Saturday, February 27, 2010

Closet Fan

I have a confession to make. Family connections aside, I am a diehard fan of the Sound of Music. I mean really, what’s not to like? Catchy score, classic boy-meets-girl story line, villains you love to hate, and sarcastic nuns to provide comic relief. Now I only own it in VHS, and I can’t say I watch it EVERY time it comes on TV, but every once in a while, it’s a guilty pleasure I indulge. So naturally, when given the opportunity to tour the Salzburg area and see the various locations where it was filmed, I was in.

Rewind a bit to June of 1987. I was backpacking through Europe with three college friends post-graduation; Hope, Ellen and Heather. We came to Salzburg by way of train from Vienna, where we had spent an afternoon as guests of my father’s friends, the Eggers. Mr. Egger was editor of Austria Today magazine. Mrs. Egger was a tour guide. The day after we visited, she was touring with some travel documentary film maker, and she had tried to arrange for us to meet, but it didn’t work out. (The significance of this non-meeting becomes apparent later in the story).

Anyhow, upon arriving in Salzburg (my first visit EVER – and a very significant part of this trip for me), we found accommodations at the International Youth Hotel, and set out for some sightseeing. With the understanding among my friends and me that I was going incognito, we signed up to go on the Sound of Music Tour the next afternoon. So far I’d been successful at flying under the radar. As I said, this tour visited all the locations where the Sound of Music had been filmed, in addition to some locations where the family had really lived. Needless to say, I was interested to hear the tour guide’s explanation of fact vs. fiction.

I was not disappointed; this guy had clearly done his homework. He had read my grandmother’s book, and did a great job explaining why certain locations had been used as opposed to the actual sites. He also picked up where the movie leaves off, and brought the group up to date on what had become of the von Trapp family. Someone asked if any members of the family still lived in Austria, to which he replied that he didn’t think so, but that a member of the family had arrived in Salzburg for vacation the day before. I was pretty sure I was the person he was referring to.

I whispered to my companions, “How did he know? Did you guys say something?” They claimed innocence. No one had betrayed my cover. I was stumped. I mentally ran through conversations I had had since arriving in Salzburg. I was sure I hadn’t divulged my identity. I couldn’t stand it. I had to know.

So at the next site stop, I waited until everyone had gone off to look at things and approached the tour guide. “How did you know a member of the family arrived yesterday?” I asked. “Why do you want to know?” he countered. “Because that’s ME!” I said. He laughed in surprise, and then told me that someone on his tour the previous afternoon told him that he had been on the train from Vienna with a family member.

Remember the documentary filmmaker I never met up with in Vienna? (or on the train for that matter) It had to be him. He knew we were traveling to Salzburg that day. Adding to the coincidence is that the tour guide told me he hadn’t even thought to mention it on the morning tour. If the girls and I had gone on that one, this little incident would have never happened.

Two years later, I returned to Salzburg with my friend Katie. She was a fellow employee at the Trapp Family Lodge. So of course, we went on the same tour. The same guy happened to be leading the tour again. He remembered me. This time, I sat up front and helped answer questions. It was great.
Here are some photos from the tour. 1. Castle on the lake in Anif. This appears in the aerial shot during the opening scene of the movie. 2. The actual family home in Aigen. 3. Mirabel Gardens - Maria and the children dance through here in Do-Re-Mi sequence. 4 and 5, The infamous 16 going on 17 gazebo.

One last note about this experience; it so happened that each day in the Youth Hotel there was a showing of – you guessed it – the Sound of Music. Watching it with that crowd who had just come off the tour was probably one of the best viewing experiences ever. We all pointed out locations we had seen – loudly. There was camaraderie in being “in-the-know.”

Run by Salzburg Panorama Tours, the Sound of Music Tour still exists. My daughters and I will be visiting this summer. I can’t wait to take them on it! - F.v.T.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Family Cemetery

Not every world class resort can boast having a cemetery on the grounds, but then again not every world-class resort was first and foremost a Vermont family homestead. In the northeast corner of the immediate grounds of Trapp Family Lodge is a small, private, well-tended family burial ground. As beautiful a final a resting place as it is, I’ve often had mixed feelings about my father being buried there.

