Last week, while I was staying in Potsdam, an old friend drove six hours to spend three with me. He did this two weeks after a hip replacement operation and the day before he had to spend four hours in the car getting to his hip check-up appointment. He’s had some tragic adult setbacks: when the eldest of his three beautiful daughters was fourteen, his ex-wife whisked them off to another state, changed their surname to hers, and taught them to embrace right-wing politics, and to lose any attachment to their father. Martin has been marred by a palpable sense of sadness and loss ever since. I worried that something else had gone awry in his life because of his keenness to make a dull, six-hour drive to see me in the heat of a summer day.
I met him at Luisenplatz, site of Potsdam’s Brandenburg Gate, because it has an easy-to-find underground parking garage that always has plenty of spaces. I arrived at the restaurant—Chi Keng, a terrific Vietnamese restaurant, where I could sit in the shade and watch for his arrival. I spotted Martin across the plaza, advancing toward me slowly but without a visible limp. Shading his face was a broad-brimmed straw hat that reminded me of the one in which van Gogh is often pictured.
The moment I saw him, I rose, waved, stepped into the sun, and walked to greet him.
“I’m so happy to see you!” I exclaimed as we embraced. Before he had a chance to utter ‘me, too,’ I inquired, “is everything OK? Did something urgent prompt your visit?”
I thought about the loss of his daughters and several, recent, tragic mishaps within my circle of friends. These sorts of things occur sporadically but with increasing frequency and will undoubtedly continue, making one’s something-is-awry barometer ever more sensitive. That Martin had made an effort that, in my world, surpassed the norm, triggered my early warning system. I didn’t inquire via email, our usual means of communication, since I figured that if the reason he had wanted to see me could best have been accomplished remotely, that’s what he would have done.
“No, everything is more-or-less fine, I just wanted to see and spend time with you,” he explained. “Time and friendship are precious, and you never know when will be the last time that you’ll see someone. I don’t want to wish I’d done something after it’s too late.”
My shadow of worry vanished, and I glowed with the knowledge that pure love inspired his trip. Nothing more complicated than that. We dined and chatted. We felt carefree and happy. Our last meeting occurred when he and his wife stayed with me in Greifswald a half-year before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Europe, so we had a lot to catch up on. Martin had continued to teach Latin in a local high school in various iterations of presence and to enjoy the quiet life in his small village on the banks of the Elbe River. I spent the first part of the pandemic luxuriating in a tranquil, tourist-free Paris before resuming my usual peripatetic life.
After a delicious, refreshing, citrusy salad, we walked down the block, past a porch inspired by the Erechtheion’s famous Porch of the Maidens, to one of Sanssouci Park’s quieter entrances. We sat on a bench at the base of the terraced gardens by the stream that runs perpendicular to Friedrich the Great’s sun-colored palace, a place where he spent afternoons long ago chatting with Voltaire and C.P.E. Bach. Martin and I talked non-stop. The leafy trees provided welcome shade on that sweltering afternoon and the time passed too quickly. He wanted to avoid traffic jams and arrive home before dark. I walked Martin back to Luisenplatz, where we parted ways. We hugged, and he descended into the parking garage. I headed to the tram, since it felt far too warm to walk thirty minutes home, even if under the shade provided by the enormous trees lining the park’s walkways.
I felt tremendous gratitude for Martin’s friendship – a genuine loving friendship with no conditions. I reflected on my good fortune: the tram took me to chosen family with whom I have a similarly harmonious and non-transactional relationship.
Later in the week, I’d stay with Austrian friends in their home on the shores of Lake Constance. I have visited so many times over the decades that it, too, feels like home, and its inhabitants, like family; I and my friends have bequeathed our friendship to our children, who have known each other since childhood.
For me, the real joy of travel is less seeing marvelous sights, although I like that a lot, but rather spending time—sharing bits of my life and doing normal, everyday activities—with those whom I’ve chosen to inhabit my world. whom I hold close, who provide a sense of belonging, of community, of family.
Postscript: Martin died, unexpectedly, two days before his sixty-first birthday and three weeks after we met. I am profoundly saddened by the loss of this empathetic and wonderful friend, and shall honor his memory by renewing my commitment to make the most of the opportunities for connection that I’m gifted. As a scholar of Latin, carpe diem, was the motto by which he lived and it is mine, too. As Martin descended the steps to the Luisenplatz parking garage, I thought ‘we should have taken a selfie’. We had been too busy enjoying one another’s company. The thought of calling him back so we could flitted through my brain but I thought, ‘we’ll do that the next time’! I have no photos of Martin. Live and learn.