulled away. Claudia saw this and she sees in my eyes today that I am still different. And I am. I am more cautious now. When tears build up inside me they don’t come out. I feel reluctant to give any more.”

Then, from the next day’s entry: “She has easily reached places inside me that no one else has ever seen. She has tapped into that well of aloneness that I keep dammed inside me and the pain I find there is enough to tear my chest apart. I have spent a strange day, where I felt distant from her, where I felt trapped and doubtful. I felt no love inside me for her and stared at every woman hungrily. I took a nap and when I awakened I told her and burst into tears. That loneliness inside me was tapped for a few minutes and I writhed on the bed. The pain in my chest was real, physical.

“Is it any wonder I’m terrified?

“My defenses have kept me alive and sane my whole life. I have never fully trusted anyone, never let anyone into that area that not even I know how to get into. How could I? It’s locked even to me. So here comes Claudia and without trying, she just rips me open. My brain is reeling, pulling every trick it knows to drag me back from the precipice. I have no control. The steering wheel is broken and the gas pedal is jammed. My brain keeps stomping the brakes but my momentum is too great. The car threatens to roll, the engine explode. My brain sees a precipice and crushing death. My heart sees the ramp for the leap into a promised, longed-for unknown. Which will win?

“She holds the promise of my dearest dream, but to reach for it means risking brutal pain. Today I thought that I just needed some alone time to recharge. I was just tired. That’s all. Now I think maybe that “alone time” is only a trick of my brain to give me time to repair my defenses. To keep my carefully constructed façade intact.”

Fortunately, I didn’t let my fears destroy what was growing between us. I had my chances to run away but somehow I managed to hang in there. We still had about a week together before she was due to leave the country and we essentially spent every minute together in a world that only held the two of us. There was so much we needed to learn about each other and such a short time to do it in. We had to compress as much as we could in those days. A big leap was coming and we both needed lots of reassuring that we were doing the right thing.

Final part

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 6

I did pretty well Thursday afternoon after Claudia flew away. Or at least I thought I did. Then Nick dragged me out of the bar and told me he wasn’t buying my cheerful act. Said he could see it in my eyes, how as soon as there was a lag in the conversation, I always looked down. He told me I should go for it. Told me I was a fool if I didn’t.

Friday morning I was back to deluding myself that I was going to be okay, my journal entry full of hope and positive stuff. I at least realized that our original plan, where she wrapped up her job in Switzerland in six months and then joined me to travel around the US, wasn’t going to work. I was dying after less than 24 hours. I was never going to make six months apart.

For some reason people at the backpackers’ resort that I didn’t really know kept asking me how I was feeling and I got all kinds of sympathetic looks from staff and backpackers alike. Being delusional, I thought there was something wrong with all of them.

But then the afternoon came and I fell apart. (I’m telling you, this was a seriously humbling experience.) All kinds of out-of-control feelings and self-destructive urges swept over me, one after another. I wanted to scream and rage and cry and punch things until my hands bled.

From my journal that evening: “Why am I going off like this over a woman I’ve known a week? What am I doing? I’m terrified. I’m mad. I’m stupid. What makes me think I can make this work? What do I have to really go on? How in the hell can I expect her to take me seriously once she’s 10,000 miles away? Like her ex-fiance is just going to go away. You don’t go and live with someone for six years, almost marry them and then just get over them in a few months. Don’t I know this? She’ll probably go back, see him, realize that I was just a thing, and there I’ll be with a ticket to Zurich in my hands and a sign around my neck that says I’m an idiot. I should just blow it off now and cut my losses before they’re too big.”

Whew. It still hurts to read that stuff.

Making it worse was that I tried to call Claudia that night (I’d steered her to the backpackers that Nick and I stayed at) and couldn’t reach her.  More from the journal: “What a pathetic fool I am. I just want to hit myself and blast and pull the shell over me and convince myself that fuck it, I don’t really give a shit. It’s me and it’s only me and that’s the way it’s always been and probably always will be. I’m the only one I can absolutely trust.”

Ouch.

