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What a perfect place to rekindle friendship bonds. Three weeks might seem like a long time to spend with a friend I have not seen in more than thirty years, but not for me. I could not wait to embark with her on a European sojourn, to see places of our childhood and catch up with our new lives on the opposite sides of the world.
Upon arriving in Paris I was looking for her curvy figure and a long brown hair and there she was, looking still the same. Karolina embraced me and picking my small suitcase rushed me out of the busy airport.
“No time for jet leg when there are only two days to show you my city of love and lights,” she winked at me from the front seat of the taxi.
Soon we entered the breezy boulevards of ornate buildings, erected centuries ago as legacies to kings and emperors. The taxi stopped in front of one of them and Karolina happily opened the old wooden door and led me up a narrow staircase: “Come on, our tiny appartment is one on the top under the roof.”
Karolina married few years back a Frenchman and she used him as a model for many paintings I saw hanged all around the flat. She led me to the back where was her atelier changed to a guest room.
“Do you recognize this painting?” She handed me a small watercolour after she put down my suitcase.
I nodded and touched gently the sitting figure in front of river Volga. It was picture of me from our university years in Russia.
“I thought you don’t want us to talk about Russia,” I whispered cautiously fully aware of the painful memories this place evoked in both of us.
There was silence. I looked around the room and realized that many pictures on the walls painted only recently described our Russian experience. Evocative pictures in dark colours full of shadows and empty spaces.
“I want you to have this picture,” she pointed to the watercolour in my hands. When I protested she just chucked it in my suitcase: “No more talk about Russia, just one last question, have you written about our experience like you promised?”
“Not yet, Karolina, I have started to write little bit about what happened before, can not find the right words, I guess, but I am going to, I promise.”
She nodded and turned to the window where the views over Paris took my breath away: “What a perfect place you find yourself to live in, I am so happy for you Karolina, all your troubles are over, you are a famous artist now.” I hugged her tightly and wiped the tears rolling slowly down her cheeks.
Next morning Karolina took me to her favourite cafe, where the proprietor happily conversed with me in my recently refreshed high-school French. Karolina just laughed and translated my mispronounced words to him in a perfect French.
“Just wait, when you come over to Australia I will laugh at your English,” I pretended to be angry while tasting delicious crossaints.
Then we strolled the quaint artistic streets of Montmartre and went to see the famous the Arc de Triomphe. The following day I begged Karolina to take me to the Louvre and the last night we spent on the Eiffel Tower, where the laser lights and views were absolutely magical. We never mentioned ‘Russia’ ever again.
As we travelled north by coach to Amsterdam, observing the enormous modern wind farm propellers dwarfing rustic willage church spires and the bullet train flying through verdant fields where cows have grazed for hundreds of years, Karolina took out her drawing pad and a pencil.
Seeing it I started to laugh: “This is how I always remembered you, drawing everything and all the time..”
She smiled: “I guess we never really change, just wanted to visualise the landscape of those great battles of the past.”
“My grandfather used to fight somewhere here in the World War 1, but it looked different back then.” I nodded solemnly.
We arrived in the evening and straight away took to the red light district’s maze of narrow cobblestoned streets and canals mingling with hundreds of raucously intoxicated Brits spilling from bars and coffee shops.
“ They are so tolerant here of drugs and gay marriage, so different to the Communists we grew up with,” Karolina exclaimed enthusiastically: “ And patient, even the constant battle against the sea is handled calmly and patiently, do you remember Chernobyl, those people…”
“No more Russia, Karolina,” I took her hand in mine and she stopped.
“Can you explain to me, why Dutch call these shops ‘coffee shops’ when they don’t sell coffee?” I asked quickly to change subject.
The next day we cruised out of Amsterdam on our ‘Amadeus’. The everyday sights of a family picnicking next to their family bicycle, a fisherman’s net stretching into the still water and the signs indicating distance from the Rhine’s source ended up in Karolina’s drawings. She found herself the comfortable spot near one of the full-length window and the passengers passing by stopped for a peek and a chat.
“Did you know that ninety per cent of the 122 on board have not been to Europe and none has seen it from this viewpoint,” shared one of the passengers with Karolina.
Karolina shook her head in disbelief: “My husband’s family comes from Cologne we are passing now, you see these settlements along the Rhine date back to Roman and Celtic times.”
The eyeballs of fellow passengers were like ping-pong balls as they viewed the towering castles of medieval villages on both sides of the river.
