What was your first foreign trip? is my Story Worth for this week.

Jake and Mark Srnec

I am not sure why I got it into my head that I should go, but I opened a separate bank account, worked extra shifts at the bookstore, skipped meals and saved my money to pay a trip to Germany. Looking back, I am sort of impressed that I pulled it off. My preparations were inadequate. I had a youth hostel membership, so inexpensive places to stay. It needed to be inexpensive, since I didn’t have credit cards and besides the price of my ticket, I managed to save only a little less than $400. I thought that I could speak some German because of classes in HS and college. I had an okay accent, but my communication skill was mostly limited to asking where things were and ordering beer.

With the confidence of ignorance

The cheapest flights left from Chicago. I splurged on a bus ticket (rather than hitchhike) and caught the plane. My flight landed in Frankfurt early in on a June morning. It was exciting to be in a foreign country for the first time. I had a brief scare. My backpack was absolutely the last thing to come onto the luggage carousel. Then I left the airport. I saw German flags and heard everybody speaking a language I could sort of understand. There was a light rain. My response was – “shit, what have I done?” followed by despair and confusion. I think that I might have chickened out and gone home on the next flight, but my charter ticket was valid only 30 days hence. Since I could not go back, my best option was forward, so I went forward.

I had a map where I had drawn a route, a circuit through southern Germany and Austria. I wanted to go to Salzburg because I read a National Geographic article talking about its charm. I wanted to go to Munich because of the famous beer halls. I filled in along the way with stops that I figured were a short day’s distance and had youth hostels I thought I could find. My first stop was the university town of Heidelberg. This was the setting for “The Student Prince.” I never saw the operetta, but my mother had the album by Mario Lanza. This was the basis of my decision making in those days. I intended to stay at the youth hostel there and I figured on taking the train from Frankfurt.

I easily found the train station, successfully bought a ticket and got on the wrong train. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on. After all, I had come in on an overnight flight and was tired. When I work up, I was going north when I should have been going south. When the conductor came by for tickets, he was puzzled and asked me where I thought I was going. I told him Heidelberg and he told me that this train would not get me there. I had to get off and go back. As I recall, the proper sentence “Ich habe den falschen Zug genommen.“ That seemed to work.

I got to Heidelberg. It was a delightful town. I probably should have located the youth hostel right away, but I was beguiled by a beautiful beech and oak forest on the way to the castle, so I went up the hill first. It was late by the time I was done, and I could not find the youth hostel, so ended up in a park and slept on a park bench. Nothing like being a bum on your first night. Nobody bothered me but there was a late-night incident. A drunk was evidently trying to take a crap in the bushes and crapped his pants. I heard him swearing and saw him walking off w/o pants. When the sun came up, I looked. Sure enough, there was a pair of pants full of crap – an inauspicious introduction to glorious Germany.

Under financed and looking for free rides
Germany was more expensive than I thought. I figured out that I did not have the money for the luxury of taking the train wherever I needed to go, so I hitchhiked. It was not too hard to get rides and it was fun to try out my German. Drivers were tolerant of my bad German. Surprisingly, I don’t recall anybody speaking to me in English, with the single exception below, even though most Germans speak English and my efforts with German must have been painful on their ears. My experience with hitchhiking, both in America and Europe, was that people who pick you up want to do most of the talking. Since it is their car, it is their option. I didn’t need to speak the language very well if I didn’t have to talk much beyond asking where they guy was going.

Only two of my rides still stick in my mind. The one was a guy with a BMW. He had fun showing how fast he could drive his powerful car on the autobahn. I noticed the speedometer getting up to 240 kilometers per hour. I was not sure how much that was in MPH (turns out it was 144 MPH), but I knew it was a faster than I wanted to go. I must have showed that. This made the driver happy. “hast du Angst”, he asked. I would not admit it, but I was full of angst and glad when he let me out.

The other ride I recall was on the way to Saltzburg. I noticed that the driver had an odd accent, but I figured it was a kind of regional dialect. Bavarian was hard to understand, and I figured he was speaking some variation of that. After around 15 minutes, he addressed me in English. Turned out he was French and did not speak German very well. He asked if he could speak English. Okay with me. Funny that both of us were laboring to speak a language that neither of us mastered.

Beware vampires
My strangest experience was on the way to Zell om Zee. This one was all my own imagination. It was hard to get rides Alps and I was out in middle of nowhere. (This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. “Big Lebowski” fans will understand.) Darkness was coming, so I just looked for a place to hide and sleep. I walked up a path and found a forest clearing and stretched out. Not long after it got dark, I started to think about vampires. This was not Transylvania but there were European mountains like in the scary movies. When you are alone in the dark, a stranger in a strange land, you think less clearly. I have been afraid of vampires since I watched Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” when I was around seven years old. I fashioned a cross out of some sticks, just in case vampires came by. None did. When the sun came up, I felt stupid, but a man’s reasoning is different in 2 am gloom than it is in the bright sunlight at 2 pm.

