A sodden tree branch whaps me across the face when the fraulein ahead of me lets go of it as she steps onto the dock. I look up and catch the eye of my former roommate, Rosie. It’s summer break, and I thought it’d be fun to come home with her to Germany for a few weeks, but I’ve forgotten about the fun I’m supposed to be having. As it turns out, I’m a lousy traveler. The food, which was tasty and exotic when I sampled her German recipes at home, has turned into my worst nightmare. The Wiener Schnitzel we had for lunch yesterday gave me an awful case…well, never mind. The castles and the ancient churches we’ve seen have thrilled me, but the language barrier and the food-borne illnesses have made me irritable. Plus, I’m so homesick that I stood outside the American Embassy this morning and cried while I watched the flag being raised. Pathetic.
And now, here I am at the beautiful Rhine River. I should be ecstatic, but I’m not. It could be because Rosie’s Mom decided that an ordinary tourist cruise would be boring, so instead, she booked us on a disco river cruise. Yes, disco.
Rosie and I finally make it onto the boat just in time for the loud party to shift into high gear. It’s so packed that I imagine a headline on the news tomorrow “One Thousand Tourists Drown as Crowded Disco Boat Sinks in the Rhine.” An overweight man stumbles backward onto my foot; he’s already drunk.
Rosie and I fight our way to one of the tiny tables placed along the sides of the stuffy room. We sip our cokes while we watch the disco ball spin silvery slivers of light across the floor, the ceiling, and the gyrating dancers. I stare out the window at the famous Rhine. No one else is looking at the river. It’s black gleaming water slides past the pulsating party boat like a silent boa. My head hurts.
“I’m going topside,” I shout to Rosie. She arches her brows in question, but I shake my head. I need a moment alone to sulk.
The fresh air shocks my lungs back to life as I stumble my way across the top of the rolling boat to seats lining the rails. An American Marine greets me with a grin.
“Need some air?” he laughs.
“Yeah. Wow! I never realized how much Europeans smoke.”
“I’m Robert from Oklahoma,” he says as he puts out his hand to me.
“Abby from Ohio.”
“Hi, Abby-from-Ohio. Buckeye, huh?”
“Yep. Okie, huh?” We laugh at our feeble small talk.
A grand cathedral lit with white and red lights comes into view. Its stained glass windows glitter in the spotlights like colorful shards of Christmas candy.
“I love old churches,” I say quietly.
“They’re awesome, aren’t they?”
“So sturdy and steadfast. They remind me of the theologians and hymn writers of old.”
“Did he write hymns?” I ask in surprise.
“Uh-huh, many famous ones.”
I nod at this information. Robert looks at me curiously.
“You a Christian?” he asks.
“Me, too.” He smiles at me.
I feel a kinship with this brother in the Lord. We exchange salvation stories and talk fondly of our home churches. The cruise boat glides on, the distant noise of the party below drifting in and out of our hearing as we share our faith. Finding a Christian on this party boat is like a gift the Lord has given to my lonely homesick heart.
Another beautiful cathedral, its steeple shining in the night, appears on the shore. Suddenly Robert jumps up, and as we pass the gothic structure on the banks of the Rhine, he begins to sing, “A mighty fortress is our God…”* He looks down at my astonished face, eagerly gesturing for me to join him.
I laugh as I stand to face the ancient church, and we boldly sing the two verses we can remember. We sing hymn after hymn, our voices echoing across the water, until the boat finds the dock again.
I take Roberts’s hand in a warm clasp. “I’m glad God brought you here tonight. He knew my troubled spirit needed this fellowship.”
“Same here, Abby. Best disco cruise I’ve ever taken.”
“Keep in touch, OK?”
“OK” he replies with a grin.
Rosie and I find each other on shore.
“Who’s the smile for?” she asks.
“God” I laugh.
*A Mighty Fortress Is Our God words by Martin Luther 1527, music by Martin Luther 1529.
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