04 September 2018

Stories of Rhine

 
Quaint German Town on the Rhine


The German flag flies over the Rhine

A typical scene on the Rhine with a castle on hilltop

The Rhine is one of the longest rivers in Europe. Though it flows through several countries, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany and Netherlands, it is best known as a German river. It has long been celebrated as a symbol of German nationalism. It flows through the economic heartland of Germany, through its southern and western parts and has on its banks several large industrial towns. Not the least of which is Cologne. The area in which the Rhine flows is hilly and holds significant natural resources. Being navigable for a majority of its course, a considerable amount of freight and passenger traffic passes through it.
I had the opportunity to take a river cruise on this vast might river recently. I travelled from Boppard to Saint Goar in the Saarbrucken area of Germany for over an hour on a large river cruise vessel. It had an open upper deck and soon it became crowded. I was fortunate to board it early so I managed to get a table with the prime viewing experience. Downstairs there was a small bar which served German beer, drinks, chocolates and biscuits. The vessel had tourists of all hues, Koreans, Chinese, Indians and Americans. It was interesting to notice all these different nationalities fit neatly into their often derided stereotypes. The Koreans were extrovert and tried to communicate in broken English. The nouveau riche Chinese was a bit subdued and kept to themselves. The Indians were busy getting prime seats for themselves and their families. However, it was the Americans who were the most boisterous. Speaking the loudest, and treating it as if they owned the place. Initially, I was cautious not to pander to my inherent biases and stereotyping of foreigners, but I realised some stereotypes are indeed true!
Among the numerous Americans, there was a large group and looked like an extended family of three generations. An elderly couple, with apparently two daughters and their partners and four or five grandchildren who ranged in ages from eight or ten years to teens. The elderly woman was most vocal, constantly trying to enthuse her daughters and grandchildren into the journey.
The wide river passed through low green hills on both the sides. There were railway tracks on either bank and one could see freight trains often running the lines. Being hilly, the train tracks passed through tunnels. Every few kilometres there were small towns on the edge of the hills with multicoloured rooftops and flag masts displaying usually the German flag and often others. I spotted a Sri Lankan flag and wondered how did it find its way here in a corner of Germany. The towns had large visible hotels. Occasionally one spotted a castle on the hilltops. Some were remarkably intact and others were dilapidated from age and possibly allied bombing in the second world war. This region of Rhineland being an industrial region was intensively bombed by the allies. A few scars from that time still remain in the form of buildings, tunnel entrances, fort walls and remnants of castles.
Meanwhile, the old woman, scion of the American family was keen to keep her children and grandchildren interested in the journey. She offered 10 Euros to the first kid who could spot a castle but they were interested in munching on her french fries, much to her consternation. Her daughters were unhappy with the German beers they had ordered and were coaxing their mother to finish it. Their partners smoked and chatted a safe distance away, happy to avoid the raucous mêlée caused by the grandma and kids. The woman's husband, an aged man with a large cowboy hat held a Nikon camera in his hand but was not shooting anything. It was the same camera that I had and he noticed this after a while. He walked up to me and asked me if I spoke English. "Of course!" I replied. "You are from India? I noticed we have the same camera!" I said, "Yes! Isn't it a good one?" He asked me about certain camera settings and when I was explaining to him I noticed he really was not interested in the camera settings. I realised, he had wanted to break away from his wife's constant chatter! Then he started his story and he was no less chatty than his wife! He told that he was visiting Germany for the fourth time, to meet his wife's relatives. She was German, and he had married her in 1963 as he was posted in Berlin as US Army Sergeant. He had met her in East Berlin and managed to get her past to West Berlin even as the wall was coming up. I was surprised that I could actually meet a person who had seen the Cold War and had been impacted by it! He had a tough time getting her American citizenship - took seven years. I looked at the lady - she was looking as American as they come, berating her grandson for munching on her french fries. As a US Army personnel, he had served in various parts of the world - Germany, Japan and Guam. "Vietnam?" I asked him. He said in a low voice, "Many trips from Okinawa to Saigon. But I never told this to my wife. She doesn't know it even now!" His son was a Colonel in the US Army, posted in Ramstein, the biggest US Army base in Europe and not far from where we were. But this trip they would not be able to meet. He started telling me his Okinawa stories but I was getting weary. So I started shooting pics of the scenery. But he wouldn't take the hint. So I said, just to needle him, "What's wrong with this Trump guy?" That unravelled a new layer of his rants. He was a Democrat supporter and his rambling against Trump went on and on. By the end of it, I seemed to have developed some sympathy for Trump! Soon, we were at the end of the cruise. The jetty at the destination was overlooked by a large prominent castle on a hill. The cruise journey left me more educated by the American view of the world than about the scenic views of Rhineland and Saarbrucken!

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