Train Ride to Nürnberg
“Auf gleis zwo,” reverberated off the platform and pylons then dissipated across the waves of grass stretching to the hills. Then it was the sound of birch leaves being drug through the breeze. Z-w-o, Zwwoooogh, Zwwoah is fun to say but isn’t actually a German word. I thought I was picking the language up fairly well. I could order food just about anywhere even make a special order from time to time. This was a far mark from holding up the menu while pointing to a cluster of words I hoped was food followed by “Ohne zweiblen.” It means without onions. I picked that up very quickly! Turns out, I was just learning Bavarian, Bayrisch. It seems that most countries have developed some southern culture with its own drawl and slower pace of life.
A teenager leaning against his moped leered at me. Teenagers get harder to like every year. Yet, this one earned a place in my heart as I watched him muscle his bike up the stairs. He was skinny and wore a jeans jacket. He parked within the smokers’ box, a yellow stripe on the cement within which smokers collect themselves to become one smoldering mass. At least, you can stay up wind from them. I hoped he was going to try to take his bike on the train.
The air is fresh here. I like it. A few months ago the farmers had been out with the fertilizer, liquefied cow dung. The air grows thick with it. It will waft through the house on a sunny afternoon, and I’m sure there are a few car wrecks annually as daydreaming drivers collide with the shock of it. It doesn’t bother me. It smells like life. My wife cannot stand it. She hollers and gags. I’ll stop cracking the windows when it stops being funny. They aren’t supposed to spray their fields unless it’s going to rain. In true southern fashion though, they’ll spray their fields then laugh at what fools the rest of the world thinks they are. Those poor unsophisticated framers can’t even get the weather right, the rest of Germany scoffs as they just go on spraying their fields.
Christmas loomed on the horizon, and I was headed to Nürnberg. I had the perfect gift in mind. I knew it was perfect because my wife had pointed to it and said, “That bag, right there. I want that for Christmas.” Problem solved. A new gym bag. Before buying something for the gym, some men might defer to their better judgment, the same line of reasoning that says vacuums, while useful, are also a bad idea. Nope, a gym bag with a pouch at one end in which her shoes would fit. I waited at the Kirchenlaibach train station. It has a walkway that hops across the tracks then cozies into the grass to disappear behind some hills. I have never gone off to see where it leads. I wonder about it.
My whole plan for the day hinged on being back to our little village before my wife, but I was conspired against! by mildly above par television and fresh coffee. I missed the first train out of Pressath, our little village. I missed the next one by a few minutes as I sprinted down the hill. I did get to watch it pull away. At the time, that felt like something to hold onto. In all the kerfuffle of leaving the house in time to just miss the train, I didn’t remember my phone. I was okay with that though because I like being without my leash.
I like the trains. We crossed six countries in forty five days this last summer. My wife had been keeping a travel journal, memento to our as yet non-existent kids or something. I had a temper tantrum on the highspeed in Spain. We moved sections. In the hotel that night, we couldn’t find the journal. I wish I knew how to fix that. I feel at home on the train. It got to being like home base, a place to organize and relax while she scribbled away in that book.
When my train pulled up, school children poured out talking and plugged into their electronics like kids are everywhere. I thought how wonderful it would have been to trade my yellow, pleather upholstered school bus for this gentle red rollercoaster.
While the world coasted below, I thought about the twelve pages of excel spreadsheet we call a budget waiting to expose my plans. I had been assigned to buy the bag. That didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little fun with how I bought it. I wandered off. I wondered how many more months it would be before I could put the motorcycle back on the road. I wandered even further back all the way to my grandfather’s screen door with a spring fastened along the middle. When it snapped closed it sounded like a rifle shot. It was just a door, but it is one of only three things I remember about my grandfather’s house: it, the kitchen table, and the breakfast nook where he perched himself to watch the world. Every day, he stared out his window watching the grandchildren play on the tire swing and prostitutes trolling for business. It used to be a good neighborhood, but then a city grew up around him.
