Is wanderlust an inherited gene or does your need to wander come from your upbringing and experiences? Ella Tait explores her own story, set against the mountains of Innsbruck.

It was early September and the sky was overcast. Moody and inconsistent, sun flickered through the dark clouds overhead, shining down for a brief moment on my feet upon the atrium floor, before disappearing and casting me into the gloom again. 

My shoulders were sunken with fatigue and the bags under my eyes sat heavy upon my worn face, as I stared down at my phone lying silent in my blistered hand. 

Miles from home and feeling more alone than ever, I rose from my seat and began marching through the vast space, towards the glowing exit sign. 

Mid week in the early afternoon Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof was deserted. Compared to the public transport back home it was borderline hospital grade in its cleanliness, and much too quiet for my liking. 

My Mother had told me about that. Sitting in the back of her beaten up Ford Laser, hurtling down Great North Road with Graceland blaring from her semi-working cassette player.

“I could tell when we’d crossed the border. The autobahns in Austria were tidy and quiet.”

The wind crashed through the open window and threw back her long blonde hair, as she shouted over Paul Simon.

“As soon as we crossed the border into Italy all chaos broke loose. While Germans and Austrians are reserved and contained, Italians are passionate and lively people.” 

I could see her effervescent blue eyes flickering like the Pacific Ocean in the rearview mirror, smiling at me; her hands tapping on the steering wheel in time with the music.

Graceland, graceland. We’re going to graceland. 

I wish my Mother was with me now.

moody skies over Innsbruck

An Introduction to Innsbruck

The air seemed to stand still as I exited through the sliding doors and stepped into the crisp Autumn breeze. A passing woman glanced at me and for a moment we both seemed to freeze. She was olive skinned, like me, but with piercing dark eyes and sharp cheekbones that jutted bluntly from her leathery face. Her woollen coat was a deep maroon and wrapped tightly around her shoulders, but there was nothing warm about her. I tried to smile, and she responded by sucking in her cheeks as if she’d bitten into a particularly sour lemon. 

My eyes followed her as she scurried past scowling. I immediately felt an impending sense of doom as my vision fell from the elderly woman to the distant view. Innsbruck is an ancient place; famous for its sweet cakes, weaving river, and unfathomable mountain range that surrounds the entire city. 

It’s hard to explain the feeling of being completely surrounded by mountains, when you’ve grown up in a place completely surrounded by the ocean. Back home in New Zealand there is a never-ending horizon; in the midst of a long hot summer, the days drag on in a haze of heat and sea salt. 

In Innsbruck it was if the hills were alive, waiting for me – and upon exiting that station they had spied an outsider and closed ranks. 

Innsbruck and the mountains

I was travelling alone for the first time; I should have been overjoyed, ecstatic even, to find myself in a country so rich with culture and history. Instead I found myself surrounded with no way out. I drew a deep breath and marched onward.

Left right left again, up and down cobblestone streets, past the grandiose architecture of Western Europe I had read so much about. A wall of rock and stone at every turn. 

The mountains were inescapable but I soldiered on, feet heavy, stomping on the pavement. Left, right, and left again – and there he was.

I wouldn’t call him a letdown or a disappointment. 

Turns out my Father is just a man, that’s all. 

That evening from my Father’s spare room I would call my Mother, and down the crackling phone line she would call me brave. I don’t remember feeling particularly courageous that day; meeting Hugo was simply something that I had always needed to do.

The Backstory

Years earlier, not far from Innsbruck, hurtling over the Alps through the countryside at the wheel of a tremendous European lorry, a dark and brooding Austrian with a fondness for apple strudel and cheap beer spotted a beautiful blonde hippie standing on the side of the road. Her hand thrust out with a thumb cast upwards towards the greying sky, it was as if she had been there all along. 

Skidding to a halt, the young man laid eyes on the daughter of a farmer, turned aimless wanderer.

My Mother once told me it wasn’t love at first sight, but she sure as hell thought the truck driver was a handsome man. She’s never spoken much of that first meeting, except of course what his broken English could muster when he went to drop her off:

“I like you. Stay with me.” 

Almost two years later my Mother would return to New Zealand pregnant with me, often referring to my Father as the lost love of her life and to me, her first and only child, as the ultimate in tourist souvenirs.

Growing up, the memory of my Father was a lack thereof. A childhood friend once told me that she couldn’t imagine living without her dad, to which I bluntly snapped back that I’d never had a father to miss in the first place. 

Growing up with a solo parent isn’t unusual in the dowdy suburbs of Auckland City. But, unlike my peers whose parents were divorced, who switched back and forth between houses every few days, my Father had no physical presence in my life whatsoever. 

I also wasn’t the product of an adulterous love affair or a one-night-stand, nor of teenage pregnancy. For that reason I felt quite alone as a child; I was born of a love that didn’t quite work out, and no one ever quite got that

Call it fate or call it pure chance, nobody else I knew growing up had parents who met quite like mine did. Like it or not, I was an oddball. 

What I couldn’t bear was the relentless questioning and taunting. According to just about everyone, you can’t just not have a Dad. So, when besieged with questions, I learnt to tell my peers and teachers my Father lived far away

It wasn’t until later as a teenager, ridden with anger and self-loathing, I started telling people I simply did not have a father. I filed Hugo under permanently absent and got on with my life.

