Oh, The Places I’ve Been (Part I)Freiburg, Spring 2012
If our simian brethren held such events, my room would best be compared to the site of a recent chimpanzee convention. Unfortunately, the last chimp I saw was in Munich and unless my roommate Elias has some primate he’s managed to house in his closet, I guess I’m to blame for the state of this mess. With the exception of about a square meter around the computer, the refuse of the past few weeks has collected in a landscape. Forests of bottles and coffee mugs, hills of sweaters and a desert of papers including sticky notes, ticket stubs, postcards yet to written/sent, and today’s newspaper Der Sonntag (I only read it for the coupons).
How did I allow this to happen? How have I gone for the better part of a month without a single entry? I’ve come up with an excuse and while I’m not sure it’ll hold up against discerning eyes of my editors and critics, it makes me feel somewhat justified.
It’s simple – I’ve been traveling.
Last time I wrote, I had returned from a fantastic weekend in Munich and since then, I’ve managed to hit the road both with the well-coordinated IES program through which I’ve been studying, as well as with my three good friends; Me, Myself and I. There is something indescribably convenient and comfortable about traveling alone. It’s a great experiment in self-reliance. There is no better way to learn something about yourself than see what you do when you’re left in Trier with nowhere to sleep for the night.
Keep reading, kids. Keep reading.
Before I left my room in Vauban, I packed a loaf of bread, cheese, apples, a heavy wool pullover, a toothbrush and toothpaste, camera and a change of socks and underwear. This is my usual list of things to pack for a weekend away. Aldi, my grocery store of choice, has a machine and when you press a button, it spits out a hot and steaming loaf of freshly baked bread. It is by far the greatest development in baking and represents for me the height of German engineering. But I digress. The scent of the bread makes everything in your bag smell great and while I sat in my seat on the northbound train, I couldn’t help but feel confident about the coming long Easter weekend. My intention was to visit Trier, the oldest city in Germany, and then cross the border into Luxembourg for a night in one of the most beautiful (and smallest!) countries in Europe before getting back to Freiburg by Sunday morning.
Finding a place to stay in a city is a difficult thing to do on short notice. The only accommodation I could find (within my price range) was a thirty minute taxi drive outside of Trier. I made the reservation the day of my departure and when I arrived at 2 am, the reception had left my room key in a flowerpot outside for me to let myself in. I did so, and was asleep in seconds.
In the morning, I ate a typical German breakfast in the restaurant of the hostel. The waitress let me use her reading glasses while I scoured maps, planning out the day’s adventure. I was planning on seeing all the usual sights in Trier, marked out with signs that lead the follower in a circle aptly named “Tourist Route.” It seemed convenient enough, so I checked out and caught a bus to the center of town. By one in the afternoon, I had seen all there was to see in Trier.
Or so I thought. The next part of my plan was to head to Luxembourg, just a quick train ride away. It was my intention to explore the city and see about any free rooms at the number of youth hostels. However, one does not simply walk into the youth hostel headquarters of Luxembourg and see about getting a room without a reservation. “We’re fully booked until Tuesday,” the manager told me. In return, he advised me try a place 30 kilometers outside of the city. I weighed the logistics in my head and decided to spend the evening in Luxembourg, and then head back to Trier for a red-eye back to Freiburg. My plans had been cut short and now I was on the retreat.
I spent the afternoon and evening wandering the castle-like alleyways and ramparts in the heart of Luxembourg. It’s a beautiful place and I’ll need to go back for longer than six hours. I sent a few postcards, took pictures, bought sandwiches to sustain me during the ride home, and at 10:50, the train left the Luxembourg station with typical Deutsche Bahn punctuality. Shortly after departure, the attendant approached and demanded a ticket. I told him that I still had yet to buy one and he produced a change purse and a notepad. He noticed that I had taken out a debit card and paused. “We don’t take credit cards on board, only cash.” I felt my eyes grow large and he noticed. By this point, I was used to the rush and mumble of colloquial German and responded right away that I had no cash on me. I simply had no means to buy said ticket. “Hmm, he said, putting the notepad away. “That’s too bad.” This man was well within his rights to leave me on the next stop alone in the dark in France, yet I was surprised when he simply turned around and walked away down the aisle checking tickets as he went. I didn’t see him for the rest of the journey. In Germany, Schwarzfahren – riding without a valid ticket – is a cardinal sin and is viewed by society with the kind of disdain and disproval reserved for hardcore pornography and sniffing glue. Yet there I was, given the slip by the generosity and compassion of a stranger to ride the rails all the way to Trier without paying a cent.
I arrived in Trier at 12:30 am and checked the schedule. The next train to Freiburg wouldn’t leave until 3:57 am and as was in Luxembourg, every room was full on account of Easter weekend. The only places that were still open at this hour were the bars, so that’s where I went. I sat in the nonsmoking section of a pub near the Puerta Nigra and drank tea and read paperbacks until they closed at one am. I was feeling lonely, but I wasn’t scared or worried. I had a train ticket; I just needed to find a way to spend the hours until morning. I found a second bar and that was where my luck turned.
I don’t recall the name of the bar but I remember when I walked in, a Frenchman began yelling at me in German that was worse than my own to buy him a beer. I had arrived at the hour when everyone was considerably more direct or sociable. I declined his request and moved upstairs to where the smoke wasn’t as heavy and I could hear myself think over the heady techno remixes of indy rock songs.
I met Freddy when he accused me of being Han Solo from Star Wars. “Wie bitte?” I asked. “I’m sorry?” He offered his hand in greeting. “Han Solo,” he grinned. “Of the Millennium Falcon. Come sit with us!” This wasn’t exactly the kind of context my German teacher from high school would imagine me using the German she so skillfully impressed on my mind years ago. But given the circumstances, I think she would have been proud of how I used what language abilities I possessed. Freddy waved his friends over and introduced me to Kai, Fodo, Michael, Bastian, and Isabelle.
“Where are you from?” Fodo demanded, spilling Kölsch on my jacket. I told him. “No!” Isabelle objected in disbelief, and demanded I show her my ID. I showed her my student ID from Freiburg and then my ID from home. The group sat back in their chairs, impressed.
Suddenly I had credibility; an American traveling by himself through their hometown who actually spoke German. They were mechanical engineering students, with the exception of Basti, who studied philosophy. They nicknamed him “Plato” and playfully tugged on his dreadlocks. They wanted to know what I studied, why I learned German, and how long I was in Germany. They told me how much they liked Katy Perry, Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Mr. Obama. “When he was elected, it showed us that Americans have brains after all,” Plato said. He did not intend for this to be a joke. The conversation carried for the rest of the night and at 3:30, the alarm I had set on my phone went off and I knew I had to run to the train station. I said my goodbyes and put on my jacket, collecting well-wishes and hi-fives as I went. I made it back to Freiburg at 9 in the morning.
Contrary to what the Department of Homeland Security would have me believe, the world is full of people like Freddy, Kai, Fodo, Michael and Isabelle. You’ll here about more people like them in posts yet to come. Meeting people like them happens when you least expect it and can only happen that way. In hindsight, I was lucky. But luck is a fickle thing. You have to work for it and it takes time, humility, a little naivety, and a whole lot of smiling. But in the end it pays off. This story is proof.
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