Category Archives: travel

Pilgrimage: Final Words on Tuebingen (or… An Attempt to Understand)

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I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.

The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.

When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”

And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.

The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.

And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.

Pilgrimage: Maybe Holy Is Just The Easiest Word to Pronounce, Maybe It’s Just The First Word That Comes to Mind

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It is 5:20am. Laura rides on a train headed in the opposite direction toward Stuttgart, and I ride home toward Tübingen. For the past week, we have been exploring Germany together. We snuck through the holy silence of a monastery, drank beer and ate Wurste in the jubilant expanse of the Botanischer Garten, walked through endless parks with an eye for mischief, sampled every piece of equipment on every playground we passed, trekked to the top of a mountain to explore a Prussian castle, pretended to understand contemporary art in Freiburg, and got lost in the Black Forest.

But she’s got a new adventure to pursue—study abroad in Russia. She will arrive in St. Petersburg this afternoon. There is pain in parting and joy in joining. There are words I am still learning to pronounce and emotions I am still learning have no words. In the week she has been here, we’ve navigated extremely frustrating situations (becoming lost on trains or in downtowns on rainy afternoons) and have come to better terms about what it means to work together, to trust one another even when we’re both fairly clueless. Now there exists an ending, a finale, a closing credits for our small and strange adventure.

But stories do not end. They just fade to black, to be continued imprinted across the screen.

The sun rises above the horizon, first its pink tentacles and then its orange halo, bathing the sky sherbet. There is sadness in parting, but have you ever seen pollution paint the sky so vivid? Have you ever gotten so much cloud stuck on your face, its candy floss sugar won’t scrub free for days? Have you ever kissed someone you love?

You should try this, at least once. It’s like walking into an abandoned church, praying among the pews of teeth, and knowing the meaning of grace. And knowing that grace is just a word for something we cannot yet say. It’s a grunt for the non-verbal secret we can never quietly tell.

Pilgrimage: Cigarette Culture and the Seven Rings of Bureaucratic Hell

DSCN0015Today 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.

Pilgrimage: Train Ride into Heilbronn

After riding the U-Bahn from Stuttgart airport into the main train station (often named the Hauptbahnhof), we wonder through the train station searching for our correct train which we will ride into Heilbronn. A small bird hops on the platform, a black bird, which I find strange to see underground. Element of air trapped under Earth. When we ascend to the above metro station, a dozen or more birds flit past my head. After navigating the station, which is under construction, my Opa and I must dash down the length of the platform to catch the train before it leaves.

Once onboard, we may relax. With my bags stacked next to me in a seat, I press face to glass and watch sunlight paint Stuttgart. We pass through a series of tunnels, each decorated with crude graffiti. If you pay attention, one notices similar tags appearing again on the sides of buildings later. We pass through the city, a corridor of banks, tall buildings, and beer gardens. Then into the suburbs. The houses in Germany appear very similar in form and style, their red roofs slanted and shingled. Very Old World feel, these houses which appear in sparser patches as we inch out of Stuttgart.

Soon the train glides through the countryside. One sees stretches of pasture, geometrically parceled along the ridges of each sloping knoll. Like an extremely well-played game of Tetris, these agricultural tapestries stitch together into the scene of rural Germany. Later on, as we Heilbronn draws closer, we pass the stratified vineyards. The Romans rose the grape vines on various platforms to trap heat in various areas, and the Germans have adopted this step design. Like shelves built into each hillside.

dsc005311                We drive now through my mother’s childhood hometown. Named Laufen. There’s a tunnel there my mother once told me about during a trip to Germany five years ago. They nickname this place The Suicide Tunnel, for when trains burst into the light, they cannot see whether a person stands next to a track, making it easy for an individual to throw oneself in front of the train. I remember years ago I found this place incredibly morbid, a place famous for its suicides. A place made holy through death. But now, an older version of myself reconsiders. Not so strange to find a place disturbing or special, for any place could become this place if a person dies in that place. There is a housing complex back home where a friend died, and still I cannot easily pass this neighborhood without a strange shiver.

Any house may become haunted. Any train track may become doomed. Any graveyard can be made holy for the family and friends of those whom are there interred.

Pilgrimage: Touching Down in Munich

We cruise two thousand feet about an endless fabric of cloud, lumped below us like dried mashed potatoes a toddler has chucked to the floor in a fit of rage. In the distance, the volcanic plume of a nuclear power plant slithers into the sky, beyond that the Alps. The Alps with peaks nearly high as our plane, they tower in the distance. Monstrous craggy silhouettes with a back-light bathed the pink of sunrise.

As our plane descends toward the airport in Munich, we slip beneath the blanket of clouds. The horizon blinks and blinds us. Plane touches down and seventy middle school students on a field trip bust into cliche, which is to say, burst into applause.