Who knows? Maybe the vampire never showed because of my preparations. Besides the vampire scare, this was a hungry time. Stores were closed or not available, so I had nothing to eat for a day & a half. I got to Zell am Zee the next afternoon. The youth hostel featured an evening meal, but I had to wait until evening to get it. When it finally came, I ate as fast as I could. I could tell food was not very good, but it tasted better than anything ever. I was sitting next to a Danish guy, who also seemed food deprived, judging by the speed of his fork. Coming up for a breath, he commented “hunger is the best cook.”

“We Danes are an ugly lot; you could be a Dane”
The Dane and I became temporary fast friends. Danes are generally nice people and the usually speak English very well. We were talking about the relative beauty of women from around Europe, and that extended to a more general discussion of national characteristics. My Danish friend thought that the most attractive people in Europe were people from Italy and Spain. Speaking about his own people, he lamented. “We Danes are an ugly lot.” Looking at me continued, “You could be a Dane.” I objected to “ugly” and “you could be” being so close together. He claimed to be referring only to my blue eyes and blondish hair. I still had hair in those days. I let it go. Danes, IMO, are attractive as a group. It is not a club I would reject.

Speaking of temporary friends, one of the fun things about solitary low-budget travel is the fellow travelers you meet and get to know. Everybody is lonely, so you make friends faster. I found it especially easy to get along with Australians. Australians were more like typical Americans than any other nationality in my experience. They were wonderfully practical, spoke a type of English and they liked to drink beer. (I prioritized beer over food, BTW. It was a good choice. Beer, after all, is liquid bread.) I quickly learned, however, that it was a bad idea to stay with Australians until the end of the night’s drinking. They tended to get into fights. Interesting how they could manage to insult people in languages they could not speak.

The funniest “friends” were a couple of Irishmen I met in Frankfurt. They were looking for their stuff. Seems they arrived in Frankfurt a few days before, checked into a pension and went out to get drunk. They were unable to find their lodging the next day. I walked around with them, as they hoped to recognize something. They had not found their stuff by the time we parted company.

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose
If freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, I achieved freedom. I ran out of money the day before I was scheduled to leave, so I went to the Frankfurt airport a whole day early, since I had no place else to go and just hung around. I was very happy finally to get on the plane. Flying was a little classier in those days. You could get snacks more easily, and I ate enough to make up for the lean day before. Hunger is the best cook. The very big drawback to flying in those days is that they had smoking sections. I got stuck in the smoking section. The stewardess asked me if I would move so that a family could sit together. I foolishly agreed. I really hate cigarette smoke and I sat next to a guy who told me he was afraid to fly. He smoked to assuage his fear. This was a Lufthansa flight and they had free beer. I drank down several and was able to sleep despite the foul air. I woke up only for the food.

When I got home, I felt changed in many ways. Physically, I was lighter by around 15 lbs. My father said that I looked like a scarecrow, but I felt okay. I didn’t really see very much of the German attractions, since I was such a low budget traveler, but I was glad to have gone. I felt like a sophisticated world traveler. I appreciated Germany, but I also appreciated America more. Amerika, du hast es besser.

There is a two-part coda to this story. Chrissy & I went to Germany in 1989. We took the ferry from Oslo to Keil and then drove around. We had Mariza and Alex along this time. I was looking forward to going to all those nicer German places that I could not afford in my poor student days. Now we had more money, but we also had little kids. Little kids do not do well in nice European restaurants. We ended up eating at McDonald’s more often than I would have liked.

The second part of my story relates to language. When I got to Germany, I was surprised that I could still speak and understand German. In fact, it seemed even easier than before. So, I happily spoke to people and usually got what I wanted. We were down in southern Germany when I got a clue. I was talking to a woman at breakfast in a language that I thought was German. Finally, she asked me – “That language you are speaking. It is very much like German and I understand most, but what is it?”

I had learned Norwegian before taking my post there. Norwegian has lot of words like German. What I think happened was that I was simply mixing the languages, sometimes doing Norwegian with a German accent and sometimes the other way around. It was very fluent, which is why the woman thought it was a language, but it was something of my own inadvertent creation. I guess that is how creole languages develop.

Post script
Notes from my more recent Frankfurt visit
My visit to Germany was in 1979 – my pre-camera days. I spent a day in Frankfurt on my way back from Iraq and have some pictures from then. The place did not change, but I had enough money for good food and drink.