My father died on February 22, 1992 at the ripe old age of 80 when I was 27. Writing this, I realized we just past the 18th anniversary of his death. It's hard to believe - it seems like just yesterday we had our last waltz together. Here's one of my favorite photos of us, taken on my wedding day, just six months before he died.

He was interred in the family plot alongside two of his sisters who both died young -- Martina at age 30 from complications of childbirth, and Hedwig at age 55 of asthma -- his father, and Maria. The area is surrounded by a split rail fence with a roped off entrance and the sign “Private,” in an attempt to keep the sightseeing traffic to a minimum. Of course, as a family member, I was allowed access whenever I wanted. At first, I liked the idea of him being so close by, and stopped by frequently on the way home from work, but often felt conspicuous going inside. It was like wearing a neon “I’m a member of the family” sign at a time when I preferred to be left alone. And on more than one occasion, I did exit only to be approached by an inquiring visitor, wanting to know if I was family, and who was buried in there.

I wasn’t the only one to field such questions. One that my older brother, George, likes to tell involves one of the staff maintenance crew, Roland (cannot for the life of me remember his last name), native Vermonter and TFL employee since the days of the Old Lodge. As the story goes, a guest approached Roland and asked where Maria was buried. “She’s buried right with the Captain,” said Roland. “But is there enough room?” was the inquiry back. “Well, she was cremalated, you know.” Roland explained. “That don’t take much room.” I bet that guest got more than she bargained for. – F.v.T.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Senior Moments

My last position at TFL before I left to have my daughters was in the Group Sales department, where I was in charge of booking and overseeing the bus tours. Now, I’ve never been particularly drawn to a career in sales (I really can’t handle the rejection that comes along with it), but thankfully TFL sold itself. The most challenging part of my job was convincing groups that the off-season in Vermont is just as lovely a time to visit as other times of year, and yes of course the tulips will be in bloom by May 5. (Photo below: me, 9 months pregnant with twins, and the tour guide from Wenham COA.)

The majority of the tours were booked by senior citizen organizations in New England, so we built tempting itineraries around such Vermonty activities as maple sugaring, visit’s to Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Factory and the Cabot Cheese factory, and of course included a healthy dose of von Trapp lore. There was a daily showing of a 20 minute Trapp Family documentary and afternoon tea sing-along’s with my aunt Rosemarie, who would lead the groups in singing American folksongs, tunes from the Sound of Music, and other various crowd pleasers. The highlight of the visit was an evening performance by Elisabeth von Trapp, who would mesmerize the crowd with her enchanting voice (she really got the musical genes) and childhood memories of Maria.

For my part, I had to swallow my stage fright and play host to the group, welcome them when they arrived, sometimes act as tour guide for the day, and introduce Elisabeth before she performed. Sometimes I messed with their heads a bit. I remember one time using a remote mike to project my voice into the bus without physically being there. I put on my best Austrian accent and pretended to be Maria speaking from the grave. They ate it up. I loved my seniors – they thought I was hilarious.

But that’s not the best story. This one is. To promote these tours, I would often travel to exhibit at the Senior Travel Planners Association expos around New England. On one particular occasion, I was stationed at our booth, handing out brochures and little nip bottles of Vermont Maple Syrup (the attendees LOVED it), and answering all sorts of questions, openly admitting to being an authentic member of the family, and listening to stories of past trips, concerts, etc. A women approached who was much younger than the rest of the crowd, and I figured she must work at a Council on Aging or something. She stood there for a moment studying the family photos, taking in the sign “Trapp Family Lodge” clearly trying to make a connection. Then it hit her and she held up her finger in recognition. “Fiddler on the Roof, right?” I blinked. “Close!” I said.

