Thursday, August 30, 2012

Signing Off

August 30, 2012 – Signing Off

The cadet and I go into Hamburg together. Our cab driver is a sixty-seven year old German woman who talks aloud the entire trip; to us, to herself, to other drivers, to no one. She speaks in English at times, and in long thick streams of German at others.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“Russia,” Nadezdha says.

“America,” I say.

“America!” Our driver comes alive. “It’s been my dream to go to America!”

“It’s not too late,” I tell her.

“I’m sixty-seven,” she says, as if that means it is too late. “It’s expensive.”

I know about traveling expenses. I nod my head. “Yeah. It is.” But I also know about dreams. “If you can you should go. You should visit.”

“Visit you?” she looks surprised, taken aback by the offer.

I meant visit the country, but visiting me is fine. Who needs a permanent address to host? I smile. “Sure!”

She seems touched in her brusque way. There’s an interval of silence as she travels in her mind.
There’s an interval of silence as we travel from street to street. She breaks it by asking, “What time do you want me to pick you up?” She weaves through traffic, scans through her GPS screen and starts to find a number on her phone. I’m glad I’m not driving but in this moment wish I was. She adjusts the wheel in time to avoid switching lanes into another car.

“Um,” Nadezdha and I say together. We don’t know what time we’ll want to go back. “We’re not sure,” I say.

“You have handy?” our driver asks me. She gives me a stern look from the rearview mirror. 

“Handy?” I ask.

“Handy! Handy. You have handy? How you call me if you no have handy?”

“Oh.” Nadezdha and I exchange a look. Neither of us have a cell phone. “No. But we could call from a payphone or a café or something?”

Our driver mumbles and shakes her head. I imagine that she’s saying, “Oh this is bad. Bad.” While we wait at a red light, she stamps her name and number on the back of an old receipt. Then she hands it back to me.

Nadezdha writes down our ship’s location from the GPS screen in her notebook so that we can tell another driver how to take us home if we ride with someone new later on.

When the light changes colors, our driver takes a left hand turn. “Scheiße!” she says. Mumbles. Shakes her head. She’s holding an involved discourse with herself as she makes a U-turn and takes another left turn, putting us back the way we’d been going. Nadezdha laughs silently from her seat behind our driver. I’m trying to keep a straight face so I don’t get in trouble if I’m caught laughing. Our driver can see me. She’s nice, but a little scary too. In a safe moment, I grin over at Nadezdha and she smiles back.

Eventually, we get to our destination in the shopping center of Hamburg and our driver drops us off. I arrange for her to pick me up early the next morning. I have a train to catch.

Once together and alone, Nadezdha and I compare thoughts. Neither she nor I have any specific places we must see.

“What do you want to do?” I ask her.

“Maybe find a park, have a beer,” she says.

“Alright,” I say. Sounds good to me.

We wander for a while. Up and down business streets, past shops, through a plaza with a garage-sale like market going on, down some residential streets. We’re just travelers getting an introduction to a city. Simply two girls out day tripping. As if our countries had never held a Cold War between them. Because what would that have to do with us, after all? We’re enjoying being outside. Nadezdha asks an old man the way to a park. He points us in the right direction. We find it no problem. It’s a nice day. Although the clouds are hanging around with stormy potential, the rain is holding off. For now.

In the park, Nadezdha absorbs the green. She stops to touch the leaves of a tree. To brush her hand over a shrub. We walk in silence. We walk in brief spurts of conversation.

There’s a restaurant across from the playground. It looks closed. But there’s a man milling about so Nadezdha asks him if they’re open. He shrugs as if considering opening just for us, glances us over as if to see if it’d be worth his while. He must decide it is because he puts some chairs out around the plastic tables, uses a cloth to wipe off the rain water from them, puts a yellow tablecloth on and with a wave of his hand invites us to sit.

Nadezdha orders us dark beer.

Over the foam, we talk about travels. She’s served on Russian ships in the past, but this is her first time on a world route ship. We talk about language. “It’s like I’m child in English,” she says. “I don’t know how to say the words. I don’t have the vocabulary.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I say, thinking back to all the ways I’d learned to talk roundabout in Spanish in order to express a word or a concept without knowing the specific term. It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating. “Your English is really good though.”

“I got really good marks in school,” she says. Conveying with her expression how different school learning is from actual usage. “But it is very difficult speaking. I don’t know how to say what I want to say.”

“Speaking is different,” I say. “It’s so much harder.”

We talk about work, the past, death, the present, life and the future. After we’ve finished our beer we get up and go. The streets lead us to nowhere, to everywhere. We cross a busy road because we’re lured by the sight of green—trees, grass, bushes—and the river Elbe lying just behind all this like a blue promise. Along the Elbe, stretched the length of Hamburg (I’m sure), lies an inviting sidewalk. It’s busy. It’s the weekend and everyone is out for a walk, a bike ride, a run, an ice cream, a sit together on a park bench, an outing. We’re part of everyone.

The afternoon lengthens, grows older.
My stomach growls. Nadezdha must be feeling hers growl too because she mentions wanting a snack. We don’t find anything suitable at the kiosks down the river walk so we head off back towards the center in search of some food. Nadezdha wants something like peanuts to have with another beer. I’m thinking second lunch sounds good.

Although we can’t find a place that serves peanuts, we finally find something that suits us both well enough. We select an outside table, glance up questionably at the sky—maybe the rain will continue to hold off—take our seats. She gets nachos. I get a veggie bruschetta. We both get another dark beer.

