In Rhineland Love’s a Birch

I met up with Tom early one morning to hike up the hills behind Bad Honnef to check out the basalt formations and get a little air. Together we wandered the quiet residential streets passing the ancient water pump and turning into the forest for the steep climb. This was all part of Tom’s routine. When he wasn’t with his family or piloting some massive Airbus, he was centering his soul from the back of a paddleboard or pounding the trails behind his house.

We came along a road and there in front of a well-appointed home stood a birch tree festooned with bright ribbons. As I walked on getting more breathless from the grade, I looked. “It’s a Maibaum,” said Tom. I knew Maytrees to be somewhat larger and involved pines on top of poles that had horny German youth dance about with sprightly steps and billowing shirtsleeves. This was different. This tree leaned against the house and Tom explained that in the Rhine region suitors chopped a tree to prove their value as

Like prayer flags, these ribbons spread love to the winds

Like prayer flags, these ribbons spread love to the winds

I chopped this tree, dragged it over here, covered it in ribbons and all I get is dinner!?

I chopped this tree, dragged it over here, covered it in ribbons and all I get is dinner!?

hard-working men to girls they loved. “The government allows the trees to be cut in one place late at night and then they are delivered the next morning. Some girls get many. Some girls get none,” he told me. I found out later that spurned suitors must remove their trees. In Germany there is ample heartache for both genders.

Several days later I was spending time with friends Mike and Sebastian on the dock. I asked them to tell me more about this custom.  Sebastian laughed. “Yes, there are trees for love, but there is also a tree you give if you are angry.” He explained that in some cases those that have been treated cruelly by a partner might cut a tree and decorate it with messages of sorrow or bile. “It is then there in the morning for all to see,” he said.

I asked him, “Could you place a tree at an accountants or at the home of a government official? How about a nasty high school teacher or rip off car repair shop?”

I could see the light go on behind Sebastian’s eyes. “Why not,” he said. “There are more than enough birch trees for both lovers and haters.

Indeed, I thought, stumbling on a pun, “Yeah, I guess love’s a birch.”

Cold beers in hand, both Mike and Sebastian looked up at me and blinked. “With jokes like that you could get your own tree,” they said.

 

Djes

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Resting at her new berth in Bad Honnef. Close to the fridge and ready for a beer.

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View from the park and path as I walked away leaving her wait for my return.

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The docks and town of Bad Honnef. Where bad means good and good means Es ist Zeit für ein Bier.

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Shorn and shaven, voyager awaits his iron steed at Bad Honnef Hauptbahnhof. Back to the plant (and his beautiful Bev)

On a dock in the Rhine, a lovely little boat sits tied up waiting. She is not big, just 6.5 meters. She is not strong, just 23 Swedish horses strain under her hatch. She is not young with some 40 years since her last steel sheet was pounded in the Papendrecht scheepswerf.

This morning I closed the locked gate with its razor wire scarf and walked down the gangway to head to the hauptbahnhof for a train to Frankfurt and a flight back to civilization where love and clean socks waited. On the path I looked back at her as she floated easily in the safety of the inside passage. I had clothed her up in tarping like butcher’s wrap and prayed she would be Ok. She had earned her rest.

From the minute I laid eyes on her I knew she was the one. That afternoon in Rotterdam when I went to meet Peter and have a first look. Her engine was thundering under the bridge at her berth in the small boat yard when I arrived. I had no real experience with boats other than canoes but somehow Djes convinced me in those first few minutes. I trusted her. I knew Peter thought I was loose a few screws. I had not started the boat myself and had a hard time steering around in the canals. I suspect he thought I was an odd buyer. Then I told him why I wanted the boat and from his look I knew he was convinced. I told him Djes ticked all boxes. She was the right size to motor single-handed, her engine offered the right economy at two liters of fuel per hour. And, I added, I thought she was drop-dead gorgeous from her rope clad bow to her Papendrecht painted stern. When we docked I had already decided and sat with Peter to get the deal done. I had opened my heart and worked from a point of trust unlike the cynical guerrilla consumer I was back at home in Wolseley. At home a deal like this would involve many phone calls and negotiations and lots of late night pacing before a purchase was made. Here, sitting in the wheelhouse of tiny Djes, it was just a question of how much he would settle for and I wasn’t leaving till he said yes.

Djes is a comfortable boat. She is not big, but her cut and weight give her a stability found in larger craft. At night, she sits well in the water and gently bobs in a way that is like being rocked to sleep. Her cabin is fully insulated between the steel exterior and the wood inside and so even the coldest nights she held the warmth of the two-burner stove till I could get into the sleeping bags. Then, she held the cold so I could leave chicken, coffee milk and other typically refrigerated items near a window to stay nice and chilly till the next day.

