On the train back to Mainz (via Frankfurt), two uniformed ticket controllers slipped into the train before we could slip out and wanted to know where our tickets were.
I opened my eyes wide in the universal sign for “What the hell did you just say?” and the man in blue repeated his request in the only word of English he knew, “Tickets?”
I nodded, looked through my wallet with a very serious expression on my face, and then handed him an unvalidated single-ride ticket from Mainz.
He looked at it, showed it to his partner, and they discussed, in German, if it was worth anything on this train. They decided it wasn’t and told me so. Besides, there were two of us, and only one get-out-of-schwarzfahren-free stampable ticket in my wallet.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.”
The one who had been trying to play the alpha-bull didn’t speak any English, and his authority, his puffed up stance, shrank visibly as he tried to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that he was no longer in control of the situation.
“Ausweiss,” he demanded.
I shook my head again. “I don’t understand. Do you speak any English?”
“Passport,” the second, younger man in blue translated.
Oh yes, oh yes, I nodded, handing him my American driver’s liscense.
They both looked at it, trying to decide what to do.
“Tourists,” the younger one shrugged, in German.
“Forty euros,” the other replied stubbornly. Forty euros is how much you have to pay if you get caught on a German train without a valid ticket.
“But we’re supposed to just sell tourists tickets.”
“Tourists, terrorists,” the alpha-bull said, chuckling to himself at his play on words as the younger man handed us our reciepts.
You see, if a tourist gets a 40-euro ticket, especially the kind of 40-euro ticket where they don’t take down your name and address, the Deutsche Bahn knows that they will never see a cent. So instead they “sell” tourists tickets in the train–tickets that are actually a “I paid part of the 40-euro fee already” reciept.
After a bit of discussion they found the price for a ticket from Darmstadt to Neu Isenberg–where I’d told them we were going–in a small book that one of them had in his pocket and charged us 3,70 a peice. The ticket, instead of a name and an address simply read, “TOURIST” in big black letters and asked us, in German, to transfer the remaining 46,30 to an account in Baden-Baden. Oh, but we don’t speak any German, they never explained, so we threw away our tickets, and had no idea, no idea at all (and ran off cartwheeling into the sunset.) Joke’s on you ticket man.
It took an hour and a half to get from Darmstadt to Mainz when it should have just taken the half, but we finally pulled into the Hauptbahnhof and caught the bus home.
“It’s cheesey as fuck, but I can’t help but think of it everytime I come home from a trip,” I told Mars later that night, wrapped in blankets in my own bed, the woodstove crackling beside us. “When I was a kid one of my favorite books was Pigs in the House. It was about these pigs who break out of the pen one day and run around the farm house eating cake and jumping on the beds and trying on the farmer’s wife’s dresses and making a huge mess. At the end of the book they make it back to the pig pen just before the farmer figures out they ruined his house, and–umm yeah, I basically still have the whole book memorized–the last line is: ‘Though it had been good to roam, it was good to be back home.’ And now that we’re home that line just keeps running through my head.” I snuggled deeper into the blankets and sighed, content to be home, astonished that we’d made it, again, on no money at all.
I told you it was cheesey. But that’s how the ends of trips are. Happy homecomings filled with fresh changes of clothes (I actually OWN clean clothes?!?!?!??), home-made soup (take that marriage-man, you want to know who’s going to bring me soup when I’m old? EVERYONE), and those buried-under-three-down-blankets-next-to-someone-I-love fuzzy feelings of being back, Back From an Epic Trip.
The visit to Dresden was long walks around the Neustadt. It was Katey getting over a cold and sharing a mattress in Anton’s old room. It was comfortable and cozy, and there was a party in the party cellar.
“This used to be an old meat cellar,” they had told me when I had first come to look at the place. The ceilings are low, curved, cement, and there is a row of meat hooks hanging on the far wall. I’d written my former housemates when I found out Katey was coming, to ask them if they wanted to put on a show in their basement. They did. We came. Katey got sick, but she played anyway, in between hot toddies, the best saver of lives since the Irish coffee. There was even a disco ball. Ain’t that something.
Afterwards, we slept off our hangovers and colds, played speed rummy, and left on a Sunday morning.
