Brigitte & Otto
I guess you could say my family has always been fairly open to having guests stay in our home. There are eight children (chill – not all from the one mum – my dad just got hitched a couple of times), with me being the youngest. Though we’ve virtually all moved out, our house still has people coming and going.
When I was 22 and still living at home, my dad’s Austrian pal Heinrich emailed him to say that his friends, Brigitte and Otto, were travelling Australia and may visit our hometown, the Gold Coast. We didn’t have their contact details, so that’s about as much as we knew. Three days later, they were on our doorstep, staying for three nights. Both were in their mid-to-late 60s, but had a youthful glow about them, which they probably picked up in the Whitsundays. Brigitte in particular had beautifully tanned skin, and her face reminded me of Meryl Streep’s.
On the second night, Brigitte made authentic Austrian schnitzel using breadcrumbs they’d brought all the way from home; she didn’t trust Australian breadcrumbs would do the trick, and she was right. I must admit I am a massive foodie, so spending time with her in the kitchen was really special. Who knew a piece (okay… two) of schnitzel could win over your heart? We discussed her and her partner’s travels, helped them plan a daytrip to Purlingbrook Falls and LOL’d over Brigitte’s newfound love of Vegemite. On final night, Brigitte cooked an apple strudel for dessert. This happened to be a Monday, and unlike all those other Mondays that kick-start my “diet”, this one was legit – I had signed up to a 12-week Crossfit/health challenge and wasn’t about to cave less than 24 hours in. I did, however, put my imagination to the test by wildly sniffing a slice instead. Divine.
Now, whilst I’m sure my lack of caffeine, sugar and anything else non-paleo may have had something to do with my emotional state that night, I knew there had to be a more meaningful reason as to why I sobbed during dessert – no one could get that upset over untouched strudel.
Brigitte and Otto had been in a relationship for just three years, and I was flabbergasted to hear that they met online. I’ve only just recently been introduced to Tinder, and whilst I’m sure Brigitte and Otto were matched by something slightly less superficial than their profile pictures, I still have a hard time taking internet dating seriously. Thankfully, they found it equally as amusing as I did. Brigitte explained how she had tried posing as multiple relationship statuses, e.g. single, divorced, it’s complicated and even married, all of which only attracted men who wanted nothing more than sex. (Come to think of it, maybe they were using Tinder).
Regardless, Brigitte began to explain her true status. During her web-surfing phase, she was in fact married, though her husband had spent a long time in a coma, and was in a permanent vegetative state. I don’t know the cause of her husband’s coma or its duration, as oddly enough, those facts seemed irrelevant. I could see the pain in Brigitte’s eyes, but I could also sense her eagerness to talk, so despite it being a touchy topic for dinner conversation, I was just as eager to hear more.
Even though Otto’s relationship status was somewhat less complicated, it was just as tragic: he was a widower. His wife had had terminal cancer with just a couple of months to live. She urged and supported him to search for a new partner, as she wanted him to find happiness again — this is where the wacky World Wide Web came into play. As soon as she passed, Otto’s friends diminished. I didn’t understand why. He explained that many of his married friends believed he might be untrustworthy or may even attempt to steal their wives. I had never heard anything more horrifyingly ludicrous. The poor guy. I felt terrible for him.
Eventually, Brigitte told us the story of how she met Otto, and — amidst conversation of death, loneliness, abandonment and sheer agony — it was incredibly uplifting to hear her speak with such elation. So how did it happen?
Well, she finally changed her relationship status back to “married” and added a note to her profile that simply said, “It’s not what you think.” Otto was the only man to give her a click. He said that he instantly knew there was much more to Brigitte than what her profile made out, and he wanted to discover what it was. Brigitte spoke of their first dates in such fine detail, down to the time of day Otto phoned and the type of boots he was wearing when she invited him in for breakfast one morning. It was clear to see she really loved him. Otto blushed and jittered nervously, but couldn’t fight off her kisses and laughter.
For the first year they dated, Brigitte still visited her husband almost every day. She would sit outside with him, talking and singing, always wondering if he could understand or even maybe, just maybe, hear her. She would kiss him goodbye on the forehead and tell him she loved him, only to then go home to kiss and love Otto. She said both loves were true and honest. I was amazed by how open she was, telling a couple of strangers such personal and private details about her life. I also couldn’t believe how calm and collected Otto was – so much talk of Brigitte’s former lover and there he was, just listening with interest, care and comfort. I can only hope that I too mellow and mature with age.
Much like Otto, Brigitte also lost her friends. Many of them didn’t agree with the fact she was seeing Otto with her husband still alive, whilst others were spooked by the fact she spent so much time with her lifeless husband. Even when he finally passed, Brigitte’s friends steered clear.
My heart ached. They had both endured so much adversity and pain in their lives. There wasn’t much we could do other than listen, and the language barrier did make some things tricky. Unless my dad has polished off a bottle of red, he tends to be a man of few words, but when Brigitte told us how she only had two friends remaining, he reached out his hand and told her that she now had six. Brigitte leapt out of her chair and burst into tears, making her way around the dining table to hug and kiss us all.
This is around about where my caffeine/sugar-free day emotions kicked in. The constriction in my throat gave way and heavy tears rolled down my cheeks. Brigitte and Otto were truly inspiring – there they were at 60-something, travelling the world together in search of happiness, or rather, happily travelling the world. Absolutely blissful.
With a jar of Vegemite in hand, Brigitte and Otto left the next morning and the lot of us, my dad included, wept as we waved them off in their motorhome.
If these people have taught me anything, it is to take life as it comes, love without fear, see the world and be willing to open your door to travellers, as you never know who might waiting on the other side. Above all, Brigitte reminded me that despite how much shit life can throw at us, we still have the opportunity to choose happiness; sometimes we just have to go searching for it.
Cover by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen