I was studying abroad in Germany and I was desperate to be back in a boat. Living in Humboldt County-- aka Six Rivers-- for so many years had spoiled this little whitewater kayaker, and I was feelings pangs of homesickness and a longing for something familiar. Which is why I went in search of a kayaking club and how I got in contact with Friedrich.
Friedrich wrote back to say no outings planned till August, but would I be interested in teaching kayaking? He needed some help with a basic whitewater kayaking course and if I was interested we could meet to discuss.
I needed a job and I wanted to kayak so I wrote back expressing my interest and we set up a time to meet on the banks of the Neckar-- the swollen brown river moving sluggishly through Heidelberg. A few days later Friedrich showed me around the boat house before dragging out a few misshapen plastic boats. We slipped into the river and played along the eddy lines. After 10 minutes he offered me the job and told me to show up the following Friday. I was surprised. Shocked. Didn't I need to sign some paperwork or liability forms? Friedrich shot me a bemused expression before reminding me that this was Germany, not the U.S. If someone drowned on this Class I river it was their own damn fault.
Panic set in. I didn't know any of the kayaking vocabulary in Germany. Rushing to the bookstore I found an introductory kayaking book and began memorizing as much vocab as I could. When I met my class for the first time, I was so overcome with nerves that I could barely stammer out my name. But they smiled encouragingly and while I corrected their kayaking technique, they corrected my German. A few weeks passed effortlessly before I decided they were ready to learn how to roll.
As I stood on the dock illustrating how to perform a kayak roll, my students began to murmur concerns about the temperature of the water. I couldn't believe it. The water was tepid at best. It certainly paled in comparison to the hypothermic conditions of the Pacific Northwest waters. In an effort to convince them that the water was fine, I jumped in. Unfortunately I didn't carefully ease in, being wary of rocks, as I had instructed my students to do. Oh no, I did exactly what I had told them never to do. I dove.
My hands slammed into the rocks bouncing off and colliding with my face. The force of which spun me around and I scraped along the rocks, cutting deep scrapes into my back and shoulders. Gasping for breath and still in complete shock, I surfaced and launched myself back onto the dock like a seal. My students stood around me in a circle as I struggled to comprehend the extent of the damage. Blood gushed from my nose and beads of blood were forming along the scrapes on my shoulders.
There were exclamations and questions of concern coming at me from all directions until one student bit his lip and asked "So, is the water cold?"
Laughing in spite of myself, I told them to get in their boats and warm up. I'd follow in a second, just as soon as the bleeding stopped. Feeling a little like Chuck Norris, I completed the class, trying to ignore the throbbing pain increasing around my nose. As I stowed the last boat in the boat house, a student turned to say good-bye before encouraging me to stop by the hospital. "Your face is really swollen. You look terrible," were her exact words. Germans. Glancing at my watch, I hopped on my bike and pedaled to the hospital, hoping to get in a visit before my university courses that afternoon.
Parking my bike, I jogged into the hospital where a nurse looked at me expectantly. I explained my situation before being informed that since the doctors were on strike and my situation was obviously not life-threatening, it could be hours before a doctor would be available to examine me. I asked her if she thought it was worth waiting. In true German fashion, she told me that of course it would be good to have an x-ray done, but that since my nose--if it were broken--had broken cleanly, there was really very little that they could do other than give me painkillers and tell me to take it easy for a few days.
I told her I'd come back and rushed off to class. Over the next few days the swelling subsided and the flesh around my eyes turned marvelous hues of purple before fading to a sickly yellowish color.
While rumors circled around that I had gotten into a bar fight over a World Cup game, I boarded a train headed for the North of Germany to meet some extended family members whom I had never seen. Over coffee and cake that afternoon, I regaled them with the story of how my face had come to be so swollen and well, purple.
Nodding before taking a sip of coffee, my cousin gestured toward me as he admonished his kids "This is why you should never dive unless you're sure of the depth." They gazed somberly at me before one daughter piped up "But she is a kayaking instructor. She should know that."
Only Homer Simpson could sum up my feelings at that point.