“They were constructed during the 11th, 12the and 13th centuries to protect the monasteries, many of them were plundered and destroyed by the French armies of Louis XIV.” Karolina explained while cleverly drawing one of the castles.
“But this castle looks like new,” protested one of the passenger.
“It has been lovingly restored and maintained by the German people over the past 200 years, now being used as a hotel.” I chipped in to save Karolina’s reputation.
Karolina smiled at me gratefully and picked up her pencils and when the boat reached the bank we got off to explore the charming walled city of Rothenburg, perched high on the hill above the Tauber Valley.
“This is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities,” Karolina climbed up excitedly: “The citizens saved it from destruction by surrender to the Allies in 1945, I hope I manage to sketch it before we cruise away.”
But there was no time as we rushed to visit the former nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg. We looked around the immense proportions of the buildings and grounds and thought about our grand parents having lived through World War II. This was not history for us, not yet.
Later, our spirits were uplifted after meandering down the beautiful Danube Gorge and arriving at the impressive baroque Benedictine monastery of Weltenberg Abbey. Danube was the river of my childhood and it felt like coming home. The sense of awe filled us upon entering the ornately gilded church and then we tasted the dark beer which the monks have brewed since 1050. We just could not stop laughing, it was the first alcohol we both tasted in the age of five, after all, the beer is the national drink where we come from.
Nostalgia warmed our hearts when we visited the beautiful Austrian city of Salzburg, remembering many wintry young adults’ years spent there immersing ourselves in study of old painters.
The Danube’s Wachau Valley was littered with medieval castles on hilltops surrounded by grapevines and picturesque willages, but most of these castles were in ruins, never been rebuilt after the Ottoman Turks destroyed them. Suddenly, our adventurous spirit and childhood memories took over when we spied a ruined castle on the hilltop in the charming willage of Durnstein and climbed the treacherous path to the top. The magnificent view of the magical Danube river brought back many happy times spent on the castles’ ruins back in our homeland.
The last few days of our cruise tour we spent in the former eastern bloc cities of Bratislava and Prague. Bratislava was my birthplace and Prague Karolina’s. We had to admit that the sense of pride, humour and optimism of Slovaks and Czechs seemed to rise radiantly above the distasteful hangover of those dark dictatorial decades of communist rule we lived through.
In our last hours together we walked from the 1000-year-old Prague Castle to the Charles Bridge brimming with tourists, traders, musicians and painters.
“At least you know where your artistic talent comes from,” I pointed at hundreds of the local watercolours for sale.
“My mother was an artist,” She murmured.
“Really, I don’t remember your mother, just your dad, he used to pick us up in his truck on our way from uni…”
“They split up when I was young, dad moved back to Nitra with me, where he grew up and Mum stayed here, but I visited her every holiday for a while.”
We sat outside trendy restaurant near the river Vltava. Small boats moved over the tranquil waters and disturbed the reflection of castes and churches from above. Passers-by seemed more intent on the screens of their mobiles than enjoying the surroundings, while somebody at a nearby table was holding forth on the state of the European economy. Our conversation wandered down various paths, we were suddenly at ease talking about the weighty subjects of life and death. Karolina’s mother, who used to live just few streets away lost her battle with cancer a year ago.
“It’s funny how you can talk yourself out of being happy and just drift away from your family,” Karolina suddenly said: “After our return from Russia I was so depressed, and I think they have been ashamed of me ending up in mental hospital and all that.”
“No, they didn’t, I remember your dad visiting you there everyday, I was the one deserting you having my hands full with my first child and all…”
“You have been the one so strong and sensible, but I think having already a husband and a baby might help to forget more easily.”
I nodded and patted her hand: “Don’t be so harsh at yourself, you managed well, getting that art scholarship and moving to France and now, look at you…”
She smiled sadly: “Yes, I was happy to run away, but I loved my family and realized that you can have all the paraphernalia of modern life – tablets, mobile phones, whatever, but you still don’t connect with people if you don’t listen to them and share your life with them, and now they are gone.”
I looked at the watch and sighed: “I think it is time for me to go soon, I have just three hours to my flight.”
Karolina nodded and told me to follow her before she disappeared in the crowd of tourists. I had to hurry not to loose her in the narrow overcrowded streets. Finally I caught up with her in front of the medieval astronomical clock, more than 500 years old.
“Here we say good bye, our time is ticking away, you don’t have too much time,” she sqeezed my hand:
“Do not forget, our story has to be told.”