July 2012. My first year of university was complete and I was spending three weeks away on my own. Whilst back home in England, thousands of tourists from all over the world were being welcomed into London for the Olympic Games, I was following various rivers up, down and across west Germany. On the way I would encounter scenes of romance that would both captivate and torment me.
Heidelberg is the epitome of ‘charming’. It’s a town bustling with activity but it still manages to retain an intimate, personal feel. During one afternoon there, the sweet sound of Spanish guitar distracted tourists from admiring the cuckoo clocks in shop windows, causing them to stop with ice cream in hand, in order to watch a juggling act. The guitarist watched the juggler carefully, corresponding his chords with his partner’s fluid movements. Wedding bells rang through the town as I began the ascent up the 300 steps to the famous Schloss. Newly married couples had their photo taken here, with its charismatic backdrop of the town and River Neckar. Even cloudy skies couldn’t dim the glow of this place.
In the evening the sun came out. After casting a proud glance over the coverage of the Olympic swimming from London in my hostel’s bar, I ventured outside for a walk. Everything smelled fresh after the late afternoon rain shower. Squelching sounds of trainers on the puddled path recurred as chatting couples jogged past. Upon reaching the central hub of town, the activity picked up: boys and girls flirted over a game of volleyball; children charged around the water fountain, shrieking wildly in their swimsuits; elderly men and women chatted on benches, walking sticks by their sides, as middle-aged couples walked past hand-in-hand. The sun dazzled off the surface of the River Neckar and enclosed the Schloss in a perfect bubble of radiance. Groups of swans gathered together under the bridge near the river bank, before gliding off together towards the glittering path laid by the sun on the water, its cheeky twinkle promising excitement. They joined a sole rower slowly oozing his way down the river, his oars making faint ripples in the peaceful water. Topless boys on mopeds rode over the bridge, beeping at girls in short shorts in a way that made one laugh rather than feel repulsed. There was an infectious energy in the town, playful and cute.
Warmth from the evening sun on my skin made me feel relaxed and animated at the same time. I felt glad to be alone just so I could watch all the different people doing their different things, wanting to absorb all the activity around me. The moped boys came round on another loop of the bridge, whistling and calling out to the giggling girls. Normally I would have ignored them or made a face; tonight if they had offered I would have jumped on the back and rode off with them around town. It was that kind of evening – the ones that make you wish it could be summer all year round, when the sun is out and it feels like anything could happen.
A day later I was in Mainz. On paper it’s pretty similar to Heidelberg – another river town that attracts plenty of tourists, runners and cyclists. But here I felt a completely different set of emotions altogether. An evening run took me through the Volkspark with its pretty flowerbeds and along the bank of the Rhine. Couples sat on the steps kissing, or snuggled up looking over the railings into the river. I crossed the Theodor-Heuss Bridge onto the other side, where the cosy couples continued. As my legs began to grow more weary, so did my patience. Suddenly it was no longer sweet and touching to see these scenes of affection. My shoulders were sagging as I reached the former Kaiserbrücke. Padlocks dotted the partition between the railway bridge, souvenirs left by travellers and etched with love notes – S.A ❤ T.H – and so on. I stopped to read over them pensively, wondering what the love story was behind each one. Cyclists would occasionally ride past, but there would be no interaction this evening. I turned to lean my elbows on the railing, chin in hands as I watched the sun go down wistfully. As it fell lower in the sky so did my mood, until I’d dropped into a lonely state of melancholy, the most alone I’d felt in a long time. My thoughts drifted off with the river current, and I felt sad.
We’ve maybe all been there once, experiencing that moment when you suddenly realise something about that person: that person whose perfectly-sculpted face with the dimpled smile had mesmerised you for so long, giving you butterflies every time you saw them, to the extent that there were times you couldn’t look them in the eye for fear of blushing; whose hot and cold behaviour was always excused by you out of desire to believe they felt the same way, telling yourself that you could help motivate them to become a better person; that person who you had waited on for so many months, only to be repeatedly disappointed; someone whose company could be so magical, and yet leave behind a curse of confused questions. Finally there comes a time when you realise that you were completely deluded out of desperation, and they never really had felt the same way ever. Your feelings had been governed by a vision rather than by reality. You realise how humiliatingly and obviously un-reciprocal the whole affair was. Then you think of the people in the past who actually did care, whose friendship you had possibly sacrificed because of your obsession with this other person who was so emotionally unavailable. And now, that loyal friend was perhaps no longer available either, just when you would have truly cherished their company.
I stood gazing down into the water lost in my thoughts. Suddenly a lone swan glided out from underneath the bridge, as if it had been left by its friends back in Heidelberg and come wandering upland on its own. It was a pitiful scene – a bit like those drippy ones in American films where the guy/girl has just been left by their loved one and everyone seems to ‘have someone’ apart from them. I wanted to laugh and cry at the fact that my state of being was essentially being portrayed by a swan. Any minute now someone would probably come up and implore me not to jump. I decided to leave before things got too ridiculous…
The next morning I felt completely fine again, as if I’d been spring-cleaned of some dusty, lingering substance by an emotion that had arisen purely from the environment around me. A long-awaited cleansing. Funny how two similar places can arouse completely different emotions in someone, with no apparent warning. Rivers are continuously flowing and changing direction, just like romance. It’s the extreme emotions on either side of the water that people look for, or run away from. People cross the bridges over rivers in search of a new direction to follow, or to return back to something out of need. The river below contains the memories that people try to ignore or forget about, because of the uncertainty that they create. When you’re alone and stop halfway over the bridge and look down, you might find that they come back to you unexpectedly. There and then can you finally confront the feelings that you’ve been repressing. And after you do, the current of life will carry on as normal. It will possibly be one of the most valuable experiences of loneliness and sombreness that you’ve ever felt.