In Bastogne now, Virginia made it her singular mission to eat a Belgian waffle in Belgium. I was jumpy and anxious and didn’t want to go traipsing around for waffles. I grumbled about it to Udo, who looked at me and said it would be all right, be patient. As we walked down the block, I was keeping a lid on it when I remembered my trip with Paul and Violette.
I directed our little group to the restaurant across the street from the tank where we’d eaten more than twenty years earlier. We settled around a table looking out on the street through a large, open window. We were nearly alone in the sprawling establishment. When the waiter came, we all ordered variations of waffles. We had little cups of dark, thick coffee that filled the air with wonderful aromas. Along with the coffee came fresh cream in little milk jugs. I sipped the coffee and thought things couldn’t be more perfect. Virginia ate with delight. “This is exactly what I dreamed of,” she said. Even Nick was impressed. “I wish we had waffles like this back home, dad,” he said. “You’re gonna to have to figure out how to make them.”
Back on the road, we drove along byways that flashed through my memory. When I’d lived in Germany the first time, Udo owned a small motorcycle. We made short excursions into the countryside around Trier for the most part. But several times, we drove into Luxemburg at Grevenmacher, directly west from Trier and toured around the duchy wherever our hearts fancied.
Once, we spent the afternoon rolling up and down the hilly countryside to Junglinster, a picturesque village dating to the late-Medieval period. We walked its tiny square and had coffee in a lonely restaurant before taking off on even narrower two-lane country roads to Altlinster, a village even smaller and older than Junglinster (Jung = young, Alt = old). That day, the sun shone through puffy clouds. The clean, clear air accentuated the hills and forest around us and made each vista a calendar picture. The wind felt cool but not so much we needed heavy jackets against it. Our sweaters and windbreakers did well enough.
I remember that trip and ones like it because we had no worries. My vineyard manager thought highly of my work, which guaranteed an income, no matter how meager. Udo worked his apprenticeship at the stained-glass-restoration firm and would continue until he became earned journeyman and then, two years later, meister. Our weekends were our own. No one told us what to do. We rode the motorcycle through lovely, almost precious landscapes and into fairy-tale villages—and almost all Luxemburgish villages come out of fairy tales. We spoke to no one unless we wanted to. Many times, we didn’t even speak to each other. Our company was enough.
We now drove into familiar territory. After Dasburg, we entered Germany through rough volcanic hills of the Eifel, where Udo and I, in former years, had driven the motorcycle randomly out of Trier, stopping here or there for coffee or to admire a vista. The Eifel is one of two remote, lightly populated ranges defining the two sides of the Mosel Valley. The Eifel sits to the northwest of the river and the Hunsrück (chicken’s back) to the southeast. Volcanic hills made the Eifel different in shape and feel from the more sedimentary Hunsrück. The campervan struggled to stay at a speed that other drivers would tolerate as we climbed over the hills and wound up the ravines and valleys. Sun shone full and the heat of the day pressed into the vehicle. Nick and Virginia lazed about the benches in the back reading and sleeping.
I’d traversed the Eifel numerous times with Ivo and Udo. When they stayed at home in Trier on the weekends, we found sometimes ourselves without much to do. So, we drove. I think, too, the spirit of adventure welled up in us. I was excited about anything new. Udo was exploring. Ivo knew the area because he’d lived in Koblenz his whole life. But with an American by his side, he discovered the hills again, reminding himself of the history and people as he explained them to me.
Ivo and I stopped one day atop a hill on a remote road in the Eifel. We looked out over open fields and steep, grassy inclines. Rain had passed. In my mind today, the scene shimmers under a dark sky opening in places, dropping rays of sun to the valleys below. On a rise about half mile distant stood an abandoned church, alone in the landscape. Ivo explained the village that once surrounded the church was destroyed in World War II. On the church’s slate roof, we could make out a light, almost indistinct square with a darker blocky cross in its center. Ivo said the Germans, and then the Americans, had used the church as a medical aid station. The cross and square, once red and white but now with their colors weathered away, indicated the use of the building to passing bombers and fighter planes overhead.
“Who knows,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders, “if either the Americans or Germans really used the abandoned church as a hospital or as a command post. You could never tell who was telling the truth. It was war, after all. Both sides did sneaky things.”
We stood on that hill a long time, contemplating the war from our own perspectives. My war came out of history books and movies praising American efforts against the Third Reich. His war came from relatives living on ground the war had shaken and from German history texts—the story of the defeated. Not having contact with many educated Germans, except for the men at the Saarstrasse, I had no idea what story of the war Germans read in their schools. I hadn’t seen the German movies or read German war encyclopedias like the American ones my father kept in the living room. In my German travels when I stayed in strangers’ houses, I’d seen black-and-white pictures of family veterans. What did Germans think about their veterans, the people who’d fought the war, transported the people to death and labor camps, and those who staffed the camps? In that moment, I realized the cultural distance between my friend and me.
I remember looking over at Ivo. He leaned up against his cheap car and took in the melancholy beauty of the scene before us. Our differences in upbringing, learning, and culture touched our friendship not at all. As human beings, we came together and found interesting commonalities. Ivo, Udo, Martin, and I all struggled. Each of us had small incomes, though Ivo, Martin, and Udo received some support from home. They’d taken me in and made their home mine. I could depend on them in times of need and want. They fed me. The past, our national pasts, mattered little, if at all. We lived in our moment and would for the next thirty years.
As I drove our campervan, I told Udo about my memories of the times he and I had traveled these roads together, about Ivo and me on long drives in the Eifel, the church, and the way that travels with him and Ivo made me feel. We sat back and looked out the window up at the sky. We were quiet for a long time. Depression threatened to subsume me. My thoughts turned darker but I realized how I had come to terms with my compatriots. I’d done well so far keeping my malady from my mates or, at least, I thought so. But for a moment at Vezelay, we had gone almost six days without disagreement or struggle between each other.
I just now talked to Udo over the phone about the past and how our trip to France reminded me of the way I used to see the world. “I remember most I saw it all with new eyes,” I said. “Our trip into France showed me I have those eyes still.”
“Of course, you do,” he said. “Think about what we talked about on that last night in Belgium. We’d spent six days in a world new to the both of us. Don’t you feel a little changed?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
“That waffle we had in Bastogne really made the difference, didn’t it?” he said.
“Yeah. It sure did.”