We took the tram to Elbe Park, the McDonalds known as the usual mitfahrgelegenheit meeting point going west. Katey took the sign, and I asked everyone gassing up. It wasn’t twenty minutes before a young dude with bad taste in rap picked us up and took us to a rest stop on the highway.
This time a red-eyed Turkish man took us along. He made me nervous; he’d been awake for over 24 hours and wanted someone in the car to talk to, to keep him awake.
“How old are you, how old are you?” he asked, in fragmented German. He was an (unconjugated) verbs and nouns kind of guy. Here I’m translating what he meant, not exactly what he said.
“26,” I told him reluctantly.
“Ugh. Four more years! Four more years and then you’re useless. You better get married, think about the future. Who do you think is going to bring you soup when you’re old?” I shrugged, he went on. “I’ve been married three times. Seven kids, three women. Women trouble, women problems, women make problems.
I said nothing, boiling. I had a similar conversation with a taxi driver once upon in Dubai, who had told me that he married his wife when she was 16, and that at 30, I wouldn’t be worth anything to anyone anymore. He also told me that he wanted to take me shopping and insisted that I take him number. I’ll never quite understand why in the year 2009 there is still so much blatant sexism. But that’s another story.
I managed to keep my mouth shut until the next rest stop, where I asked him to drop us off. He could have taken us to another rest stop, he said, but gave in when I insisted that this one was perfect. He understood, wasn’t that kind of creepy. We got out of the car and he drove away.
In Darmstadt, I thought, we could find someone with a five-person group ticket, hitch onto that, and be home in a half hour.
But, as we now know, Darmdstadt is not just a one time Wrong Spot. It’s one of those spots you should avoid at all costs if you ever want to get anywhere hitching or scamming group tickets. It’s a town with four or five wagonplätze and apparently, some really bad karma.
Katey stood on the platform while I wandered the regional train heading for Mainz. Everyone seemed to be a student, and students travel free in Germany, aren’t allowed to take guests. In the second decker of one car I asked an older woman, hoping she had a monthly ticket, which allows you to take one person with you on weekends and weekdays after 7 pm. I didn’t notice that the men sitting behind her were the train personel, and when I asked, a round, unhappy looking fellow bellowed at me, not even looking up, “You know it’s forbidden to ask people for group tickets in the train.”
“I’m sorry,” I told him politely, “I had no idea.”
“Everyone knows that,” he spat back, still not looking me in the eye.
“Well, I didn’t know that. I’m not from Germany, I’m sorry. I’ve never heard that before.”
“Hmm, well, bad luck, bad luck, bad luck.”
The old woman tried to come to my defense (“Now I didn’t know that either,” she said, “And I’ve been asked by people on the train before.”), but he just ignored us both, still looking at the peice of paper in his lap, avoiding our eyes. Everyone I know hitches on group tickets, but he was the conductor and could throw us out if he wanted. I walked past him and out of the train.
“So, the conductor is being an asshole and I don’t think we can take this train,” I told Katey when I found her on the platform. “We’re going to have to take a really round-about way, on the S-trains through Frankfurt, but they don’t control them very often, so it should be fine, it should be just fine.” (This is the part, in movies, where you turn to the person next to you and, eyes cynically wide, tell your friend “Well, they’re about to get fucked, eh?”)
“Without languages, you might as well stay home,” our first ride out of Prague told me as we pulled onto the highway. He was an older man, with white hair and a respectable car–if you find things like cars respectable–and the same man whose first question had been “But you’re not too dirty?”
“Back then the borders were closed,” he continued. “But I always said to myself, ‘one day, the day will come,’ and now it has.” He spoke Czech and German, as well as a few words of English that he seemed reluctant to use.
We’d spent an hour and a half at a gas station just outside the city, just beside the highway leading to Dresden. Katey was getting sick, so we took turns, her, hiding behind a sign to drink a beer, me, kneeling on the sidewalk eating a peanut butter-smeared baguette . (People in Germany actually recommend that you drink in a beer when sick to get better. Of course, it’s supposed to be warm and at night, but who’s counting?)
