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Journey’s end

We’d been bumbling along two-lane French highways for almost six days. We’d been out to see things. We didn’t rush and run. But all that cross-county movement took its toll on Udo, Virginia, and Nick. They were as ready for a rest as I was to continue.

As we neared Koblenz, I imagined us taking the campervan we were in all over Europe. I’d never seen the other side of what used to be the Iron Curtain, and that world fascinated me. I could’ve driven all over Germany, visiting areas I’d already seen and many more that I hadn’t. But this was a family vacation, not a mad dash through Europe. Our purpose was to take in some new things and visit old friends. I had to admit, the long rip through the Burgundy, Champagne, and Lorraine would make lying around Ivo’s seem like a cool afternoon in a hammock.

After the journey into the heart of France, we woke in Ivo’s spare bedroom with nothing to do, and we did just that. A lull in an otherwise busy schedule always comes as a surprise. All travel seems to pass quickly, no matter how much waiting and sitting we do. The days dawn only to end before we know what’s happened. The time we spent with Josef and Marlies flew by. They kept our days filled and our minds moving. As soon as we woke, it seemed, the evening was upon us and we found ourselves around the coffee table in the living room. Artifacts from Marlies’ and Josef’s many foreign visitors surrounded us. Pictures of family, friends, and relatives hung on the walls. A fashionable Norwegian wood-burning stove sat cold in one corner. Shelves and cabinets set with pictures in frames lined one whole wall. We often sat talking by candlelight, and when we didn’t, the room’s warm lighting gave an extra layer of comfort to what were extraordinarily easy days.

Those evenings, we discussed what we were doing at home in Kansas City and how the years had passed. Marlies told us the gossip around Wawern and how she sometimes felt trapped in the little town. She loved the nearby cities. Konz and Trier appealed to her, and she traveled to them as often as she could. A day in the Troedelmarkt or walking through the pedestrian zones gave her satisfaction and relaxation she couldn’t find in the quiet of Wawern. On the other hand, after a life and career of managing other people, Josef contented himself in quieter pursuits. He found himself most happy at home, keeping his neat, productive garden, building and repairing things in his garage, or wandering around his orchard on the other side of town. Somehow, they overcame the innate tensions in the house and showed an affection for each other that I wanted for Virginia and me in our golden years.

The trip with Udo kept us moving. Each morning, we struck our tent, climbed in the car, and headed off through the French countryside to the next destination. We puttered along two-lane country roads at the speed of the campervan. We spent our nights relaxing in the tiny campgrounds where night fell with a hush. The time passed with hardly a breath.

Now, at Ivo’s, we had nothing to do and nowhere to go. I wrote and read all day, occasionally looking out at the broad sweep of orchard at the back of Ivo’s lawn. The clouds broke from time to time, and the scene shifted in light and color. The quiet was astounding. The smell of cut grass and flowers filled the air. Occasionally, one of the horses the orchard owner kept grazed by, slowly, like something out of a pre-impressionist landscape. Virginia sat close by, reading. Occasionally, she broke off to write a postcard or letter. Udo and Ivo read and talked at the table in the kitchen. Nick played with the hand-held video console he dragged with him everywhere. None of us made any demands on one another. Conversation came on its own and disappeared as quickly as it rose.

Toward afternoon, Ivo, who’d also been resting for most of the day, suggested we make the short drive to Hoehr-Grenzhausen to look around. I’d been there with Ivo and Andrea three years before, and little about the place had changed. The town sits on a steep hillside, and we walked along romantic and cobbled back alleys up toward the old kiln house. I’d seen the terrain before, but on second look, it was more interesting to me. I saw the town through two lenses, the one of memory and the one of new memories. Ivo pointed out the sites—artist studios, old architecture, and cobbled courtyards—to Virginia and Nick, much the way that he’d done for me. He took great delight in bantering back and forth with Nick, who posed hundreds of questions.

With my family and Udo next to me, I saw the town again much differently than before. Like most people, I enjoy going back to places I like or have seen in the past, particularly places I will rarely, if ever, see again. With Virginia and Nick at my side now, I saw the town through their experience, their expressions of awe and joy. Our visit to the artist shops demonstrated to them the processes of ceramic-making on the artisanal scale. Since Ivo knew a few of the artists, he procured us private tours of studios, where we watched artists throw their cups, pots, and vases. In each studio, the artists stacked their pieces on movable carts until they had enough to fire their kilns. One artist explained the fine art of porcelain. He held his pieces to a lamp and let the light play through the delicate surfaces.

