That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
We take the train to Frankfurt.
It's a nearly seven hour ride and we settle in, grateful that we’ve reserved our seats when at one of the stops a crowd of people comes on board and there's a wild scramble for chairs and a redirecting of those who have taken others’ places.
Jesse and I sit opposite each other next to the window watching the mayhem. The seats beside us are empty until two men take them. They're jovial, older, German men. Their wives sit across the aisle with another couple they're traveling with.
The men begin to speak to us and we or rather, Jesse tells them in German that we’re sorry we don't speak any German (unless we’re asking for scrambled eggs, saying excuse me, or thank you). But this makes them happy and their faces brighten even more when they find out we’re from the United States. "I haven't practiced my English in sixty years," the man next to me says. He speaks to us in German, English, and then also in French when he finds out that Jesse understands. She becomes the conversationalist, the translator, and I follow along best I can when the languages branch over into the ones I don't know. The second man’s English is sparse like my German and he lets the man next to me translate the way I let Jesse. We communicate with smiles, hand motions, and our own languages.
They ask about our travels and we tell them we’re heading to visit a friend in Frankfurt.
"Forget Frankfurt," the man says. "Come to Hanover. I'll give you a grand tour."
They ask us where all we’ve been and I pull out my notebook and show them the map I’ve drawn there of our itinerary. They grudgingly approve of our trip to Berlin, lightly mourn that we aren’t going to the north of Germany. "It’s more beautiful there," they say.
When lunch time comes around, we all take out our packed lunches and eat. For dessert, the speaker's wife pulls out a box of assorted chocolates and tells the men to offer some to us.
"She’s my general," the man says with a grin as he obeys.
They've just been to Austria, like us, and I ask something about how Germany feels about Austria, what with it having been taken from Germany after the war, because in its claim of independence it declared itself permanently neutral, and because of its past with Hitler. Hitler was born in Austria after all. The man makes a sound. "Hitler was a mistake," he says, and shrugs. Austria has been forgiven that, and Germany itself is reborn, different. It’s come through the fire. The past isn’t forgotten, certainly not, there are too many dead to forget it, too much pain and suffering lining history books and lives, but in a way it’s forgiven. At least, learned from. The man tries to explain it as we all sit together, Americans and Germans, in a train as friends.
"My father fought in the war in France." The man’s eyes get a far off look in them. I imagine him sitting across from his father as his father remembers the war and tells the stories that salve the pain of that violent time. "He was in charge of the horses and had to work them. He ended up using the horses to work French fields when they weren't fighting. It's never a problem with man to man. It's the politics. Not the men."
That is the way it is, I think. Always the politics and not the men. Each country fed propaganda that matches what the warmongers, the power-hungry, those in charge of national security want or see is necessary. Not Austria. Not Germany. Not the United States. Not the people that make up those places. Just a German farmer-soldier tending French fields after fighting hours. How many stories are like that one?
I remember, several years ago, when I was on the freighter going from Houston to Hamburg and the conversations I had with the First Officer, a Ukrainian only six months older than I was. He’d told me that they’d been fed a mirror-image story about the United States. For them, we’d been the evil one, the wicked trying to take over the world, the disrupter that would bring in philosophies to ruin their way of life and destroy their morality. We’d been told the same things about Russia and the whole Soviet Union.
But the Ukrainian and I, we had no problems with each other. We could be friends.
Man to man is never the problem.
Our German friends get off the train at a stop somewhere before Frankfurt. The man pauses in the aisle and asks, "Do you want me to write down my number? So you can call if you come to Hanover?" I start to push my notebook his direction. And he laughs, it was a joke, what are the chances we’d ever make it there anyway? They all leave together in a flurry of motion, noise, and joie de vivre.
Jesse and I continue on in the train from Vienna to Frankfurt. When we arrive and after we’ve checked into our hotel, we hang out with my friend Stefan. He shows us the German nightlife which includes a traditional German festival and then a South American festival where we have Ecuadorian food and Peruvian Pisco Sours.
The world is open to us, the entire world, all we have to do is get from place to place.