The air was black and the river was black and we sliced through it with a thin shush. It was one of the last nights of the cruise, and I’d taken my son up top. Basel to Amsterdam along the Rhine. The inky bulk of a dark old church eased by on the left, the struggle of a riverbank campfire on the right. Warm night wind rushed over us, startling after an afternoon of climate control. But then all of it was still startling: the ornate ship implausibly inhabited for a week, a floating bubble of tranquility and snacks, a blessed reprieve from everything going to hell more every day.
The bubble’s shape is what strikes you first. The River Empress is a giant bowling alley, much longer than a football field but scarcely wider than a tennis court. The stern holds the dining area, a swanky lounge fills the bow, and in between are a board-game room, a small gym, and three floors of passenger cabins. (My wife and I each took a kid in separate rooms. No additional children would be conceived in the making of this story.)
Pools, shuffleboard, kids’ clubs, talent shows: That’s ocean cruise stuff, I learned. Ours was a river cruise, the Love Boat’s boutiquey cousin. It was, to be frank about it, the fanciest thing we’d ever done. The lavish meals and the lavish between-meal meals and the way you never took out a wallet were fancy. The sincere kindness of the staff was fancy. The way you could help yourself to jars of candy in the lounge was fancy. Just walking down the halls—walk, kids, walk—was somehow fancy. Before the trip, when Uniworld mailed us our tickets in individual leather folders, we removed them periodically from my dresser to inspect like religious artifacts.
Everyone knows the standard critique of cruising: It’s not reality. Allow me to lay out one of its virtues, though: It’s not reality. I’m all for real life, but a little goes a long way. Our trip coincided with a period of heightened insanity at home—the improbable rise of our 45th president—and abroad. From Brexit to the growing refugee crisis to an explosion of authoritarian populism, Europe had lately taken on U.S.-level fear and loathing. A string of terror attacks had ratcheted up the unease. What all this had in common is that none of it took place on the River Empress.
Lake Toma, we explained to the kids on day one, sits high in the Swiss Alps in the middle of a nature reserve. This shimmering mountain lake in its improbable PBS documentary way spills down ravines and gullies to become one of Europe’s longest waterways. The Rhine wanders past terraced vineyards and through great gorges for nearly 800 miles, hitting six countries and dividing France and Germany before widening in a dramatic sweep to flow into the North Sea. The first two bridges over it were built by Caesar.
The way of the river cruiser is to learn truths like this and process them over veal roulade or a nice consommé. Then you sleep on high-thread-count sheets, and if you feel like watching a river, you draw the curtains for a private scrolling maritime vérité. In the morning, over an acre’s spread of breakfast, staff members glide by to ask with real curiosity how you slept, as though you could sleep any way but perfectly, even with the occasional kick to the groin from a preschooler.
I hadn’t known what to expect with regard to our fellow travelers, and into that pre-trip mental vacuum had stepped a shipful of imaginary Thurston Howell IIIs. OK, on board there was one guy with a comb-over cheesesplaining to his bored children—seriously guys, this is a nice Camembert. But he only highlighted the fact that everyone else seemed supremely friendly and normal, having done the friendly and normal thing of saving their money for a watery glimpse of Europe. We met a sweet widow and widower who’d met on a dating website for farmers. Another passenger, a hulking man who surely carried around refrigerators for a living, melted into a happy, fawning puddle whenever he saw my kids. If forced to come up with a cruiser stereotype, I’d say they’re either farmers or friendly giants.
Our boy child was the youngest soul on board. He underscored this fact with regular wails, whines, and face-down hallway freak-outs. His seven-year-old sister would watch with Zen-like detachment, then finally go bananas herself. A fellow passenger, struck by the horror of us simply trying to clothe the children for lunch, said something sympathetic about herding cats. I resisted pointing out that cat herders rarely have to pick up 35-pound cats, slick with sweat and heaving with mindless outrage, who then do this limp-leg thing when you’re trying to drag them into the extremely nice dining room, and then spill apple juice everywhere. Anyway, four years old might be the lower limit on when a human child should begin cruising; sort of depends on how much Valium the parents have on hand.
