I’m racing past kilometer 554.
The simple black and white sign on the east flank of the river counts down to the end, to the river’s mouth where the mineral-rich mud and silt enter the North Sea. Another sign tells me what this famous rock-face landmark is.
There’s barely enough time at Loreley to detect the hint of a siren’s call, as the train marches to the next bucolic town. Though small in size, the town and its buildings seem to stand fast in a “group hug” of the river bank in a futile attempt to hold back the rush of the Rhine.
This feels like routine, a journey in western Germany which I’ve repeated many times over the last 15 years. With heavy heart, I’ve departed my adopted hometown of Heidelberg for the umpteenth time. I’m traveling north to meet with friends I haven’t seen in a couple of years.
The present journey on the InterCity (IC) train to Cologne is a slower yet scenic version along the west bank of the Rhine. When I close my eyes, the rhythm of the gentle rocking lulls me into a quiet gentle calm. That is, until a staff member walks into the car and in their most commanding voice asks for tickets as part of the fare inspection process.
“Zugestiegene Fahrgäste, Fahrschein bitte.” (Newly boarded passengers, tickets please.)
She examines my ticket, punches a metal stamp as imprint, and returns the ticket to me.
“Danke. Schönen Tag noch,” I reply, to an appreciative nod as she moves onto the next passenger.
The blue-and-white screens at the end of each car tell me all there is to know: what train I’m on, what the final destination for this train is, and what intermediary stops there are in between. How very German it is to provide tidy answers to a F.A.Q. on a screen. But the process of meditation and self-reflection continues, as the landscape flashes past in streaks and blurs.
What uncertainty that continues to plague me inside Canada all but disappears on an S-Bahn train, at a Deutsche Bahn train station, in front of a food stand, out in the open on a busy street. There’s solace in the knowing, despite the lack of personal space, despite the fact “Kundendienst” (customer service) tends to be an oxymoron, despite the lack of smiles or the constant staring. But I’m keyed in to the unspoken rhythm and pace that matches my own. I’m an outsider in both countries: a stranger in the massive land of birth, and a stranger in a compact land whose people I’ve come to know and love.
Every visit home to Germany is merging into a timeless morass, punctuated by specific memories of places. Often the memories themselves melt into one. The IC train stops in Mainz and Koblenz. But I was here a short six months ago, as guest of the state’s tourism board. Looking out to the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers, I stood at the famous Deutsches Eck (German Corner) in Koblenz. And then, I stood next to the original Deutsches Eck.
One town after another on the Rhine, the question continues on repeat: could I lose myself here?
The river gorge slowly unwinds. The narrow line of sight expands into a wide vista. The train picks up speed again. The blue screen proudly displays the speed topping out at 200 kilometres per hour. With every additional kilometre of endless green and yellow fields and small forests of massive wind turbines, an answer to the question begins to form.
“Ja, da kann ich mich verlieren.” (Yes, I can lose myself here.)
Before the train slows on approach to the “Domstadt” or Cathedral city of Cologne, a short snooze conjures a buried memory. Once a time ago, I’m in boots, stomping on river mud. Under the hot summer sun, I’m bored, a boy with his father, as Dad casts his fishing line on the banks of the Fraser River. Even in death, Dad speaks to me. He speaks of the tranquility of the river, of long wordless stretches of time, of birds and fish and his son for company.
The loud public-address announcement tugs me gently awake into alert.
“In wenigen Minuten erreichen wir Köln. Wir wünschen Ihnen eine gute Weiterreise.” (We’ll be in Cologne in a few minutes. We wish you a good onward journey.)
Change occurs all around, even if the rate of change varies with circumstance and location.
From my past dedicated to scientific research, to the present in the pursuit of art, ideas, words, and pictures.
From all I know as a citizen of Canada, to the ever-present feeling I’m more at home in Germany.
Out of the train, down the stairs, and I follow the signs marking “Dom/City.” I spill out onto the square in front of the train station, and the sight of the massive cathedral never gets old. I also get that familiar “Cologne thrill” because not only do I like this city, but some of my best friends live here. And what’s become standard here is I’ll be thinking, talking, breathing German for the next 4 days.
Home is where the heart is, and I suppose it could be worse, because it’d be tremendously easy to stay, and disappear for good. I also know that’s dangerous, because I’d lose myself, without a body to bury and without a mind to match.
I made the photos above on 24 May 2016 between Mainz and Köln. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-8uO.