“Excusez moi?” The cute girl with the nose ring had said. Her gold hair was spiced with a brown streak, and she had very smooth skin, so maybe I would have bought her facewash if I knew any French. Instead, I shrugged. She understood my nonunderstanding, while I had no way of telling her I was in the least English-appreciating country on my trip, with neither a place to sleep nor a train ticket.
The evening, when I was most lonely, was filled with people. Families, couples, tourist groups – smiling, having fun, maybe even willing to help me. Only hours ago they were warm and fair companions, soaking up Paris alongside me without taking more than their share, but now they seemed almost like cold extras, simply there to decorate the scene before darkness shambles in with its army of horrors. My lack of a cellphone suddenly made sense as a move planted by the malicious director.
The night was as expensive as it was exhausting. After taking a cab to the PC cafe just so I could learn some French online and to email my group, my horrible accent rewarded me with an extra 30-euro half-hour round trip to eastern Paris as my “Gare du Nord” somehow became “Gare du Lyon.” Exhausted, I stumbled into the closest hostel I could find and agreed to the first price I heard. The set of keys I got was so heavy that I was busy contemplating its weight while walking up the creaky wooden stairs. After I took the last step, I looked up, only to be greeted with a fitting sight to end my diabolical script: an aged oil painting of a ghostly pale girl with eyes that radiated a piercing cold from sorrowful sockets, the kind of gaze that locked onto me no matter how I moved. I quickly looked away and dodged into my room, the door of which took too long to open. The room was bare besides simple furniture and a tiny TV in the ceiling looking down like a security camera, and I felt it twisting to follow me as I walked around the room, but every time I looked up it would cleverly reset position.
I left the curtains open when I showered, just in case.
I woke up before Paris did; I went to buy the train ticket three hours in advance, leaving no space for fate’s shenanigans. Even though I spoke to almost none of them, the people of Paris suddenly seemed more receptive when I finally bought my ticket than the night before when I didn’t have one – even the electronic voices of the station operator sounded friendlier and more human than it did eight hours ago. With the ticket keeping me secure and inexplicably warm, I was brave enough to explore again.
I passed by a homeless man sleeping on a mattress under a kelly green blanket, with three pairs of shoes lined up neatly on a earthy-brown shoe rack by his cart. Remembering I was hungry, I looked for a place to eat, before seeing the golden arch whose banality now filled me with comfort. I entered the MacDonalds and ordered their morning special, a surprisingly calorie-conscious yet filling package of an egg sandwich, a yogurt, 3 pastries, orange juice, and an espresso. I did not care about how Starbucks the whole affair seemed – it was at that moment the most perfect meal Paris had for me.
At the station, to pass the time, I struck up a conversation with Jean, a college student with bright, sharp eyes dug deeply into a dark face. He was waiting at the station to go back home to northern France from his part-time work. He had no patience for good-for-nothings and did not care about different variants of coffee. Inspired by his hard-working attitude, I promised him I’d get as good as French as he spoke English, after learning from him about how to succeed in life: “if you have two arms like me, two feet like me, two eyes like me, then you can do anything if you just use them.” Minutes after he left for his train, mine came.
Under tasty-looking clouds, the plains were adorned by sheep, trees, and a few brushes of the occasional wheat, gold patches amidst aged green bronze. I daydreamed about having a compartment on top of the train where I could actually grab the clouds. A truck occasionally broke my idyllic idle until I realized I was probably doing the same thing to them.
The bad luck plague spasmed one last time before leaving me – the train broke down one stop away from Munich. Luckily, my compartment-mate’s functional English, which got me safely to the hotel. Before I entered, I paused for a bit examining the industrial Munich.
This was a city with scars, aesthetically reserved but brewing within its cranes, bricks, and steel a quiet strength. It lived and breathed not unlike its citizens, with strong, angular features, signs of a hard-working, efficient, and no-nonsense society. A mother described her daughter’s structured classes and activities, indirectly explaining their excellent English, and stopped occasionally to beam at the girl with pride, who blinked at me with large, intelligent eyes. I people-watched for a bit more before succumbing to fatigue, and passed out soon entering my hotel room.