And just like that, I had my opening joke for introducing Elisabeth from that day forward. How could I have not loved that job? -- F.v.T.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good times at TFL

After college, I spent about six years (on and off) working at the Trapp Family Lodge (or TFL as we called it) in various jobs, from administrative assistant for timeshare sales, to bartender and hostess in the Main Dining Room and Lounge, and ultimately to group sales. Those were some of the best years of my life. My co-workers were fun, the guests were, for the most part, really nice (those that weren’t, well they were the ones we mocked behind their backs). If you were going to be a von Trapp in public, well, it was the place to do it.

People who visited the Trapp Family Lodge generally fell into one of three categories. At the top of the list was my parents’ generation. They remembered the Trapp Family Singers from their touring days, and would often tell stories about the time they went to one concert or another. Or perhaps they had come to the Music Camp back in the 1940’s. I think I learned more about my own family history from them than anyone.

The second group is those who associate the von Trapp name first with the Trapp Family Lodge, and second with The Sound of Music. They were the guests who returned year after year and remembered the Lodge before the fire in 1980 (photo left). These folks felt like extended family. Lots of them became timeshare owners. Often, this group was from my own generation, having been introduced to the Lodge by their parents, who were part of the first group.

The last group is made up of hardcore movie fans that came to Trapp Family Lodge expecting to be greeted at the front door by Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and the rest of the original movie cast. They also were the greatest source of amusement.

So picture this: the luncheon crowd is clearing out, and I’m working behind the bar decked out in my standard-issue dirndl, setting up for evening service. Suddenly I hear this excited voice. “You’re one of THEM aren’t you?” I turn around. “Excuse me?” “DON’T say anything.” (Seriously, I think if the woman could have, she would have reached across the bar and put her finger to my lips.) “I just want to say I SAW one of THEM.” There was no escape. I just did as I was told and quietly let her qawk at me. When she left, I stuck my head through the service window , where the other waitstaff were trying to keep straight faces. “WHO TOLD?” I demanded. “What? She asked if there were any family members working here today,” said my friend, it was a job requirement.

I got her back. A while later, some people came to the dining room during dinner set up, just to look. “Is this where the movie was filmed?” the woman asked excitedly. Oh, we had a live one here. “Um, no,” I said. “The movie was filmed in Salzburg, AUSTRIA.” Disappointed she asked hopefully, “Well, are any of you part of the family?” I quickly pointed to Kate “SHE IS!” and smiled innocently. What could she say? Denying it would just make it look like she was lying, and in her long braids and dirndl, she certainly looked the part. You know what they say, payback’s a bitch. Ah, those were the days. -- F.v.T.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Frequently Asked Questions ….and the answers

I’m sure that if you polled the members of my family, we’d all come up with similar lists of FAQs related to being a von Trapp. (In fact, if any of you are reading this, feel free to add to the list.) Here are some of my all time favorites, along with my standard answers.

Can you sing?
Almost always first out of the gate (after how are you related, but we’ve already covered that), this question has always been awkward for me to answer. I’m sure people are just asking for a yes or no, but I tend to over think these things. Are they asking if I sing professionally? In public? Can I carry a tune? Here’s my final answer. I can carry a tune, and I like to sing, but I’ve never had formal training and I get stage fright, so my public performances have never extended beyond high school chorus or church choir.

You mean the Sound of Music is about a real family?

This one is more frequent in recent years as the Sound of Music audience gets younger, or among people who are seeing the movie for the first time. This can also be geographical. People who live in New England tend to be more aware just because the Trapp Family Lodge is a well-known resort in that part of the world.

So Julie Andrews is your grandmother?

This is mostly asked by people who have difficulty separating fact from fiction. Hello? Julie Andrews was the ACTRESS playing a role? MARIA (the real one) was my grandmother, and if you want to get technical, she was really my step- grandmother. My father’s mother, Agathe, was my grandmother, but I never got to meet her since she died when my father was 13. In the photo here, Maria is standing between my maternal grandfather, J. Edward Lajoie and my mother's brother, Uncle Bob.