The centerpiece of a river cruise is the daily excursion, and on a bright, hot morning we found ourselves moored in Alsace, catching a bus from the port at Breisach for the objectively happy town of Colmar. The place is Hansel-and-Gretelishly cute, all winding canals and colorful timber-frame houses. Tourists arrive by the literal boatload, snapping selfies and picturing the superior life that surely unfurls if you move here. You’d sip gewürztraminer in your local café every afternoon. You’d ride a vintage Vespa to your oil painting class.
As we walked the old streets, our tour guide pointed out the problem with perfect places: People are always stealing them. King Louis XIII snatched this region from Sweden in the 17th century. Germany claimed it in 1871. The Treaty of Versailles returned it to France after World War I. The Nazis took it back. Five times in less than 100 years residents were forced to flip nationalities, changing their very identities or else facing the consequences.
To the kids I offered a G-rated version of this. Life was hard. That would become our routine in the days ahead: Sift history for exciting stories. Bowdlerize down to a simplistic, digestible nugget. Deliver to critical acclaim, in the form of the critics not pinching each other for four peaceful minutes.
I was attuned to how we talk about the world because the interpretation of reality had become bloody business. The night before we set out, a teenager boarded a train 100 miles northeast of us now, shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” and attacked five people with a knife and a hatchet. Soon after, there was another attack in Munich, then another in Reutlingen, then another in Ansbach. The continent, meanwhile, convulsed with waves of xenophobia. Sample copy from a government ad campaign in Hungary that summer: “Did you know that since the beginning of the migrant crisis, harassment toward women has steeply risen in Europe?” and “Did you know that the Paris attack was carried out by immigrants?”
I relay this grim stuff because it became our psychic backdrop. We’d come, at some level, for vacation Europe—the Europe of the Enlightenment, or Berlin in the ’20s, or Paris in the ’60s, one of those brief spurts of tolerance and amplitude of spirit that make you want to go off and see the world in the first place. We found something else, tried to reckon with it. What does it mean to travel at a time like this? Not just to travel but to do so in cloistered luxury? History that would’ve been merely interesting assumed a darker cast, everything seeming a cousin or a precursor to all that was going sideways now.
The cheerful Rhine upon which we devoured our daily waffles had been a locus of German nationalism in the 19th century. Before that, the Rhine had defined the northern edge of the Holy Roman Empire and its abundant horrors. The feudal lords of the Middle Ages would later erect Europe’s highest density of castles and fortresses along the Middle Rhine, edifices to contain their ghoulish armaments and petty dramas. Over three dozen castles perch, with a showy precariousness, above a 40-mile stretch of the river. Sure, the constant recreational lopping off of heads provides some fun visuals. But by the 10th tale of medieval depravity, you start to think, Humans are terrifying and full of fear and in general seem addicted to subjugating one another at every turn. As you think this, one of these humans, in a starched shirt and with a genuine smile for your absurd and squabbling little children, refills your glass. You feel several things at once.
But of course it’s complicated. Here in Colmar, where generations of puffed-up men systematically altered the local culture, the culture survived by mutating; both German and French would eventually be spoken over sauerkraut and tartes à l’oignon. Was this a happy story about people making the best of awful circumstances? A sad one about how awful the circumstances were in the first place? I didn’t have to decide. What I had to do was find our tour group before we missed the bus back to the ship. We caught the bus back to the ship. Of course we did.
We were cruisers, and only good things happen to cruisers.
Our shore excursions took us to parts of the Rhine we’d never have seen otherwise. In Rüdesheim we rode a cable car over terraced vineyards, climbed through a Boeing 747 that was balanced 65 feet in the air at the Technik Museum in Speyer. Back on the ship, a captain gave us a tour of the wheelhouse and spoke of the profound responsibility she feels piloting us trusting souls up the dark river late in the night. When I stared into the darkness myself, it had the effect of dissolving the particulars into a kind of platonic river. We were on Twain’s Mississippi, Conrad’s Congo.