I remembered my grandfather wanting to show me a new birdcage he had designed. I think he eventually turned it into a giant hamster cage, but it had birds that day. There was something he was very proud of, but I can’t remember what it was. I suppose if I could remember it wouldn’t matter.
“Free?” asked a man jarring me out of my daydreams as he set his hat on the table.
“Yes,” I answered back. He was narrow in the shoulders. His stomach protruded tightly so that he looked like he was pregnant. A lifetime of good beer had settled there after he had retired. He asked me something I thought sounded like he thought it was too late in the year not to have seen any snow. I still hear languages as literal translations. I find poetry in it. I wanted to practice the language, but I also wanted to be left alone. I replied in English and in a friendly tone, but quickly so that he wouldn’t understand. I pretended he had asked where I was headed, and I told him all about the gift I had been ordered to purchase to express my love this time of year. We sat quietly for the rest of the trip.
When we got up to leave, he said, “You should not buy her the bag. Show your wife how you really feel.” With that, he put on his hat and stepped onto the platform.
That would have been a great ride on the bike. I like the bike because I might not live, and I enjoy the honesty of that fact. I haven’t had it on the autobahn yet. My wife asked me not to. I said I had to at least once. I bet that kid did take his moped on the train. When I bought the motorcycle, everyone said how lucky I was that my wife let me have one. I have never had a week where I wanted to punch more people. Bavarians had been expecting snow for the better part of a month. We thought it would save a lot of money to take the bike’s insurance off for the winter.
A fun note about Germany: every city has its own sausage. Nürnbergers are indistinguishable from American breakfast sausages but served three in a roll with mustard. The best ones come from a guy selling them out of a window in the main square. I strolled with my sausage sandwich watching the people. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I didn’t just go buy her bag right off. I had rationalized about not wanting to waste money on a train ticket so I should enjoy the day. I was annoyed by the thought of having to carry the bag around, but I can’t see the reasons clearly anymore.
I sauntered about watching the people, getting my money’s worth for the ticket. It was the same as it usually is. Movies have taught us to romanticize Europe remembering it with music echoing from ally walls like hidden speakers carefully placed. In truth, the music of the streets is quite good, but it is played from poverty and the desperate cold.
The guy who does one handed pushups while balanced atop a glass bottle was taking a cigarette break. Something of me missed Brussels where the restaurateurs stand in busy alleyways waiting for someone to drag in and serve. The vendors lining Nürnberg’s walkways are quiet, disinterested sellers. Tradition has done their marketing for them. Behind me, a familiar sound spilled over the rest of the busy fussganger.
“I don’t know. Where does Marjory want to eat? At that place over the river? It depends on how big their portions are. Do you think they’ll let us split there because I don’t know if I can eat a whole plate?” a woman said peeking over her sunglasses.
She and her husband were staring at a cart selling sausages set to one side of the fussganger. They would stare, then spin slowly around looking for what they were supposed to be doing, then blinking slowly but with intensity look back to the sausages.
“Hell, for whatever three euro is, it’s worth just trying. I don’t even care if we don’t eat hardly anything at the restaurant.”
“I’m just saying that it looks heavy, and I don’t want to waste money. Who knows how much this is costing!”
“Who cares!” The husband had by then pulled out a money clip. “Why would you come all this way to start counting pennies now? Here, watch this.” He pulled what I assume was five euro out of his fold. I assume it was a five because anything smaller would have been a coin, but he could have pulled out a ten. He went to the glass bottle standing alone by an overturned hat. From within the hat, a rock peeked over the brim. He waved to his wife with the bill, waved to the older muscular man who’d been eyeing him while smoking a cigarette, and pushed his paper under the rock holding the day’s earnings in place. This was acknowledged by a wave of the cigarette.
She glared at her husband. Her hat flopped with the breeze. It was cold. Cold enough for snow, but there wasn’t any. Behind her, framing her, was the Saint Lorenz Church. The wind breaking itself against the spires almost drowned her out. She wasn’t blinking anymore.
“Ha! I thought you were going to go rip that money right out of my hand. Hell, I can’t believe he took it! Greedy S.o.B. I didn’t even get to see what his trick was,” he said grinning ear to ear. “Honey, go get that money back.” He said to her. “It was too easy to give it to him.”
