Sitting on Suitcases
I stared blankly.
“Hallo! Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
When her question only intensified the blankness of the staring, she started again.
“You speak German?” she chirped hopefully.
Though it’d be hard to believe at this point, I answered—“Ja! So ein bisschen.” Yes. A little.
“Ein…bisschen?” she echoed. Hopefulness begat confusion begat disappointment begat disgust. Disapproval is the universal language, music and love be damned. She was an instructor at the institute, and until 30 seconds ago she was under the impression that her prospective students could speak German. Glad I could clear things up.
48 hours ago, I had never left US Central Standard time. My phone’s internal clock had gone on perpetually unconfused. I’d never been on an airplane. I’d never seen the ocean.
Now, I sat on a suitcase outside of a train station, a changed man. A 60-seat puddle jumper, a cloudy view of the Canadian coast and a “Searching for signal” notification told me so. I had managed to not lose my luggage. I had avoided the shady fake taxis at the airport. I had not fallen from the plane to my death. I was now a weary world-traveler. A stranger in a strange land, ready to drink in new experiences and season them with the salt of the Earth. Ready to handle anything.
Anything except speaking or understanding the language, apparently. I followed the woman inside. She took my coat and my confidence.
As luck would have it, I was the first of 50 students to arrive. My prize was small-talk. I could not exchange it for cash value.
We conversed, in half-mangled German.
“Where are you from?”
“Wisconsin.” I had resolved to speak in only proper nouns, so far so good.
“Wisconsin?” As I desperately tried to figure out how to say ‘between California and New York,’ she followed up: “That 70’s Show!”
She was more right than she knew. “Yes.” I said. “That 70’s Show.” A cultural gulf crossed, we resigned to sit in silence.
My colleagues leaked in, one-by-one. The rich kids spoke no German, and came in cabs or private cars. The poor kids crawled off trains, and spoke fluently. I sat on my suitcase, keeping the center of the Venn diagram warm, thinking about Laura Prepon.
I washed-up, ready for my first night abroad. Handball was on TV. The apartment had four flights of stairs and leaky windows, but at least there wasn’t any hot water. A knock on my door.
“If you need anything, let me know!” my roommate was a friendly and accommodating mid-40’s engineer, currently addressing me in briefs that would embarrass a bachelorette party. Since I didn’t know how to say “I need to see less of your thighs” in German, I just thanked him and went to bed.
I lay there, grumbling. No internet. Thousands of miles from home. Completely out of place.
Why am I here?
I smiled my first smile of the day before I nodded off.