A good river cruise is very much like life: it’s the most beautiful of all experiences but it goes past quickly, almost without you noticing it, and it’s filled with strangers you meet and somehow love and then lose too quickly.
Last week I was in Amsterdam and then in Germany on Uniworld’s SS Antoinette, heading upstream on the 8-day Castles of the Rhine cruise. Each morning you wake up in another river town or city – Cologne, say, or the fortress town of Koblenz at the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel, or Strasbourg on the French side of the river with its great grey cathedral spire and cobbled streets where young lovers kiss in stone doorways underneath lampposts at in the purple evenings.
In Cologne I joined the walking tour through the old town, finishing up with Kolsch beer in the central brauhaus. You have personalised earpieces so that you can hear the tour guide without having to trail behind him like a duck after its mother, so I was wandering off by myself, staring at the stained glass windows in the cathedral and the golden reliquary containing the remains of the Three Wise Men who brought the first gifts to Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve.
But every time I looked back in the direction of the group, I noticed an elderly gentleman and an elderly lady, walking side by side, holding hands.
They were taking in the sights with great interest, pointing things out to each other and making small jokes and laughing, and sometimes they drifted away from the group and looked at something else that caught their interest, but they never seemed to let go of one another’s hand.
I watched them closely, and neither of them seemed frail or infirm or needing support or in any danger of becoming disoriented and wandering off in the wrong direction. They didn’t appear to be twins conjoined at the wrist. They just seemed to like holding each other’s hand.
I became slightly obsessed, following closely behind them and trying to overhear what they were saying, shadowing them down little alleyways and across the roads. Were their hands superglued together? No!
At one point, when they stopped to listen to the guide explain something outside the house where eu de cologne was first made, he let go of her hand for a few minutes and I watched him lightly stroke her back, running his fingers up and down her spine from the hollow to between the shoulder blades and back.
When we finished up in the brauhaus with glasses of crisp, cold, straw-coloured Kolsch, fresh as a summer breeze, I made sure I was sitting at a table with them. Their names were Drew and Dana, and they hailed from Lubbock, Texas. He was 78 years old and she had just turned 80, and they told me they were very much in love.
“And how long have you crazy kids been married?” I asked.
“Fifty-five years last month,” said Drew proudly. “It’s the second marriage for both of us, otherwise we’d be on 60 at least by now.”
“At least!” she agreed, and they looked at each other with the sorrow of two people still smarting about having wasted some time they might have spent together.
In Cologne the draught beer is served in very small glasses to stop your drink getting warm, and unless you tell the waiters to stop, they keep bringing fresh glasses to replace the ones you finish, which leads to strangers at a table quickly becoming firm friends.
“You want to know the secret to a good long marriage?” asked Drew. “Physical contact!”
“Ah, the handholding,” I said.
He leaned forward and winked. “Not just the hands!” he said. Dana giggled and slapped his thigh.
For the rest of the week I sought them out everywhere. At tea time in the lounge upstairs, or up on deck in the spring sunshine as we drifted through the Rhine Gorge with castles speckling the hills on either side, I sought them out and stood near them, sometimes chatting, sometimes only wanting to absorb some of their happiness and love.
They were so kind with each other, so gentle and adoring, so interested in the world and engaged with its beauty and variety. I’ve seldom met two people so happily alive. “Time goes fast,” Drew told me. “But there’s enough of it if you treat it right.”
One night after dinner I sat with them in the Leopard Bar on the upper deck. Over a fine whiskey Drew patted my shoulder and said, “Son, I just want you to know that we appreciate your spending time with us. It enriches our lives.”
I didn’t quite know what to say. I pretended to choke on something and took another sip of my whiskey. I loved Dana and Drew. I wanted to go home with them. I wanted them to adopt me.
Two days later we docked in Basel. It was the end of the cruise and we’d be disembarking in the morning. I didn’t want to think about getting off the boat. I saw Dana and Drew across the dining room at dinner and we waved and I should have gone over but I was feeling too blue.
I’d say goodbye at breakfast, I figured. I went to my room after dinner and glumly packed my bag, moping and feeling sorry for myself. I knew what Drew would say – that there was still time left and I wasn’t using it well – but sometimes knowing something isn’t the same as doing something about it.
The next morning I sought them out. I wanted to tell them how I felt about them, and exchange numbers and email and invite them to Cape Town. I wouldn’t have said quite these words, but I wanted to tell them that I love them. They weren’t at breakfast, or on the sun deck, or in the Orangerie. I searched around the boat. I went to their cabin.
‘They had an early flight,” said Andrea at the concierge’s desk. “They disembarked early this morning.”
I will never visit Lubbock, Texas. I will almost certainly never see Drew or Dana again, but I had them for a while, and I’ll never forget them. That’s what a cruise is like. That’s what life is.
Darrel Bristow Bovey travelled on the SS Antoinette as a guest of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter - Comments are open on this article if you'd like to chat to Darrel and share any similar experiences...
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