Not long after we married, my husband and I visited Germany with another married couple. Although these were my husband’s friends before he met me, they were becoming my friends too. On our trip, we did things that I would not have done had I been on my own. But, then again, had I been on my own, I would not have left my small city with its comfortable shops and familiar streets. Our itinerary derived from a book my husband’s friends brought with them. One day, on a boat, I noticed another couple with the same book. They were pointing to the same cluster of rocks to which we were pointing and saying the same things about them. I acquiesced to the designs of the group even though I was tired of the castles and the dismal work camps. I wanted to avoid conflict with my new friends, and anyway I was fearful of getting lost and then of sounding stupid if I was to speak German to a German person.
On our last day, we had run out of things to do. The train ride to the small village known for its Christmas ornaments was too far. It would be midnight before we returned, and our flight left early the next day. We allowed ourselves to wander in the city where we had in fact spent little time. We walked past falafel shops and hookah cafes near our hotel. We crossed a busy street to get to the city center. We walked down a road made exclusively for pedestrians with clothing stores I recognized from my city and cathedrals that were ensconced in scaffolding and blue tarps. We saw the tidy residenzplatz and stopped in the yellow palace for several hours to admire the treasury and museum. Afterwards, we visited the neoclassical court garden and its temple, where an elderly man played his violin for coins. We continued walking to the large public park.
It was a hot, bright day in summer, and the curving path led us into the dense green trees where the temperature was markedly cooler. We discovered a slowly moving river. Its banks were round, and the water was deep and clear but very dark. There were large, smooth boulders at the edges of the water, as well as the mossy entangled roots of trees. For a long time, the four of us silently watched the water flow under a bridge. A river runs through my city too, and at times I ride my bike on the cement path that follows it. My city is almost always sunny, there are few trees, and the banks of the river are dry. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with the river in my city; it’s just different from this deep river that moves so slowly and quietly, its surface is like cold silk.
As a group, it seemed we had never been so quiet together. Then we heard people hollering and laughing. Their voices grew louder, until their bodies floated out from under the bridge where we stood. As a group, they swam to the banks of the river, and when they got out, perhaps chanting but certainly laughing, we could see that they were not wearing bathing suits but instead underwear that sagged and clung and in some cases was transparent. There were only seven or eight of them, but their voices and pale nudity filled the green forest even as the forest eventually enveloped them. It was funny how a group, even a small one, could contort convention so quickly and also how we could so easily adapt to the change.
“They’re drunk!” our friends laughed.
Then they persuaded my husband to jump in the river too. As he undressed, and our friends brought out their cameras, I walked along the peaty banks upstream of the bridge. I found a dark rock to sit on. To remain so long in the shadows and moist air after so much sweaty walking made me suddenly cold. I pulled my legs up to my chest and draped my skirt over them. When I thought of Germany, I thought of both rivers and the cool efficiency of modern kitchens. I had always wanted to be in a forest like this, near a river identical to this one.
As I sat, the palace came to mind. I had never been in such an expansive building. Or, rather, I had been in very large buildings, but there were always lots of people in them, and they were train stations. It was difficult to imagine a family or even an extended family occupying the banquet halls, chapels, and anitquarium. The living quarters of the palace, which were quite small and composed of both a sitting room and bed chamber, were more familiar. Yet the absence of corridors required one to enter each room to get from one place to the other, and this lack of privacy was strange. In truth, the palace was not a home, and the people who had once lived in it were not like normal people.
As I sat under the dark, wet trees, I thought about how my husband and I live in a small apartment. We have three rooms and two bathrooms. In one room, my husband sits at a desk that overlooks a tree and beyond the tree a parking lot. In the bedroom, I sit at a smaller desk that overlooks the same tree as well as a peach tree and our neighbor’s patio. On one side of my desk is a wall on which I have tacked postcards and photographs. On the windowsill there is an orchid and little stones and shells I’ve collected on our travels. In our separate rooms, we are diligent and quiet. We barely speak. Sometimes one of us will see the cat in the tree, and we tell the other because we think it’s funny. At lunch, we eat together in the kitchen whose walls we painted blue the summer we got married. We don’t have a garden, but we have many potted plants, and in summer we grow herbs on our porch. I crave other places, but I also feel homesick as soon as I get to a new country. It can feel like I belong nowhere.
J’Lyn Chapman’s chapbook, Bear Stories was published by Calamari Press; she recently curated the pedagogy-of-conversation chapbook The Form Our Curiosity Takes from Essay Press. She teaches in the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and edits the online poetics journal Something on Paper.