The Big Binder

People don't usually just pick up and move to another country. There are visas to consider. Work permits. Language barriers. Stationery needs.

Nevertheless, Joe and Helen packed up their lives into two suitcases and moved to Vienna, Austria for a year.

After so many years of heartbreak and disappointment, Helen was finally on her way to realizing her dream of becoming a professional cello player. After a year studying under one of the world's top cellists - Claus Sternberg – doors would finally open for her. At least she hoped they would.

Considering all the possible options, Joe moved to Vienna with her, just so they wouldn't be apart. And after finally coming into some inheritance money, now was his one chance to live on the edge a little.

To be perfectly honest, that wasn't his dream. Sandpiper Air was his dream. But that dream could wait. At least for a little while.

So Helen and Joe landed at Vienna International Airport with nothing more than a tourist visa and a little more cash than the typical visitor.

"Anything to declare?" The voice was stern, although not unwelcoming.

"Joe!" Helen asked, nervously, as she pointed at the line of the little green immigration card they had gotten upon final descent. "It says here that we can't bring in more than $1,000 in cash into the country! You didn't bring all that money with you, did you?"

"Do you really think I brought $125,000 with me, in my carry-on bag?" Joe seemed annoyed, as he tried to tuck his "make-up case turned travel bag" under his leather bomber jacket. Suddenly, he hoped its European styling would help it go unnoticed as they passed through customs.

As a pilot, Joe was used to busy airports. But this was different. The pilot's privilege – of express lanes and expedient baggage checks, or of access to areas marked "Personnel Access Only" - was no longer part of his identity. It pained him. But perhaps having a little set of metal wings pinned to his bomber jacket helped him squeak through customs this time.

Joe loaded their bags onto the Vienna S-Bahn, hoping to be able to navigate his way through a foreign city as he fumbled with the accordion pages of a cheap tourist map of downtown Vienna.

The place that they sublet – sight unseen – was a split-level flat in a pre-War building, located on top of a green grocer shop. Small by American standards, the fifth floor walk up wasn't even the size of a Cape Cod back on Nantucket. But by European standards, it had the advantage of a private entryway, two small water closets, and a small attic space, where Helen could set up a little music studio.

At first sight, Helen was in love with the space. Completely caught up in the excitement of being in Vienna, and the satisfaction of being there to seriously study music, it really wouldn't have mattered what that flat looked like. Helen was, perhaps for the first time ever, truly happy. Even her wedding, which didn't exactly live up to her idea wedding, didn't make her as happy as being in Vienna with Joe and her cello.

Joe was happy that Helen was happy.

After the initial thrill of tourist frenzy and culture shock wore off, however, Joe quickly grew tired of being the tag-along spouse. As Helen spent longer and longer says at the conservatory, Joe couldn't help but feel out of control of his life. As Helen dedicated herself and immersed herself in her music and studies, Joe yearned for something more.

On a good day, he'd sneak into the Pilot's Lounges at Schwechat, and chat with the regulars there. Grateful that English was the International language of aviation professionals, he enjoyed the chit chat when he got it. But with each passing day, he began to run out of plausible excuses for why he was hanging out in a Pilot's lounge, instead of heading down the runways. He passed on the word that he was willing to take on private charter work – under the radar, of course, until he could get some working papers in order. But work never came. And day by day, the aviation professionals in the Pilot's Lounge continued their conversations amongst themselves in German, and French, and Italian, and…

"Well, Joe, maybe you should take the opportunity to learn a little German" Helen offered. "At least until your work papers come through." Clearly, she was humoring him, although she tried not to make it sound that way.

Joe bought a copy of the Blue Book Guide to Austria, and planned on spending a few weeks roaming through the streets of Vienna, admiring the details of the Old World architecture. After the first day, he came home and rattled off obscure facts about the Hapsburg Empire to a seemingly interested Helen. Clearly, she was humoring him, although she tried not to make this sound that way, either.

It was at that point that Joe took up language classes.

Joe enrolled in an elementary course in German at the Academy of Culture, Heritage, Training und Germanification (aka ACHTunG). From the first day, the structure – of both formal education, as well as the German language - appealed to him. Thrilled to have found something he could completely immerse himself in for the time being, he proceeded to get organized.

That first day, he bumbled his way through the local stationery store, and purchased a black binder. He bought dividers, and created indexed sections – one for vocabulary, one for grammar, one for idiomatic expressions. He loved his binder; it reminded him of one he used to have back in Nantucket, although that was a three-ring binder. Here, all he could find were four-ring binders. That somehow made him a little nervous, but not nearly as nervous as the length of the paper they used. You couldn't find 8 ½ x 11 inch paper in Europe, after all. Joe learned very quickly that in Austria you used the A4 international standard size.

He adapted. At least that's what he told himself. But he never did use the bottom two inches of that A4 paper, just in case he ever found a three ring binder. If he did, he would have to convert his homework and notes back to the old system.

He found a local bookstore that specialized in books for ex-pats. There, he picked up a copy of "German in 10 Minutes a Day." The book came with pages upon pages of stickers with the German words for common household objects, which were designed to jog the memory every time you saw one. Joe plastered the thin white stickers throughout the house – on the TV, plates, the front doorknob, and on the sofa.

"Wo ist das Sofa? Dort ist das Sofa!"

Helen was relieved to learn that the book did not come with a sticker with the German word for "Cello." She once caught him filling out one of the blanks that came with the book, but she quickly put her foot down on that one.

Finally, he broke down, and asked Brian to send him a new binder. An American binder. A big binder.

"You're kidding me, right?" Brian asked over the phone. "Are you telling me they don't have three-ring binders in Europe?"

"They don't. They have four-ring binders."

"You really want me to send you a binder?"

"A big binder. In black."

"Joe, you're killing me, here."

Brian tried to change the subject, but each time, Joe mentioned how hard it was to keep notes in a binder that was far too long for his tastes. He didn't have to translate, but Brian understood that what he really meant was that he missed Nantucket, his family, and his friends. He missed his home. He missed standard 8 ½ x 11 inch paper.

It was Fay who actually sent the binder to him, in a package wrapped in a brown paper shopping bag, turned inside out. Joe wasn't sure whether Brian had asked her to buy it when he sent her out for a stationery run, or if somehow she just knew.

Inside the package, there was also a three-ring hole punch. With the new binder, all the old holes would need to be repunched.

For the next few months after his binder arrived, things seemed to get a little easier for Joe. He muddled through, eventually finding a few occasional jobs shuttling Slovenian businessmen and executives back and forth on their company planes. On good nights, when Helen got home from practice at a decent hour, they would eat out, or take a long walk together.

Although this wasn't exactly the dream life in Europe that he'd expected, he sat with Helen, each morning, over a cup of strong coffee. And each morning, Joe practiced a harmless little ritual as Helen reviewed sheet music at the small café-sized table in their not-quite-an-eat-in-kitchen.

As the sun struggled over the rooftops of pre-war buildings in the Innere Stadt, Joe Hackett spent a few minutes of his day measuring and folding and cutting off the bottom few inches of the paper that would come to fill his big black binder. Every day he adjusted the paper, punched a few new holes, and made everything fit. Then he'd head out to his German class.