After three and a half years spent in a women’s college environment, I have become subject to an unfortunate fear: spinsterhood. My grandmother reminds me on a weekly basis that a woman without a husband is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sans peanut butter; it may be edible, but it is most certainly not enjoyable. In response to her concern, I hesitated to share the following Viennese story with her– particularly given the fact that the story has transpired once before.
While visiting my grandparents in Washington, DC, I was prompted to take a stroll with my grandmother down a side street in Georgetown. Amidst our debate over the veritable Georgetown Cupcakes, a homeless man interrupted our trains of thought, screaming, “Cat lady, cat lady!” For some inexplicable reason, believing he could be referring to no one else but me, I turned around to discover two stray cats following closely behind me. The DC hobo then added, “They smell it on you.” Confused, I asked innocently, “Smell what?” The answer, of course, was simple: spinsterhood.
Though he was sockless and likely schizophrenic, my grandmother nodded in agreement. Wellesley, she reasoned, was imbuing me with a series of values that most certainly would not be conducive to married life. Instead of training women to be homemakers, Wellesley was promoting change-makers. To a woman of my generation, such a mission seemed honorable, but to a woman of the 1950s, this was simply a waste of money.
Hence, when I informed her that I would be studying abroad in a co-ed university for a year, my grandmother was ecstatic. I was 3600 miles closer to finding a mister and acquiring my MRS degree. Little did she realize that once a cat lady, always a cat lady.
The morning after my arrival in Vienna, Sharel, my traveling companion, and I ventured off in search of Naschmarkt, a local snack market famous for its diverse array of Mediterranean and traditional Central European cuisine. After exiting the metro, Sharel and I searched for the entrance to said market. Amidst our examination of the Viennese map, a man, also of the sockless variety, began yelling, “Ledige Frau! Ledige Frau!” A non-German speaker, I could not comprehend the meaning of his words, and yet somehow I knew he was shouting at me. Once again I turned around to discover two cats following closely behind me. A quick glance in my German-English dictionary and I realized the man without socks was calling me a spinster.
Given my propensity for cats, his claims were justified. The cats had no logical reason to be following me. I had no food, milk, or perfume to attract their attention. In fact, I was in search of all of the above. I needed to get to Naschmarkt and perhaps meet an attractive Viennese baker who could assist me in disproving the ominous symbolism of these cats.
After a bit of confusion, Sharel and I walked into the market– cats in tow. Hungry, under-caffeinated, and a bit traumatized by the feline experience, I elected we settle into an indoor cafe. Upon entering a cafe in the heart of the market, the owner informed us, “No pets allowed.” Turning around I realized the cats had entered the restaurant. Shooing them away, I wondered if my grandmother’s concerns were legitimate. Had Wellesley already had its effect? Was I destined for a Victorian mansion atop a New England hill?
One of the wonderful aspects of sitting in European cafes, or perhaps cafes in general, is the opportunity it provides for people-watching and personal reflection. In this particular cafe, I observed three colorful characters: the middle-aged lady with bright pink hair, smoking a cigar in the corner; the Arab candied-fruit seller offering free samples of semi-sweet mango to Parisian teenage girls; and an aspiring Viennese writer, composing his first great novel on napkins and other scraps of carbon paper.
I also surmised that all three of these individuals seemed incredibly content with their current positions. They were savoring the moment, experiencing the present, and leaving the future until tomorrow. Given that I had less than 72 hours to spend in Vienna, I determined that I should probably take a cue from their collective experiences and focus on the now. Instead of indulging my neurosis about my future marital prospects, I needed to embrace the situation I was in, which was an extraordinarily fortunate experience. I was a world traveler in the making, and instead of feeding into the fears of my American family members, I needed to focus on making my own adventures. After all, men come and go, but travel memories last forever.