Wir Lieben Deutsche Bahn
(published in the 11th Volume of Black Swan Cultural Magazine)
When I first boarded ICE train 623, people already lined the floors and open spaces of the Friday morning train to Oktoberfest, some in lederhosen and dirndls, others blissfully aloof to the whole scene. Some had kegs and beers, and others burned with looks of utter frustration. Passengers constantly shifted seats amidst the train, their plaid-shirts stained with beer. A disabled military vet, five men from the Dülkens stop, and a group of eight hotel accountants from Frankfurt all filed in the seats around me once the coach party settled down.
The gregarious Dülkens and the accountants became fast acquaintances even though they clearly had just met. At one of the stops a Dülkens man got off the train for a quick smoke break, and scrambled back on five minutes later, tailed by a furious conductor screaming at him. All of the group ducked into their seats and giggled quietly like fifth graders, trying to avert eye contact with the person in-charge.
Two of the Dülkens crammed into the empty seat next to me, inebriated and snickering, their blue-checkered lederhosen pushing me tight against the window.
“What is she yelling?” I whispered humoredly, avoiding looking up at the screaming conductor.
“He held up the train for 3 minutes because he was drunkenly blocking the door,” One of them answered, comically shaking his head in feigned shame. “If he does it again they’re going to kick him off.”
“Oktoberfest, man.” I cackled.
“Tell me, American,” the other leaned in, with a convivial grin across his face and vodka on his breath. “Why do you drive the train alone?”
At first, the men would speak to me in English, and then switch to German. The language barrier kept our conversations separate, having a dialogue with me, and then with the rest of their friends in the car. All five Dülkens men sat in the seats to my left and their new hotel accountant friends sat in front of me. But then, the military woman with the prosthetic leg seated behind the whole group joined in the conversation, revealing her strong Canadian accent. Helena, a 50-year old fluent in many languages due to her military assignment in Germany, became the link between the different groups. Now with her help—and her connective, motherly presence—the conversation became circular among our coach.
Through Helena’s translation, Marco and Christoph, the two Dülkens men sitting with me, lit up when they found out that they lived only about about 30 kilometers from where I studied in the Netherlands.
“You have to go laser tagging with us in Venlo!” Marco happily slurred. Marco, an extremely welcoming person, had this grin that spread broadly from his lips to his red cheeks, his eyes creasing every time he laughed.
Christoph handed me a black, malformed plastic bottle with a janky red cap. “Drink this! Drink this!” His enthusiastic nod assured me it wasn’t poisonous, and my nostrils assured me it wasn’t gasoline but rather something mysteriously fruity. A cautious sip down and I knew it was two literyeger bomb: red bull and cheap vodka.
After the various conversations calmed from rowdiness to friendly curiosity, Christoph, Marco, and I faced Helena to ask about her military background. Helena proudly recounted how she had lost her leg to a hand grenade in training two days before being shipped off to Afghanistan. She had been on medical leave ever since, but hoped to go to Sudan when she made a recovery. Her eyes glowed, full of bravery—they showed no regret, only pride.
“You know, me and my son did basic training at the same exact time.” She told us so humbly, yet still powerful and fulfilled. “No one’s ever done that in Canada before us. And no one ever knew—we kept it a secret until graduation!”
She hadn’t started training until 45, when she left her job as a schoolteacher. “It was great, you know. But I felt so uninspired.
“I just got a change I wasn’t expecting.” She flatly said. “But I can’t change—and I wouldn’t change—where I am at now.”
The focus of the conversation turned again to the hotel accountants group. Helena, Christoph, Marco and I turned to one of them, Sandra, in the seats in front of us, who gave me three sandwiches and three beers when she heard I hadn’t eaten all day. Between salami sandwiches and cultural discussions, Sandra told us how travel changed her life.
“I think some people may never try to experience it…” She began, her eyes dreamily drifting out over the open hills of Bavaria. “But there is nothing like it—to leave home…To see the world and all it has to offer. To travel alone—that is when I learned to love home.”
“And you meet people like these!” Helena, chimed in behind us, looking over the community. Her eyes glowed like a mother’s, with her innate love for those in her world evident.
“Even if they’re drunken idiots like him!” Christoph smiled, pointing to Marco as he danced to German pop, spinning a ribbon dance baton he lifted from a Swiss kid in Coach 26.
As I feasted on free sandwiches, Marco and Christoph brought me down the aisles and introduced me to the rest of their friends They paraded around, saying in German guttural voices, “This is Evan from Philadelphia! He lives 30 minutes off the 83 bus from Venlo! Lazer tag next week! He studies in Boston! An! American!”
Later, as the train pulled in, Marco and Sandra decided teach me some German before we parted ways.
“Let’s teach him the article song, Marco!” Sandra’s eyes lit up in a playful intensity.
Marco began to sing the first verse, and everyone chimed in immediately.
Der, Die, Das!
Wer, Wie, Was!
wieso, weshalb, warum,
wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm
Tausend tolle Sachen
die gibt es überall zu sehen
manchmal muss man fragen
um sie zu verstehen!
Bavaria’s faded gold and amber trees and foggy hills flew by at 200 kilometers per hour as we caroled about German grammar, fifteen new friends on the train from Dusseldorf to Munich. All around, we roared in merriment as we sang the children’s jingle from the German Sesamestraße. Christoph had his arm draped around my waist, woozily leaning on me for support. In between verses, Marco screamed “All Hail DeutscheBahn!” as he handed out shots to his friends. Sandra led the jumping chorus and Helena smiled contently from her seat.
As we sang, I thought of how I had come on this train alone expecting to absorb Germany’s landscape for the first time in silence; to take in the South’s rolling hills and see how the Black Forest turned golden as it transitioned into autumn.
When all of us in our car had exchanged sandwiches, language, culture, and our e-mails, I realized that I had found something altogether different. For that moment, we all hooted and warbled and drank like some big family reunion, like we all spoke the same language, like we all hadn’t met four hours before.