April 6, 2011

Two if by Sea

It was a late, sunny morning in October, and I was heading back into Düsseldorf from a doctor visit. On the train home, while making a list of chores, I missed my stop and ended up at the altstadt, the old quarter, where I found myself in a kiosk buying two large bottles of beer. Funny how that happens.

I wandered for a bit and wound up at this inlet canal about 100 yards from the Rhine. There were oversized stairs for sitting and watching folks pass by the boardwalk. The water wasn’t much to look at: Dark green with floating trash. Perhaps as a distraction, the city marooned an old ship right out in the middle. With bulging sides and a tall, wooden mast, it didn’t float so much as it slowly disintegrated.

Despite the nice weather, there weren’t a lot of folks out. There was a guy sitting 30 feet away from me, wearing a black jacket and sunglasses, the big kind that wrap around your eyes like a windshield. To passersby, we were just two Germans. “Slackers,” they might have whispered, “Couldn’t even wait till noon to crack a beer.” Of course, I never had that sort of problem when I lived in China. During my two years there, I didn’t need a tattoo across my forehead saying “Outsider.” What for?

Germany was different, though. I had the same pea coat and pale complexion as everyone else. “You blend in,” my wife said. And folks naturally thought I was German. That is, until I opened my mouth. How frustrating it must be to speak to someone, to reach out to a stranger, only to have them reply with “Uh…was?” The German word for what is our word for was, so basically I was asking them to repeat themselves, only louder. To save my hearing, my next bright idea was to inform people mid-sentence.

“—Let me stop you right there,” I’d say. I honestly thought they’d thank me with the breath they saved. Of course they usually just said “sorry” and walked away.

Two men appeared from behind the ship, navigating the harbor in a tiny row boat. They were wearing orange suits with electric blue strips along the shoulder. The rower sat in back as another man crouched at the bow, scouring the water with a ten-foot net. Their vessel meandered along, scooping up bottles and potato chip bags as they went, leaving a small wake in their trail. 

Like many city workers, these men were large; not fat exactly, but big boned. I suppose a lifetime of beer and bratwurst lunches will do that, but, like the great manatee, there was a grace to their glide -- something almost…romantic.

I wanted to ask them if they signed up for this duty, or if the job was assigned on a rotating basis. Did they get to choose partners, and if so, how do they determine who rows and who scoops? Basically, what I wanted to know was: How do people wind up doing what they’re doing?

At the time these questions seemed relevant, but it was only because I couldn’t actually ask them. Even if I had spoken German, I probably would have talked myself out of it. Oh, don’t bother them. It’s basic psychology: We want what we can’t have. For most people, sunning by the water with a beer isn’t a bad way to spend a weekday. And, oh, I am one of those people. I was lucky to be out there; however, I’d be lying if I said that, in the back of my mind, there wasn’t a small part of me that wanted to trade in my beer for a pair of oars.

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