People were friendly–only a few pretended not to have seen us or
scowled at us from behind their windshields–and the rest waved and smiled and tried to have elaborate sign language conversations with us, all to say they’d like to take us, but just weren’t going our way. During communism, Izz told us, it was practically illegal not to pick up hitch hikers. (I guess there was one thing communism was good for after all. Ba dum bum, BA!) But if it had ever been easy to hitch out of Prague, it wasn’t anymore. Or we had fallen into another hitch hiking black hole and were in the dreaded Wrong Spot.
We took a break in an abandoned lot to split the last beer and then set up at a large intersection about a block away from the gas station. Four lanes, all pointing toward Dresden, and a big concrete shoulder where people would have room to pull over. In ten minutes we were in the station wagon heading onto the highway.
He hadn’t been going far and left us just outside the city at a gas station surrounded by flat empty fields. We set up on the exit road with our sign. Another forty-five minutes passed. Then a trucker, who only spoke a few words of German, said he could take us along another 40 kilometers. He was kind, and despite the language barrier, tried to talk and joke and point out the sights. We spoke in single words and gestures. When an enormous flock of birds flew past I said “Vogel” over and over again, flapping my arms when he didn’t understand. Soon after we saw a helicopter. “Vogel!” he said, pointing and chuckling at his joke. Then he pointed to the right. “Flughafen,” he said, nodding in the same direction for emphasis.
At the next rest stop we had another exit ramp to stand by. The light was starting to dim, and the temperature to drop. “If we have to sleep here, let’s stay over there,” Katey joked, pointing at what looked like a castle tower on the other side of the highway. Princesses of the highway, I thought, tucked away safe in our little stone tower, offering shelter to the hitch hikers who chanced through our rest stop.
Then a black station wagon with German plates drove up, and whisked us off to Dresden.
We took the tram to Neustadt, and the closer we got, the more I started to twitch. “I can’t wait to see my old housemates” twitches and “hey look remember when that thing happened right over there” twitches. “I hope I don’t run into my ex-lover” twitches and “oh god they finally finished building the supermarket on the spot where the squatted park used to be” twitches. Like arriving somewhere brand new and coming home, all at once.
As we walked up Kamenzer Straße, I saw a man looking out of a window in one of the fancy new flats in the ho-hum building they’d thrown up on the lot that used to be a squatted community park. The police had evicted it once and bulldozed everything, but the people came back, rebuilt. During the six months that I lived on Kamenzer, they evicted the park a second time, but that time they immediately started building and set up 24-hour security. It didn’t stop residents from heckling, vandalizing, and boycotting, and eventually the Konsum supermarket slated to rent the commerical property on the first floor backed out of the deal, due to bad publicity.
Instead the neighborhood got a Netto, an underground parking lot, and expensive apartments. As rumor had it, the local government was offering 10,000 euro subsidies for every parking spot created in Neustadt. Hellooo gentrification.
We’d banged on pots and ran through the streets, but they built it anyway. And enough people didn’t know or didn’t care to, now that it was finished, actually keep them afloat. To add insult to injury, all of their vegetable dumpsters were locked away somewhere out of sight and the store itself was filled with those dubious tinted glass balls that can only mean one thing: cameras.
They had every right to be worried, to overstock on security guards and cameras. The Kamenzer bunch had put up a long fight for the ground–protests and informative campaigns, and a bus trip to the house of some executive duder behind it all. But in the end community interests had lost and big business had won, ho-hum, I’ve seen this one before, isn’t there anything else on?
On the day the Netto opened, my old housemates told me, there were over a dozen security guards on hand, and no one under 40 was allowed inside. The Sheune punks had moved to Kamenzer for the day, but when they wanted to buy more beer, were given the cold shoulder. I don’t know what happened next, but as the bottle-throwing Scheune punks are the reason no bottled alcohol is sold in Neustadt after 10 pm, I can’t imagine that it was pretty.
Slowly, people forget, their amnesia and laziness driving them inside to do their weekly shopping, their car-dependence driving them to rent one of the parking spots, and we all fall down.
