Make New Friends, But Keep The Old
file under SILVER and GOLD
I want to share my amazement at the way during the past month or so I have reconnected with dear friends in these supposed “foreign” lands.
Rendezvous is a French word but it has come into play several times already, for example, in St. Petersburg.
Before I even left the states, I had been trying to squeeze time for a lunch meeting in Richmond, Virginia, with my long-time writing mentor and friend, Wilford Kale. It just wasn’t happening because of work and travel preparations. I sent an email suggesting we wait until January; he replied that was okay, as he was busy planning a trip with a former school chum to Russia in late August.
“Why didn’t you say so?” I emailed back. “I’ll be in Russia in late August, too!”
So we set a day (Thursday) and a time (3 pm) and a place (the river-facing steps of St. Issac’s Cathedral) for our meeting. Sure enough, Wilford and Sig came down the broad sidewalk under the gold dome of St. Issac’s just before 3:15, having negotiated various subways and maps to find the spot. I had walked about 45 minutes from the ship’s berth along the River Neva. Grins, hugs, a bit of lunch, and then—just as if we were neighbors meeting down the block—we said our “see you later’s,” and went our separate ways.
And let’s not forget the completely random run-in with two Lifelong Learners less than an hour later: I was just catching my breath after descending the steps at St. Issac’s when I look up and see Courtney and Ellen. They appear completely natural to me, two Semester at Sea shipmates, out on the town. BUT… they traveled with me in Summer 2011, not Fall 2013.
“Oh, we’re just in Russia on vacation this month,” said the couple who divide their time between Tidewater Virginia and Florida (when not traveling down Russian rivers by barge.)
Two days later, still in St. Petersburg, I needed my cell phone and a wi-fi signal from an Asian café to locate Michelle. Michelle flew to St. Petersburg for a year of graduate school in international studies, arriving the same day the Explorer docked. Our Russian meet-up involved wrong turns, mis-identified Metro stops, and apologetic text messages. Though our miscommunications conspired to eat up two hours, we persisted, finally connecting to walk and talk for two more, sharing stories of St. Petersburg—Michelle from southern California, me from Virginia, united through serendipitous circumstance and her aunt, who I met first in the 8th grade in Ohio.
Fast forward to Germany where there was nothing random about meeting Helen and Niko in Fürth.
I had long wanted to visit Helen, born and raised in Charlottesville, but now married and living in Europe. Helen is both a close friend of my daughter, and daughter to my friends Bob and Sarah. A four and a half hour trip on a fast German train—sometimes at speeds over 200 kilomenters per hour—carried me to Nuremberg where Helen met me after her commute from the other direction after a work day in Munich. I didn’t leave a small carbon footprint that day, but we made up for it by walking everywhere together, she, Niko and I, during the next three days.
Next up: the Netherlands.
I hurriedly left the ship to catch yet another train after we docked in Antwerp. The reunion three hours later at the little train station in Putten with René and Irene was surreal. Seeing Janne and meeting her husband Jan for the first time was like time traveling, as Janne was but 14 when I lived with her family in 1972. This time I not only met her husband, but two grown sons and a daughter. And on the morning before I left, Janne realized that a woman who walked into the pro shop where she works might remember me as her American classmate from 40 years ago. It took us both a few moments to shake the dust out of our memory banks, but then Inge and I updated the connection with a photo.
A week later I was lunching with the third sibling from the Vrijdag family, Joke—or now Joni, her Anglicized name for her Irish friends and family ever since moving to Dublin. We had only a few hours for a visit, she was just back from a week in England watching eldest son Matt, a pro soccer player, compete with the Manchester Wolverines. Coffee and lunch was followed by sincere plans to reconnect again—this time sooner rather than later. Maybe in D.C. and Virginia.
In between Putten and Dublin was a real French rendezvous with Sandy Anderson.
Sandy is a Charlottesville neighbor who also lives in Paris half the year. She met me at Gare du Nord on my way back to the ship and we negotiated the short distance between two train stations via Metro to Gare St. Lazare, where together we traveled to LeHavre. We managed a blustery walk along the beach and cliffs of Etetrat the next morning before Sandy’s pre-arranged tour of the Explorer.
Oh. And I forgot to explain the just-in-the-nick of time meet-up in London with the Chapmans of Charlottesville on a Saturday morning in mid-August.
We planned in advance to travel together to Wales for the weekend before I boarded the ship. For me that involved a carefully timed car ride from Henley-on-Thames to Twyford, a train to Paddington Station, a walking detour to catch the Underground at Hammersmith & City, a short hop to Euston Station, and then furtive casting about the crowd for a known face. Luckily Martin and I made eye contact just minutes before our platform number was posted.
Later I enjoyed a play in London on my return from Wales with my host Trish and her good friend Annie who I knew from San Francisco in the late 1970s.
Add to the British connections I saw that first week—Trish’s children Julia and Eva; her brother Len; Maddy’s dad Jim; Jim’s other daughter Katie and her daughter Sophie; plus Williamsburg friends Ellen Chapman and her husband Elliot Jones—and I began to wonder if I had really left home at all.
When you throw in for good measure that Summer 2011 Semester at Sea voyagers Sal Moschella; Sarah Olson; Ian, Sean and Stella Davies-Vollum; Rita Enders, and Beth Helwig have been on board the Explorer for all or part of this trip, too, you can practically cue the theme song for the TV sitcom “Friends.” Along with a dozen or more Charlottesville and UVA acquaintances, like Judy McLeod and the Thorntons.
It’s all been a far cry from my first visit to Europe at age 18 when the only person I saw in an entire year who I had ever seen before was Stan Zabetakis, touring the continent by EuroRail pass, and coerced by my mother into coming to Putten to see me and bring her back a photograph as proof of my continuing existence.