A word from Father Rhine
I negotiate an evening off from the kids and skip off to an orgel konzert in Bonn’s Munster Basilica. It’s a strange experience for the uninitiated, sitting silently in this huge sacred space. But I’m not alone, there’s a hundred strangers all sat in pews in twos and threes all around me, all staring at the altar to listen to the organist playing away high above and behind us. Facing front there’s no performance to watch; just relics, icons and symbols of faith to contemplate.
The music fills every space in the basilica as the organist takes us on a musical Promenade in Provence. Powerful reverberations envelope me and resonate in my body. But the organ has a power beyond the physical, stirring a lifecycle of emotions; memories of christenings, weddings and funerals. In discordant tones I feel the wrath of God, while joyful pipes and sifflet summon joy, peace and hope of eternal life.
I sit transfixed for an hour, enjoying the space, the sound, the feelings, the contrast, the sweet smell of incense that hangs in the air. I imagine the organist is a wise, old virtuouso so am surprised to find a youngish imp appear to take a bow at the end of the performance. For a moment I see a little of myself in him; a younger self with my life before me. Is he the young man I could have been? Perhaps if I’d followed a musical path with focus and discipline I might have been as skilful and not just a play at home pianist.
My technical self
At the Deutches Museum of Technology in Bonn, I’m in my element. There are exhibits here as great as any work of art. Why are art and science seen as so different when the skill, attention, perseverance, ingeniuity and commitment to perfection needed to create an ion collider, mp3 compression algorithm or computer tomograph is surely as great as that for an artistic masterpiece?
While the kids enjoy the simple pleasure of button pushing I am fascinated by the stories and details of German inventiveness, research and development that lie behind so many of the things that shape our modern technologically dependent existence. I recognise so many things here; the racks of equipment, chunky switches, circuit boards and silicon chips, shiny metal, dirty solder, sub atomic particles. As a former engineer I know this place. It’s a kind of home for me. It is the man I was but am no more. Although when ever anything goes wrong I’m still always the one who’s asked to fix it. Once an engineer, always an engineer. A part of me yearns to be back in this world, to enjoy the satisfaction of complex problems, fixing things, making things work, understanding how the world works.
What have I become?
Sitting in McDonalds letting the kids enjoy a Happy Meal (or at least a happy toy), I stare out the window and gaze at a loaded bicycle and trailer passing. The rider struggles to balance the load and move it forward, negotiating inconsiderately placed street furniture. I laugh and go to point it out to the children. How ridiculous, pulling all that weight and a baby. Why would anyone want to do such a ridiculous thing, especially in a city? But in a moment I realise I am looking in the mirror laughing at myself. For this is the man I have become. At least for now.
Towards the end of our time on the Rhine, we visit Burg Rheinfels in St Goar, one of many castles and fortresses overlooking the Romantic Rhine. This one has dominated this stretch of river and St Goar below since mediaeval times. We climb up away from the riverside to visit it and from the castle ramparts get a whole new perspective on Father Rhine. We wander around crumbling dungeons, scramble in the dark through ancient tunnels and perform belly dances in her damp, candlelit cellar. The dank stone walls remind me of our 200 year old stone house back in England. As I run and play with the kids I wonder how I will age, what will it be like when they leave home, what will I do with myself then? Will I grow old gracefully, running round and having fun or become a wreck and ruin?
One river, many different characters
As you travel up the Rhine you come to see its many different characters, the different forms it takes on in different phases of its life, the differently textured landscape it passes through, the different uses it has, ways it looks, paths it carves. My journey up the Rhine and encounters along the way leave me wondering about my life journey. What will I become and how will my encounter with the Father Rhine shape me?