Running Away to Vienna


watermarkedsarahbelvedereThe week before I left the States for Vienna, I cried a lot.

It all started when a professor came into my spring term class at university and said the German summer study abroad program was short on students. And he was providing scholarships.

Next thing I knew I had dropped out of school for the semester. I got a job on the campus grounds crew and started attending a class to prepare for living abroad.

The thing was, I was less interested in going to Vienna and more interested in getting away from university, which was stressing me out.


“Stressing me out” is too kind.

watermarkedsarahalpsI was a vocal performance major and cruelly, I had developed debilitating stage fright. Having to perform weekly was agonizing. I felt trapped. I was there on a scholarship, and I had been singing all my life. But the high pressure of university was sucking all the joy I had out of performing. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be an opera singer. Yet I had no idea what else to study. I’d never thought to do anything but sing.

So, I was “running away” more than “going to”. Fair enough.

As the day approached to leave for Europe, I was scared and tearful. This time, of the unknown. At least the school program would be there to meet me at the airport.

Except they weren’t.

watermarkedsarahbuildingsI couldn’t find them anywhere. I didn’t know the name of the hotel we were staying as a group that night. I could barely speak German. And I had two massive, 50-pound-each suitcases with me. What to do next?

It seemed to me the hotel might have had the name “Christina” in it. I got a hotel directory from the help desk. Well, there was a Pension Christina. I wrote down the address. Then, I got on the bus into downtown.

I got off at the recommended station and then I started walking. I was dragging the two huge suitcases behind me. The streets were empty and everything was closed because it was the first of May, a holiday.

I was lost and wandering the streets of a foreign city alone without even knowing the hotel I was supposed to be at or the language to ask anyone for help.

And strangely…

I was loving it.

watermarkedsarahdomeA little bubble of joy was filling my heart as I flipped through my German dictionary. Vienna was stunning. The beautiful old buildings. The gorgeous green expanses. I felt happier than I had in months (years?).

A man in his 50s stopped and asked if I needed help. In my broken German, I showed him the hotel address and the map I’d picked up from the airport. He and I started wandering the streets together looking for it. Eventually, he found it for me.

I’ll never forget his name. He wrote it on a card: Dieter Jakob. And his address. He told me to contact him if I ever needed help again. Although I never did, I have often reflected gratefully on his act of kindness.

When I asked, the hotel reception said that yes, this was the hotel where the study abroad group was staying. I promptly went into my room and fell asleep in direct disregard to the advice about staying awake to avoid jet lag.

It felt like the first day of the rest of my life.

Vienna breathed new hope into me. Every day was an adventure. My mind was being forced open as it grasped a whole world it didn’t even know existed. Austria is a land of elegance, refinement, and order. I woke up ready and happy for the day instead of having to drag myself out of bed. I was learning, changing, living the dream I didn’t even know I had.

I had broken out of the trap I had unwittingly fallen into at university, the trap that said there was only one way to live life even if that way made you unhappy, and I was free. When I returned to school in the fall, I had found new inner strength to face my fears and to finish my degree.

Though I had returned to the States, I was permanently hooked. I no longer was interested to stay in one place again, because that freedom—that ability to see the world in a new way —forever changed me. I now travel the world as a permanent nomad with my husband and son, and have many favorite places, but Austria will always be special.

About the Author: Kalli Hiller blogs about motherhood and earning money on the move at


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