Waltzing on the Danube

Image by Robin Breeding


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The Danube is not blue, at least not in Budapest, and not so much in Vienna, where recently I spent time vacationing with my wife. It might have been blue in 1866 when Johann Strauss composed the “Blue Danube Waltz,” made famous by Stanley Kubrick who, in 1968, perfectly used the music to begin the iconic science fiction film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Can spaceships waltz? Of course, not. Neither can I. Although, of all the dances I am incapable of executing, the waltz might be the one I can pull off. One-two-three. One-two-three. Firmly hold your partner, maintain good eye-contact, and spin counter-clockwise. That’s right, I took lessons. (Don’t ask!) Thank God anyone can do the twist.

Our vacation lasted fourteen days. During that time, there was hardly a moment when the Danube, which is 1,775 miles long and traverses ten countries, was not within sight or walking distance. Nonetheless, not once did I wrap my arm around Paula’s waist, pull her nearer to me and whisper in her ear, “Let’s waltz.” I regret that. I should have asked. I should have spun her along the Danube and hummed that familiar tune of spaceships and one-two-threes. I’m sorry I didn’t, but as the days passed, the two of us walking down narrow streets, past ancient churches and lovely cafes, castles, statues, and parks, and the magnificent Hungarian Parliament building on the Danube’s shore, I often held her hand and expressed my affection.  But never, not once, did we dance. It seemed I had missed an opportunity.

In Leonard Cohen’s wonderful song, “Take This Waltz,” which references both Austria and Hungary, he writes:

There’s an attic where children are playing
Where I’ve got to lie down with you soon
In a dream of Hungarian lanterns
In the mist of some sweet afternoon

During our first few days in Budapest there were many sweet afternoons, walking mile after mile through the quiet city streets. We did what we often do when travelling, visiting museums, galleries, wonderful restaurants, and historical buildings like Europe’s largest synagogue that somehow survived the Nazi onslaught. And then, four days into our trip, I was accosted by an old friend whom I’d hoped to never see again: Hello Covid.

It was my second encounter with the virus, the first being awful and prolonged, hanging around for a solid two months. But this time it felt different. Maybe it was the five vaccinations, or maybe it was sheer will, or maybe it was a milder variant. Whatever it was, it didn’t knock me out. What it did was keep me away from the woman I should have danced with on the Danube, fearing I might pass the virus on to her and ruin the rest of our trip.

Two days after testing positive, I felt pretty good and was ready to jump back into vacation mode. I was up and about, feeling not so sick anymore, but caution ruled the day. There was something I couldn’t do, something I might not have noticed before but felt strange in its absence. I couldn’t touch my wife. 

It’s funny how we take human contact for granted. I’m hardly a touchy-feely person to begin with. Yet, there were moments when we were discussing a work of art, or waiting for a train, or devouring an amazing chocolate layered cake, when all I wanted to do was lean over and kiss my bride of 38 years. I knew that in a few days (I tested negative after four) I could resume physical contact, but never before had I felt its absence. I didn’t feel lonely, but several times I was overcome by a brief sense of melancholy.

The good news is that I quickly got better. By the time we reached Vienna we were once again holding hands. Our second night in the city, we attended a concert of classical music. How perfect it would have been had the orchestra played “The Blue Danube.” They did not. In fact, the final song was an early hit by Stevie Wonder, bringing lots of smiles to a tourist-filled audience. We didn’t waltz. We didn’t twist. We smiled and held hands, our bodies leaning against each other. When the concert was over, I wrapped my arm not around Paula’s waist, but over her shoulder. And then I kissed her. It wasn’t a waltz, but a tender close second.