On Saturday morning I had a huge emotional hangover. I was just wiped out. A shell of myself. I felt like I’d done ten rounds with a trained bear. (Do people train bears for that sort of thing? Cause I have a feeling they’d be really good at it.) I felt brittle but much calmer.

I went back to deluding myself, but I wasn’t able to delude Nick.

Saturday night we’re in the resort bar and I think I’m having a pretty good time, all’s good, I got a handle on this, and suddenly he’s dragging me outside again. He basically kicks me up and down the sidewalk and yells at me. What he’s maddest about is the walls he can see that I’m erecting between Claudia and me. He says things like, how much did you trust her when she was here? Then how come you’re being so stupid now? Finally he holds out his hand and says,

“Give me your credit card.”

What?

“Give me your card. I’m going to call right now and book you the next flight to Cairns. You have to go to her.”

But that’s crazy.

“So what?”

Numbly, I give him my card. He goes to the pay phone and books me a flight for the next morning. Then he goes back into the bar and finds someone who’s got a car and tells him he’s giving me a ride to the airport bright and early the next morning.

Morning comes and I crawl out of bed wondering if all that really happened. But there’s Nick and there’s my ride and an hour later I’m in the air, flying for Cairns via Sydney.

There’s been no chance to call Claudia and see how she feels about this. She’s been out on a dive trip all weekend. All I know is where she’s staying and that she should get back into town at the end of the day sometime.

I check into the backpackers and I’m a wreck. Oh my god, what have I done? She’s going to think I’m a stalker or at least completely pathetic. Since the front desk won’t give me her room number or even confirm she’s staying there, I end up standing out front of the place and waiting, all the time suffering serious mood swings. Panic attacks, really.

Right around dark I look down the sidewalk and there she is, coming my way. For a moment the clouds part and the sun shines.

Then it all goes dark again.

She’s walking up with this guy and they’re talking and laughing together.

Part 7

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 5

Now the story gets hard.

Before I continue, I need to share a couple things. I realized last week that, in order to do this story justice, I would have to reread the journal entries I wrote during that time. Most of my journals are still in Colorado, where we lived for almost ten years and where our sons were born, but I do have the entries from this time period on my computer. This is because last fall I typed up these entries. Why these, specifically, you ask? Because September 23rd, 2014, marked the twentieth anniversary of the day we met. On that day I gave Claudia a printed copy of my journal entries, which I had never shown to her before. Yes, she thought that was pretty awesome and yes, it is pretty awesome. J

Typing up those pages wasn’t easy to do. In fact, I did quite a bit of squirming. I kept wanting to edit my words, to tone them down, but I didn’t let myself do it. Even though it was difficult to do, I wanted Claudia to see what was in my heart at the time. The feelings expressed on those pages are pretty raw. It’s still hard to read them.

Why, you ask? (Geez, you sure have a lot of questions.)

I’ve always kept some pretty strong walls up around my feelings. I don’t always like it there behind my walls, but I’ve always felt I needed them in order to be safe. When I read those pages I’m transported back to a time when one woman absolutely shredded my defenses and really scared the hell out of me.

Anyway, back to the story. (The parts in quotes are direct from my journal.)

Up until that Saturday afternoon at the telegraph station it was all just a great game. I was having a lot of fun chasing after her and enjoying our time together but it wasn’t really real. It was only temporary, as relationships typically are when traveling. Traveling relationships tend to follow a certain pattern. Because you typically have only a few days together before your paths part, the whole courting thing is very compressed and very intense. A few days later you both go your separate ways. You miss the other person for a couple of days, but then something shiny and new comes along and it passes.

We met on Thursday. We spent Friday and Saturday together. On Sunday Claudia had scheduled a day-long tour with a tour group. Then she was going to fly away on Monday. I knew this all along and accepted it. I managed to talk her out of the tour so we could spend Sunday together and we spent much of it lying in bed, just holding each other. It was very special, but I knew it was limited and I thought I was okay with it.

I was completely deluding myself. But not for long.

“Sunday night I broke down – how many years has it been? – and we cried and cried together. The thought that she would fly out of my life on Monday afternoon forever had become a sudden, overwhelming ache in my chest that I could no longer seal away.”