Filed Under: Permanently Absent

Looking back he was almost there – just not in the common, physical sense of the word. He existed in my mind as various different figures, whatever I wanted him to be. 

Tom Cruise in Top Gun, or a gangster in a Quentin Tarantino film. 

An enigma, a figment of my imagination; a fictional character in one of my books. 

A warlock or maybe a pirate; an adventurer kidnapped by fairies and stolen down the rabbit hole. 

He was old crinkled love letters and a mixed tape full of music from the 80’s, not hidden but rather put away, in a shoebox in my Mother’s wardrobe. 

He was a faded photograph of a youthful olive skinned European man, leaning against the cab of a huge lorry outside an Autobahn. 

He was a small scruffy hippo plush toy gifted to my Mother, nicknamed Humphrey. 

He was my Dad: permanently absent. A story by yours truly.

cloudy skies over the mountains of Innsbruck

Innsbruck: A Setting Befitting the Meeting

My whole life I only had photographs to go by – photographs taken by my Mother over twenty years earlier. Yet there was no mistaking this man was Hugo. 

Just as my Mother seemed to wait for him, here he was waiting for me; as cool as Luke sitting on the doorstep of his little Innsbruck flat, smoking a cheap European cigarette. 

Crisp cream shirt and hair damp from the Autumn breeze. He’d aged, but under the leathery skin and thick beard I could make out the man from the photos I had tucked away in my pack.

“Are you smoking? That’s disgusting!” I yelled at him. My thick Kiwi accent reverberated and echoed off the surrounding stone buildings.

Cautiously, I crossed the quiet street. Boots falling unsteadily on the road, my Mother’s old pack creaking ponderous upon my tired shoulders. He rose from his concrete stoop and paused for a moment, looking at me, cigarette dangling precariously from his right hand. His eyes were the same dark hazel as mine.

“You must be my daughter,” he said.

To this day I still don’t know why I was so surprised at my Father’s accent; when he spoke, I could have almost believed this man wasn’t really Hugo if our meeting wasn’t so much like staring into a mirror. 

In the past, I have imagined him as a dark and mysterious figure who fights inner city crime in a crimson red leather jacket; an anti-hero like James Dean, who battles his inner demons and picks edelweiss in his spare time (think Zorro but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s accent). 

As a child I imagined him with a deep Austrian voice that could reverberate and melt metal, like superman or ET. 

In my mind Hugo has played many roles; a ninja, or a musician. A ninja musician. A smoking, swearing, beat-poet type character who writes from the back of a pickup truck on el camino, swigging from a bottle of rum as the wind rushes back through his long ponytail.

Plot twist: my Father has never had hair long enough to tie into a ponytail, although from memory he may have had a rat’s tail in one of my Mother’s photos. He’s also not James Dean – although sometimes I wonder if he thinks himself a rebel.

Over coffee with an old friend six months later I would tell her I met Hugo for the first time, and after letting out a quick gasp she would ask me wide-eyed how it went.

“As expected” I shrugged. “He’s very Austrian.”

It may have seemed at the time like I was brushing her off, but truth be told I was right. After years of building up my Father in my head, he turned out to be just that: a man. 

The real Hugo, not the Hugo I had so often tried to picture in my mind, certainly dresses like Zorro with his wide-brimmed black hat and long black coat. However, in reality, he’s just a man, as stoic as the surrounding Alps, but as soft as his middle after years of too much torte and beer.

cake and coffee in Innsbruck

The Wanderlust Gene

I don’t believe my wandering instinct suddenly manifested when I met Hugo – that has, and always will be, a part of me I accredit to my Mother. 

However, since the day I made the split decision to meet my Father and move past the anger I felt as a teenager, not much else has stopped me.

Since that first trip, I have lived with the clarity that comes from no formal direction, and with little fear. I have travelled through Europe and parts of Asia, and last year I moved to Australia on a one-way ticket alone. 

Why? Because I could. 

As of right now, I am sat typing in a little purple tent in Southern Patagonia, 8311 kms from home. I no longer feel trapped in the mountains; I also very recently put my doubts aside and started hitchhiking. I have fallen in love with the open road and the promise of the unknown.

I believe, regardless of whether or not I met Hugo, I would still be spending my time travelling as much as possible. But it was meeting my Father that made me realise just how strong I am and how courageous I can be. 

Why can’t I move countries on my own? 

Why can’t I buy a tent and book a one-way ticket to South America? 

If only we knew our own strength, we could move mountains.

A year after I turned up on Hugo’s doorstep, I spent my 24th birthday in Paris. He met me in the 10th arrondissement at a classic Parisian restaurant, and we ate warm pain Français and drank Aperol Spritz. 

As the sky outside darkened from pastel peach to warm violet and the lights in the eatery dimmed, reflecting and glimmering off the checkered marble floor, we talked about art and travelling, but soon the conversation turned to politics. More specifically, Brexit. 

The more animated and passionate I became, the livelier my Father seemed to become, until eventually he couldn’t contain his laughter.

“Why are you laughing?” I looked at him sternly across the table. “This is serious.”

“I am sitting in a restaurant in Paris debating politics with my daughter,” Hugo replied joyfully.

“How funny life is.”

Man walking away through a cobbled lane in Innsbruck

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