Today I woke at 7am—unheard of in my life as writer, student, and professional slacker. Usually I wake early only if someone promises free pancakes or perhaps a magic genie lamp (though, much to my chagrin, this has yet to occur). But today I have agreed to matriculate in the University of Tuebingen, despite not fully understanding what the phrase “matriculation” actually means. I think it must be a medieval word for torture, something that the Catholic Church did to heathens during the Inquisition. Imagine hanging by your pinky toes upside down when a staunch vaguely-European voice threatens to matriculate you. Truly scary stuff, I swear.
While I sit at a bus stop hacking my lungs out, waiting to return to my underground apartment after undergoing the absurdly difficult process of matriculation, I observe two boys (12, 13) smoking cigarettes. Both strike the same pose, the ubiquitous pose of youthful boredom as popular in Germany as Macklemore haircuts. The older boy rolls a cigarette on his lap with an open canister of tobacco (brand: unknown) and surreptitiously accepts a shared lit cigarette into his mouth from his friend. He inhales deeply and then allows his friend to pluck the cigarette from between his lips to take a few puffs himself.
Because they are young, perhaps they cannot afford each their own cigarettes. Perhaps they enjoy sharing because Germany seems to be a country on the verge of embracing socialism (public transport that actually works! taxes that provide for public schools! retirement benefits!). But naturally they must hide the cigarette in case someone reproaches them. Though underage smoking is illegal, no police will approach, no; police only come when called and barely make rounds except in large train stations and even there they drive hilariously cute automobiles with calming sirens. When a German police car passes blaring its siren and flashing its light, one might mistake this for an ice cream truck.
I ignore the boys for awhile and cough heartily into my scarf. I am sick after walking for hours, lost, in search of the city offices where I might apply for a residence permit. In a few weeks, when I begin my German classes, they promised to guide us through matriculation, and I regret now not waiting, for I need a guide. I need a Virgil to guide me (Dante in this metaphor) through the Seven Rings of German Bureaucratic Hell. I’m seeing a long-form poem already writing itself—rather than The Inferno, I will call this poem The Büro, the journey of one man through the impossible difficulties of German paperwork. If I wanted to be so harassed for coming to a place I would have worn an Obama HOPE t-shirt to a Texas rodeo.
But the sludge through offices is over and my fingers may rest from clutching pen after pen after endless pen, and I may now sit watching these young boys smoke a cigarette together. Once they finish the first, they immediately light up the second. Strange, I think, to be addicted so young, but in Germany this is the most popular vice (after perhaps wefeheisen beer and techno clubs). Almost everyone I have so far met smokes cigarettes. These are no casual smokers, no, not one-a-day smokers or evening smokers, but honest-to-Angela-Merkl cigarette addicts. Everyone on the bus is jouncy to leap off the bus at the nearest stop so they can light up the next cigarette. In bars and clubs, smoking is completely allowed. Smoke fills nearly every room. I learned last night I am allowed even to smoke in my apartment as long as I open the tiny window near the ceiling.
I find this all hilarious, but I do not try to judge. Let be, I think. Let them have their tobacco and smoke it too. Being an American, I try to act very laissez-faire about the entire affair. But I learn quickly that perhaps Americans are not so live-let-live as Germans, at least on the issue of smoking. In America , for example, long ago did lobbies manage to outlaw smoking in restaurants, in the vicinity of restaurants, on public transport, and nearly everywhere else, while in Germany, despite the government wielding a large amount of control over personal life (one must recycle, one must pay various taxes for healthcare, one must go through wildly complicated registration processes), any person can smoke almost anywhere. Despite this idea, on each pack of cigarettes reads the warning: Smoking can be deadly.
But in Germany, smoking can only be deadly cool. The absolute most popular death (save perhaps heart attack after consuming too many sausages).
The sooner a German smokes, the better. So here stand two boys (12, 13) smoking at the bus stop with fervent passion. The bus arrives a moment later, and one boy smothers the cigarette with the bottom of his shoe before boarding the bus. I sit in the seat in front of them, coughing still into my scarf. And then a mighty sneeze builds in my chest, exploding up my throat until—aah, aah, achooo! I sneeze into my scarf. One boy leans forward and says quite genuinely, “Gesundheit,” which is the German version of “Bless you.”
I tell him, thanks. At least the youth of Germany care about their health.