The Elbe-Bridge issue had been another battle lost. Dresden is–was–on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list because of its grassy, natural river banks–no walls, and long, bridge-less stretches–until the local government decided that, in the interest of traffic, a multi-lane bridge should be built at Waldschloßchen. Protesters had demanded a tunnel–an expensive compromise that would give drivers their road and UNESCO their unscathed river, but the bridge was ultimately approved in an absurd vote that, instead of asking directly, “Do you want this bridge, yes or no?” asked “Do you wish there were less traffic jams?” (I can’t find the exact wording, but I can assure you, it was worded into the kind of statement that almost no one could disagree with.)–and squatted a 400-year old tree slated to be cut down as part of construction. The were taken down by the German police unit that specializes in removing squatters from trees, and bridge construction has already begun.
The Dresden Neustadt, if you’ve never been there, is like some sort of crust-punk, hippy-child, alternative-parent’s dream. The walls are convered in graffiti and the sidewalks in dogshit. There are dread-locked parents and goths and punks and students and hippies and crusties and artists and activists and writers and dreamers and scammers. The rent is cheap, and so is the beer; on the weekends the streets fill with people, celebrating, and you’re never far from someone who wants to see this system burn as badly as you do.
Like every beautifully, perfectly run-down side of town since the beginning of time, the Neustadt is slowly falling to gentrification. A supermarket here, a rent-raise there, and soon the area will just be filled with more monotone yuppies, all hoping to have bought in on that romantic, bohemian whatever that they thought they saw here that time they came to look at cheap apartments. But by then it will be gone, because the higher rent will have forced all the ex-workers and the dreamers and the hippies out. It’s just not that easy to pull a scam anymore. There are just too many cameras.
I was sitting on the subway when the white-haired man sitting across from me started screaming in Czech. And, I slowly realized, he was screaming at me.
I shook my head. No, no, no. “I don’t understand,” I told him in German. “I don’t speak Czech.” I repeated myself again. He raged on. Czech beats German hands down for Meanest Sounding Language When Being Yelled at Nonspeakers. And, unlike the rest of the old men who have yelled at me in subways during my life, he wasn’t even visibly crazy.
Not getting the reaction he was looking for, he grabbed my right leg, which I had just crossed over my other knee, and slammed my foot down onto the ground, pointing at my shoes and then pointing at his pants. Startled, I looked down at my boots: tall black docs, still flaked with evidence from the hike across the field in Weisskirchen. I looked at his pants: standard-issue old-man blue courderoy. None of my mud was on his pants. None of his pants were on my mud. Maybe he was just offended that I’d even left the house, looking like I did.
I shook my head again. “I don’t understand.” Then he remembered that he spoke German too.
“Your dirty shoes! My pants!” Sometimes you don’t need to speak much of a language to really get your point across.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, and I meant it. I was sorry that I had sat across from him, and sorry that he thought my shoes had touched his pristine pants. “I didn’t mean to touch your pants with my shoes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t touch your pants with my shoes, but still, I’m sorry to have upset you so much.”
His face still red, he stared at me, fuming. I stared back. He didn’t look away. I didn’t look away. So I smiled at him sweetly, and went back to staring off into space. The Queen was not amused. But at least he had stopped yelling.
“Czech people have a real problem with dirt,” Izz told me later. “They get told as kids that they should be afraid of some sort of microbes, so they never wear shoes in the house, and usually have an outfit for at home, and an outfit for being outside.” Which sort of explains Courderoy Pant’s outrage. Although if he was so afraid of dirt, the joke was on him for grabbing my leg; if ever there was a flourishing microbe community, it was on the pants that I had been wearing for the past ten days.
Hitching out of Prague a few days later, a white-haired man stopped to pick us up. He rolled down the window and before he said he would take us asked, “But you’re not too dirty?”
“No, no, of course not!” We assured him, picking our bags up off of the ground and hoping that none of the mud on our shoes was still wet.
It was too dark for tiny camcorders, but you can at least hear Katey Sleeveless performing The Government Seems to Have a Hard Time Passing Bills About Things that Are Free and The Acequia Song in Prague.
“So you’ve been to the circus right? Well, you know the things that the circus people live in? Like little wooden houses on wheels? I live in one of those.”
“Ah, ‘maringotka.’ That’s what they’re called in Czech.” He tells me he doesn’t know much about squatting in the Czech Republic and that he doesn’t think there are any wagonplätze in Prague. He tells me, “In Holland squatters have some rights. Here they just get arrested.”
