They say half the fun is getting there. THEY ARE WRONG.
Firstly, there is nothing fun about an 11 hour flight across the pond, especially when the person in front of you reclines the seat the whole time and the German guy next to you has no concept of personal space. Not to be overly picky here but he was totally in my leg-room. The only redeeming aspect of the seating arraignments was that he also had a super fuzzy sweater so whenever he’d lop his elbow onto my armrest it felt like I was sitting next to a bunny.
(Also, it’s great to hear a real German say, “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes).
Generally I don’t fly well. Consistently the only five minutes of sleep I ever get are when the stewardesses are passing around drinks and snacks.
I forgot to where socks this morning (who does this?) and didn’t notice until I was barefoot in front of a TSA agent whose facial expression I read to mean, “have fun with the Athlete’s Foot you’re undoubtedly getting right now.”
I would come to appreciate not having socks when I wandered about lost in Berlin looking for my bus in the pouring rain. More on that later.
Let me just say that the accordion and I are not on speaking terms. I knew it was a bad idea to bring it in a case without wheels and then to add another ten pounds of items that didn’t fit in my suitcase. But really? Really? It’s a good thing I work out.
If there is anything on earth that can deflate the determination to persevere, it is overweight luggage without wheels. I may as well have brought a dead baby elephant except that people would probably give me more room on the escalator if I was dragging a deceased mammal around.
I was about to kick that stupid accordion off the bridge I was ascending stairs to get to the top of when I heard . . . accordion music.
At the top of these stairs were too old men, one with an accordion and one with a horn of some kind (I’m sorry, Dad, I couldn’t say which…). This silvery-haired, hat wearing European noticed my accordion case immediately, though how he guessed the contents I still have no idea. (The duct-tape throws people off).
They began playing with renewed vigor when I whipped out my camera and when they finished I gave a little round of applause. A man who had also been filming from the other side of the corner wall came out and began talking to me . . . in Spanish.
Aside from English, Spanish is the only other language I can make sense of right now. So between his horrible English and my community college level Spanish, I found out that he is Romanian, he has tres bambinos who need food (he made a frowning face), and that although he does not know where I’m trying to get (because my directions are in German) he is SO willing to help me! But first he insisted I pay the musical talent, who also spoke Spanish and also wanted to help.
I’m kind of a sucker for people who do stand-ups on sidewalks – maybe it’s all the candy bar selling outside of VONS I did as a kid for ballet. So even though I had no idea what the currency exchange is yet, I gave the gentlemen one of the smallest increment of Euros I had – a bill with a five (I now know that’s a decent lunch and a small coffee’s worth). Whatever. The guy with the horn kissed my hand and the accordion man got all teary-eyed and pointed at my case multiple times, smiling.
I’d like to point out that if I’m not already seeming like a stupid American, it gets worse. As I head off in the direction they point out, the tall Romanian picked up my accordion and carried it for me – all the while chatting about his little children. Half way to the destination he dropped the accordion, held out his hand and said in very good English, “Twenty Euro.”
“What? I don’t understand…” I said back, also in English.
“I carry case, very heavy. Twenty Euro.”
He had carried the case and given me directions so I begrudgingly searched for my last 5-Euro bill.
Suddenly he looked disgusted. Only five Euro? How outrageous. He was offended. Pacing away from me a few steps and taking several irritated draws from his cigarette, he glared at me.
“Do you want the five or not? This is all I have,” I said. “No tengo mas.”
“Okay, ten Euro,” he said, still upset. I was getting frustrated now too, not only because it had been raining all day so I was soaked, my hands were chapped from carrying that doggone accordion around and I was hungry, tired and lost, but now this person who I thought was being so helpful was demanding I pay him. I felt conned. To be honest, I’ve also never felt more like an American.
Fortunately for me, I have an extremely willful mother who – for the sake of her own hungry bambinos – has terrified pizza guys, store clerks and government officials who have the audacity to overlook her coupons or attempt to lower their standards of costumer service. So I know how to insist against injustice.
“Listen, amigo, it’s five Euros or nothing. I have to get all the way to Prague! I’m sorry!”
He took the five Euros and thanked me profusely in German and I thanked him back in Spanish. Then he walked away with my five Euros and I walked away with a poor impression of Romanians.
A number of people (actual Germans, I’d like to point out) were very helpful. I discovered that the ones with American baseball memorabilia all spoke nearly perfect English and that if I waited at the bottom of a flight of subway stairs with a pouty-face for long enough someone would come by and ask if I needed help (I’m assuming that’s what they were asking…It was always in German). I wish I’d discovered this trick earlier, actually. I can barely feel my hands from all the callouses and blisters.
One man – Stefan, a psychiatrist working at the local hospital – missed his own bus to walk me to the information booth, get me a map and pay for my ticket, all while carrying my accordion. He informed me that Berliners weren’t very nice people but he wasn’t from Berlin. Once he got me on the right bus he instructed the driver to let me know when to get off. I still don’t think I said, “thank you, danka, danka” enough.
I had a lot of possible titles for this post. “Sopping wet on the S-Bahn” was the favorite for a while because honestly I was soaked all day long. The sky was sputtering as much as I was and by the time I found my connecting bus to Prague I was shivering and aching. In fact, I may have been the only person in Berlin without an umbrella (mine was inside the duct-taped suitcase).
I did not cry even once all day. Anyone who knows me understands that this is a HUGE deal.
But I did mutter horrible things in English about the sidewalks and the stairs and the fact that there are no crosswalks anywhere. I was muttering and shuffling as I dragged my luggage into Andy’s Diner and Bar next to the bus stop. The menu was in German but it had a bright American flag on the cover and I felt like the ghosts of at least two ex-pats were probably sitting at the booth I had wheeled my suitcase into.
I got a Fanta (I know it’s lame to make your first purchase abroad something generic and American but at least it was the yellow kind so I can still call it a first!) and sat down in a booth looking out into a dreary, rainy street.
Thankfully I had packed a change of clothes in my backpack so I was 90 percent dry when I got onto the Student Agency Bus to Prague. I slept through most of the drive, save that once when I inhaled a bug and broke out of my hibernation with a snort and a coughing fit. Lovely.
Still wet, incurably cold and aching all over, I finished the last leg of my journey to Prague with an empty seat next to me. It is a good feeling to be tired all over and have somewhere to lay your head without fear of a seat reclining into you and crushing your spinal cord. The Lord provides even the little things.