Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I was in Germany once. It didn't go well.

I was in Frankfurt, Germany once.

I hadn't thought about that trip in years. Until I heard Mrs. Chana Silver speak in synagogue on the Fast of Tisha b'Av. She leads tours of Poland for young women. They see the places where Jews lived and where they died – cities, ghettos, graveyards, and the work and death camps.

I was there forever ago, when I was in my 20s. Long before anything Jewish had touched my life, except I had, for some unknown reason, read Hitler's Mein Kamp. I had gone to London with a backpack, a round trip ticket and $100 in my pocket.

I went with a group of my friends and I knew they had arranged inexpensive or free places for us to stay. So I really only needed money for me to eat. Still $100 wasn't enough money and I knew it. The closest thing to being out of the US I had been at that point in my life was crowding 5 people into one of the original VW Beetles, and road tripping to the California border town - Tiajuna, Mexico. I didn't know when, or if, I would get another chance to go to Europe. I guess I hoped my friends, who were probably every bit as broke as me, wouldn't let me starve, so I shrugged my shoulders and I went. Dumb or ballsy. Nah, definitely dumb.

We were supposed to do a musical play called Viet Rock at the Edinburgh Scotland Theatre Festival Fringe (the part where anyone can show up and do a show). We were young, crazy and running on more hash than food. As well as, how shall I put this delicately, extremely sexually active with interchangeable partners in the group. What can I say? We were California kids, with delusions of being hippies. We were in a foreign country, living and working together 100% of the time. It went about as well as you would expect. In one of the inevitable seismic social shifts, the lead in show ended up being given to a person who was one, convinced she couldn't really sing and two, had crippling stage fright the size of the state of Texas. Yup, that would be me. I lasted about two rehearsals before I melted down and quit after the girl I had replaced complained to everyone that I was off-key. Which, to be fair, I probably was. So at least partly because of me, the group completely imploded at that point and we never did the shows.

We had some time on our hands, so half dozen of us took off for the Continent, with no specific destination in mind. We took a train as far as Frankfort. Then my friends decided to go on to the Black Forest. Because of the cake I think.

I had been getting more and more uncomfortable from the time we crossed the border and I was in a low level state of panic by the time we got off the train. I can't really describe how it felt. It was like I couldn't breathe and I knew I couldn't be there, even though I had no idea why. So I refused to continue to the Black Forest. And they left me. I can't really blame them. I wasn't their responsibility and I had just ruined the reason we had come in the first place. Plus we were at an age, and in a time, when we thought a woman could hitchhike by herself and be safe doing it.

So there I was. By myself. In a country where I didn't know anyone or speak the language. With almost no money. Again dumb on my part or ballsy. No again, definitely dumb. But I can still feel the way I felt then, uncomfortable and short of breath. I had to get out of there.

I took what little money I still had, and went back to the train station. I kept enough for the ferry back to the UK, counted the rest and figured out I could get as far as Luxembourg. Wherever - as long it was out of Germany and in the general direction of “back to the coast”. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crossed the border a couple of hours later. I felt as if something had fallen away.

In a continuation of “let's see how dumb I can be”, I took a ride with an Austrian trucker who bought me some really excellent sausage and bean soup (which I'm sure I couldn't eat now) and later tried to get me into the bed built into the cab of his truck. Who even knew there were beds there? When I politely declined, he dumped me by the side of the road, in the middle of the night, and I ended up sort of sleeping in a field. There were a lot of little animals resenting this human in their field and I could hear them moving around all night. None of them joined me in the sleeping bag, but worrying that they might accounts for the “sort of” slept. I also had a, thankfully, very short visit from four guys who stopped and stared at me from the road. I stared back and they moved on. Perhaps I should say I was dumb and lucky. The next morning I was able to get a ride to Calais.

Later everyone re-grouped in London and we went off to the place where I developed my terror of crowds. A rock festival on the Isle of Wight where I spent a week with half a million people (& heard Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Who, poor Kris Kristofferson who got booed off the stage by a rock and roll crowd who had no interest in country, Sly of Sly & the Family Stone, who could barely walk but could still sing, & a long list of other legendary musicians). I also dealt with continual noise and people moving, restrooms that were trenches in the ground, and having the only space I could call my own be the area on the ground my sleeping bag covered. The music was amazing. The rest of it, not so much.

But the really weird thing is, none of the above were the weirdest thing that happened on that trip.

My mother saw my friend's mother hugging her when we were saying good-bye at the airport and she awkwardly hugged me. That is the only time I can remember her hugging me. In my life.

Freaking out in two countries? Hitchhiking by myself? Living with 500,000 people? Nope. That was the weirdest thing that happened.

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