You mean Liesl is really a BOY?
My father was the oldest child of the original seven, and when I tell people this it really confuses them, because in the movie, Liesl, a girl, was the oldest. “So you mean Friedrich was your father?” Technically, I guess that’s right. They changed the names and the birth order so that they could have the romance between Liesl and Rolf.

Does the family still sing?

Sadly, no. They retired in 1956 and got on with their adult lives. People still tend to picture them as children, but those still living are all over 70 now. (In the photo here left, taken circa 1988, (Top row L-R) Rupert, Eleonore, Maria (the daughter), Johanna, Werner, (bottom row: Johannes and Rosemarie). Of those pictured here, only Eleonore, Maria, Johannes and Rosemarie are still living, as well as Agathe, who isn't shown.) Eleonore, Johannes and Rosemarie are the children of Maria and Georg. Of the original seven who passed away before this photo was taken are Martina and Hedwig.
However, my cousin, Elisabeth von Trapp, daughter of Werner (Kurt) has carried on the legacy, as have her brother Stefan’s children, Sofia, Amanda, Justin and Melanie, now well known as The von Trapp Children. They are amazing.

Do you get royalties?

Is that really any of your business? I didn’t think so. F.v.T.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What’s in a name?

So you’re wondering what the name of the blog is all about. Have you ever Googled “von Trapp or Trapp Family”? Go ahead and give it a shot. There are thousands of links, and while many of them are to reference sites, archived news stories, books, and an assortment of legitimate family businesses, a good number of them contain an odd mix of fact, folklore and fiction.

In one account, a guy from the UK said that the name of my grandfather’s first wife (my grandmother) was Frances. I’m thinking, who the hell is Frances? Her name was Agathe. He also claimed they met in 1912. My father was born in 1911, so if it’s true, somebody’s got some explaining to do. Some of the sites are funny, but one was downright creepy, and honestly made me question whether I really wanted to keep going with this project. I mean, there are some real whack-jobs out there. What can of worms am I opening here? But then I remembered that I was tired of reading other people’s version of my family’s story. This is my story too. So onward we go!

Now, I’ve never been one to introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Francoise von Trapp, I’m related to the famous von Trapp’s.” It’s just not me. It’s easier just to let people ask. That got a little sticky during the 13 years that my last name was Gibson. I mean who was going to ask someone named Gibson if they were related to the famous von Trapps? It wasn’t that I wanted them to. It was just a little awkward when it came out long after I met someone. “We’ve been friends for a year and you never told me?” Stuff like that. My daughters volunteered the information to their music teacher in 1st grade when he started out by having them all learn Do Re Mi. I don’t think he believed them at first. It was actually a relief when I reverted back to my maiden name.

I remember one surreal experience when I was in college at the University of New Hampshire. It was the first day of my public speaking class, and the instructor paired us off to interview each other, and then give a speech about the other person. The person who interviewed me never asked if there was a connection, so I didn’t bother to volunteer the information. A little while later, a guy from across the room got up to introduce his interviewee whose name was, coincidentally, Virginia Trapp. The first thing he said about her was that she was related to the von Trapp’s in the Sound of Music. Could have knocked me over with a feather. At that point I thought I knew all my relatives – at least the ones who were my age and older, and I didn’t know any cousins named Virginia. She told me her aunt had done their genealogy and that she was distantly related. All right then. Who was I to question it? I saw her around campus those four years, but we lost touch after that. I wonder what happened to her?

