December 2015 Articles

Bryn Mawr Woman: Finding a Fellow Traveler

AlumBriefs_Bryn Mawr Woman_photo

By Dardis McNamee ’70

Our romance began with conversation. From the first, it was a frolic of words and wit, and he decided on a whim to come along for dinner at a nearby café with old friends of mine from New York. We were halfway across the square, in mid-banter, before it occurred to me I had better ask his name.

“Simon Ballam,” he said, amused, handing me a card. (He knew who I was; running a magazine, it’s hard to hide.) What impressed me was how gracefully he managed the evening, telling engaging stories about his years in Vienna, our shared city for two decades, referring to public events I could chime in on, without ever letting on that we had met only 45 minutes before.

This, I decided, was an interesting man!

That was October 2012, the event a lecture on Edward Bernays, the Father of Public Relations and widely considered the “king of spin.” Bernays, who got his start with the Committee on Public Information in World War I and lived to the ripe old age of 103, was born in Vienna in 1891. Twice-nephew of Sigmund Freud, he sold the American public on things as varied as the Ballet Russes, cigarettes for women, bacon and eggs as a standard breakfast, and the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.

I had arrived at the lecture 15 minutes late, and took a spot at a standing table at the back. The lecture was engaging—it is virtually impossible to make Bernays dull. But there were a few points of, shall we say, imprecision, that I addressed in the Q&A. When Simon tells this story, he refers to them as “zingers”—although I’m sure I was the soul of decorum. Which motivated him to seek out “the voice” from the back of the room.

There is a certain amount of poetic justice in this first encounter, as Simon has spent most of his career in advertising, understanding how to create cachet for routine products and motivate people to buy things they don’t need.

“That’s unfair!” I hear him protest. He insists that his is the profession of the “truth well told,” the motto of McCann Erickson, the advertising agency to which he dedicated the longest chapter of his career. As a journalist and magazine editor, I fully agree with this goal, although of course I mean something quite different by it. Still, it does suggest the wide terrain of shared interests that fill our days.

Even after this auspicious beginning, it took another six months to make the seismic shift from friend and theatre companion to Lebensgefährte, life’s fellow traveler. Simon was a widower, whose actress-wife of over 30 years had died of cancer a decade earlier. I was divorced and had come to Europe with my two young children in 1994. After a brief relationship, I had decided I had neither the focus nor the energy for a man in my life. Being a single parent in a new country, a new culture, and a new language—all that was challenge enough.

Then one day, it was over; the children were launched! Now what? Balance and self-sufficiency are precious, indeed, and hard to relinquish. Until some interloper shows up and turns the whole scheme upside down.

How do you deal with someone who seems too good to be true—but isn’t? A multilingual, fellow expat with a sparkling wit, a love of ideas, and a sailboat on the Neusiedlersee? Who is, in short, perfectly compatible?

Well, OK, there are a few things. For one thing, Simon is English and, as with Germans and Austrians, the British and the Americans are two cultures divided by a common language.

For instance, being called “chum” took some getting used to. As did his horror at my offer to talk to a mutual friend about a personal problem. “You’re going to do what?” Our American interventionism and obsession with “issues” (a.k.a. “psychobabble”) strike him dumb with horror. Just take a cold shower, and get on with it!

But I like the idea of being “cross” rather than “angry,” “irritated” rather than “annoyed” at, for example, the functional incompetence of call centers in the Philippines. Or the sporting factor in “dodgy” dealings with suppliers in Budapest. And going on “holiday” sounds like more fun than “a vacation.”

Then there are the myths: Forget English reserve. Bustling about the kitchen making dinner, Simon will frequently manage to bump into me, teasing, “Why are you always getting in my way?” It’s funny, and sweet, but if truth be told, I sometimes feel crowded and find myself scrambling for words to explain without being a bore.

Most profound, though, was the realization that I was now living “an observed life,” that someone was aware of me all the time, often paying attention to things—flaws, failings, faux pas—I wasn’t used to sharing. I needn’t have worried: “That’s real life,” Simon will say, with a shrug, as if it were an accomplishment.

And so it was that on a perfect day in July 2014, we arrived full sail in den Hafen der Ehe, into the safe-harbor of marriage—fellow travelers, lovers, and yes, chums.

Dardis McNamee ’70 is editor and publisher of METROPOLE (www.metropole.at), an English-language city magazine and online community in Vienna, Austria, launched in October 2015 with daughter (and CEO) Maggie Childs. Her former publication, The Vienna Review, closed in 2013, is archived at viennareview.net. In her long career in journalism, she has been a correspondent for, among others, The New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler in New York and, in Vienna, for The Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit, as well as a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She is currently a doctoral candidate in contemporary history at the University of Vienna, where she is researching the influence of public relations on 20th-century politics and the causes of war. She is also the co-author of the 2011 Frommer’s Vienna and the Danube Valley. She has lived in Vienna for 16 years.  

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Comments on “Bryn Mawr Woman: Finding a Fellow Traveler”

  1. Dear Dardis,
    What a lovely piece you’ve shared with us all! wouldn’t our BMC mothers be thrilled if they were here to read it too!
    It was a treat to catch sight of you both at reunion. XoX Barbara

  2. Dear Dardis,

    I loved getting to know you a bit better through this article, as I enjoyed getting to know your helpful son and your beautiful and comfortable apartment in Vienna during our stay there last summer. Thank you for adding another layer to the picture. Someday I hope to have the pleasure of being in the same place at the same time you are!

    Gratefully,

    Judy Keiser ’82 and son William

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