The thing about squats in places other than Holland is that they tend to lay under the general public’s radar. So if you’re not a squatter yourself or aren’t going to a lot of underground punk shows, you could live in a city your whole life without ever noticing that your city has a squatted house or a wagonplatz. The moral of the story is that if I had bothered to check the interweb or ask a few friends beforehand, I would have at least heard about Milada, a traveler-friendly Prague squat and Klub 007, a venue with a concert almost every night. I also wouldn’t have spent four days asking myself if it was really possible for a city to have such mono-cultural inhabitants. Next time, Milada, next time.
Instead of squats, I got the Blind Eye and the Red Oak. The Blind Eye is an alternative-leaning ex-pat bar that I strongly encourage you to never, ever visit. See, there are some men who, having bought into the western world’s ridiculous standards of masculinity, can’t handle being kind of short. This is what I like to call The Small Man Complex. (Note: These are the same men who buy fancy sports cars during their American-Beauty-esque mid-life crises.) Tragically, for him and for us, one of the owners of the Blind Eye has an advanced case of The Small Man Complex.
Exhibit A: The Small Man drops lines like “when I was a young punk rocker” like American hipsters drop names and trash talks the musicians he is neither paying nor giving a single free drink to to play in his bar in hearing distance of musicians’ party. Exhibit B: When said musician steps down from the mic to take a quick toke and he is upset, he doesn’t resort to regular old verbal communication–the well known solver of all disagreements and problems–he storms into the room and yells at her in front of the crowd, then storms out again, effectively killing everyone’s buzz and forcing me to trash talk him (hii-ii Noah) and his bar on the internet for all eternity.
The Red Oak, on the other hand, is a pleasant little Irish pub, home to a weekly open mic and another set of ex-pats, though a decidedly more pleasant brand of them. The ex-pat scene is a strange, we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore kind of place, and a place where I’ve never felt completely comfortable. Thought I’ve never met an ex-pat without an interesting back story–normal people just don’t up and move thousands and thousands of miles away from home–a lot of conversations within the “scene” itself end up feeling a bit like pissing contests. Who’s been here the longest, who speaks the language the best, who has a native lover, who’s travelled the most.
Some seem to be attempting to channel that old mythical European Romance–a beast born of a mixture of fairy tales, Lonely Planet travel guides, and the nostalgic ramblings of all those college grads who backpacked across Europe that one time before getting a 9-5, a house, and some kids. That Europe is a place where rich white kids go to find themselves, where people with meticulous scrap books spent a year studying/au pairing/backpacking. Yet it’s the very same place that, if you’re like most Americans, your relatives, my relatives, fled because they were tired of being so fucking poor and/or persecuted. These days Europe is a romance, but in the real fairy tale Snow White is a bitch stuck in an arranged marriage, and they murder the witch by making her dance to death on hot coals.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has absorbed a tide of ex-pats, seduced by her beauty, wanting to claim it for their own. So many lost nomads, trying to channel history’s Kafkas. And she’s beautiful, but she’s probably just not that kind of girl.
There are always exceptions to the rule though, and Izz is one of those exceptions–the kind of cynical no-nonsense lady who you can share a joint and a beer and a laugh and an adventure with, all in one afternoon. And that’s how we spent our days there: Drinking Czech beer (the most delicious beer on the continent, possibly the earth), roaming the city, playing with Buddy the dog, and relaxing in Izz’s little apartment with another New Orleanser whose visit collided with ours; me, fascinated to be with so many Americans all at once for such a long period of time.
Prague is the perfect city for long aimless walks; there is something beautiful on every corner, some tiny detail waiting for you to look up already. Not to men- tion the castle on the hill and the old square and the bridges and the river and the churches and the cathedrals and the million and five can-you-hand-me-a-napkin-to-wipe-off-this-drool vegan restaurants. There are small, winding alleys; old, decay- ing cemetaries; and there is graffiti. No matter how long you stay, it will never be long enough, and this is certainly the rea- son that Prague is home to so many ex- pats. But on Thursday morning the jig was up. Leopard took the bus home, and I took out my sharpie to write us a new sign. This one said “Dresden.”
*This is a Czech tongue twister. (Look, ma, no vowels!) It means “Stick your finger in your throat.”
