I hadn’t anticipated the stairs.
When I decided to take a trip with my father — who’s 75, has been a widower since his 40s, has diabetes and is waiting for a knee replacement — I knew that there would be things to take into account. But he’d taken on plenty himself on the many cross-continent road trips we’d done when my sister and I were typical pre-tablet, pre-onboard-entertainment pre-pubescents — whining, fighting, throwing up. He had, shall we say, some credit in the bank.
I booked a river cruise so that we could move without moving, see castles as they drifted past and be close enough to the shores of the Danube, which we followed from Budapest up to the tiny German village of Vilshofen, to look into their turret windows. My dad has always liked castles.
Everyone spoke English on the small ship, part of the AmaWaterways line that caters mostly to North Americans. The food was familiarish. They even had special slow-walking tours for the cities we stopped in. These tours were called “gentle,” and they were meant to alleviate the stress of thinking that you’re making everyone wait if you walk with a cane or need to rest every once in a while. It works well.
Until you get to the stairs.
Now, we’re not talking the Spanish Steps here. I was aware that big staircases were anathema, and we didn’t look at them twice. But I had no idea that even a two- or three-step rise, when encountered time after time in cities not built to be level, would cause such a problem.
So I spent a lot of my time blazing trails, asking my father to sit on a bench or lean against a wall while I scouted out our stepless routes. They were often roundabout, which is fine when you’re sightseeing, but they took a while to map. That left me feeling a little guilty every time I left my father behind, waiting for as much as half an hour. It occurs to me only now that we should have brought his Kindle along.
Thankfully, some things did occur to me.
The first was breaking up the long flight for him. I’m what you might call a good, bordering-on-imprudent flier, who thinks nothing of taking a four-day trip from New York to Doha to Kolkata and back again. I have, over the years, come to feel quite cozy in my seat, a staff at my beck and call with trolleys full of treats, fueling and punctuating my reading, writing or cloud-gazing.
Though my father used to be in the Canadian air force, he hasn’t flown much in the past few decades, and now he was going to be flying 5,500 miles to Budapest from the West Coast. In the course of trying to piece it out, I learned something. According to at least some airlines’ rules, to take a trip on a single ticket, instead of having to book separate and much more expensive trips, you have to complete your layover within 24 hours of your initial departure.
That made getting a night’s sleep in between, which is what I was gunning for, a little challenging. But with an unusually helpful Air Canada customer service agent, we were able to get my father a flight that left Victoria, British Columbia, at 10:40 a.m., got him into Toronto, where I was meeting him, by the afternoon, and had us both leaving at 10:40 the next morning. Twenty-four hours to the minute.
In the course of what turned out to be a 90-minute phone call with Air Canada, I mentioned my father’s knee. “Which knee is it?” the chatty rep asked, out of what I assumed was idle curiosity while we were waiting for this or that flight schedule to come up. I told him it was the left one, and he made sure that my father had a starboard aisle seat on every flight, so that he could stretch his bad leg.
This is something I wouldn’t have thought of but turned out to be so fundamentally important to my father’s ability to tough out this very long trip that I don’t think it would have worked without it. (I was impressed enough to want to make this public service announcement: If you ever need to book your Canadian parent’s travel, ask for John B., Air Canada employee number 07816.)
We’d break up the trip once more, after an hour in the Munich airport, with a quick flight to Berlin on discount airline Air Berlin (which cost me just $80 for both of us one-way) to give my father a chance to see the Brandenburg Gate — something he has wanted to see ever since he missed it while stationed in Germany in the 1960s — before heading off that evening to Budapest. I was hoping to split the difference between his need for rest and my budget for hotels, and the breaks between flights, added to the adrenaline of seeing new places, however briefly, made it work.
The double-decker buses helped, too.
We took our first one in Berlin, since we were there for only a few hours. I used to scoff at these hop-on, hop-off deals, but they were an ideal way for us to see the major sights and walk only as much as my father was up for. We used them again in Budapest, Salzburg and Munich, where we broke up our return journey for a couple of days.
We finally got to our hotel in Budapest at about 11:30 p.m., and my father still had enough juice left to talk for an animated half-hour before turning in.
And talk’s what this trip was meant for. We live on opposite coasts, my father and I, and have ever since I left home at 17. We’d grown apart to the point of estrangement, but after a train-and-road trip the year before, it struck me that travel might be a good way to help us build something resembling a father-son relationship.
As it turned out, it was, mostly thanks to the particular qualities of river cruising.
I’d taken a river cruise by myself several years before and have told everyone since that it combines the Europe-in-seven-days aspects of a bus tour and the unpack-once-all-meals-included benefit of a cruise while squeezing out such nasties as bus stairs, bus seats and the lack of engagement with your destinations, your surroundings and even your food that comes from a typical ocean cruise.
I’d also noticed, on that first river cruise, that I was the youngest person on it by about 25 years. This time around, I was older and the average age onboard was younger, but there were still many shades of gray around. One night, when there was a planned excursion to a German winery and I had work to do, my father — sociable in middle age, but increasingly solitary these days — joined a group of 60-somethings, and for the rest of the trip, they exchanged winks and catchphrases every time they met, allusions to what sounded like a fun night.
We could talk, we could spend time together, but on this 360-foot-long boat with 100 or so other passengers, we could also be apart. And if he wasn’t up to a walk one evening, he could stay onboard, eat, read and lounge while I went into Vienna to eat at Cafe Prückel and have a couple of cocktails at the Stephansdom Sofitel bar.
It made the time we spent together voluntary, relieving us of the sort of forced companionship that a car — or a train trip — would have imposed, and the awkward, even grudging silences that are their inevitable result.
We talked at every meal, sat silent in each other’s company for hours in one of several panoramic and mostly quiet lounges as the fields and towns and forts and hills ambled past us. At night, we had drinks and talked some more. We talked about unresolved issues from my messy adolescence, his messy widowerhood, his Mormonism, my boyfriends and his time in the air force as a medic, which we’d never talked about and turned out to have been vastly more exciting than I’d ever thought my father had the capacity to be.
This might be all run-of-the-mill stuff for people who maintain close relationships with their parents into their own middle age, but for those who don’t, a little river cruise up the Danube — a nice, two-level ship without too many stairs and an elevator to get through the ones there are — might be just the thing.
Archer is a travel writer who tweets at @BertArcher.