Along the way, her uncommon appearance earned me attention and found me friends in every place I moored. Children would pull mother’s sleeves and point to Djes, “Aussehen Mama, ein Mini-Yacht.„

Men would park cars and come down to the rail to have a look and chat about the boat and tell me about fishing the Waal or making way in hard waters. Djes took the compliments with characteristic reserve. After all she is Dutch.

When I ventured out onto unsteady currents and had Netherland’s finest pull me over in their huge bumble bee police power tugs, it was the fact that I was a quiet man in a Dutch boat on Dutch waters that allowed them to let me continue. I could see they loved Djes too. Her lines and the vision of her was a page from their past that they did not want to let go. In Nijmegen the officer in charge of getting me to port came aboard to look and gently ran his hands along her wainscoting and curved roof. Nothing was said but we enjoyed the few minutes and we shared an understanding.

Now in Germany it is a land where the power of the economy clouds vision. Boats here are fiberglass monsters with massive twin screws and powerful benzene fueled engines. Requests to obtain assistance to help Djes go to ears made deaf with too much dough. Certainly this is not everyone, but the mechanics, boat dealers and repair types can’t understand why I would waste my time with a boat like this when I could be in a Princess 47 or a Bayliner. So, Djes waits at dock till I can muster the necessary personnel to get wrenches moving on her broken prop shaft and reverse gear. I have not just hope, but a firm belief that the solution can be found. Indeed, the combination of Canadian determination, Dutch boat building skill and German mechanical know-how will eventually see Djes well again.

For now she is resting quietly in one of the world’s most beautiful settings. Castle clad hilltops look down to the Rhine and the docks at Bad Honnef and the little Dutch boat that pushes back and forth on her lines while she patiently waits for her master’s hand to return.

Flammen, always flammen

A lot of things went through my mind when I considered Rhein en Flammen, the annual five date spectacle that takes place along the river between Koblenz (The largest of the five takes place in August) and Bonn (first weekend in May). I had been told that all the stops were removed for this event. Expect up to 200 illuminated boats, fireworks, and music, lots of beer and güt times. I was ready and I was not disappointed.

In my mind I had a vision of some tribal get down with fire lit icons and people singing their ancient songs as connection to the rites of May. My mind had me attending something akin to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will where leather clad youth would be beating the daylights out of kettle drums and the town elders would appear on a massive dais. What I actually discovered was an event very similar to Canada Day festivities at Winnipeg’s The Forks except here the fireworks go off to salute passing boats that are all decked out in their finest light bulbs.

The party itself is held on Grafenwerth, the island on the port side of the river at Bad Honnef that is home to a thermal spa and other attractions. People start filling up the grass lawns early and the music starts mid afternoon. I rode Bike Too over from the boat to check out the scene. I found lots of families enjoying merry go rounds and kiddies’ bungee jumping. On the stage the act was working through a version of Black Magic Woman with a pretty tasty series of guitar licks. I decided to stay and listen. Next it was Born to be Wild followed by a long string of American classic oldies. I found myself wondering – Doesn’t Germany have its own classic rock? What about Nina or Kraftwerk – ‘on, on, on the Autobahn’. It was also very obvious that this music was for the old folks. It really hit home that the classic catalogue is to my generation what Lawrence Welk and Montevoni was to my grandparent’s group. Here it was being ladled out as well recognized middle of the road music that was safe for all ages. What would Pete Townsend think now that his generation is long of tooth? Wonder if he’s still hoping they all fade away?

One thing about Germany is that there is no gathering without beer. Mixed in with the kiddy rides are stands offering a wide array of weißbier, kölsch and pils. Many just brought their own in plastic cases that hold 20 – 500ml bottles. In fact, coming over the bridge I was struck by how many 20 to 25 year old guys were carrying these cases. I also noticed that girls don’t carry beer. Like the world over girls drink beer, but guys buy it, guys carry it and its guys that take back the empties. Among the 25-year-old males and females that were coming over the bridge most were well on their way to happyland. This left me wondering who was going to drink all this brew they were carrying in? Evidently, the revelers on Grafenwerth were up to the challenge and the next morning revealed not an empty bottle, discarded cup or beer cap with-in the confines of the 20 or so acres that comprises the site. German organization and preparedness had the entire event choreographed right down to late night garbage pick-up.