Three hours of sleep, a few rolls, a few cups of coffee, and a cardboard sign, written in thick sharpie marker: “Prague.”
We’d gotten instructions from hitch base to a spot that, a whole bunch of virtual people said, would get us out of Munich in under twenty minutes. We just had to take the U2 to Nordfriedhof, climb through some alleged bushes–”They weren’t really bushes” and “It was more like a green strip between lanes” and “I didn’t see any fucking bushes,” read the comments on the Munich thread–and our luck would find us in seconds. But the directions didn’t say anything about which of the five Nordfriedhof station exits to use (any one is fine, just walk to the enormous, busy intersection with all the yellow signs with city names on them), and we, just as confused about the alleged bushes as the rest of ‘em, decided to just try standing at one of the busy intersection corners.
Leopard stood behind us, off to the side, apparently still worried that something about him was scaring people away–though it may have been a simple gender bias. People tell me, over and over again, that it’s much easier to hitch rides as a girl because people are less concerned that you’re going to try to kick their asses and steal their car/money/virginity. Katey and I stood with our long cardboard sign smiling and jumping up and down and making up little songs about the people driving by, cursing the ones who gave us mean looks, giving each other high fives when a driver would give us that “I would take you but I’m not going your way” smile and shrug.
Now me, I like to invent superstitions. Greek mythology and conventional religion have never done much for me, but superstitions, I can drink to. The way I see it, superstitions are a way of helping people mentally deal with things out of their control. They are a way to teach others how to stay happy and healthy. They are mythology, before it gets epic, and religion before it gets dangerous. Most superstitions have a basis in some sort of fact. In one part of China, one of my English students once told me, people say that you shouldn’t put your door on a certain side of your house lest evil spirits smite you and your family. The origin of this little legend, she told me, is that the wind in that area usually comes from that direction, and that putting your door on that side makes for a cold, drafty house. Superstitions turn into myth and religion and legend once we forget what the stories are for, when we no longer need them. Before that they are just stories, invented to help us keep safe, and I’ve always loved making up stories.
So I talk about the dumpster gods like they’re personal friends of mine, and I imagine that, somewhere, there must be hitch hiking gods with enormous thumbs and piles of old cardboard signs watching out for all the nomads and the tramps. I don’t know much about them yet–this trip only being my third trip thumbing–but I imagine they are the sorts who are appeased by things like getting up really early, not turning down rides (except the kind of rides that give you that warning feeling in your stomach), little pictures on your signs, and little dances on the side of the road.
For all Katey and I’s songs and smiles and dances, we couldn’t get a ride. Not in fifteen minutes, not in thirty, and not in an hour. Then I noticed the tall building down a little walking path behind us and remembered that there’d also been something about “in front of the big apartment building” in the internet instructions.
Down the path, in front of the tall glass building were the infamous bushes. Which we pushed through right onto The Official Best Spot Ever for Hitch Hiking Out of Munich Eastwards. In twenty minutes a man had stopped, and he wasn’t just going to take us to the next gas station on the highway, he was going to take us all the way to Prague. Not only that, he was the hungover hitch hiker’s dream: the car going all the way to your destination, with the driver who has no interest in talking to you at all. Sometimes you’re just not standing in quite the right spot.
Once upon a time on an Amtrak in Amieland, I got wasted sick on acrtic air conditioning and “no we don’t have any vegan food in the dining car” during the 18-hour ride to Greensboro, North Carolina. That’s when Helena taught me how to make Dragon Slayers. And I thought, you knowing so much about my life and all, that I should give you the recipe. It might sound a little gross at first, but these’ll keep you from getting sick, cure you if you already are, and wake you up quicker than a cup of joe.
1/2 fresh lemon
1 medium-sized clove garlic, minced
a dash of chili powder
Squeeze out the lemon and place juice in a small cup. Sprinkle in minced garlic and top with chili powder. Down in one go and marvel at the force of nature that is vitamin c mixed with garlic and sweet, sweet (spicey) chili.
The original plan had been to take the train to Weiskirchen–a small town just outside of Frankfurt–find the gas station there, and hitch hike to Munich.
So we packed our things (guitar, change of socks, road atlas, notebook, large-tipped sharpie), giggled ourselves to sleep, and left the next morning to the tune of crisp winter air and three black crows who mirrored our flight in the sky above us.
