Not all who wander are lost.
~J. R. R. Tolkien
I am an intellectual vagrant, used to finding something new every few hours to occupy the way my mind likes to flit and skip and discover, similar, in my mind, to the way a Northern Harrier hunts; pause in flight, hover, flap wings and move on, hover, dip a wing, left or right, climb, dive, hover.
The notion of vagrant, which means someone who doesn’t have a settled home, which isn’t technically correct in my case, leads one to think of moving, moving, maybe a bum of sorts, on the road, and as many of our friends know, we—Betty and I—like to go, go, go, and being stuck in our house with the Coronavirus blues, for the most part, has crimped our action and I find myself thinking of travel, thinking about it a lot, and some of those thoughts bend back in time to trips we made in the past.
One journey that returns to my thoughts again and again is the time Betty and I flew to Frankfurt am Main in Germany for a wedding.
Our friends Tanja Alexandra Hoch and Rainer Soelkner were getting hitched.
When we hit Frankfurt, heat sizzled the pavement and there was no place to hide—not the art museum, or Goethe’s house, or our hotel.
Nevertheless, we hiked about the city and saw the sights—all of the art museums, the mall, the riverbanks, the old city, the Roman ruins that only showed up after Allied planes bombed Frankfurt into the ground—and ate kraut and schnitzel, really good stuff unlike what they served us in the cafeteria at Casa Grande’s North School back in the 50s.
The day before the wedding we rented a car and bombed along on the Autobahn to the Rhine River community of Sankt Goar where the wedding was to take place.
The morning of the wedding, Betty and I took the train upriver to Bacharach and looked at the medieval architecture, and we rode the ferry back downriver past the fabled Lorelei, a massive rock on one side of the river that is supposedly inhabited by dwarves who live in caves and a beautiful young siren who sits on top of the rock and sings while combing her hair, causing boatmen to lose their way and crash.
We were two of four Americans on hand, the rest of the folks at the wedding being Germans, some with whom we became acquainted including Rainer’s father, who when we first walked and talked on the streets of the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt, announced that when a man visits another man’s country, he should speak the language. So he spoke to me in German, which I didn’t understand, and I spoke to him in English which I think he understood, although he never spoke one word of my language. I tried to speak some of his, stumbling over words that if not pronounced in just the right way, were apparently unintelligible.
I didn’t resent this predicament; it made sense to me, and as the days went by, we—Mr. Soelkner and I—seemed to get across what we intended.
After the wedding in a cathedral in Sankt Goar, the subsequent celebration took place in a castle on a high bluff overlooking the Rhine River in a hotel facility that had been built into what was once a mighty fortress.
At the hotel, we sat outside on a deck looming over the steep banks and looked down on the river, watching the commerce, barges hauling coal and cars and equipment and grain and vegetables. Across the Rhine the rows of vines that ran from top to bottom of the steep banks like minute landslide chutes kept coming under my inspection as I pondered the terrain, the terroir and the wines of the region: Riesling, Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder, Spatburgunder.
The nuptials night, we didn’t sleep much and were up until way after 1:00 am, and even after we retired, the late summer light never died. The slanted rays of June bounced off the dark slate tiles of the roof and kept me sleeping light, and about two hours later, the swallows came alive as the hint of early morning sneaked over the northeastern horizon. The scent of the linden trees floated through our open windows, acting as a sweet reveille.
That next morning we all met out on the patio that looked down on the river. There were fresh berries of different kinds—raspberries and strawberries—and there was strong coffee that you cut with thick cream, and there were sausages and Bratkartoffen (cottage fries). The pastries on display made your mouth water.
The confabulations of the weary guests bubbled up, and as I stood against the railing of the patio, Herr Soelkner approached and began to speak to me in his lingo. I stood there wishing I were fluent, or hell, if not fluent, knew enough to get the gist of what he was saying to me because at that moment his words hit my face and bounced off like something plopping on the deck.
The maid of honor, a young woman named Anja, came over and began to translate. She spoke English better that I did.
High above the Rhine, he spoke softly and as she translated, the words marched at me like Napoleon’s troops back in the day when they destroyed much of the castle where our hotel now sat. The drum and thrum of his words matched the motors of the barges hauling commodities up and down the river.
He spoke of that moment, right then, and what it would mean to me in the future as I remembered it.
Across the river, the rows of wine grapes running north and south added to the mesmerizing chant of the words in German and then English.
He said, “These are the things that give meaning to our lives.” And he pointed at the bride and groom who’d joined us in these final moments of the memorable celebration of their marriage, and then he pointed to the other guests. He looked at me and smiled.
Swallows darted past our eyrie, their soft sighs like unknown memories caught in the wind.
He said, “And for the rest of your life, you will think of us, here, in Germany, and you will hold images of the people and how we all, you and us, met and mingled and became friends.”
And the damnedest thing happened and maybe it was because I was tired from travel—San Francisco to Frankfurt to Sankt Goar on the Rhine—lack of sleep, lots of big, emotional discoveries, the history, me recognizing that though we were all different, in more ways than not, we were all the same.
And suddenly a trickle of tears began to seep out of my eyes and if you knew how I hate to cry you’d understand my chagrin.
But I couldn’t fight it, so I just let it come and that seemed to alleviate some of the power of the moment, or that probably isn’t the right word—alleviate—but more like making it easier to admit that I was tired and yes, he spoke truth and yes, these people, this place, this moment had marked me in a way I’d never before experienced. And maybe never would again.
And he smiled at me and put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed and said, “Alles gut”—all is good.
Down below along the bank of the river, in the town, cars ran along the highway that paralleled the Rhine. They looked like troops of ants lined up in single file. A ferry boat tooted a whistle. As I turned to leave, I noticed a big, fat strawberry near where I stood on the deck.
And now, confined to the Covid prison, the berry sits in my mind, a metaphor for that memorable time and place.