Rhine Diary

The Middle Rhine

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7/25: Amsterdam. We’re here. Right up until the plane took off, I wasn’t sure this trip would ever happen. Over the last two years, I’ve booked two cruises and had to cancel both. This spring, I had a painful bone spur in my heel. For the last two weeks, I’ve been reading and worrying about flooding along the Rhine. And after two years of staying at home, I find myself anxious and reluctant to travel to another state, let alone another continent.

On the plane from Boston, I started reading Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change, in which she talked about our three responses to stress—flight, fight, and freeze—and I realized how frozen I’ve been during this pandemic.

This was painfully clear at Logan Airport. The driver of our shuttle from the hotel let us out at the wrong terminal, so that by the time we got to the ticket counter there was a pretty good line. Once at the counter, we were told we needed to fill out a special COVID questionnaire to get into Ireland (never mind that we were only in Ireland to change planes), and that this form needed to be filled out on our iPhones.

That was when I literally froze. I couldn’t get my fingers to work and had to have Mary Lee do the damn thing for me. By taking so long, we got the last two seats in the back of the plane, which meant being the last off the plane in Dublin, which meant running (or what passes for running at my age) from one end of the airport to the other, which meant barely making our connecting flight.

But after meeting the nice folks at Viking and walking the streets of Amsterdam over the canals, I can feel myself thawing a bit, feel myself flowing with the pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars past people sitting in front of cafes and coffee shops.

7/26: We’ve started our cruise on the lower Rhine, stopping at Kinderdijk to look at 18th Century windmills, used to keep water out of these lowlands. Along the Rhine delta, many trees and bushes along the banks are still under water after the floods, and last week part of this cruise had to be canceled because of rapid water.

Still, I’m finding being on the river more serene than I’d thought. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve always found rivers calming. I grew up by a river, and I’ve often imagined my life as part of a river flowing from my forebears to an indeterminant future just around the next bend. This morning, Mary Lee and I meditated on our little balcony outside our stateroom, and I watched the Rhine through half-closed eyes and felt myself rocked. Held.

7/27: Cologne. Our excursion this morning was primarily through the 14th-century gothic cathedral, one of the few buildings not destroyed in WWII by Allied planes. Supposedly, it holds the bones of the Magi and was a site for pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.

Cologne Cathedral

For me, however, it was finding the Kathe Kollwitz Museum during our free time this afternoon which was my pilgrimage. Kollwitz, the German artist who worked with painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and whose son Peter was killed in World War I, showed me how powerful art can be in helping to overcome grief. Reading Kollwitz’s diaries of her seventeen-year struggle to create a monument to her son inspired me to keep working on my novel, Requiem in Stones, based on the death of my own child.

7/28: Koblenz: Woke this morning to a change in landscape: more hilly, rocky, and wooded. Koblenz is 70 kms from Weilburg (pronounced, I find, “Vile-borg”), where my paternal ancestors originated before moving to Nova Scotia in 1750. No time to visit, but I’ve got it on my bucket list.  

Koblenz, like Cologne, was 90% destroyed in WWII, so I didn’t feel as if I were looking at the physical layering of history the way I did, let’s say, in Turkey, where stones from churches, mosques, or palaces from one era were used in erecting new buildings. Instead, we were looking at Germany’s efforts to incorporate—layer, if you will—its past into its national consciousness, especially its treatment of Jews. Today, for example, we saw copper inserts in the sidewalks in memory of local Jews who were killed during the war, as well as modern art and sculpture looking at eras of German history.

This afternoon, what’s called the Middle Rhine carried us by 16 or 17 castles. Again, the sense of floating through history. The views of castles rising out of the mountains, sloped with vineyards were magnificent.

One of the many castles on the Middle Rhine

Another great regional meal on board ship and a glass-blowing demonstration and presents for my brother and sister and us. Again, the power of art.

7/29: Speyer. Walking tour, courtesy of “Hermann, the German,” 89 years old, who biked two kilometers to meet the ship and guided us on a two-hour walk through the town before biking home. Hermann talked from personal experience about post-war Germany. He was a schoolboy in the Nazi era, wearing a brown shirt because if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to go past elementary school. His father was a German soldier who spent two or three years after the war in a French prison camp.

Hermann the German

Listening to the Germans talk about their past, especially their Nazi past, helps me be more more honest about those less pleasant parts of my life, and I think we in the U.S. can learn much from Germany in how to name and accept our past genocides.

7/30: Strasbourg. Brief trip into France. Actually, since 1870, Strasbourg has been part of Germany twice and part of France twice. The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg is another church that was at one time the highest building in Europe. The churches I’ve seen so far on this trip show me how religion almost always becomes politicized. They may contain stained glass pictures from the Bible, but I also saw statue after statue of some general or king in armor wielding a sword. After seeing these churches, I shouldn’t find the political agendas of Fundamentalists unusual.

The Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg

In our free time this afternoon, Mary Lee and I wandered beside the canals before eventually stopping in a square for hot chocolate (me), coffee (her), a croissant, and people watching. Scribbling in my notebook made me feel like Ernest Hemingway—another (for better or worse) huge influence on my life—writing in La Closerie des Lilas, in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris in the 1920’s.

7/31: Breisach and the Black Forest. More cruising into my past. Germany’s Black Forest reminds me of Idaho’s Payette Forest. ML and I joined a hike to a waterfall, another rejuvenating image for me. I’m sure we were the oldest ones on that hike. I alternate between feeling old and decrepit and old and pretty healthy.

Mary Lee

8/1: Basal, Switzerland. Today we said good-bye to Rene and Maria and Marina and Ada and Ann Marie and the rest of the staff and left our cruise for our two-day extension to Lucerne, Switzerland. For many years, I worked summers with tourists, and I know how much work goes into making vacations run smoothly. These folks were good.

Basal

On the balcony outside our stateroom waiting for the bus to Lucerne, I read more of Sharon Salzburg’s Real Change: “When I want to summon strength and power in the midst of awfulness and hate, I contemplate water. [Water is]…always changing, in motion, yet revealing continual patterns of behavior.”

I’ve found these “continual patterns” fascinating on this trip, from my reintroduction to the serenity of rivers, to my renewal of my love of Kollwitz and Hemingway, to my feeling part of the river of Wiles flowing from Weilburg, to my continued love of streams and forests, to my summers working with tourists in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Salzburg also wrote that yes, water can freeze, but it can also thaw. And I feel thawed out. My goal is to continue feeling this way.

This morning at breakfast, we looked across what is now the Upper Rhine to the other shore to see a naked man emerge from the river, where he’d been for a swim, and walk down a boardwalk to his clothes. Most people found the guy hilarious. I, however, saw him as an icon for starting each day rising from a river, naked, newly-born.

Metaphorically, of course. I don’t even take my shirt off at the beach anymore.

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