Katey and I had been planning the trip for weeks, for months–planning that she would come to Europe to visit me, that we’d go on tour with her accoustic music, that we’d hitch hike everywhere, dumpster dive everywhere, and play in as many countries as we could fit into two months at the very last minute. We’ve know each other since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and forts in the backyard, since play kitchens and sleepovers and preschool and Bridgeton Elementary. Leopard I’ve known for about a year, since wagons and Mainz and getting fired, and the night before we left, he came in to the Kinowagon where Katey was staying. “I think I’m going to come with you,” he told her. And then we were three.
Before the sun was even up, we were in Leopard’s wagon fueling up with tiny cups of espresso. “You know, it is the weekend,” he said when I sat down on the curved green couch he salvaged from the university dumpster across the street. “We could just hitch on someone’s group ticket on the train. That’s how we got home from Nürnberg last weekend.”
“Ah right, shit, it’s Saturday, I forgot. Yeah, let’s do that. That’ll be even easier than hitch hiking. Sweet.”
In a few minutes we were on a train to Aschaffenburg with three white-haired Germans with a weekend ticket. They got off in Darmstadt, and we paced up the train platform and down the train aisles, asking everyone if they had a group ticket and if we could come along. No one did. The conductor eyed us from the platform. She knew what we were doing, knew we had been hitching on the other folks’ ticket, and that if we got back on, we wouldn’t have one now. Fuck it, we said, we’ll hitch hike from here.
Outside of the train station we followed big yellow highway signs, and the map, to a path between highway and forest. Just before leaving town a 20-something on a bike with a messenger cappie pedaled up out of nowhere, told us that yeah, if we took this path to Griesheim and then went left, we should be able to walk through fields next to the highway until we came to the first gas station on the 67–”Pfungstadt”–and then he pedaled back the way he’d come, as if he’d been sent just to answer our questions, a spirit of the road, appearing only to dazed hitch hikers paralyzed by the lack of detail on their maps.
The path was next to the highway, but the air was clear. People were out walking their dogs, and once in a while, a tram buzzed past on the tracks to our left. At the underpass we cut up a small stone stairway and into the woods, certain that in thirty, forty minutes, we’d be in Pfungstadt, and on our way to Munich.
Two and a half hours later we walked back out of the woods and back into the Darmstadt train station. We’d ended up sitting up in a hunter’s stand, looking off into the distance through the little fold-out telescope Leopard keeps in a pouch on his belt.
“I don’t think we’re going to find the gas station.”
“So either we go back to the train station and try to find someone with a group ticket again, or we take a train to Frankfurt and hitch out from the gas station at Weiskirchen like we originally, originally planned.”
Back to square one, the Darmstadt train station. From there to Frankfurt Ostendstrasse. Ostendstrasse to Offenbach Ost. Offenbach Ost to Weiskirchen. Another hour and three more trains–six hours to get to a spot an hour and a half away from home. In the train I’d started to feel trapped, like we were stuck in some sort of hitch hiker’s Bermuda Triangle, like we’d never make it past Frankfurt, like we’d end the long day back in our own beds, unsure if any of it had even really happened. I swore to myself that I’d never fall for the easy lure of the train again–group ticket hopping or not–and always stick to the plan: Backpack, gas station, thumb, road. No trains, no money, no directions from travel-demon bike messengers, no telescopes necessary.
“Let’s just pretend like we didn’t want to leave early this morning. Let’s just pretend like we spontaneously decided to go hiking first, and that this was the plan all along.” We walked through Weiskirchen and after following several people’s misguided directions and a muddy field, we finally found the gas station. “Well, I think we’ve gotten all of our bad luck for the trip out of the way now. The rest will be easy, right?”
The first woman I approached was standing beside her car smoking. She was going our way, almost the whole way, and she thought she could drop us off at the rest stop before her exit. “So, how much are you willing to pay?” she wanted to know.
“Pay?” My eyes must have been like saucers. “We can’t pay you anything. That’s why we’re hitch hiking. We don’t have any money.” I guess she hadn’t heard much about hitch hiking before. Most drivers who do pick me up talk like hitch hikers are a dying breed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. What with this recession I keep hearing about and all.
