I’d planned to hitchhike to Berlin. I’d heard it was easier to hitch in Germany than France. Of course the only person I’d met who’d actually done it was
referring to a trip he’d taken in the early 70s, but after my attempt to get from Paris to Strasbourg by thumb, I figured nowhere could be harder than France.
Then, on my first night in Strasbourg, I met Flo. She said that if I came with her to Berlin on Saturday, I’d only have to
pay twelve euros, as the commuter trains were heavily discounted across Germany on that day. After spending the evening restricted
to conversation with the one Canadian in the crew around me, my French being sub-conversational, I was happy just to meet another
person to talk to. I hastily agreed.
So much for hitchhiking. I felt like a pansy for a second, bailing out on my adventure. Turning down a full day’s travel for twelve
euros though, didn’t make sense. I’d soon learn this train trip would be no easy cruise.
We met across the border from Strasbourg at five thirty in the morning. It was going to take us all day to get to Berlin. Flo and her friend had a
party to attend that evening, a warehouse rave, directions available on a cryptic web page. Jean-Marc, our third, was still drunk from the night
before, his eyes unfocused as he sang out to me, “Yankeeee!”
We walked up to the platform in the darkness. Flo took a seat and so did I, but Jean-Marc knelt on the ground, bowed, and put his hands on
her thighs. I thought he was about to propose so I looked away. When I looked back, his head was wedged in between her knees; he’d
fallen asleep. She looked at me and revealed her own lack of a clue.
My stomach began to hurt. That morning I’d tried to find the cheese I’d stashed in the fridge; I only found some celery root salad instead. I’d eaten the salad for breakfast; it hadn’t agreed with me. I’d slept for about an hour. My defenses were thin.
I had a feeling the stomach pain would get worse before it got better.
The first train arrived. We’d have to switch about six more times. A crowd had built up on the platform around us. When we reached the train,
I realized it was packed. I sat wedged in one of the seats near the door, tried to sleep and fend off my crying stomach. Forty five minutes
later we switched, the crowd shuffling off in a herd, rumbling over to the next platform. Everyone was going our way so far. This train was more
crowded than the first and now the sun was up. I was fully buckled over. I looked for peace in the countryside rolling by out the window, but
soon I shut my eyes and tried to block out the pain.
The crowd got progressively thicker with each subsequent train. At each station, our herd pushed upstream alongside and against more and more
packs of people, the whole country seemingly on the move, young and old, families and backpackers.
Around noon we had a long enough lunch break in a station. I bought red cabbage, dumplings and ghoulash. My stomach felt infinitely better.
On the next train, I could finally focus on the view, tiny farm plots and gardens along the tracks, hamlets, suburbs and old industrial
towns tucked between hills. Our post-lunch ride lasted two hours. I sat next to an older couple, neatly appointed in earth tones. They
remained silent for almost the entire trip, but when they did talk, I thought they were speaking English. I kept looking at the woman across from
me to see if she’d speak. If it was English, I was going to say something, but they never spoke loudly enough for me to hear. At the very end,
I’m fairly certain I heard some English, but I’m not sure.
By eight o’clock that night we got to Berlin. I said goodbye to Flo and Jean-Marc. I said I might come to the party, but I knew I probably wouldn’t.
Flo and I had talked a little while Jean-Marc slept. She said they weren’t a couple, just “sometimes". I saw her tattoo on her calf when she sat
across the aisle from me, a turquoise dragon climbing up her leg.
Too hungry to go anywhere, I ate my second train station meal of the day, a sandwich on dark brown bread. I stepped out into the city and had a kebab.
Finally, I was satiated enough to focus on the next step – the station behind me. I walked towards the intersection I’d marked as rich with accommodations.
The streets were quiet; I didn’t know what to expect.