A guy takes the table next to us and lights up a cigarette. I just finish thinking, I wish he hadn’t sat there, I wish he didn’t smoke when Nadezdha swipes the air in front of her face and says, “Cigarette. I used to smoke, but now after I quit I can’t stand the smell.”

I give a surreptitious glance over and see the guy smile. He heard. Oops. He stands his menu up as a smoke barrier, switches his body to face more away from us. He and I catch eyes over the menu. I smile. It’s not an apology for my friend; I’m not responsible for that. But it’s a smile that says I know you heard and understood and you’re kind. He and I become friends in that instant.

The sky decides it has held back long enough and opens up and lets go. The rain shimmers down in pearls, in sheets. Nadezdha looks behind us to see if there’s a free table inside and I’m about to pull out my rain poncho when the small awning above us suddenly, automatically, magically extends to cover the entire patio. Ah! These Germans know how to make things. They’re efficient. They’re practical. This is wonderful. We’re still outside, but we’re dry.

It’s me and Nadezdha. And in this moment, I’m filled with amazement at my life. Here I am drinking dark beer in the center of Hamburg with a Russian girl. I like how all the conceptions I’ve had and have been taught, of nationalities, of nations, of people, are being stripped down and refinished as I go along. We’re two, sometimes three when the guy joins our conversation. He asks us where we’re from. We ask him where he’s from because his skin color and dark hair don’t advertise Typical German. He tells us that he’s originally from Afghanistan but that he’s been in Germany since he was ten or so. His parents had moved them all to get away from the war, to find a safe place to raise their family. This guy is beautiful. He’s got a gentle way about him. We could be friends easy. I think, I’m sorry my country has had such a part in keeping that war going. I don’t know if I’m responsible for that apology or not. He finishes his coffee and his cigarette and gets up. He was just on break. When he heads back inside, back to work, he takes our empty plates with him. But before that, we shake hands, “It was nice talking to you,” I say. The world is a simple place when there are no politics. People are wonderful. I discover this over and over again with each new person I speak with.

The rain stops as if just for us. We walk down a few more streets, take some pictures at St. Georg’s Church, and then wind up back where we started at the Hauptbahnhof Train Station. Nadezdha and I are both content with how the day has gone. It’s enough. We find a taxi driver who will take us home for the same amount we were charged on the way in. It’s fair.

This driver is also talkative. His English is more fluent than our morning driver’s. We trade off the usual “where are you froms” and then he tells us of how he used to work on a passenger ship. He knows all about the seaman’s life. He gets caught up in memory and tells us story after story, which usually involved lots of pot smoking, a love-at-first-sight experience in a foreign port that he couldn’t pursue because he had a pregnant girlfriend back in Hamburg, and more pot. He stops the meter before we get to ship.

“Thank you,” I say, surprised and grateful. The fare is just under our agreed upon amount.

“It’s been really fun remembering all that,” he says with a happy light in his eyes. He pulls up next to the gangway. “Best of luck,” he and I say to each other. Nadezdha and I get out and go aboard.

“Thanks for going outside with me,” I tell her. “That was nice.”

We go our separate ways.

I head up to my room. I’m worn out. It’s still early evening, but that doesn’t matter. I take a nap and get up long enough to put my pajamas on and go to bed. I’m glad I have my cabin and my bed this one last night, the comforts of home for just a little bit longer. Tomorrow will start the next phase of my adventure. A hint of trepidation sits in my belly next to the dark beer there. I’m heading into the unknown again and I have a conflict within myself; I want to stay here forever and I want to move on.

I set my phone alarm and fall asleep knowing that even if I sleep through it the gangway on-duty guy will get someone to wake me up when my taxi arrives if I’m not out there to meet it, knowing that the second is going to call me around 5:30.

“What time you want me to call you to wake you up?” Domin had asked me the day before when we’d been talking about my leaving.

I wake up before my alarm. I wake up before Domin’s wake up call.

“Good morning,” I say into the receiver.

“This your wake up call,” Dominador says.

“Thank you!” I say.

I’m up and ready now. I shoulder my bag. I give a final double check to make sure that I’ve got all my stuff and that I’m leaving the room clean behind me. I put the key on the table and shut the door one last time.

I’d said my goodbye and thank you to the captain the day before. I’m more or less set. In the stairway I cross paths with the AB whose name I never learn. He won’t let me carry my own bag and takes it from me. I follow him to the poop deck. Domin is in the ship’s office and I stop to wave goodbye. The AB tells me he’s taking my bag all the way out. “Thank you,” I call after his retreating back. The third is just up to go on duty and comes into the office looking bleary eyed and sleepy. I probably look the same. I don’t get off with a quick goodbye. Both the second and third escort me out. Just as I open the door to outside, Jake reaches for the handle. We all stop in the entryway. I shake Jake’s hand. “Take care,” I say. I’m glad there’s no chance for a more sentimental moment from him and feel a little bad that this is all the goodbye he gets. I don’t know if he watches me walk across the deck or if he goes right inside. I don’t look back.

There’s a bunch of guys hanging about the gangway. All of them my friends. I shake hands down the line. I say things like, “All the best.” “Thank you.” “Take care.” They stand shoulder to shoulder shipside and watch me take the metal steps out then walk across to the waiting taxi. They watch and wave and watch me leave.

I record their faces in my memory. The third, still half asleep and serious. The second, my good friend. Charlton, with a smile for me. The other guys who are used to goodbyes, trying to give me a nice sendoff. I’m going to miss them all.

My bag is put in the trunk. I get in the car and twist around to look back one more time. I wave.

I blink a couple times hard.

Behind me the boys fade from my sight, the DALIAN gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Then she’s out of my vision, and I’m out of her life maybe forever.

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