Suds and Solace
By Terri Elders
On September 11, 2001, I had just opened an HIV/AIDS seminar for Peace Corps Volunteers in a shabby hotel two hours north of Port-au-Prince. We paused that morning to stare in silence at a generator-powered television set in the adjacent bar, tears trickling down our cheeks. Several of us joined hands and whispered The Lord’s Prayer. The Haitian counterparts would be arriving the next morning, many walking miles across rugged rural terrain to bus stops. We prayed for strength to get us through the week.
Incredibly, the training went forward without mishaps, and US Embassy and Peace Corps managed to get me aboard my scheduled return flight to Miami the following Sunday. Even more improbably, American Airlines had rerouted an extra flight to Dulles, given that Reagan National, my destination, was closed for the duration. They assigned me the one remaining seat left on it.
As soon as the taxi dropped me off in Silver Spring, my husband and I hugged, shared our concerns about the safety of our nation, and then addressed an immediate question. Should we or shouldn’t we cancel our postponed honeymoon?
In our sixties, we had a millennial wedding the previous summer, but since I had to begin immediately my new job in Washington DC, we waited to schedule a honeymoon until I accrued vacation time. When I asked Ken where he’d like to go, he chose Germany. He pined to revisit the towns he’d lived in during his Air Force service in the ‘50s, and wanted to take in one more Oktoberfest.
“This would be my fourth, and the best, since you’ll be with me. And I want you to learn to love German beer, just as I do.”
Never much of a beer drinker, nonetheless I had agreed.
But now I hesitated. We were scheduled to fly out on September 22. Would we be safe? Would we be foolhardy to travel at such an uncertain time? On the plus side: our rental car would be waiting at Franz Joseph airport in Munich, and Ken remembered enough German to ask for directions as we headed for Neuweire, the Black Forest, Meersburg, Garmisch and all those other magical-sounding towns I’d heard Ken describe. On the minus side: new travel regulations were in effect and airport security lines would be long and arduous.
“Let’s do it,” Ken finally said. “We’d probably be safer in Germany right now than we are right here in the outskirts of the capital. Plus you’ve been working hard, and really deserve a break.”
So we went. And on October 1 we finally settled in at Oktoberfest’s Hofbrau Haus, socializing with young people from New Zealand and Australia, raising our litre mugs as we sang along with a brass band that pounded out “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” We ate salted radishes and pretzels as big as our heads, and toasted every English-speaking nation on earth, including Belize, Guyana and Seychelles, countries that would have gone overlooked if I hadn’t a personal Peace Corps knowledge of them. Then the Aussies and Kiwis joined us in a chorus of “Blame Canada” when a trio from Ottawa asked to sit with us.
Ken and I listened appreciatively as our new friends poured out their sympathy for our country, and accepted their gracious good wishes for a safe return home. We left Oktoberfest carefree, flushed with lager and love.
A few days later, though, we learned that the United States had begun to bomb Afghanistan, and that all American citizens abroad had been warned to contact American embassies and consulates. We heard talk of terrorist attacks against tourists in European countries. I began to shiver.
“Should we try to return home early?” I asked my husband.
“I don’t want to leave Germany until you’ve seen Andechs,” Ken replied, shaking his head.
As he explained it, Andechs Abbey, just an hour south of Munich, is a Benedictine monastery housed in a castle that dates from the twelfth century. Its brewery or kosterbrauerei, produces lagers with an alcohol percentage ranging between 11.5 and 18.5, some as strong as fortified sherries.
“We need to sit in the beer garden, have a basket of the fresh-baked dark rye bread and monastery cheese, and heft a beer and contemplate the frescoes and stuccoes. We’ll get some perspective on historical awareness at Andechs,” he insisted.
We drove along the eastern shore of Lake Ammersee until we spotted the castle looming on a hill. For more than half a millennium it had been a cherished destination for pilgrims, and now as we headed up the hill that frosty morning I felt as if we, too, were on a pilgrimage.
The beer proved just as delicious as Ken had promised. Then after lunch, we toured the ground floor of the church and I sat for a while in the Chapel of Sorrow, praying for the United States, for Washington DC, and for our marriage. I especially prayed for a sense of serenity. As soon as I asked the Lord to instill peace in my heart, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The fear had vanished.
This chapel, originally consecrated in 1470, houses the grave of Carl Orff, the 20th century composer of “Carmina Burana.” Then we crossed to the St. Anthony Chapel, with frescoes by 17th century artists. I reflected on how past and present seem to come together at Andechs. As we prepared to leave I picked up a brochure that quoted the Andechs’ Abbot, Dr. Johannes Eckert, on the purpose of the monastery. One phrase hit a chord: “to relish the present and the moments which go by so quickly, yet indeed not forgetting that which went on before.” Exactly what I had been thinking.
Then I remembered that September day in Haiti, when we all decided to move forward, to avoid becoming paralyzed with fear. As we strolled to our rental car I turned to Ken. “In the chapel I asked the Lord for help in giving up fear,” I said. “There’s no room for it on our honeymoon. My prayer seems to have been answered. I feel more peaceful now.”
“Good decision,” he replied. Then he grinned. “But don’t ask Him to make us give up German beer.”
I agreed that I wouldn’t. Suds and solace seemed perfect mates. Just like us.
(This story appears in The Harsh and The Heart: Celebrating the Military, available now.)