After the crying Claudia changed her flight from Monday to Tuesday. Then on Monday she changed it to Thursday. Each time I was like a condemned man getting a phone call from the governor. But the governor wasn’t commuting my sentence, he was just postponing it.

Meanwhile, my defenses were getting absolutely hammered. From my journal just after she flew away on Thursday: “We have talked so much, our hearts and souls so close. We have stared into each other’s eyes. We have laughed and been silly and we have taken turns crying and consoling. We have held each other close and shared things I would not limit by trying to put into words.”

At least all was not lost. During the week we had made new plans. She had a dive trip booked in Cairns for the weekend that she was locked into. After that she had plans to fly to visit a family friend in Melbourne. She was still committed to that, but she would hurry it up and meet me in Melbourne the following Friday, the 8th of October. That would give us a week together before she flew back home on the 15th.

Anything could happen in a week.

We also talked about the future. Even before her breakup with her fiance she had a growing dissatisfaction with her life. She’d always done the safe, logical thing: straight from (the Swiss version of) high school, to college, and the good paying job. But she had a nagging feeling that something was missing. She had a desire to leave the safety net and fly.

I was planning to tour around the United States the next year, working my way along, and I gathered my courage and asked her if she’d like to join me. She just lit up when I said that.

But of course it wasn’t that easy. Give up all she’d worked for and take off with a guy she hardly knew? Not just any guy either, but a long-haired, unemployed writer for God’s sake! What kind of craziness is that? What would her parents think? What would her friends think? (Strangely, there was no discussion of what my friends or family would think. The assumption being that they were already quite used to my bizarre behavior and there wasn’t much I could have done to surprise any of them.)

It scared her; I could see that. But she held onto me and told me she wanted to take the leap. There was hope for the future! Bluebirds sang and bunnies danced in our path and all that. (Or that happened in a movie. I can’t remember. It was a long time ago.)

But first I had to endure a week apart from her and, I’m telling you, it wasn’t pretty. As soon as she flew away I got on the mother of all roller coasters and the ride was not fun.

Part 6

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 4

As it turned out, fate intervened and I didn’t have to arrange for anything unfortunate to happen to Jackie. We had only just started our hike in the McDonnell Ranges when she remembered a phone call she had to make. We arranged to meet at a trail intersection later and she headed back to the visitor center to use the phone.

We didn’t see her again for four hours. Through some kind of colossal misunderstanding, which I swear I had nothing to do with, Jackie went to the wrong spot. Meanwhile, I had hours to get to know Claudia. I learned that she wasn’t just lovely, but smart too. (At 26, the leader of her own team of internal auditors at the biggest accounting firm in Switzerland. You want to know the location of every penny in your corporation? Just turn Claudia and her team loose for a few days and they’ll tell you everything you need to know. That dime you lost last week? It’s under the couch. Claudia knows.)

Brave too. It turns out I wasn’t the only one with the courage to go traipsing off to Australia all alone. A few months before I met Claudia her life was on a seemingly normal track. Good job with great pay and benefits. A boyfriend of six years to whom she was engaged. She was going to have a nice, comfortable, successful Swiss life. She and her fiancé planned the trip to Australia for their engagement holiday.

Then, for some mind-boggling reason, the durned fool up and decided he needed to date other women. He actually thought he could do better! (Idiot.) Brokenhearted, Claudia moved back in with her parents.

But something strange happened. Claudia decided she was going to go on the Australia trip anyway. Because, screw that guy. She’s brave and stubborn and she’s going to go anyway.

As the date approached, he suddenly woke up and begged her to reconsider. Maybe he’d made a mistake. She told him she’d think about it on her trip and he could ask her again when she returned.

Then she flew into Darwin, way up in north central Australia, where the winters are hotter than most summers in the Sahara, rented a car and started touring the country. Camping out and everything. On her own in the big, wild Outback. Because that just what bad-ass jilted Swiss girls do, that’s why.

When I met her she’d already been on the road for a couple of weeks and she was doing just fine. She wasn’t looking to meet me or any other man. She was just seeing the world.

