This was going to be a travel story.
And then the world changed.
Leafing through the pages of my journal, the varied memories of last summer’s self-directed tour through seven European countries jumped from the pages; vivid and distinct again, as if each event had happened this morning. The lines of often illegible scrawl and barely decipherable margin notes recalled unexpected places and chance encounters, impulsive decisions and missed turns. Between the lines lay recollections of laughter, of poignancy, of wonder, of life.
Before I left it, to be revived another day, a story had begun to form in my mind of picture-postcard towns and villages nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, of free classical concerts in the heart of Innsbruck and of the hushed, genteel tones of a Salzburg evening. Providing the starkest of contrasts to that serenity, my (relatively) sober recollection of the international drinking competition hosted each night by the bars that line the banks of the Slovenian capital’s Ljubljanica River felt as if it belonged to a different world.
A different time had been revealed among Rovinj’s labyrinthine maze of ancient passageways and from high up on the stone steps of Verona’s Roman amphitheatre. And in Zurich, amid the celebrations of a nation’s birthday, a young woman – born just across the lake and returning with a poignant splash into its waters – added a final exclamation point to the adventure.
Each day, our experiences of the journey – too numerous to capture in two paragraphs – had played out against the backdrop of a carefree humanity. Here, families strolled lazily along a riverbank; there, friends relaxed into their day drinking under the shade of a café’s colorful umbrella; everywhere, the sound of laughter was amplified by its common language. It was as if all of life was lived outside.
And then the world changed.
Now, looking up from my notes and out of a window into a locked down world, another story of last summer’s journey is replayed; not only for the experience itself, but also for the unexpected metaphor it provided.
It goes like this.
Before the steam bath heat of the day gripped the area, we had decided to rent a rowing boat and head out onto Slovenia’s Lake Bled; the picturesque church on the lake’s island being our obvious destination.
Now, I have spent enough hours sweating, straining (and going nowhere) on gym rowing machines that the endeavor was not something that caused even the slightest trepidation. My thoughts were exclusively filled with confident visions of a boat gliding smoothly and efficiently as it cut an arrow-straight, Olympic-quality line through the water. The distant murmur of appreciative applause coming from a gathering crowd on the lakeshore seemed all but inevitable.
I was about to discover, however, that a rowing boat is not a rowing machine – in much the same way as it is not a hang glider.
It started badly. Our vessel moved inelegantly and erratically away from the dock and into deeper waters, the oars scoffing at my attempts to control them. Once pointed in the general direction of the island – more from the fortuitous wake of other vessels than by any meaningful contributions on my part – I took the first meaningful stroke.
One oar skimmed over the surface of the water, spraying my wife and daughter with generous amounts of the lake’s content. The other oar dug so deep that the resistance almost ripped my left shoulder out of its socket. It was not the last time that happened.
Slowly, I began to move our boat forward. But rather than the direct and swift path I expected to blaze, we moved ahead as if we were trying to navigate a minefield. All the while, a growing air of mutinous exasperation was becoming apparent among my boat mates.
Eventually, I settled into something approaching a rhythm. The blades of the oars started to breach the water at equal depths and returned to prepare for the next stroke in a relatively efficient manner. The handles no longer scraped the skin off of my increasingly sunburnt knees with each pass.
Of course, every time I thought about the fact that I had found a rhythm, I started to think about what I was doing and the oars started flailing again – like the arms of a drowning man.
And then I thought about something else. I’m not sure why this didn’t occur to me until that moment.
I couldn’t see where we were going.
I was moving us forward, but I had my back to our destination and had to rely on my boat mates for direction. And, as they will attest, that has never been one of my strong suits.
Consequently, I couldn’t stop myself from occasionally looking over my shoulder to check our course – inevitably slowing our progress and increasing the volume of the discontented voices of impending mutiny.
And it was with that recollection, months later, that I saw my metaphor.
One man sat in a small rowing boat on a small European lake. Another gripped a lectern while the world watched. Neither was able to see where he was going, they had both minimized the scale and difficulty of the task ahead, exaggerated their abilities, and cast doubt on the expertise of the people who had a clear vision of the most direct path to the destination. It was a calamitous combination.
Compounding the problem, each would occasionally look over his shoulder, neglecting his role, unable to resist the impulse to try to influence events. Distracted, the power they had been wielding to propel their vessels forward now only skimmed the surface, slowing their progress, causing them to veer off course – and extending the time it would take to return safely to shore; to the solid and familiar ground of normal life.
It was only when the man in the rowing boat confronted the reality of the situation, when he acknowledged the limits of his capabilities and focused on his role, when he trusted the boat mates who could see the best way forward, that the boat began, finally, to cut smoothly through the water.
That same man sits at home now, part of a watching world, a new European adventure currently out of reach, hoping that the man gripping the lectern quickly arrives at the same conclusion.
14th April 2020
Due to a technical issue encountered when I first published this article, I had to republish it. I apologize for any duplicate notifications received as a result.