Have you ever read just the right book at just the right time and everything was enhanced by the experience? My family recently took a trip to Vienna and Munich and we had a wonderful time, but it was made even better (for me, anyway) by two perfectly timed books.
The first book was “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Anne Marie O’Connor. This book is a convoluted story moving from the crazy art world of the early 1900s to the crazy art auction world of today. It is also a story that spans from the Holocaust and Austria’s complicity all the way to today’s collective guilt on one hand or the lack of it on the other.
The basic story is that of Klimt, considered to be an artistic heretic (and pornographic) in his day but a genius today, and the story of his muse, the beautiful, educated and wealthy Jewish society figure — Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting, along with many others as well as the rest of the wealth of the Jewish community, was confiscated by the Nazis. The Austrian government then put the painting on display, but only after removing Adele’s name from it and any clue to her identity or origins. They simply called it “The Lady in Gold” and displayed it in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace. 60 years later, a decades-long legal battle involving the US Supreme Court ended with the return of the painting to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. The painting was finally returned and eventually sold at auction in 2005 for $135 million.
You can’t turn around in Vienna today without seeing a replica of the Lady in Gold. The Viennese were heartbroken to lose her. She is everywhere — on glasses, scarves, posters, playing cards, t-shirts and more. It was purely coincidental the hotel we stayed at, the Hotel Am Konzerthaus, was decorated with Klimt’s artwork throughout. Our room had a painted screen of The Lady in Gold over our bed. I’m sure I would have enjoyed both the book and Vienna separately, but together they were perfect.
The second book was “We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir” by Jennifer Coburn. I began reading this one on the train between Vienna and Munich and finished it on the flight home. This book did not touch on any of the places we visited and yet it still pulled at me. I also happened to be traveling with my son and husband as well as my daughter, but Jennifer’s experiences still felt so familiar. The book actually alternates between past and present as Jennifer deals with the loss of her father and now the connection with her daughter. In fact, it is the loss of her father and the fear of dying young that has provoked Jennifer to fill her daughter with memories, but it is the daughter that actually teaches the mother how to let go and live.
I love the idea of one-on-one trips with my children. Even though two of them are already into adulthood and the third is dangerously close, maybe it’s not too late to do that someday. In the meantime, I would go anywhere with my family, singly or in a great big bunch. We are already dreaming about another trip. My daughter says “Amsterdam” but maybe Paris? As Jennifer says, “People spoke about the city with dreamy longing, as though Paris possessed a magic that could not be found elsewhere. I’d never heard anyone talk about Paris without sighing. The city was a Promised Land that held appeal for most everyone: artists, lovers, even people who just liked cheese.”