She didn’t think her husband was very funny. “Well, now I’m sure we don’t need to buy street sausages,” she said before heading off towards the Saint Lorenz.
Her husband bellied up to the sausage cart wringing his fingers while he weighed his options. I went to him. He nodded politely then looked back to the kettle of glistening sausages being turned by a large spatula.
I told him the mustard there was too spicy. It overpowers the char of the skin.
He thanked me.
I told him, “There’s a better place in the main market square. My wife has a picture of herself spinning the ring.”
He didn’t ask what I was talking about.
“We found out later the luck it’s supposed to bring is children.”
He chuckled politely and thanked me again.
Call it nostalgia, rationalization for making old mistakes for their own sake, but I wanted a cup of coffee, Starbucks coffee. There is a plague sweeping Europe. Coffee is being replaced by a single serving disk of coffee smushed into a contraption, which sounds like an old refrigerator with a bad compressor. Press the button for a black, foamy ooze. This disaster of an innovation has left a classic cup of brewed coffee to be legitimately valued at three to five dollars depending on the exchange rate of the day.
My day had started off completely shot. I made it worse by meandering through the crannies of the city centre. Germans are funny about closing times. They are closed usually close to half an hour before the posted time. In a big city like Nürnberg, you are less likely to run into problems with ruhetag, the rest day. It can be Tuesday or Thursday. It’s just whatever day they feel like not having the store open. In our little village and associated villages, ruhetag and German holidays fell regularly on days when I had just discovered the store that had the thing I needed. I have since tried to make a habit of realizing I need something a solid week before I am going to need it. That’s how the Germans do it.
Our German friends still cannot understand why any store would be open on a Sunday. One of our friends talked about how much it changed his life when the local hardware store decided to stay open until four in the afternoon on Saturdays. It revolutionized his world. About the best example of the local proclivities regarding store hours is the bike shop in our village that is only open weekdays from five to six thirty in the evening. No one seems to find this especially odd.
The Starbucks was on the way to the store carrying my wife’s bag to be. The barista was cute for a tall blond in her early twenties. I mean that. When my wife and I started dating, I would bring girls’ phone numbers back to her like a cat presenting her with a fish. I hadn’t been giving an unsolicited phone number from a cute girl in a long time. I felt owned or marked. I felt option-less. The barista smiled at me. She shifted and posed leaning in then away. It made me feel twenty again. She stirred some younger part of me that doesn’t respect fences. I didn’t want to hear my own arguments for good behavior as it related to paying off the car early or dusting. She smiled at us, me and the younger me. She waved at us with her wrist held close to her taut bra. Her pants rested low. Her shirt had begun to loose itself slightly so that the tabs below where the buttons stopped separated showing the soft bit of flesh between the belly button and where clothes still covered.
Smiling, I asked, “Can I a large coffee have and also a cookie with chocolate pieces please?”
“I can speak English,” she said, then after a pause giggled. “You are American.”
I made a joke about American treats being too sweet because that’s what I had planned. It didn’t translate back into English very well or have anything to do with what she just said. She swayed supplely. Her hips rocked closer until the countertop startled her. She spoke English very well, and I told her as much.
“Thank you,” she said through a grin. “I would like to go to live in Miami, so I am learning. There is nothing here in Germany.”
“Well, if you want to move to Miami, you are learning the wrong language.” I laughed trying not to show the bitterness that welled up unexpectedly. She looked at me strangely. The coyness was gone from her. I was thinking how best to backpedal when someone else chimed in.
“Yeah, the only people who live there are retired Germans and Mexicans,” an older woman said standing in the line the barista, Alison, and I had been holding up. The woman was short, thin, and spoke English with a New York accent coloring her heavier natural German one. Her skin and hair and interruption of my conversation with Alison reminded me of women I’d seen before, of women who knew the inside of a bar too well. She chatted with Alison looking to me at times expecting something. I smiled politely when she did. It was all halfway muted.