“Gasoline costs money you know,” she started in, indignantly.
“I’m sorry but we can’t pay. We don’t have any money. That’s why we’re hitch hiking.” She looked away, offended and wouldn’t look any of us in the eye. She turned back to her car.
“So I guess that’s a no then?”
She shook her head and shut the door.
Parked next to her was a man leaning against his trunk smoking. His eyes were smiling before I opened my mouth. “Do you happen to be going in the direction of Wurzburg?”
“I don’t usually do this,” he said, still smiling, “but yeah, I’ll take you.” He was older, with a salted black beard and short grey-black hair. In the car he ignored the others and told me about building facades, how he was doing a building for the Frankfurt airport expansion, how he’d been all over the world, how his car had made it to 900,000 km, and how Bavaria was the best place anywhere.
“You know, Bavaria is the richest state in Germany,” he said, eyes sparkling proudly, looking at me pointedly across the stick shift.
“Hmmm.” Hitch hiking, you refine a subtle set of “hmmms,” each with a slightly different meaning, each meant to keep the driver happy and talking until you arrive. This one said “Oh well isn’t that interesting,” without forcing me to go through the embarassment of actually pretending that I thought that was just great.
“You see, the area used to be all farming, nothing but farming. But the government, they thought about the future, and they started putting in industry. Now we have BMW and Siemens. Bavaria is the state of thinkers and inventers.”
“But wasn’t Goethe born in Hessen?” I laughed. He didn’t. Oops.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “but I’m talking about technology here. Thinkers and inventers! Richest state in the country.”
He was on his way home from work and dropped us off at the Wurzburg rest stop, an hour and a half closer to our goal.
In Wurzburg things slowed down. Some people didn’t have room, some waved us away before we’d even said a word, some only wanted to take one of us. “I think people are afraid of me,” Leopard speculated. After an hour, a blond man with horizontal chops that cut across his face said, yeah, he was going to Munich, and yeah he would take us, all three of us.
He was a lawyer, a bankruptcy lawyer. “So this recession must mean the big bucks for you huh?” I asked, trying to make it sound like a joke, hoping for insider information about the end of the financial world, and emboldened by adrenaline at having found a ride, at knowing the hard part of getting to Munich was over.
“In every situation there’s someone who wins and someone who loses,” he said, chuckling with me. He was a Frankfurter, one who looked like he wore a lot of suits and drank 8-euro cocktails on the weekends. A lawyer and a bullshitter, but friendly, the kind of friendly that has me exhausted after about an hour, which is about when my bullshitting hyperjets and the adrenaline from having found a ride right into the center of Munich in two moves start to wear off. But he drove fast, and soon we were at Kafe Kult, where we collapsed onto a big couch and into plates of vegan chili and chocolate cake.
I’ve been to Munich exactly three times. The first time, I was 17, at the beginning of a one-month exchange in Krefeld. It was my first time abroad, and everything was new and different and interesting, even rich old Munich. The second time, I was 22, meeting an old friend for a day and a drink. That’s when I noticed that there was no graffiti anywhere and that the city was startlingly clean, too clean, too put together, “we have too much money and no room for your shenanagens” oozing from every concrete pore. The third time, this time, it was a quick stopover on the way to Prague, and a chance to see Gunmob and Planks perform somewhere besides our house.
Kafe Kult, which is on the outskirts of town and just inside a park, is, as far as I can tell, the only building in all of Munich with any graffiti (even though it looks like it might be that planned, painted-in-full-daylight sort of graffiti). The concert room is just big enough for a crowd, just small enough to still be intimate when only a handful of people show up. The beer was expensive (2,30 at the cheapest), but the organizers were friendly and sweet, letting us in for free and offering us a place to sleep if we needed it. If you live in Munich you should go to their shows and give them lots of money. Munich needs as many alternative venues as it can get. Otherwise the rich people will have won, and we might as well try to keep ‘em on their toes now, eh?
Leg one of the trip: check. Vegan cake, punk rock, and a schnapps taste-test at my former flatmate’s apartment: check. Now we just had to get to Prague on three hours of sleep and a hangover in time for Katey’s show at the Blind Eye on Sunday night.