Monday, August 18, 2014

My Road Along the Danube

I’m not sure I had ever heard of the Danube River before I came here; certainly I had never remembered its’ name. I didn't know that it was wide and engulfing like the Mississippi I know so well, or I would be following it south through the heart of Europe and using it to piece together the history of this region.

From Regensburg, to Vienna, east to Bratislava, southeast still to Budapest and down to Belgrade, I’ve darted back and forth across this wide, brown river for a month, through what I found to be one of my favorite regions I’ve ever traveled through.

The Danube River's course
When I’m traveling I find myself always balancing the urge to really stay somewhere and get to know the place and people with the desire to see more and more cities, to hit the road again and check off the next place. Throughout Central Europe I’ve really only been skimming my hand along the surface of history and culture, stopping in the capital, going on the two and a half hour free walking tour, taking a photo of the most important buildings, soaking in an understanding of that place which I’m sure will muddle and be lost from my memory in a few months. But in the moment, while I’m in the city center, it adds the narrative I need to all the bells (from Catholic Cathedrals in the north, to Orthodox Cathedrals beginning in Belgrade and finally Mosques in Sofia), the ancient stonework, the buildings hugging cobblestones, strangely gaping with modern hair dressers and clothing stores.

I’m a storyteller, after all. None of this means anything to me without the story.

 The river in Regensburg, Germany
Each place I’ve been widens the context for the last and next country I’m stopping in. Like a patchwork where the cities hinge upon one another: beginning with stories of the Holy Roman Empire, which always holds hands and pulls you south to the the Hapsburgs, where you hear rumors of the Turks on borders, then come face to face with battlegrounds, the cities where they were held at bay, then the places the Ottomans occupied for hundreds of years. More recently, different stories of Communism sweep this land. I've been fascinated by the differing tones people use when speaking of the Russians and the different narratives of whether there was scarcity or surplus 40 years ago. Each country’s story of independence, of the many names and states they’ve lived under in the last century, make my head spin delightfully. 

Suddenly before Sofia, the river has cut east, along the Romanian border, to the Black Sea. Here the Greeks, the Slovaks and the Turks meet, and the story takes a new tune, which I will follow southwest into Greece, finally coming to Istanbul in a month.

Trains, buses, beers, wine, bridges, photo after photo only remarkable because of the folder I remember to put it in within my computer’s hard drive. Strange to think I spent so much time running my fingers over maps, planning and counting days and hours, trying to anticipate, give myself enough time between and around. And here I am.

In Budapest, Hungary
I’ve been thinking lately about how I feel, how many of the emotions and experiences I’m having are new but stable and joyful for me. It reminds me suddenly of one of my Papa’s favorite stories, from when I was about three years old and he was watching me dance around our living room in Clover Valley, round and round the coffee table on my stick pony. I was completely absorbed and delighted, always a child somewhere else, deep in imaging a different world.

“Katy,” my papa asked me that day. I stopped and looked at him. “Will I ever be as happy as you are?”

I didn’t even think for a moment. “No!” I said, with certainty and continued my skipping game.

I’ve asked myself lately if I’ll ever be as centered and happy in the particular way I’ve felt traveling along the Danube ever again. And that little girl says to me, just as seriously as before, “No! You won’t!”

Maybe it doesn’t really matter, though. Maybe different kinds of happiness are for different parts of our lives anyway and it’s better to love whatever happy we’ve got when it comes to us. To know and to open ourselves up to all the contours and corners of this life of ours, wherever we end up at any given time. I’ll be happy in a new way some other time, I know.

Looking across the Danube from Bratislava Castle
This Central European contentedness, it’s special, and I’m excited to have gotten it for the last month. 

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