Thoughts in Motion, Part 3

(Another in a series of rambling thoughts recorded while in foreign countries.)

8.) Some people are fine with being in a country where they know nothing of the local language. I’m not. Call me a loser and/or a control freak — but after a day or two, I feel ignorant and illiterate and convinced I’m missing far too much of the world around me. I want to talk to people, read the signs, eavesdrop — as opposed to being the village idiot.

So, after a few days in Poland, where I easily attain village idiot status, I take a train to Berlin. I change trains in Poznan, on Poland’s western border, where I catch the Warsaw-Berlin express. That’s where everything changes. Quite a few Germans are waiting for the same train as I am, and I begin to catch intelligible words and phrases.

I would say the German words flood or cascade into my mind — but dribble is more like it, when you’ve had two years of college German and college was a long, long time ago. Still, I’m not a complete idiot, after all! I know ich and wohin gehen sie and auf wiedersehen. Haus! Hund! Kirche! Nein! Ja! Nicht wahr! (Also, I am less inhibited in German than I am in French; the German language simply cannot be artlessly murdered in the same way French can be.)

I ride the train into Berlin, words still erupting like exploding popcorn kernels in my mind. Jawohl! Warum! Wielleicht!

After a couple of days in Berlin, then Vienna, though, the old popcorn stops popping and goes stale. I realize nobody wants to hear my shitty, ancient college German. Why should they? Their English is better than mine, for Gotts sakes. Every time I try a German phrase, I am greeted with a puzzled stare, as if I’m a large, rather stupid child.

Finally, I give up the geist. I even stop asking for the bill — the rechnung — in German. (Such a wonderfully German word, too, conveying reckoning, finality, judgment. But, no.) Instead, I make the universal gesture of writing the bill. This, unlike my German, is never misundersood.

If this is better than village idiot status, it is a very fine line.

9) I meet my husband in Berlin and we travel south together using rail passes.

When you’ve been traveling together as long as we have — in excess of 40 years — and return to the sites of some of your first significant trips together, you begin to see younger versions of yourselves everywhere. It’s early summer, and students are in every train station, on every sidewalk, alone or in couples or small groups. They hoist enormous backpacks behind them and carry bottles of water in their hands. They endlessly consult their smart phones. They talk, they embrace passionately. Occasionally, a young woman will pull away, tears streaming down her cheeks; young love is exciting, but it’s also brutal and unpredictable.

There we were decades ago! I think, occasionally nudging my husband and whispering. We reminisce sometimes, recalling how we were once almost deported back to France when an English customs officer took a dislike to us for being hippies. Going between cars on the train, too, I always remember the long, cold night we spent between cars on a Madrid to Marbella train; it was so frosty, you could see your breath that night. And the hotel rooms — God, the tiny, squalid drawer-sized fire traps up six flights of stairs.

All these years later, I’m only nostalgic to a point. I smile at these reflections of our younger selves and wish them well. How fortunate we were to have been broke and heedless when we were young — and not-broke and somewhat more careful in our present lives.

These days, my husband and I have reserved seats when we travel by train. We’re mostly invisible to the young who are battered by their own storms and beguiling dreams. We’re in our sixties, we’re respectable, we have credit cards with ridiculously high limits. And nobody’s tried to deport us in years.

10) Germany, Austria and Belgium have the euro; Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary do not. This country- and currency-hopping always create the same problem: spending every damned bit of the change you’ve collected before you leave the country. This fiscal pressure leads to all kinds of OCD coping mechanisms. Once, on a ferry between Denmark and Germany, I spent my last pile of change on a Best of the Four Seasons tape.

Why not? I figured. Hadn’t I loved the Four Seasons for years? Well, yes, I had. But weeks later, listening to their greatest hits one after another, I developed a previously undiagnosed medical condition known as falsetto overdose.

These days, I’m a little more judicious. I also guard my change till the last possible moment in countries with bathrooms guarded by deranged harpies demanding payment for toilet use. I realize that sounds ethnocentric and judgmental — and I’m always striving to be neither.

Still, I have the right to a few hidebound opinions about the world at large, such as: 1) wearing kerchiefs on your head is almost always a bad idea; 2) by the time someone mutters the words, “to make a long story short,” it is invariably too late; and 3) one should not, especially at a point in one’s life known as menopausal, have to pay to pee.

(Copyright 2012 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about traveling in the foreign country of Oklahoma
Read part one and part two of this Thoughts in Motion series.

2 comments… add one
  • bonehead Link

    Great commentary Ruth! You are so good at this, maybe you could poll your readers for where they would like to you travel next, and we could get these great reports from all over the world? In the spirit of Rick Steves “keep on traveling”.

  • Twenty or so years ago, heavily pregnant, and with my husband and three older children, I took the train from London to Krakow. Late in the evening we switched from a European train to an old Soviet one and I held a language auction with the only steward who might bring us food or warmth. English! was my opening bid, and he countered with Russian! I replied with French and we finally shook hands over German. Eventually we got tea and blankets. Who knows what we might have managed if I had spoken Russian (or Polish).

    Meanwhile, I am missing your numbered blog post where number eight comes out as a cool smiley in sunglasses.

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