Trapp and Von Trapp aren’t uncommon names (we spell it von Trapp). I was surprised to find this out when I did my own people search on FaceBook. There were over 300 results and I only know about 40 of them. I’ve always wondered what it must be like to NOT be related, but have to constantly live with that question? Do you just start making stuff up after a while? I think I would.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It started way before the movie…

The first reader comment came in, asking if I was able to understand that the characters in the movie were supposed to be my relatives. The short answer is here. The longwinded answer follows:

The Sound of Music
(the movie version) won the academy award for best picture in 1965, the year I was born. Of course this was before the age of video and DVD, so I didn’t see the film itself until it came out again in theaters a few years later (I was probably six or seven, I don’t remember). It was the second time I’d ever been to the movies, and I remember being really excited about seeing it because it was supposed to be about my father’s family.

Here I have to explain something: my father was a very quiet man, he didn’t talk much about his youth unless you asked him. By the time I came along, he was 53 years old, father of six, small town family practitioner. My older siblings probably have a better recollection of all the hoopla surrounding the Sound of Music when it first came out on Broadway starring Mary Martin, which opened in 1959 (funnily enough, the year my sister Stephanie was born. I’m starting to see a pattern here. …)

But that’s not to say I didn’t know my father’s family was famous. We spend each summer vacation at the Trapp Family Lodge, in Stowe VT visiting Mutter (what we called our grandmother, Maria) and various aunts, uncles and cousins who were around. In the photo here (1968 or 69), my family was photographed playing cards together, (L-R) Tizzy, Papa, George, Stephanie, me, Chris, Monique and Mom.

There were Saturday night Austrian folk dances in St. George’s Hall with the guests, and rainy-day screenings of the German version of the family story, Die Trapp-Familie, which preceded the stage show by 3 years, and was what both the stage and screen versions were based on. I actually prefer that version, because it' much more true to the real story. The sequel to that, Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika continued the story all the way to Vermont.

To us, the family’s fame came not from the movie adaptation, but from having spent over 20 years (1935-1957) touring the world as a family singing group. (If you want more history, go here.)

And oh, by the way, not to burst any bubbles, but the family did NOT go around singing Doe A Deer, My Favorite Things, and Climb Ev’ry Mountain…. Their repertoire comprised sacred, secular and folk music from around the world. Their musical director was a Catholic priest - Father Franz Wasner; not the opportunistic Max Detweiller (although I have to say he IS my favorite character in the movie.) And Edelweiss is NOT The Austrian National Anthem.

We’re just getting started here, but I can’t write all this in one day, can I? Keep the questions coming, I’ll do my best to keep up. -- F.v.T.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Are you one of THOSE von Trapps?

Awhile back on Facebook, there was a message in my inbox from someone I’ve never met before, asking if I were related to the von Trapps from the Sound of Music, who escaped from Austria into Switzerland and I thought… SERIOUSLY?? Has it really all come to this?

I've become used to this question during face-to-face meetings pretty much every time I meet someone new. I’m fine with it. I mean, if I wasn’t, I would never have reverted back to my maiden name after getting divorced. In fact, I’ve become quite adept at answering the questions with grace. But this took things to new heights.

So did I answer the question? Sadly, no. In that moment, I was overcome by a sudden need to protect my privacy and deleted the message. In retrospect, I now question that move – did I once again pass up the opportunity for some shameless self promotion? I mean, if Julie Powell can achieve fame and fortune by cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, then blogging about it, and Tucker Max can do the same by exploiting his debaucherous lifestyle, what’s stopping me? Maybe, just maybe, this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a while. I was just waiting for the perfect topic. Was it right in front of me the whole time? Would readers really be interested in knowing what it’s like to grow up as “a von Trapp of Sound-of-Music fame? You tell me.

So, let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, or so the story goes.….. sorry couldn’t resist that). Yes. I’m one of those von Trapps. My father was Rupert, eldest of the original seven children. But they didn’t escape from Austria into Switzerland. That was just for cinematic effect. Ever look at a map of Austria? When you climb the mountains near Salzburg, Germany is on the other side to the north, and more of Austria in the other three directions. What my father and his siblings did do is put on their hiking clothes, walk to the nearest train station, and hop a train to Italy for a hiking holiday.

So you’ve got questions? Go ahead, bring them on. I’m ready for you now! - F.v.T