I was just blown away. I’d come to Australia half-thinking I’d find myself a nice Australian lass like the other men in my family. Only it turned out they already had enough loud, drunken louts in their own country and they really, really weren’t interested in me at all. But somehow this incredible Swiss woman seemed to be. The world is full of mysteries. Go figure.

While chatting we decided that having a nice wine and cheese party that night would just be wonderful. (Wine and cheese are kind of the go-to party items for the Swiss.) Claudia being Claudia, she wanted to invite Jackie, Nick, Ivan—whoever wanted to come along. Knowing we were all basically penniless, she even offered to pay for it all. (She was collecting a pay check while on this vacation and her per diem was more than I was spending to live on each day.)

Somewhere along the way Jackie popped up on the trail, full of tales about being lost and bubbling on. But I wasn’t really listening. I was scheming. Claudia told Jackie about the wine and cheese and she was naturally enthusiastic. After all, she’d just spend 10 days in the Outback with three barely-civilized fools, eating canned food and bad Australian snags (what they call sausages).

As soon as I got a chance, I pulled Jackie aside. I knew where her weakness was. I knew how little money she had. You might want to pass on the wine and cheese, I warned her in my best friendly big-brother fashion. It’s going to be pretty expensive. (She doesn’t know how lucky she was, having me there to look out for her.)

Jackie made an excuse and one obstacle was out of the way. Ivan was nowhere to be found when we got back to town. I basically just threatened Nick with bodily harm if he showed his face anywhere near the picnic table at the allotted time.

So it was with great, albeit fake, regret that I showed up for the wine and cheese party alone. Claudia had bought quite a bit and was understandably somewhat dismayed by these unreliable people who kept canceling on her, but I consoled her in my own inimitable fashion and she seemed to get over it pretty quickly.

By the next day Claudia didn’t even attempt to invite the others along when we headed out for a picnic at the old telegraph station. We ate, sipped wine and then snuggled on a blanket for about four hours, barely talking, but communicating all the same.

And that’s when the wheels started to fall off. That’s when my carefully-laid plans to steal the lovely Claudia all for myself ran into the one thing I hadn’t planned for. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. After all, it was obvious to everyone else.

Go to the next post.

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 3

Finally back in civilization, Nick, Jackie and I checked into a local backpackers’ resort called the Melanka Lodge. (Ivan had his trailer to live in.) Before I go further, I need to explain a couple things about backpackers’ resorts in Australia. They bear a faint resemblance to their distant cousins, the European youth hostels: in both cases, travelers save money by forgoing private rooms and privacy in general in order to save money and thus spend more time away from home.

But that’s where the similarities end. Australian backpacker resorts are businesses, competing for tourist dollars, while the old-school European hostels (originally set up for youth groups and students and such) care little for such quaint ideas as capitalism and are more interested in law and order. Many have (or had; I’ve been out of the loop for a while) curfews, require membership in the International Youth Hostel Association and make you bring a sleep sack with you so you don’t get their beds dirty. (The German hostels were especially bad back then. The commandant at one I stayed at actually sported a monocle. That hostel was like a bad Hogan’s Heroes episode, without the comic relief.)

Australian backpackers’ resorts are the exact opposite. They want to make money and that means making the experience fun (while still cramming as many bodies into one room as possible). The Melanka Lodge was a converted apartment complex, with a swimming pool and a bar/nightclub on the premises. Nick and I fell on the bar like it was an oasis in the desert and we were thirsty camels. Even better, it turned out that if a patron was wearing a Melanka Lodge T-shirt, purchased at the bar, all pitchers of beer that day were half price. We were home at last.

IMG_2941IMG_2945

(this shirt definitely shrank since then!)

The first pitcher landed on our table mid-afternoon. By sunset we were friends with everyone in the bar. By dark my bar stool had developed a serious list and was taking ever more concentration to stay on.

And that’s when it happened.

Jackie, our Brazilian friend, walked into the bar towing a gorgeous young woman she’d just met in her room. I immediately straightened up on my stool. After some shouted introductions—the bar had transitioned to night club—we settled in to get to know each other. I found that if I gripped the edges of my bar stool tightly with both hands, I could stay reasonably upright. I also learned that if I closed one eye, I could even focus on her, though I tried not to do it too often, reasoning that she might not like guys with a squint.