This efficiency is pervasive with-in the German social order with much in life administered and regulated. Consider the school system. At the end of Grade IV students are tested to determine their futures. Those that score well are placed on an upper track through the gymnasium that takes them into university and the range of professions. Those that may not do quite so well in the tests are marshaled off into trades and vocations. A third group gets the equivalent of a Grade IX education and goes to work on the lower rungs of the employment ladder. I have been told that once the die is cast it is virtually impossible to change tracks. If you are slated for trades at age nine, university is simply out of your grasp unless you wish to attend as a mature student and pay high costs. I have been told as well that later in life university learners are not as valued because of their previous academic standing. Everything goes back to Grade IV. I know if this had been my fate I would not even be qualified to study to become a rodeo clown or outhouse attendant.

This organization has earned Germany an enviable place among the world’s leading economies. While, the country is having a bit of a slowdown at the moment, it still enjoys an unemployment rate between three and five per cent, a rate most social scientists view as indicative of near full employment in a society. To fill those places at the very bottom, Germany is searching the world for temporary foreign workers much like Canada is doing. The flip side is that while Germany is not looking for immigration the temps they bring in tend to stay and find ways to claw up a living in towns and cities where they live in contrast to the closed tribal identity that is mainstream German society. Indeed, at Rhine en Flamen there were very, very few faces of visible minorities. In fact, not a hajib, not a sari, not a fez was visible among the thousands of people. Of the four times I cruised through the site I saw one man of colour and one woman with a headscarf bringing her little boy to the rides after dinner. How different from Canada’s cities where gatherings are a cultural checkerboard where kiosks sell Sri Lankan curry, beside Portuguese fish, beside Ukrainian perogies in addition to booths selling mainstream burnt beef and fries.

Certainly, one thing I will take away from Rhein en Flammen is how the German people are prepared to temporarily put aside their well-considered responsibilities and just enjoy life’s simple things. Already I have discovered that Sunday shopping laws are strongly supported and not just because this is a massively Christian country but also because they can see the value in a day dedicated to connecting with friends and family. Stores close early on Saturday and many open late on Monday. Simply, German efficiency allows its economy to speed along on fewer days open. This gives them an opportunity to go down to the river for a few beers and blow up some stuff every year in May and follow through with a wide range of festivals and holidays that make Germans among the most party hearty Europeans.

Lit boats glide past Djes

Lit boats glide past Djes. If only her little transmission was well enough for her to participate.

More rhine en flamen

Bam, kapow, boom. We’re really flammen, man!

Rhine en Famen

And then my gas tank blew. More flammen

On the dock with the folks

On the dock with the folks after a nice swim in the Rhine. I wish it was flammen, but felt 10 degrees

I love you, tree. I mean it

I love you tree. I mean it!
Love’s labour locks

The hills are alive with the sound of music

The hills are alive with the sound of Voy Boy. The wind in the trees, the birds in the air call his name

Tom paddles in

Paddlin’ Tom. Indicative of the German ability to work hard play hard. The river knows his name.

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The holy family with prices on their heads. On the run to a creche near you.

 

Prost!

Will Work for Kindnesses

Christian and Peter. Masters of the docks and general good guys

Under tow as Djes is assisted back to the barracks.

 

All trussed up with no place to go. Djes transmission in bondage. Gerry says it hurts to be kind

Boran and Enka – Good to the last drop.

Wolseley Voyager makes the connection between his elm clad homeland and the hills of Honnef. So far from Westminster yet so close.

Marcel Duchamp hung his rat here – the famed pissiors at the Rolandseck Hbf

How many Ferraris can you fit into a parking lot in Rolandseck? Three at a time evidently. They weren’t even well parked.

Master mechanic Gerry commanding the engine to behave in a mix of German and Swedish.

Preparing for a freezing ass drop into the Rhine to examine the prop and underside.
Mike Nelson never looked so good.

Found the problem. A massive jelly fish was holding the reverse gear. Peter says he has experience with these beasts and will assist.

One of life’s great questions asks whether man is inherently good, evil or neither? It’s a conundrum for sure. Even cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer might have be seen comforting a crying baby before tossing him onto a sizzling grill. Humans can be so complicated.

In the face of all the crazy scheiße that’s going down around the world with all haters hating I have been heartened greatly by the ease with which so many have offered genuine hospitality and personal kindnesses. As fun as it might seemingly appear to be an evil mastermind (bwahaha) I believe that at the basis of all of us is a shining gem of good that is our guidance. Unfortunate is that for many time and circumstance have worked to scar over the good and the way is lost. For others, and I like to think the vast majority, an act of kindness is the primary default option. We are wired to do good. Here on the river not a day has gone by without someone going well out of his or her way to work with us (the crew) and help us along. In fact, you could say that our tremendous need allows people the opportunity to do good things. We are like a big floating karma generator.

