My husband Gary and I took a 17-day Grand European River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest in July and August. Two friends of mine from high school will be making the same trip later this month. They’ll be traveling together with their husbands; all four of them have been friends since high school. Before Gary and I left, I was wishing I’d booked our trip for the same time. Wouldn’t it be fun to travel with old friends?
But traveling with a boatload of strangers offered an opportunity to meet new people.
Although we didn’t know anyone onboard at the start of the cruise, by the end of the first week, we’d made friends with Guy and Jeanene from Texas, Jan and Mark from California, Jim and Linda from Calgary, Jane and Brian from Massachusetts, and Paul and Harriette from Idaho, and had met dozens of other passengers from England to New Zealand.
Making new friends in your 60s or 70s is different from making friends when you’re younger. On a vacation cruise with people you might never see again, there is no pressure to impress anyone. At dinner, we shared reviews of our entrees and desserts and even offered samples to one another. We commiserated about the record high temps Europe experienced while we were there (temps reached 105) and shared umbrellas as we celebrated the cloudburst that broke the heat wave and left us drenched but comfortably cool. We helped one another learn the names of crew members and shared interesting details about them: One waiter’s wife had just had a baby girl -- thousands of miles away. Another’s family was safe at home in the Philippines after a deadly 5.9 magnitude earthquake.
We found points on which to connect almost immediately -- sharing stories about our families, our travels, our jobs (for most of us -- jobs from which we’ve retired), our hobbies and interests. At first the conversations were pretty basic, but the more time we spent together, the more we found ourselves sharing joys and sorrows, trials and successes. We didn’t talk about politics or religion -- except from a historic perspective, but we did talk about history and culture. One night we formed a ’60s and ’70s music trivia team, and we couldn’t have had more fun if we’d won the competition. We spent only as much time talking about health issues as it took to celebrate the years of cancer-free life of several members of the group.
It was an unforgettable trip; we visited several places in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic; toured windmills, cathedrals, castles, and fortresses; and learned history on the spot. World history -- never my strong suit -- came to life in Cologne, Wurzburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, Vienna, Melk, Budapest, and Prague. We visited Zeppelin Field where Hitler had held his rallies and the Nuremberg Courthouse where the Nazi war crime trials were held.
From day to day our tour groups included various combinations of our new friends, and when we shared dinner afterward, we compared observations and recollections. Some had taken optional tours or had had a different tour guide who pointed out different details. Each day we visited historic locations, toured with knowledgeable guides, and conversed with other interested people to share experiences and observations. (If I’d had the opportunity to learn history this way back in high school, I’d have retained more information.)
Dinner conversations included Paul’s stories of his six weeks living in Prague, back when he worked with the Department of Agriculture; Guy and Jeanene’s stories about living in a motorhome and traveling from one church mission site to another; and Mark’s stories about “wrap parties” for movies like “Monsters, Inc.” (His wife made him a furry vest and tie to wear) and “Brave” (All the men wore kilts). He had worked for Pixar for 25 years. The lives of these new friends became a part of our travel experience, and we exchanged contact information before we said good-bye and headed home.
I won’t be surprised if Guy and Jeanene show up in Bemidji some day in their motorhome on their way to or from some months-long mission, and we won’t hesitate to look up Harriet and Paul the next time we go through Boise, Idaho. And when Jane from Massachusetts returns to her home state of Minnesota next summer for her 50th class reunion, I won’t be surprised if she calls and says, “Want to meet up somewhere?” And we will meet up, because I want to know how her son and daughter are doing. (Her daughter donated a kidney to her brother and developed some health issues herself afterward.)
We love traveling, but this was the first trip on which we developed lasting friendships along the way. These new friends, their stories, their families, and their lives became a part of our experience and are intricately interwoven into our memories of that unforgettable vacation.