River and Rail
River and Rail, Out and Up
Six years without a junket. But who's counting. Time to travel again. Summer solstice up to patriotic weekend we sailed up the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel on a five star riverboat, the Amadeus Princess, with 138 other voyagers, alumni from ten different colleges and universities. We flew from Logan on the redeye, arriving at Schiphol at 8:00 AM. An excursion on canals ended dockside near the Amadeus. "The Great Journey Through Europe" included five days aboard ship and four days in grand hotels in Switzerland. We hit the high spots along the river and in the Alps before a very early morning bus trip to Milan and home, a twenty hour journey during which we twice flew over our home in West Hartford, en route to Atlanta and Boston.
I took 150 photos; Barbara, 450. You might want to be wary of visiting us any time soon, lest you be invited to see the splendors of the Rhineland and the magnificence of the Alps. My intent here is to report my personal discoveries on this ten day jaunt. I speak for no one but me. Barbara is the looker, enthralled by the sights, intent on wresting from every moment such delights as are offered, fearful that she might miss something. I took a more leisurely approach, necessitated by the security at Logan confiscating my blood pressure medications, followed by the reappearance of a nagging butt ache that limited the amount of walking I was willing to try.
Yes, we saw Ann Frank's house; no, we did not see any women in store windows. Yes, I had salami for breakfast every morning (along with more standard fare); no, I did not gain weight with the four course meals. Yes, we visited cathedrals and castles; no, I did not get my cheek sliced in Heidelberg. Yes, we saw the storks nesting in Strasbourg; no, the bears in Bern could not compare with those seen in our Bugbee woods. Yes, we climbed Gornergrat in a cog railway for a closer look at the Matterhorn; no, I felt no urge to climb it. Yes, we oohed and aahed at the Jungfrau; but I spent more time sitting on a park bench watching hang gliders land while six men played some Slavic variant of bocce in a cinder path.
For the fun of it this Methodist teetotaler decided to sample local beers and make a photographic record of the quaffing, in honor of my friend and brew connoisseur Steve Klein who seems intent on filling in a gap in my Williams College education with a post-graduate course in tippling.
Three lecturers accompanied us: a specialist in political philosophy to explain the successes and problems of the European Union; an English professor to examine the Rhine and Alps in Romantic literature, especially, the poetry of Shelley and Byron; and an art historian who introduced us to the arcane world of art forgery and preservation.
The German docents, however, were the ones stirred up my contrarian spirit. Their version of European history makes the Germans victims of the French, most notably the Sun King, Louis XIV, the bogeyman Napoleon, and the unrelenting punisher of World War I German aggression, Clemenceau. They ravaged the castles, burned official documents, and drove the nation into poverty. No one said it, nor implied it, but I could not help whispering to Barbara that I suspected the litany of centuries of abuse by the French might be an apology for the horror wreaked by the Nazis. I voiced my suspicion to the lecturer on the EU; and he, who has lived and studied among the Germans off and on throughout his seventy plus years, assured me that every German schoolchild is taken to a scene of the Shoah and told the brutal story of the German treatment of Jews. But the French as the aggressors? A new thought for me, an immigrant's child, who lived through World War II and saw in Movietone News and pictures in the paper what the Nazis did to the French, and everybody else who crossed them.
Barbara and I agree, that, for all the delights of sight-seeing, the chief pleasure was meeting fellow voyagers. Most conversations began with exchanges of origin, geographical and collegiate. Some meetings proved serendipitous. Barbara found herself one evening aboard ship sitting directly across the table from Jacque from Atherton CA. She looked familiar; and indeed she should have: she was Barbara's classmate in 1952 at Colby College. Jacque remembered BJ. At the first dinner on the Amadeus I asked Sharon from Minneapolis to tell her fellow worshiper in her home church, an Episcopalian one, that I thought he was the best preacher on radio; and she promised to tell Garrison Keillor this Methodist's appraisal. A couple of lawyers from Philadelphia studied at Dickinson University with two professors, now deceased, Amos and Roger, who once owned camps on our hill in Vermont. John, a graduate of Astoria High and the University of Chicago, commiserated with me mid-voyage after a surfeit of French cuisine, how good it would be to sink our teeth into hamburgers. Kate lives in Norwich VT and swims at Treasure Island at Lake Fairlee, where we too shall be with grandchildren in mid-August. Dan and Larry, like Bob, share long professional friendships with the Spiveys of Tallahassee.
If not serendipitous, still remarkable, Lee is the author of nearly fifty published books of science fiction. I was surprised to learn that the foursome from Grosse Pointe MI had no recollection of the John Cusack movie about a hit man returning home to that Detroit suburb. One of the three teenagers among us, a junior at New Trier High in Winnetka IL, eager to go to her grandfather's (Whizzer White '52) alma mater, would be, I told her, following in the footsteps of two Klein grandchildren, Rebecca and Nick Tyson, from the same high school. An audiologist explained to me why I kept asking "What?" when conversing in a noisy room.
We had plenty to talk about... in addition to the Rhine and Alps.
What we didn't talk about very much was the religion, or lack of it, throughout the corner of Europe we were exploring. Secularism is triumphant. Thursday, June 23rd, in Mannheim the streets and quays teemed with families on a holiday. But precisely what one I could not find a local with a clue. "Corpus Christi," a fellow traveler explained, the celebration of the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist. Churches (Catholic variety) were full of ornamentation and empty of people. On Sunday a folk dance in the plaza outside the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame attracted more attention than the mass. Chapels and crosses adorned the mountain landscape, more like decorations than signs of vibrant faith. Only in Lucerne did we hear the boast of a church (St. Peter's) filled to capacity four times every sabbath, along with the explanation pleasing to Critical Christian: good preaching and good music.
Pondering this development in the heart of the region which birthed my beloved Protestant Reformation, a provisional conclusion came to me, based on the two great commandments of Jesus (1. love God and 2. love neighbor). In Europe Christian values pervade the culture, written into the fabric of society. Jacques Maritain's Christian Socialism is reflexive in national policies. The obligation to love your neighbor as yourself has been institutionalized in health care and the safety net, with provisions unthinkable in the U. S. A. But understanding the source of this humane impulse (that is, the love of a God who expects us to be compassionate with each other) seems to have gotten lost, along with the institutions that nourish it. By contrast, in the U. S. A. the dominant religious impulse in the present moment, Protestant fundamentalism, obsessed with personal morality, in a passion to get everyone to love God, gives short shrift to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' ethic of self-giving. Having 1. without the other (2.), or as in Europe, 2. without 1., has consequences I'll not at this juncture bore you with... except to observe that either way (there or here) is a perversion of Biblical faith.
The lodgings and menus were luxurious; the sights, spectacular; the company, congenial; and the intellectual stimulation, adequate. Of course, it took two days at home for some of us to recover from the exertions of travel, especially that twenty hour sleepless plane flight. But we'll not likely wait another six years to travel again.