When I think of people like Hans in Dusseldorf who let me stay tied up to his house for four days I am amazed. Consider that our actions are often akin to having someone ring your doorbell long after dinner and say their car has died in front of your house and may they use your toilet, phone, shower, refrigerator and Internet. People like Hans say yes. Then they ask if they may also drive you to the grocery and hardware stores.

On my way to Bonn to use the Internet at Starbucks my German phone rang. Over the clatter of the SBahn a man was trying to tell me that Volvo had contacted him and he wanted to know what was wrong with the boat. He spoke only German. I told him as best I could that I would phone right back. I sped to the coffee shop and found a seat with a wall plug and got in line for a tall cappuccino. In line I asked four or five people if they spoke English and if so would they make a phone call for me. Everyone was too busy. The same was largely true among the 35 or so people sitting along windows and in the big reading chairs. Across the way from my seat, a young couple was deep in conversation. I figured they were about 20 years old. I approached them just as one was about to leave. I pitched. Boran said that yes he spoke English but was just leaving. No worries though, he would be happy to wait a bit and make the call. I dialed and he talked and wrote. Together we got an appointment for Monday with a mechanic 60 kilometers from the boat near Koblenz.

Boran took off his coat and sat back down. He said his appointment could wait and he would like to talk. He was with Enka and they were just finishing their university prep for Economics and welcomed a chance to speak English outside the classroom. He was originally from Turkey and she was Azerbaijani. I asked them what they thought about the future and did they have hope.

“Everything is so uncertain,” Enka told me. “I am not so sure this is a good time for family.”

Boran was a bit more upbeat. “We are studying economics and in our classes we are examining the need for different models where people share more evenly. I don’t think schools would think this way 20 years ago. There is change and I think it can be good if we make it so.”

Back at the boat Christian is working the dock. He comes after dinner or when he has a spare minute to fix things like the gangplank or keep his Carver 22 is showroom shape. Here at Wassersportverein Honnef his volunteer position would be similar to that of a board member at a Winnipeg Community Club. Christian is responsible for the motorboat end of things along the southern slips that are home to 35-foot to 45-foot fiberglass harbour cruisers that dwarf Djes. Christian is a funeral director who tells me he has to keep a constant hand on the business to keep its heart pumping. Competition is hard and the industry is changing fast. His grandfather started the business and Christian took up carpentry before getting involved. “No one gets measured for a coffin anymore. My grandfather would have come in with his tape and then gone back to the shop to make the box. Now people are looking at cardboard to save money,” he says, telling that’s its been hard to even take a vacation because it impacts the order book in his small but successful business. Christain is typical of many Germans in the middle class. He owns his own shop. In Germany more than 70 per cent of employment comes from small and medium-sized business called the Mittelstand. This middle ground has been a backbone of the country’s Juggernaut economic growth over the past 50 years and is today responsible fr more than $3 trillion in business. Yes, Germany is home to Krupp and Bayer, Mercedes and Thyssen, but it’s also home to and incredible array of independent manufacturing like Christian’s casket biz.

Christian has been yet another example of how people will step away from their day-to-day affairs to help if they can. Between funerals, Christian would come down to have a sandwich or maybe a beer on the dock. I would pop my head out of the cabin like some perky hamster in a pet treat ad and walk down the dock and join him while he ate. He would tell me about the morning’s funeral service. Today’s funeral was a sad affair with a lot of weeping and carrying on. As a funeral director you get used to it, he told me. I told him about the fight at my brother’s service where his ex-wife showed up at the ceremony against the wishes of the family and the current wife tried to through her out. Even in death he had girls fighting over his body.

“Nothing like that has ever happened. We would not have allowed her in.”

“You don’t know Carol,” I said back.

When the group on the dock saw the disgraceful bilge I had under the floorboards of the boat, they lent a hand. “The boat must be clean before the mechanic comes. He must not get his hands dirty or he will not want to do the job,” says Peter, a man who is a retired member of the Wasserpolizie. Funeral director Christian agreed. The three of us moved off the bench and I pulled up the floor on the boat. Peter goes to get an extension cord so I can operate the shop vac/bilge pump. He also brings a 20 ltr. Jerry can to store the bilge. He doesn’t say a word. Christian says he speaks no English, but I know he does and suspect he is fluent. He has the look of a quiet observer who likes to measure his responses before hand. Time and again he proves to be a stand up guy who helps out big time when it’s needed.

