Travels With Billy

Munich, Germany – January 1998

My brother Billy used to always say that he would never travel outside of the United States, because “there’s nothing worth seeing”. This declaration was accompanied by crossed arms and a firm nod. So, I was amazed when he decided to accompany me on this quick trip to Munich. I had scored an obscenely cheap travel agent rate though work. I could fly from our local airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Germany for less that it cost to fly to the West Coast. The guest rate was only fifty dollars more. Billy asked if we could fly into Frankfurt and take the train down to Munich, because he’d heard that German trains were efficient. It was perfectly fine with me. I had traveled with my sister Penelope, and now, finally, I would be traveling with Billy.


We have four days in Munich. It’s been nine years since I was last in Europe and it’s my first time in Germany. This will possibly be Billy’s only trip to Europe. We want to see everything. From the moment we finish breakfast until the time we shuffle back to the hotel exhausted we do not stop. We take a tour of the opulent Residenz and then feast our eyes on the art at the Neue Pinakothek. We watch the old Glockenspiel show, and then we visit the Toy Museum.

We eat dinner at the world famous Hofbräuhaus. The waiter is incredibly rude, but we refuse to let him push us out. We linger until the Oompah band starts to play. A little girl of about five walks up to the table next to us, tips a mug of beer towards her mouth, and takes a few gulps. Billy and I look at each other and laugh. We haven’t finished one beer, but we’re both totally buzzed.

“We’re not obligated to finish,” I slur. I push my beer aside.

Billy drains the last of his beer and sets his mug down with an emphatic thud. “We can’t let them think that Americans don’t know how to handle their beer.”


One does not have a conversation with Billy in the conventional sense. He has never been a verbal person. Although he could read the newspaper at four years old, he rarely spoke. Today, he works in IT. Code is his main language. Our communication mainly consists of looks and gestures. There are things that I’d like to discuss with him. The same things that I’ve discussed with Penelope. We’ve never had a chance to corroborate the trauma of our childhood. Does he have the same fear that Pebby and I have of inheriting our father’s schizophrenia? Does he remember the strange, dark days when we were so afraid?

I bring this up while we wander through the Deutsches Museum of Science and Technology. It’s a weekday and we’re the only visitors. He is amid machinery and circuitry and locomotion. Comfortable things.

He pauses and stares straight ahead. A quick wince as obscure corners of the database are searched. He shakes his head. Access denied.


On our final full day, we join an organized day tour of Bavarian castles. Thankfully, there are only twelve people on the tour. The large bus is nearly empty. A fresh blanket of snow covers the landscape. Every once in a while we pass men wearing lederhosen and feathered green felt hats. Our first stop is the small, yet decoratively overbearing Linderhof Palace. The overabundance of gilt and color makes me nauseous. Then it’s on to Oberammergau with its fairy tale painted houses. Billy decides to buy a cuckoo clock, as well as another shot glass. It’s the third one he’s bought on this trip. He recently bought a special shelf for his collection. It looks like a spice rack. He doesn’t like people to send him shot glasses as gifts, though, because then he’ll feel obligated to visit the place. Pebby and I know that if we ever want to get revenge on him, we only need to send him a shot glass from someplace he’s never been.

The last stop is the surreal Neuschwanstein Castle. The guide tells us that in the summer the lines are hours long and often people aren’t able to get in. I take a deep breath and look out over the immaculate, silent panorama. I think I’ll travel in the low season from now on.

I turn to Billy. “So, are you happy that you came with me?”

He nods. “It’s nice. America is still the best, but Germany is pretty nice.”

I roll my eyes and shake my head in loving exasperation.


23 thoughts on “Travels With Billy

  1. Are you from Grand Rapids? ! I grew up in Wyoming. Maybe your school was the nemesis of Godwin’s Fighting Wolverines. And I collect shot glasses. This proves that The universe is all one big thingamajob and we are all connected. Please join me Saturday at 5:30 PM (London time) for another global meditation session. Be there or be square.

    • Hey Chuck – I’m from a small town outside of Bay City, but I lived in Grand Rapids for a few years. So, do you like it when people send you shot glasses as gifts, even if you haven’t been to the place or, like my brother, do you get seriously annoyed? I used to collect things – fridge magnets and postcards – but with all this moving around it became impractical.

  2. Beautifully written as always, Julie — I so appreciate the characterization that you develop — albeit of real people! Great post and photos! Cheers, Steph.

  3. Every time I see a new post, I make myself a pot of tea and settle down to enjoy your narrative. Ah… Munich. I traveled in your footsteps. I was especially interested in the story of Mad Kind Ludwig and his midnight sleigh rides and his liking for Wagner’s music. His courtiers thought he spent too much, and yet he created the castles that keep visitors coming back year after year. The gift that keeps on giving. The mind is delicate and complex.

      • I read his story – extremely intelligent and totally impractical. And a very sad ending. I believe that he lived only 6 months in the palace that he patterned on Versailles. I am very happy with a more modest lifestyle.

  4. I love how you show your relationship with Billy through the various ways you each respond to your surroundings. That tells us a lot in few words. And “one does not have a conversation with Billy in the conventional sense” is such a great sentence. Inspiring post.

    • Thanks, Chris. When there’s little verbal communication and you want to know about someone, the only way (besides being psychic) is to observe them. This turns out to be a very useful skill, especially for writers. 🙂

  5. He is amid machinery and circuitry and locomotion. Comfortable things.
    He pauses and stares straight ahead. A quick wince as obscure corners of the database are searched. He shakes his head. Access denied.
    Fabulous……as are the photos.

  6. Very interesting story. I think your your brother caught the hook. I love States too (though I’m from Poland) for outstanding nature (Rockies, Yosemite, Yellowstone and all those beautiful scapes) but Europe has somethin to show too… I mean the history and city scapes mostly.

    • Cześć! I agree that the US and Europe are both great because of the reasons that you give. Being content with where I live is more important than living in the “best” country. Anyway, how can one determine an absolute best country? Thanks very much for your comment. 🙂

  7. Absolutely amazing photographs of Bavaria. You really capture the history , cultural heritage and natural beauty of the landscape in a beautiful profound way. I really enjoyed looking at this beautiful series of photographs. Keep up the great work.
    God bless

  8. Well at least he left America and tried. As for me, I’m addicted to travel. Billy would shake his head a lot at me I think.

    • Billy is still open to travel outside of the US, but it’s definitely not a priority. He’s able to understand why people want to see other lands. 🙂 Cheers!

      • I like Billy’s quiet side, and yet he’s still communicating. I think we’d get along. I live with a pretty quiet person.

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