When the limbo contest started I saw the opportunity to impress her with my talents beyond bar stool-sitting and squinting. I’d never actually limbo-ed before, but how hard could it be?

In the first round, all I needed to do was kind of tilt my head back a little while shimmying under the bar. I tried to make my weaving look like the latest American dance style as I coolly approached the bar—

And promptly fell on my back.

Subsequent attempts yielded no more success, though much hilarity did ensue. Being the life of the party was never so easy.

Somewhere along the line Ivan joined us and Claudia revealed that she had a rental car and if we were all interested she was going out sightseeing the next day and we could all ride along with her. Everyone thought that was a fine idea and a meeting time was arranged for the next morning. Claudia and Jackie retired to their room and I set about the task of informing Nick and Ivan that, contrary to what they thought, they wouldn’t be able to make the trip the next day. They were going to be indisposed. (I figured I’d have to let Jackie come along or it might spook Claudia, but no way was I letting those boneheads interfere with my future happiness.)

The next morning I was up at the scheduled time, my head pounding, wondering who in the heck stuffed my mouth with old carpet lint during the night while I was asleep. I stumbled out to the courtyard and took a seat at one of the picnic tables there. After a while I saw a young woman appear and sit down across the courtyard. However, since I’d left my glasses in my room (I hadn’t been wearing them the night before and didn’t want to give her the wrong impression about me), I couldn’t tell if it was Claudia or not. Making things worse was the fact that I couldn’t actually remember what she looked like, other than amazing (which, it turns out, isn’t a very helpful description). I finally decided it probably wasn’t her, since there was no Jackie with her.

Minutes passed. Maybe that was her. Not wanting to walk up to her and blurt out, “Are you Claudia?” on the premise that she might take that offensively, I settled for taking a casual walk around the courtyard, just a friendly stroll. If it really was her, she’d see me and wave or something.

That didn’t work either. It turns out there’s really no good way to take a casual pre-dawn stroll around a nearly-deserted courtyard without looking strange. If I could have whistled a harmless tune while strolling it might have looked better, but I’ve never been able to whistle. She probably would have just thought I was asthmatic or something.

I sat down and waited some more. I ran over the events of the previous evening—all of them that I could remember anyway—to see if I had perchance done something especially offensive but I couldn’t come up with anything. Finally I had no choice but to walk over to her and say, “Aren’t you…?” to which she responded, “Aren’t you…?” It turns out she had foregone her glasses as well and couldn’t see me either!

A short while later the three of us were settled in Claudia’s car. (Jackie had simply gone to the ATM for money and been delayed.) Claudia expressed some surprise that the other guys couldn’t make it (“They seemed really interested last night.”) but didn’t suspect my nefarious intent. Only one obstacle still lay in my way: Jackie.

Part 4

How I met your (Swiss) mother (in Australia) – 2

My sons and I enjoying a flood at Date Creek Ranch when they were just little things.

I didn’t stay long in Cairns that first time around, but quickly caught a ride north to Cooktown with a native lunatic who tried to kill me in the Daintree Rainforest. (detailed in an earlier post). There were no jobs to be found in Cooktown so on my 28th birthday I walked out to the road, stuck out my thumb, and headed back south.

I ended up getting a ride from two artists heading back to their hometown. One of them insisted I stay with him and his family for a few days, promising me he could get me a ride into Cairns when I was ready to go. Which he did. I hadn’t counted on that ride being in a beer truck. Nor had I counted on having a beer with the driver at each pub we delivered to on the way, but we made it safely enough.

It was in Cairns the second time around that the chain of events which would lead to my meeting with Claudia began to unfold. I walked into my room at the backpackers resort and these guys were walking out. One of them said, “We’re just going for a beer, mate. Care to join us?”

Well, as it so happened, I did care to join them and that’s how I got to know Nick, a pivotal character in this little tale. Nick the Australian, not too tall, stubbly brown hair, round face, round belly, questionable personal hygiene habits and a big smile. Just one of the finest human beings to walk the planet and an absolute joy to pass the time with.