Having apparently discussed cycling within earshot of the front desk, we arrived in the small city of Strasbourg to find two bikes with kid seats magically waiting for us across the gangway. For the next two hours we were a family values brochure. We pedaled happily along the grassy edge of a canal to the old center of town. Geese! At the Strasbourg Cathedral, we stared up at the thousands of Gothic details carved upon it over the centuries, a map of both the hope and the smallness of human history. The sun was out, every other block opened into a sprawling plaza, and the kids were getting along and even laughing. The girl started calling out all the cute French dogs she saw. The boy jumped into a fountain. “I got so wet I farted,” he declared.
It was the car horn that jerked me back. A slender young woman had just stepped out onto Rue de Leicester when a nearby driver blasted her with an epic and furious honk. Even after she stepped back on the curb, the driver leaned on the horn for three seconds. I stared. His eyes were full of a strange fury, and seemingly focused on the head scarf the woman wore. Of course I can’t swear this was Islamophobia. Maybe the dude was just garden-variety crazy. Maybe he had a thing about fabric. Either way, I was back in the real world, suddenly, the same one that cruise ships whisk you so nicely away from.
Increasingly, our whipsawing was becoming just another part of the cruise. At the cathedral we’d concocted a child-friendly explanation for the heartbreaking notes and candles we found arrayed toward the apse. The terror attack in Nice had been just a week earlier, a 19-ton cargo truck plowing through the Bastille Day crowds, killing 86. Outside, among the cheerful cafés and postcard racks, police paced with submachine guns. We perused the postcards. The world sloshes drunkenly between beautiful and horrific.
A cruiser, you can’t help noticing at times like this, is a detached and ahistorical being. Board the River Empress and you bypass all regional disputes, skirt all ethnic and racial tensions. You are your own micronation, plowing the neutral international waters of high-end tourism. Although the gloomy New York Times is available, instead you read the USA Times, the happy photocopied mini newspaper and organ of cruising disconnect assembled each day for River Empress passengers. There’s no need to reflect on cultural friction, because your only culture is slacks at dinner and Connect Four in the game room.
All the while, the ship pressed northward. Farther into the Lower Rhine the bright blue skies turned overcast, the swans gave way to seagulls, and the quaint little houses—well, I guess the little houses stayed pretty quaint. And then one morning they informed us we were arriving in Amsterdam.
At the appointed hour, a last-day-of-campish good-bye event was held in the lounge. We sat in a little booth and my children hugged the sweet staff members as they came around, actual tears shed on both sides. Even the cheesesplainer seemed humbled by the moment; he looked on non-explainingly as his children absorbed the termination of their fantasy existence. And then we were on the gangplank and then we were on land and that was that. No more watery buffer between us and the world. We were the world.
It’s a doozy, standing on your own feet. At a market in De Pijp, shopping for dinner ingredients that night, we found aisle after aisle of food in some kind of natural, unprepared state. For 15 minutes we staggered around, struggling to remember our pre-cruise life skills. I picked up a package of chicken, mystified. Finally we settled on spaghetti, managed to cook it in the little apartment we’d rented. God only knows what our new thread counts were.
Later, in bed, we read that a suitcase had exploded outside a refugee center near Nuremberg earlier. As I drifted off, images from our trip—the good-bye event, the jars of candy, the view from up top—mixed darkly with those of suitcase shards. I kept picturing an antique suitcase, for some reason.
Our kids fell asleep with none of that, of course. We kept reality at bay for them, as the cruise ship worked to do for us; we are their USA Times. There would be no shortage of Hard Truths About the World for them to learn in the years ahead. But sometimes you live in the world of the free candy because of those hard truths waiting on shore, for the simple reason that you can.