The day had grown rainy and changeable. The dimness of the afternoon bled into the evening’s twilight, and we headed back toward Ivo’s mostly quiet and happy.

We needed to shop for the evening meal. We stepped into the brightly lit market. The store resembled an American market in shelving and display but little else. Cases of bottled mineral water stood in stacks. Since Virginia had heard or seen few of the brands in the market, she treated each one as a new discovery. I waited patiently behind her as she searched through the candy and chocolates, holding up every other one and saying, “Hey, look at this!” or “What does this say?” or “What do you do with this?” Nick fiddled with small packages of fruit spreads, cheese rounds, and chocolate treats.

In the end, we bought the potatoes, tomatoes, and bread. Once through the line, Udo, Ivo, and I dawdled at the front of the store near the extensive bakery there. We for waited Virginia long enough for each of us to read through the list of baked goods, which was considerable, twice. We thumbed through the store circulars, learned of the market specials, and went over the notices on the public bulletin board. There were some very nice concerts at public halls in town, we found. Bands with names like Joe’s Garage and Diaper Warrior played at local clubs. We read about art exhibitions we wouldn’t attend.

After Virginia bought everyone goodies and a few items to take home to Kansas City, we went back to Ivo’s. We puttered around the kitchen, letting things boil. We chopped vegetables and sliced bread, nibbled on apples and drank drinks we made from Ivo’s homemade fruit concentrates—normal, every-day things that we don’t celebrate until we remember them. Conversation with Ivo was easy, and his teacherly, masterful tone enlivened the evening.

After dinner, we climbed up to one of Ivo’s upper-story balconies, where we watched the immense fireworks displays of the annual “Rhein in Flammen.” The event takes place in conjunction with a large festival on the riverbank around the Deutsches Eck, the narrow peninsula where the Rhein and Mosel meet. The fireworks event started several decades ago as a show for tourist cruise ships that ply the river. The boats convoyed from one town to the other, one fireworks display to the next, so it seemed the river was in flames. We could see the fireworks over Ehrenbreitstein. They exploded straight across from us, giving us a feeling for how deep the Rhein Valley lay beneath us. The night was brisk and humid and the air clean and clear. For more than a half an hour, we watched the bombs burst, the rosettes flower, and the streamers stream. We thought it was a fitting prize for the end of a long, calm, quiet day.

Udo set up his bed on the comfortable couch underneath the windows in the living room. Nick slipped off to his room, an extra bedroom in the attic that at one time belonged to an apartment and where Ivo now kept his offices. I bedded down that night on the floor of Ivo’s extra room. Virginia fell asleep quickly in the single bed next to me. The night was inky black. The lights on the street in front of the house barely made an impression on the back yard, open to a rural landscape as it was.

I stared up into the dark and quiet for a while and then stepped out onto the balcony into the chill of the night. I listened to the silence for a long time and tried to imagine what impressions the trip was making on Nick. He was likely asleep in his roost with dreams of fireworks and fired porcelain. Throughout the trip so far, he’d ridden trains and flown in planes for the first time. He’d passed through countryside where Neanderthals and the great barbarian tribes had once wandered, and seen the villages and towns that descended from tribal strongholds and medieval fiefdoms. He’d wandered through buildings older than our country, and huge, ancient statues passed by our windows. Farmhouses and settlements dated to the medieval world. He’d seen castles and cathedrals. He’s watched cows graze under vast vineyards. He walked on streets first cobbled in the 1500s. And finally, he’d witnessed a magnificent fireworks display.

Everyone—Marlies, Josef, Ivo, Udo and Martin—had treated Nick as his own person, not some child that happened to tag along. Except for one morning when he decided to be the contrarian—playing his video game before he got out of bed, overeating candy, throwing a fit over food he’d never eaten before—Nick participated in every activity we undertook. In short, he’d been excited and easy to get along with. He observed everything closely. He realized, I think, that we don’t travel to Germany every week or year, and that it might be a long time before we’d do this again.


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