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Correction to This Article
The article about a son's cruise on the Elbe River with his parents incorrectly described the event that prompted the writer's father to be dispatched for military training in 1961. It was the construction of the Berlin Wall, not the Berlin airlift.
Spring and Summer Cruises

A barge cruise on the Elbe in Germany

The Post's Ned Martel shares sights from his two-week journey down Germany's Elbe River on the Katharina von Bora river barge.

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By Ned Martel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

If you know Baltimore, then you know my parents. Here's how they fit the Charm City paradigm: They met in the first grade at St. Bernardine Catholic School, walked down the aisle 17 years later and raised four kids in a close-knit cluster of kin and lifelong friends.

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My father, with an eye on the future, worked as a commercial and industrial real estate broker, while my mother looked to the past as a tour director with the Maryland Historical Society. In their retirement, they wanted to go to a place where they had never been, but one that had shaped their lives from afar: Germany.

This ailment or that surgery had slowed my father down, and last year, his 73rd, he gave up his Grady-White boat and announced a golden-anniversary wish: to take his bride down the Danube, letting someone else captain the ship. The ship his bride chose was the Katharina von Bora, a river barge operated by the Peter Deilmann line, and the course she chose was down the Elbe instead. (She's the daughter of a state politician and a judge, and a classmate of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, so she knows something about steering events her way.) I was deployed as their occasionally mutinous deckhand, tagging along for a two-week mid-May journey from Potsdam to Prague and ushering them to airport gates, ship docks and front desks.

* * *

Three days in Berlin was the starting point, and our package deal included a guided tour: an airless, joyless double-decker-bus ride that could turn anyone into a claustrophobe. But at least we came away with a sense of the city from the Reichstag to the Olympiastadion. I could see a reserve in my parents' faces when they saw that ominous stadium where Jesse Owens broke the sprinters' ribbon and the color barrier. The year of his feat -- 1936 -- was the year of their birth, and the World at War imagery loomed darkly over their Pleasantville-flagstone-rowhouse childhood. For decades, they have read three newspapers a day and know well how the world has changed; still, the sports arena built to reflect Nazi supremacy, even a venue now merrily populated with weekend roller-bladers, did not earn their automatic all-good approval.

We had heard how West Berlin's comforts are worth rediscovering after the past two decades of hype about East Berlin's punky edge. And locals love their KaDeWe, the mammoth century-old department store whose upper floors amount to an eye-popping smorgasbord of local delicacies, arrayed in a crowded showcase that reminded us of Baltimore's Lexington Market, only on a grander scale. There's also a winter garden seating level that we somehow navigated after examining lots of very white food: veal brats, runny cheeses, pickled herring. We plopped down at a booth for a belly-stretcher of a lunch -- Allo, cream sauce! -- that got our Augustus Gloop appetites going.

As we walked it off -- it seemed we were always walking off a meal in Berlin -- a bushy-tailed fox dashed out of the shrubs in the Tiergarten's leafy acreage and crossed our path not far from the gilded Victoria statue where I'd watched Barack Obama address a crowd of 200,000 the year before. My folks started unpacking memories of how Berlin had once been a dreaded place, and not only in their childhood.

In 1961, my parents were just getting started with a newborn daughter, a new mortgage and newlywed contentment. And then the Berlin airlift intervened. Because ROTC had paid his college tuition, Dad was called up and dispatched to North Augusta, S.C., for Army training. If a war broke out, he was told, he would be in the second wave of troops sent to the cut-up urban danger zone. My mother decamped to her folks' place, and while my dad was in marksmanship training, she sent a messenger to find him in a tent and let him know that she was pregnant. Bundle of joy No. 2, in what was otherwise their "very worst year."

Once Dad had completed his Army duty, he trained himself in real estate, and clearly Berlin has learned a few things about that particular enterprise. As we ambled from museum to museum, he marveled at all the development: Between the Unter der Linden and Checkpoint Charlie, in the former East Berlin, there's even a Bugatti dealership. Our package deal plopped us in a Marriott, which felt like an America-Uber-Alles choice, but it did face the Potsdamer Platz and some fascinating commemorative markers where the Wall had once stood. Every night we walked past a glass-and-steel wedge that housed Deutsche Bank, the German financial behemoth that snatched up Baltimore's old-world Alex. Brown investment bank years ago, which led to some reductions in our family lucre. "I think I paid for that," Dad said, walking past the tower.

* * *

A folksy accordionist greeted us in Potsdam, where we boarded the barge flotilla (only two, really, with a few dozen cabins in each). Potsdam is best known for the conference that drafted Berlin's occupation zones. We were given only a few moments before shoving off, and there's a little village of weekend cottages with sweet little rose gardens to admire -- look, a smiling gnome statue! But let's take it slow, I reminded myself. My parents and others like them choose these tours for the convenience: a single unpacking, an onboard doctor, borders crossed with ease. Eldercare meets opulence.

There was no one else my age on the cruise, which was fine by me: I felt a little like Steve Guttenberg in "Cocoon." Creature comforts were in abundance: The chefs were extremely talented, and somehow, though I had not eaten that much since the last time I traveled with my parents, I was always hungry for the next multi-course meal. Brats for breakfast! Pike and roe for starters, veal and root vegetables for the main. Strudel for dessert, with homemade cinnamon ice cream. Then, should the caloric catatonia subside, the server would foist an afternoon snack: Pilseners and pretzels! There was a cruise director dude who did a lot with the attention he commanded over the loudspeakers, offering witticisms just a notch too arch for needlepoint pillows: "After a good meal, you can forgive anyone, even your relatives!"


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