We spent the next couple of days drinking beer together with only brief pauses for food and sleep and somewhere along the line it was decided that we should do some traveling on together. Nick wasn’t working, just living on the dole (welfare), so he was up for pretty much anything. These weren’t concrete plans, mind you, just the kind that drunk people make that sound so sensible at the time, but never actually happen later.

Which was why a couple days later I wandered on down south to a place called Magnetic Island, got a job at a backpackers there, and forgot all about it. It was a good job. Four hours of work a day and in exchange I got a free bed in the employees’ quarters and breakfast and dinner. (I took care of lunch by making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the breakfast buffet and stashing it in my pocket for later.)

Except that a couple weeks later I got a call from old Nick. It seemed he had found us a ride to Alice Springs with another Australian, Ivan, and a lass from Brazil named Jackie. Unlike Nick, Ivan actually wasn’t a lazy bludger and he’d gotten a job there. He had a little truck and a trailer and he’d give us a ride in exchange for helping pay the gas. Well, the Outback was where the cattle stations were and I needed a job that paid actual money, not just room and partial board. How many pbj’s could I eat anyway?

I said goodbye to the lovely British lasses I’d met on the island, caught a ferry back to the mainland and set off for the legendary Outback.

I’m going to take a short detour here and give you all a little geography lesson so you have a better idea where and how far I was going. Australia is roughly the same size as the continental U.S. Back in ’93 there were about 20 million people living in Australia, the great bulk of them living in a few major cities along the southeastern and southern coasts. The great mass of the center of the country and virtually all of the western and northern coasts are empty.

Alice Springs (around 5,000 people at that time) lies almost in the geographic center of the continent, hence the moniker “The heart of Australia.” Cairns is in the northeast, Magnetic Island a couple hours south of that. We didn’t have to worry about getting lost. There was one highway running west until about the middle of the country, where it intersected with another highway that bisected the country north to south.

It took us something like ten days. After the first day or two I don’t think there was a single turn in the road (other than the aforementioned intersection) the whole way. The highway just stretched endlessly to the horizon. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Australia is unbelievably flat, arid and empty. We’d pass through a tiny hamlet every day or two and the rest of the time there was just nothing as far as the eye could see. “Red dirt and gum trees” is how I have always described it (gum trees are what we call eucalyptus). There was almost never a side road. (When we camped, we just pulled off onto the wide shoulder of the road and threw out our sleeping bags.) There were no rivers or even dry washes. No mountains on the horizon. Strangely, kangaroos were quite plentiful, so much so that we were warned not to drive at night lest we plow into one and do ourselves major damage.

Another interesting tidbit: The highway wasn’t quite wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. The rule of the road was that the smaller vehicle was supposed to yield to the larger. Since most of the traffic we saw consisted of massive semis pulling three trailers it wasn’t difficult usually to decide who had to yield. There were no speed limits out there and the semis would flat haul ass. The trucks were also the only traffic that ran at night. All of them had bull bars—big, protective barriers of welded steel bars—attached to the front and they never even slowed down for the kangaroos who were unfortunate enough to wander out in front of them.

It was so empty out there that near the end of the trip, only a day or so from Alice Springs, when we finally saw a sign advertising a roadside attraction (The Devil’s Marbles) that I immediately began clamoring for Ivan to pull over and let me see these wonders of nature. As the kilometers clicked by and more signs appeared I began to get quite excited, imagining something quite spectacular.

Then we got to them and to say I was disappointed was an understatement. Black boulders, not especially round and not especially large either. I’m from Arizona and we have bigger rocks than that in our backyard.

I’ve given you all this background on our journey across the Outback so that you will properly understand that by the time we drove into the Alice (as the locals call it), tired, dusty, and thirsty, it looked like the greatest city on the face of the earth. We were ready to cut loose and have a little fun.

So don’t judge me too harshly when I relate our behavior that first night in the Alice. Certainly Claudia didn’t, though I’ve never understood why. She’s usually so sensible.

(Author’s note: All of the above “facts” about Australia have had over twenty years to rust in my somewhat-disreputable memory and I didn’t feel like spending the 20 seconds required to research them on Google so don’t use any of them as answers on your next trivia night.)

Part 3