I was working through her opening salvo. ‘Only Germans and Mexicans,’ she’d said. Mexican is the racist thing to say, but then she claimed all the retired Jews as Germans. The other barista looked at me sideways as she handed me my order. I thanked them her and Alison and found a seat with a good view of the street.
“It really used to be busy around here,” a New York tinged German accent said. She sat herself with a chair still between us. “But that was twenty years ago now.”
I missed something. I do not remember how we started talking about shipping things to the states. I was looking at her coffee cup. It was her personal Starbucks coffee cup. It was nice, see-through. It looked more like a Tervis Tumbler, but rather than a tropical fish there was a corporate logo. There was something about a cousin and then I was feigning understanding about a backpack that arrived to a nephew of hers with a strap ripped off. I was thinking coffee with your own cup would probably only be around two or three dollars a go.
Alison plopped into the open chair.
“So, if I should not go to Miami, where should I go?” She squeezed my arm.
I collected myself, realized that I was the exotic foreigner, remembered that I was the older man, got over that to focus again on the advantage of it, and spoke slowly. “Sanibel. Sanibel Island. No crazy bars. Beaches free from teenagers and college kids. It’s peaceful.”
I wanted to see her laugh at a joke she didn’t understand. “It is one of the last pockets left where I’m from that hasn’t been overrun by Michigan driving slowly and wishing the kids would call more often.”
Her laugh was more honest and more satisfying than a kiss.
The line had built back up. Alison disappeared reassuring me she would be back with a caress of my shoulder.
Janice said her name was Janice. She was smirking. I hated her a little for it.
I said my name and that it was a pleasure. I think she knew I was lying because her smirk became a smile.
“I was married to a G.I. Twice. I even lived in Michigan for a little while. That’s how come I can speak English as good as I do. He was a nice guy. I loved him. He just wasn’t as good as US bread wasn’t.” She laughed. “Good thick crusted bread.” She sipped her coffee. “I’m a regular here. You know it is almost cheaper by half if you have one of these cups. Yeah, I’m here almost every day.”
“When I met my wife, I was living in my own garage,” I told Janice for some reason. “I didn’t see any reason to have a whole room for my bed and sleep when I could use it for something else. It was better down there anyway, sleeping in the same room as my car and my washer and dryer. My mornings were streamlined. I woke up, grabbed something out of the clean cloths pile and drove off. I didn’t need to go into the house for anything. I did develop a Starbucks habit though.”
Alison sashayed into view. Settling into the chair, she looked as confident as a salesman at a closing. “Let me see your handy.”
“I left my phone at home. Most times, I just see who called and call them back.” I didn’t add: like it used to be.
“Alright. I’ll be back.” When she came back, she began writing on a receipt, scrunched her nose and mouth then crumpled it up. “The writing was not very nice. Let me do it again.” She left and came back. This time, she handed me a piece of paper with Alison already beautifully written over a chain of numbers.
I took the numbers and the beautifully written name. Her pants were very low. Her bra was stretched. Her skin was soft. I took the paper. It felt exciting to be free. I was nervous. I was giddy. I was going to cheat on my wife. My eyes fixed behind Alison to the woman sipping coffee from her own cup.
There was a woman waiting for me probably scared out of her wits because when she tried to call me the living room started ringing and I could be anywhere in Germany. How many times did we get on the wrong side of the train over the summer to wind up hundreds of miles from where we had planned to be? It didn’t matter because we were both there. Now, she was home and I was lost at the worst possible train station in all of Europe for all she knew. When I tell her bad jokes, she rolls her eyes and charges me a fee of one kiss on my coffee refill. What was I doing there? I had coffee at home.
I left. I felt too guilty. I couldn’t give this girl’s affection to my wife like a cat would a mouse. The store from which I had been asked to buy the bag with the special compartment for my wife’s training shoes was just on the other side of the plaza. At the outer edge of the square is a strange sculpture with a poem I have roughly translated. It talks of marriage as a passion that drives you to destruction. Rather, to destroy yourself for the joy of it. I put the paper in a waste bin with no more ceremony than a used napkin. With an hour before the store closed, I had minutes to spare.