My sheepish return to the flock called for German-style celebration. The idea of the Hofbrauhaus seemed too touristy, so to be even more touristy by avoiding what most “other tourists” do, we peeked into the Ayinger beer hall next door. And our inner Bavarians were pleased.
Calling a German beer hall a “big bar” is like calling a fratwurst a “big sausage.” Technically correct, but you lose a lot of flavor. The inside of Ayinger had no guzzlers, no rabble-rousers, and no perverts. In their stead were amply-portioned cheese and sausage over sour cabbage, served in the atmosphere of a family restaurant (I think I saw some kids there, but this may be beer memory working) for a seating space of around five hundred over the three floors.
As for the biggest difference? “Welcome to Germany,” a plaid-shirted fellow in his thirties turned around and said to us with an honest smile, with no judgment, flattery, or pretension, just a gesture acknowledging the universal human bond over the most important beverage ever created. I said my best “Vielendank,” but even if he had heard it as just static my intentions were clear. I saluted with my hand, he raised his glass. At that point, I realized two things.
One, we were both reveling in something that connected the world beyond prejudice, beyond differences, beyond Munich. Two, the glasses were huge – the smallest measuring unit they had was a liter. All that training since college was for moments like these. I knew to check out the light and drinkable Helles, a German staple, but I made sure to try out the Dunkel, a fading, malted coffee memory of an old Germany that was perfect for a Guiness lover. The surprise of the day was the Dunkel Randlemas, a beer/lemonade hybrid that delighted the child inside of me as much as the adult.
While they had physically near-identical cloudy skies, Munich’s felt austere while Zurich’s was relaxed. Actually, Zurich probably went on vacation before we did, as nothing seemed to have been open after 4PM when we arrived. I had to throw away my dreams of slowly eating chocolate while looking at elephants in the zoo, and decided to accompany Y, who procrastinated his gift-buying until the most expensive city on our itinerary. Speaking of which, Zurich was really as expensive as it looked – but only when things were on sale.
Squandering our last day in Europe was no way to finish, especially after the terrific night in Munich. That subtle end-of-summer-camp feeling crept up, so we agreed to grab beer from a nearby train station, people watch, and toast to Zurich, Europe, and ourselves. That evening, young couples adorned the boardwalk much like they did in Paris, except the atmosphere was less romantic and more stoic. A couple drinks later, we heard crisp sounds that could have either been gunshots or champagne, and decided it was champagne. They scared some swans, who began flying around and attracting themselves to P while staying away from Y, whose track record with fowls remain unimpressive since the episode in Amsterdam when he almost fell in the canal chasing a duck. We had a chuckle, and I noticed how chilly it was. I gave Y my jacket while trying to breathe in more of the air before I leave it all as P and G lit cigarettes. I shivered from not just cold, but also increasing anxiety as night crawled in.
We kept communicating for a while without the burden of words.
I’ve always been irritated by the phenomenon that emotions, memories, and ideas seem to surface most frequently when I am going or coming, but never when I am just being. Hence, I’ve learned to make sure I have my notebook on me at every airport, but the mental baggage I had at Zurich International was more than I’ve ever had on a flight.
At one of the boutiques, those I usually just pass by while thinking of more important things, I saw some Zurich chocolate. They might not be representative, they might not be the best-tasting, they might not even be Swiss, and they were certainly overpriced. I went to buy a box anyway, the brand of which I forgot since I just nodded after asking the clerk to point to her favorite dark. The name did not matter anyway – I just wanted to be comfortable in the fact that by the time I got home I had a physical charm, but unlike toys and mugs and stuffed animals, one which I could eat to release its powers, tasting something that I brought from half a world away.
Two weeks later, sitting to draft these entries, I ate the chocolate. It was delicious.