It was very early, just after dawn on a June morning, and my host father helped me unload my luggage from the trunk of his car. We hauled it past the arrival boards and up to the platform, where we made small talk about the weather. The local forecaster had predicted rain, but not too much. Within minutes we heard it beating on the platform awning.
I had already said goodbye to my family the night before, and I felt as though my host father and I had already parted ways. Now we were little more than lonely strangers, spinning conversation out of empty thoughts.
â–º honorable mention 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
The squeal of grease on steel announced my exit. A tall red train waited on the track, its heavy hide the color of smeared lipstick. I pushed myself through raincoats to the corner of a crowded car, and was joined by a soft-faced woman and her baby stroller. Both smelled mildly of milk and soiled diapers.
The woman also lived in Hamm, my German host city. She too had family to visit. Hers lived in Baden-Württemberg, mine in America. The only difference was, she would be coming back.
She spoke Hochdeutsch for me, standard German, but she also knew another tongue, Badisch, the coarser dialect of her native provinces. When her husband called her, she answered him in Badisch, and I could understand her words. I smiled inwardly. Even accented German was no longer beyond my reach.
Several stops later, she disembarked. She had another train to catch.
A tired couple took her place. The man was beautiful: chiseled jaw, solemn brow, subtle nose. But his eyes remained always on his girlfriend. She sat on his lap and he whispered to her: small words of love and comfort, words that made the corners of her mouth twitch condescendingly. The girl was homely, remarkable in no way but for her boyfriend. And yet she was the one aloof, and he the one in love.
Out the side window, a dozen worlds whipped past. A pasture became a wind farm, soon swallowed by a mountain, whose gentle slope led into a sleepy town. Past the town lay a open farmland, stretching almost to the horizon, where the peaked bridges of Cologne gleamed with the reflected rays of the summer sun.
We glided slowly into the city, then scattered into a bustling palace of rails and glass. Another train would meet me here, but not quite yet. I escaped into a nearby plaza where a massive cathedral punched upwards from the pavement. This was the Kölner Dom, one of Germany’s most famous landmarks, and I had visited it twice before. Once with my host mother and her parents, Georg and Silke, and later alone, while Georg fought a losing battle with leukemia. Now he sat in a wheelchair, his face sharp and hollow like the cathedral’s spires.
An hour passed, and the doors to my second train opened wide. I sat myself in an unreserved seat, beside a flustered pair of Chinese executives whose airline had redirected them to Frankfurt. I spoke with them in English; German had no role in commerce, and they needn’t know it. When we arrived at the Frankfurt airport, I directed them to the concourse, then waited for my final train.
The new train’s shell was white but grimier than the last one, older, as were the passengers. I rode standing up, beside an English tourist, a Korean businessman, and a German hippie. The hippie’s dreadlocks smelled of milk and soiled diapers.
When I arrived at Frankfurt Central, it took me half an hour to lug my trunks to the bus station. Two suitcases do not easily hold the weight of eleven months.
At the bus stop, two fellow exchange students waited too. I smiled at them, made small talk about the weather. Our flight would leave tomorrow morning. But we had already left Germany behind.
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