Impromptu in A-flat
At approximately one in the afternoon on March 22, 2016, as I was typing at the desk in my tiny dorm room in Vienna's fourth district, Wieden, I heard my cell phone buzz on the night stand behind me, one, two, three times. The program-issued phone, a red oval flip model, normally sat on my book pile in lieu of a weight—I was supposed to carry it with me at all times, but no one ever contacted me, and space in my purse is precious. Hmm. Curious, I flicked open the cover. Three messages.
"This is IES Vienna's Emergency Contact System. Reply with your full name ASAP."
"If you are travelling, we suggest you return to Vienna immediately."
"There has been a bombing in Brussels."
Well. Best not delay. As I typed my name letter by letter, repeating each press as needed, I tried not to laugh at how long it took to reply to so urgent a message. "K...E...L...." I hadn't held a flip phone in four years. After completing my name thirty seconds later, I snapped the phone shut and went back to writing my paper about the mechanics of historical pianos, which did not seem frivolous even after the news.
Thirty-two people died that morning: seventeen at Brussels Airport, fourteen at Maalbeek metro station, and four while receiving treatment for their injuries. I have not counted the three perpetrators among the victims, but they died, too. Of the victims, four were Americans. A student in my German class, Daniel, had passed through the airport the evening before—this is the only fact about the bombing that still crosses my mind. That, and the fact that I was not scared. I know no one who was.
“So, this is the first time we’ve actually had to say this, but we’ve been getting calls from parents concerned about terrorism in Europe. I know most of you plan on going to Europe, but there’s still time to change your program if you want to.” During the mandatory pre-departure lecture, the head of the study abroad office did her best to assure the one hundred–plus students of their safety while abroad. This was in December of 2015, less than a month after the Paris attacks that killed over 130 people, and six weeks before I would board my plane to Vienna. I didn’t doubt the office was receiving those calls, as my mother expressed her own worry a few weeks earlier.
“I don’t want you going. What if something happens? You don’t know that Vienna won’t get attacked. I’ll be a nervous mess the whole time!”
Sitting at our dinner table, I had just finished telling her about the museums and concert halls I planned to visit, and how my favorite composers once lived and worked in the city (Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin—I had already identified their apartment addresses and burial plots in the Zentralfriedhof). I was concerned only with the artistic history by which I’d soon be surrounded; threats of terrorism had never disrupted my reverie. “But no one is safe, ever! You still leave the house, don’t you? You still go to New York after 9/11. We can’t not live. Besides, Vienna’s safe.” I didn’t bother to mention that nearly a quarter of the city was decimated during World War II, but that seemed irrelevant now—we were not living in a war zone. I didn’t know what we were living in, but it wasn’t war, not yet.
Still, I knew my mother was right: My safety was not guaranteed. But was hers?
The Brussels attacks occurred during our spring break. At some point that Tuesday I could no longer focus on my paper, not because the news and the texts were distracting me, but because I had been wanting to visit the house where Schubert died, his Sterbewohnüng--it was only a few blocks from where I lived, and I was tired of sitting inside. Meandering my way from Schelleingasse to Kettenbrückengasse via the Naschmarkt, I gazed at the centuries-old buildings that were at once weathered and pristine, and it occurred to me that I was living in the wrong history. My classmates and I were part of a generation who grew up with terror and tragedy, but who still flung themselves overseas for fun. Stepping into Schubert's surprisingly spacious former apartment, I wished I was in Vienna two hundred years ago, when I could have attended the premieres of his lieder or studied under Chopin. Back then I would have been scared when bombs dropped and guns fired, when danger was not a far-off country but here, and real, tapping on our shoulders. I would have known it was not normal.
About the Author: Kelsie Shaw is a writer currently pursuing an M.A. in English at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her writing has appeared in The Writing Cooperative, bioStories, and Trolley. When not writing or studying, Kelsie teaches classical piano lessons.