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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
“If someone told you to jump into a canal, would you do it?”
It’s one of those expressions, isn’t it? It’s the sort of thing elders blurt out at the young to challenge some cretinous decision-making that’s gone awry. Of course you wouldn’t jump into the canal. By extension, you must therefore agree that you shouldn’t have done the other thing that someone suggested, whatever it was, that would in adults’ eyes be just as silly as jumping into the canal.
Except that in my case the answer was “Yes.”
You see, when I was about eight years old, my uncle told me to jump into the canal, and I did.
Why? Because when your uncle suggests jumping into the canal, it must be the best idea in the history of the world.
Let me explain that the canal in question was quite an ancient thing (aren’t they all?) that cut between farms, factories and forests on the outskirts of my uncle’s hometown in northern Germany. It was a place where he had enjoyed swimming as a child and alongside which he often cycled (as Germans do) on a Sunday afternoon.
I knew the canal was far too deep for me and that I wouldn’t be able to touch the bottom, but considering what might lie at the bottom of an old German canal, I was actually a bit grateful I’d not find it with my toes.
So I jumped.
I suppose, looking back, that I jumped in much the way he must have done when he was eight years old, except I didn’t do it to hide from a British bomber during an Allied air raid. I didn’t do it out of fear or even under any kind of peer pressure, and certainly not out of bravado.
I jumped because I wanted to know what it was like to be my uncle.
That sounds like a ridiculous thing to say. After all, I could have done a thousand other things the way he did them if I had been so inclined. I could have been brilliant at cards and board games, sat in chairs with my legs over the armrests, started deep conversations about something on the news, kept a photo of Gina Lollobrigida, developed a taste for jams made from peculiar fruits, or driven a new Mercedes absurdly fast all the time.
But no. I jumped into a canal.
I was hopeless at cards and board games, felt like a slouch in big furniture, didn’t understand German politics, hadn’t watched a lot of Italian films, thought jam should only be strawberry, and didn’t have a driving license.
So, if I was going to know how it felt to be my uncle, I had better jump into the canal.
Being a good thirty years older than me and probably wearing his Sunday shoes (as Germans do), my uncle didn’t jump and stayed on his bicycle.
The water was extraordinarily cold, brackish, unnervingly dark, and stretched in either direction with an eerie silence that was broken only by my unanswered yelp.
And when I say it was cold, I don’t mean it was brisk. I mean it was bone-jarringly cold. It covered my head and made my face hurt as though I were being pinched by a dozen claws. By the time I thought about it hurting my face, I had probably lost all feeling in my body.
I resolved to climb out of the canal with some haste. It wasn’t that I was so shaken by the cold that I had to escape the water; I had done what I had set out to do.
I knew what it was like to be my very trendy uncle.
Around this time of year, I should be putting pen to paper and writing him a lengthy letter in German for his birthday, as I have done every year for more than half a century. Alas, both he and Gina Lollobrigida died earlier this year. He was just shy of ninety, and he wasn’t sad to go and had no regrets at all. He had lived his life to its fullest, seen the world, beaten everyone at cards, lounged and debated, served the most revolting jam, driven the most beautiful cars and, yes, he’d jumped into a lot of canals.
I may never jump into another actual canal, but the metaphorical one beckons us all, every day, if only we’re willing to step beyond our comfort zone.
And I know how to jump.