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American Junk Food Addict Visits Vienna

July 2000

By Sara S. Rhodes

David was arriving! We had been looking forward to his visit for six months. We couldn’t wait to show him the sights of Vienna. After all, he was my 11-year-old son’s best friend from the United States.

Also, his parents had been so gracious and generous to our family over the years. We seemed to share so many things in common: an interest in foreign affairs, traveling, leading professional lives, reading The New York Times, modernizing old homes but retaining their charm, gardening and cooking. David’s trip here would be a wonderful learning experience, they said.

Let’s just say it was an experience.

Oh, we tried to make it wonderful. We showed David Hundertwasser Haus, the colorful “playhouse” by designer Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and we showed him Schoenbrunn Palace, with its coach collection and formal gardens. And we tried to make it educational. We showed him the Hofburg, the imperial palace which dates from medieval times but is still an important site of government affairs today.

Maybe we tried too hard.

We wanted to take him to Demel’s, known for its spun-sugar creations and pastries, but most cakes and ice creams make him sick. He’s allergic to eggs as well as fish, nuts and sesame seeds. The list seemed to grow the longer he stayed with us. But that had nothing to do with his allergies. European food was not as good as American food, he said. He didn’t like the milk, so I made him hot chocolate with whipped cream every morning. Our two sons were in heaven, but David didn’t feel like making that celestial trip.

So we took other trips, real trips to places that a twelve-year-old would enjoy. Or at least we thought he would enjoy staying overnight in a 13th-century castle hotel in Burgenland. The boys had their own suite with a private stone terrace overlooking the countryside. Every guest room was different, but all were furnished like chambers. We had dinner in the knights’ room, breakfast in the courtyard. There were turrets, crooked passageways, a torture chamber, dungeons, and even a small swimming pool. When he wasn’t drinking Pepsi, David spent most of his waking time in the pool. The castle was OK, he said.

Really, all he wanted was Pepsi, although he craved root beer, he told me. Why couldn’t Austria sell root beer? he asked me. He also liked McDonalds and Pizzaland. He had brought a large supply of American candies with him in his suitcase. He finished those, though, in about two weeks and fretted that he would be unable to find American candy bars here the last week of his stay. He scowled when dinner was served. (His mom was a really good cook, he said.)

He liked the long water slides at pools in Vienna. He liked our computer, especially the violent gameDoom. He liked my son’s cap gun, which seemed to go nicely with Doom. Considered sending both items to a war zone or some place where they really need them – anywhere but here. He liked his rock music on his Sony Discman, but sharing it with my 11-year-old son was not easy. “You’ve had it too long; it’s my turn,” he said. Considered telling my boys to start timing David when he used their Sega Game Gear. Also, prayed that his rock music would not become our rock music.

Preferring TV to sightseeing, David connected immediately to the Simpsons, the X-Files, and The Tick – all made in America. But if a show was educational or European, he lost interest. Even CNN’s Science and Technology program and a special on World War II, both fascinating to my older son, were boring to him. Considered endorsing the French movement to limit American television programs to ten minutes a day and encouraging Americans to do likewise.

We took him to the Prater Amusement Park. (Not as good as Disney World, he said.) Since David’s dad had taken our older son from coast to coast in the U.S. last summer on a month-long family vacation, we wanted to reciprocate somehow. Taking David from the North Sea to the Black Sea, though, seemed a bit arduous. Still, we had entered, albeit unwittingly, a travel contest. Who could show whose son the best time? Why we didn’t stop when we were behind, I don’t know. So we packed up David and our boys and went to Venice, Florence, Pisa and Lake Como. His favorite attraction was the swimming pool in Florence. Runner-up was the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Told my husband that I thought we were making progress. Pinched myself to make certain this was real. The reverie didn’t last long, not even as far as Lake Como. We had heard that this was a resort to see, and we (meaning our family) were not disappointed. We stayed at a four-star hotel overlooking the lake. (Not as good as the hotel his aunt picked for him in Portland, Oregon, David said.)

We returned from Italy. My husband and sons were now counting the days until David’s departure. He was too busy drinking Pepsi and playing Doom to notice.

Four days before leaving, he got chicken pox. Couldn’t believe it. Do you know of any other 12-year-old in the world who has not had chicken pox by that age? Thought initially that he was allergic to Pepsi. Took him to the best doctor in Vienna, applied soothing salves to his skin, called his parents three times in one day so that he could talk to them. Felt guilty that I had had negative thoughts about him. The doctor said that David was well enough to travel and wrote a note to the airline. His parents, though, said that the airline would not accept him with chicken pox; that was their policy. Had different information from the airline on this end. Even so, it occurred to me (about a hundred times) that he might be quarantined here and be unable to take the flight home for ten more days. His parents asked if we could extend our hospitality further. Considered starting smoking again. My husband was muttering about chartering a flight, and my husband is not a wealthy man. David wanted to go home. We couldn’t have been happier. Other than feeling itchy, he felt fine. Our younger son asked if he could pick the pox. David declined. For once, David and I agreed on something.

His parents thought that my husband’s plan (a wing and prayer and a note from the doctor) were worth trying. I asked David to wear a sweatshirt, sweatpants (in 80-degree weather) and his baseball hat to camouflage the pox. Felt nervous on the way to the airport. Perhaps “the plan” would not work, and then what would we do? Find a chicken pox forum for David on the internet?

We arrived at the airport. Considered having my blood pressure checked there at one of those machines. My husband told the check-in clerk that this young man was recovering from chicken pox, but that we had a note from the doctor saying that he could fly. The tone was upbeat and positive, although “young man” was an exaggeration. Still, it sounded good. The clerk asked, “Is he contagious?” Anticipating that this question would arise, I answered truthfully, “I called your airline, and the only requirement is a the doctor’s certificate that the passenger feels well enough to fly.” The airline boarded him and assured us that he would get on the connecting flight to Frankfurt.

When David left, all he said, was “’bye.” “Thank you” was not part of the doom-and-gloom vocabulary. Still, I could live with “’bye.” It was cause for celebration.

© 1995 Sara S. Rhodes. All rights reserved.

Sara Rhodes lived with her family in Vienna, Austria, for nearly a decade. She was a freelance writer who specialized in nutrition and health articles. This article first appeared in the “Spouses’ Underground Newsletter” in Fall 1995.

Sara Rhodes, beloved wife, mother and friend, died in February 2001.