This day Christian and Peter sat on the bench and asked me how it was all going. I told them I was discouraged getting the boat fixed in Germany. Everyone had ducked the job. I told them I was sure I could get it fixed in Holland and was considering trailering the boat to Nijmegen or Arnhem. Peter nodded and walked away. He called Heinz.

It was no more than 15 minutes before Heinz’s Mercedes wagon pulled up dockside. Out of the car came a man happily enjoying his later-in-life years. He came over and discussed the matter with the German guys on the dock and then came over to have a look. He pulled out a cigarette and smoked as he watched the various lack of actions between the motor and transmission. “Turn it off,” he said. He walked back over to Christian and Peter and spoke to them. Christian said to me, “He knows a man who will come to look at it. He will call him.”

With-in two hours I was standing beside Gerry and the boat was being fixed.

I had thought the repair would be a simple matter for a skilled hand. Certainly, Gerry was able to do the repair, but the age of the engine, and the odd sized Swedish parts made life tough for him as he squeezed his 6’4’’ frame into the tiny engine compartment. Thursday was his day off. He had wanted to get the job done in the morning and spend the rest of the day with friends. Instead, he spent the afternoon muscling the pieces into shape so I could get on the river Friday.

The next morning the engine was fired and all the lines cleared away for a day’s running to Linz and beyond. I edged Djes out of the slip and into the stream for a bit of a test run. We moved easily up and down the harbour doing lazy ‘s’ turns and backing up. All seemed good to go and I made a final turn before heading onto the Rhine for the drive across to the starboard side. The speed of the current caught me off guard as I narrowly missed colliding with the swinging port channel buoy. I swung in behind a labouring barge and settled in for a long day with few kilometers. Across from me the sign proclaiming kilometer 642 stood unmoving. For an hour I had pleaded with Djes to give it a bit more and pass the sign. The best she could do was stay still in the current. I decided to cross the river and see if the current was less on the port side. I swung the wheel and began the quick ferry across. Unfortunately the current was even stronger on the port shore and Djes started to slip back and the engine began to struggle. I was smelling a lot of smoke and a look out the back door showed billows coming from under the rear hatches. I was fighting too hard to get back to harbour and at this moment Djes engine revved down and died leaving me unable to steer in the shipping channel with two ships coming hard. I wish I could say I was calm and relied on my training. As is my custom I immediately swung into hyper overdrive. I attempted to sound Djes horn – four long blasts to indicate I am unable to maneuver. The horn choked barely one toot. I ran along the side gangway to the bow to throw anchor. Peter had already laughed at my anchor telling me it was useless. Now with only five feet of chain in 20 meters of water, useless it was. I threw it anyway. I ran back to the wheelhouse and tried the engine again. It started. The smoke was clearing and I could see that it was coming from the rear most section of the prop shaft. There was oil everywhere. I attempted to loosen the rub but the shaft was simply too hot to handle even with gloves that caught fire while I handled the bolts and flange. The decision was made to beach the boat while I still had maneuverability. A spot was found and I was able to edge her over close to shore and jump out to tie her to a tree trunk. I climbed back in and stood on deck wondering what to do when I heard a whistle. It was Peter. He had been watching and was just a few feet away asking what happened. I told him. “I’ll get another boat to pull you back to harbour,” he said.

I went back to wait. An hour later Christian and his father as well as Peter were calling from the back of the Carver 22 for me to start the engine and come out where they could get me. It was here that I discovered my reverse gear had gone back home to Stockholm leaving me to use a barge pole for backing up. Unfortunately, the barge pole proved ineffective and I had to resort to plan ‘C’. I took off my shoes and rolled my pant legs. I jumped. I found myself waist deep in water. So much for rolling pant legs I thought. I pushed and as the boat caught current I tried to swing myself up onto the bow that was a good two feet above my head. The boat was getting farther and farther into the current and I was holding on to the front rails and being dragged. If only my dad could see me now. Finally, I pulled my sopping mass onto the deck and ran around to the cabin to get control and head over to Peter’s Carver cruiser where the three waited with coiled rope.

The pull back was un-eventful. Christian’s boat handled the action easily. He brought me up close to the docks. I was unhooked. I was able to slowly power into a berth. The question now was what to do with the broken sailor. I had time and I had options. One thing I have learned while voyaging is it’s never wrong to wait on a solution. Ok, some solutions like those that require fire extinguishers ask for quick work, but for many of life’s little conundrums a good night’s sleep or a few days thinking never hurt. Till I come up with a solution to this challenge we are tied up to a dock in Bad Honnef, Germany hoping that circumstances and human kindness will again come to the rescue.