ÜSSEN, Germany — In September of last year, I found myself stranded on a nearly deserted island off the coast of Fiji in the South Pacific Ocean. I write “stranded, ” because work forced me to be there for five weeks, and I write “nearly deserted” because, though I was joined by over 50 coworkers, the island itself was nearly completely swathed in wild pineapple plants and lemon trees, lacking in civilization. Despite being surrounded by 50 people, with my friends and family over 5, 000 miles away, I sometimes felt lonelier than if I were actually alone.
Though I was in one of the Earth’s most remote places, every so often, a rickety, wooden longboat with a barely-functioning outboard motor would brave the dense, jagged coral reef surrounding our jungle-covered paradise and drop off a couple backpackers weighed down by filthy, overfilled bags and covered in coconut sunscreen. Lena — a 26-year-old German with wild brown hair who had spent the last year working as a school teacher in New Zealand after graduating from college in Würzburg, Germany — was the first backpacker to emerge from the desolate ocean.
“Thank God you’re here, ” I said, hijacking her diary-writing session one night. “I haven’t seen anyone but coworkers for weeks.” Fortunately, she didn’t seem (too) put off by my desperation; every afternoon afterward, during a break from my job, we’d swim together, as far out as felt safe, into the turquoise and aqua-striped waters of the South Pacific. The daily reprieve from the strange loneliness of being surrounded by coworkers helped keep me sane.
So, two months later, when my friend Rich loses his patience after he, his wife Wendy, and I become imprisoned in a mob of tourists at overcrowded Prague Castle on New Year’s Day, I know exactly who to call.
“I’m already tired of big cities, ” says Rich. “I don’t want to go to any more!”
“But I want to see lots and lots of castles, ” Wendy says.
“Well, my friend Lena lives in Würzburg, Germany, ” I say. “If, instead of going east to Budapest, we go west to Germany and drive along the Romantic Road, we’ll get to see small medieval towns, lots of castles, and Lena.” Before the trip, we discussed the Romantic Road, a 350-kilometer German highway route, first popular with American soldiers in post-war Germany, that links 27 medieval towns, beautiful countryside, and fairytale castles. But, during our marathon European road trip planning session, Rich never admitted to wanting to see only small towns, Wendy never demanded a trip full of castles, and I never insisted on visiting Lena. I marvel at how frustrating situations can force people to reveal their true desires.
“Lena! Remember me?! My friends and I are on our way to Würzburg tomorrow morning, ” I say on a Skype call with Lena at our Prague hotel. “Do you have time to join us on a road trip?”
“I don’t live in Würzburg anymore, ” Lena says. “I’m near Frankfurt.”
“Okay, but if you get on a train, can you meet us at the Würzburg train station at noon tomorrow?” I ask.
“Sure!” she says without hesitation. I’m a little surprised that she’s willing to drop everything and take a train across Germany to join our road trip with no advance notice, but she tells me that she’s procrastinating her search for a new apartment near a new, yet-to-start teaching job.
“Are you trying to delay becoming an adult?” I ask.
“Maybe, ” she admits.
“We leave for Würzburg at 9 AM tomorrow!” I announce to Rich and Wendy. “Small towns! Castles! A German girl!” They’re easily convinced.
Though it’s strange to see Lena wearing a winter coat in a German train station instead of a bikini in Fiji, it’s clear that she’s a perfect addition to our road trip group when the first thing she asks us is, “Are you guys hungry for German casseroles?” I know that I’ve been a little bit of a third-wheel on this trip up until now, but Rich and Wendy are good friends of mine; so, I’m surprised by how much I suddenly feel less lonely when Lena jumps into the backseat with me. After bowls of cheesy pasta at Restaurant Auflauf, we take a tour of the Würzburg Residence, a beautiful palace with an ornate main staircase and a fresco-covered dome.
“If you have ears, you must follow me!” exclaims our odd, middle-aged tour guide, who is a cartoon caricature of how an American might imagine a German tour guide. “It iz cold in zis room because of ze marble! If you are out of time, you must exit through that door!” Lena giggles. Apparently, peculiar, middle-aged German men are as strange to her as they are to us. My favorite Residence room is the White Hall, a sumptuous ballroom with walls covered in ornate white stucco designs and a mural of a dog that watches me no matter where I walk.
At sunset, the four of us begin walking up a hill toward Marienberg Fortress, a Baroque-style, red-roofed castle which sits high above Würzburg’s wine vineyards. Lena and I walk together through the lush vineyards, with Rich and Wendy walking a quarter-mile behind. Lena tells me how much she’s dreading having to find a new apartment to live in by herself. “I don’t know what it will be like to live alone, ” she says. “It’s a really stressful time, and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. But, I guess I have to be.” I sigh.
“I guess we keep getting older whether we like it or not, ” I say. “It’s annoying.”
When we reach the fortress, we walk through the stone entrance, below its prison tower, and out to the surrounding protective wall. In 1945, British bombers destroyed almost the entire city, but many of the historically important buildings were painstakingly rebuilt by the city’s unenlisted women. Of course, none of this is obvious now, as we look out at the night view of Würzburg’s dazzling lights illuminating the Main River. “See that hill over there with the phone tower?” Lena asks me mischievously as she points to a hill with the Würzburg Cathedral awash in golden light. “There’s a flying fox in a playground on it, and in university, we used to sneak up there at night to ride it.” Nearby, Rich and Wendy kiss.