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A Short Story
By Luke Mesham
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Luke Mesham
All right reserved.
8:50 p.m. Thursday, July 31, 1992 O'Hare International Airport, Chicago Terminal 5, Gate M17
"In just a couple of moments, we will be boarding rows twenty-one through thirty-five for British Airways Flight 1547 to London Heathrow," announced a voice over the public address system.
It had already been nearly a two-hour drive to O'Hare from their small farm in Whiteside County, Illinois. But the real journey had not even begun. Supportive parents and good friends are a great way to grow up. Such blessings do not, however, prepare a person particularly well to let go of them. Paul Welch had lived his whole life close to family and friends. Most of his twenty years had been spent in the open plains of his parents' farm, roughly ten miles south-southwest of Rock Falls. The last few had been spent as a mechanical engineering student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Paul had great relationships in his life, from friends to family to acquaintances. He also had a gift for nurturing these relationships. Now he was about to leave behind all that was familiar to study in Germany for a year. He had applied for and was selected to take part in an exchange program his university had with the Technische Universität Darmstadt (Technical University of Darmstadt). While the educational and cultural experiences there promise to be tremendous, he would start off knowing virtually no one. With the exception of sharing an orientation meeting with the three other engineering students who would be taking part in the exchange, he would recognize not a soul. This idea was one of the few that genuinely scared him. Paul had grown and nourished deep roots with friends and others in his life. Strong roots. They were his lifeblood. Now he was literally pulling this support system out by those roots and would be forced to transplant them—in a soil and culture that was completely foreign, both literally and figuratively. Am I doing the right thing?
For minutes that seemed like hours, Paul's parents and two younger sisters had sat with him at the airport, waiting for the call. Now that it came, he said good-bye, turned away from his family at the airport gate, and headed down the Jetway to the plane. Look straight ahead and keep walking, he told himself, ignoring his welling eyes. It was a walk into the unknown. Textbooks taught the generalities of what to expect from the German culture, but the outcome of this year was a story yet to be told. The daunting part was that not only the characters but also the environment and language would be new and unfamiliar. There were no close friends from home with whom to share the experience—not a one. Paul steeled himself. Whatever happens, however tough it gets, make the most of this. It was a brave thought, but the truth was that his heart sank whenever he took a moment to think about all he would be missing back home.
After a plane change at Heathrow on Friday morning, it was on to Frankfurt. Paul had gotten a small hotel room there for a couple nights so that he could shake off the jet lag before heading via train to Erlangen, the site of the month-long intensive language course he would be taking. Erlangen was a Bavarian town of a hundred thousand, just northwest of Munich. Although Paul had already taken a total of six years of German in high school and college, it was never one of his strong suits. With courses and lectures in the fall to be taught completely in German, the time to prepare had come.
His two days in Frankfurt seemed surreal. Paul's mom, Veronica, had booked a room at the Hotel Excelsior, which was directly across the street from the main train station. That way, Paul could keep things simple by buying his ticket to Erlangen in advance and just walking across the street when it was time to go on Sunday. This location also meant that the hotel was located smack in the middle of an unsavory section of town, the type that train stations always seem to germinate. Bad idea. After checking in on the Friday afternoon of his arrival, Paul embarked on a little stroll around the area to scope out the neighborhood before going to the train station to buy his ticket. He was unceremoniously greeted by a man of about thirty, who was sitting on some steps and saw him walking past. The man caught Paul's attention.
"Would you like some drugs?"
"No thanks," replied Paul. He had been glad to see that even at its basic level, his German training helped Paul steer clear of that situation. Funny, I don't recall having a unit on drugs in any of my German classes, he chuckled to himself.
On his way to the train station, the smell of rotisserie chicken next caught his attention. A large sign shouted, "Chicken, DM 3,00." Paul had found the place where he would dine that evening.
The train station looked like it was out of Gotham. Enormous steel and glass archways bounded it at either end. The hot, humid summer air was so thick and heavy with dust that one could literally see its particles as they were struck by light streaming in from the monstrous sides. The public address system called out destinations in a still very unfamiliar tongue. Paul struggled with his German while buying his ticket with all the right conditions—second class, interregional, and non-smoking. He finally got the one he wanted and headed back to his hotel room. He could not wait to write to his friends back home.
Sunday could not have arrived soon enough. Despite having written his letter the day before, he was lonely. There was no one around with whom he could talk; there was no one with whom to share his experiences or his thoughts. Where were his friends? Paul felt suddenly empty.
The "commute" across the street from Hotel Excelsior to Frankfurt's main train station was less than two minutes, and Paul found himself onboard the Erlangen-bound train a full hour early. This was a trait inherited from his dad, who always builds in a safety factor of at least eight when traveling. As the whisper-quiet electric train began pulling out of the station, Paul settled in for the four-hour ride. The kilometers passed along with the time, and soon the flat terrain morphed into one of rolling hills and shallow green valleys. Scattered clouds threw random shadows on the undulating landscape. Towns with church steeples as their highest point passed by under the bright sunshine.
A girl a few years older than Paul, sitting in the same compartment, struck up a conversation when she recognized his accent. Her sandy-brown hair and light eyes said Bavaria. Her demeanor was easygoing and friendly. They talked about the lush countryside and a little about each other. Paul explained where he was from, and told her that he was there as an exchange student on his way to a language course in Erlangen to sharpen his language skills before being thrown into the fire of German engineering lectures. She begged to differ, complimenting him on his German. Little did she realize that so far they had talked only about two of the topics most frequently practiced by foreign-language students: travel and introductions. Had she asked Paul's opinions on just about anything else, he could still be on that train trying to come up with words.
As the train approached the Erlangen station, Paul and his friend bade each other good-bye, and gathering his oversized duffel bag and suitcase, Paul positioned himself by the door.
A fair-sized town, Erlangen is too large to walk everywhere, even by European standards. Paul had the address of Friedrich-Alexander University—where he was to report to check in to the intensive language course and get his housing—but nothing else. This presented no problem, because Paul had a plan. He took his luggage to the nearest ubiquitous cream-colored Mercedes E-Class taxi, hopped in, and, with an accent as thick as a Texas steak, announced where he needed to go. The lady cab driver looked at him, said a bunch of things in German that Paul did not understand, and waited for a response. All Paul could muster in reply was a blank stare. He had deciphered that she could not take him where he wanted to go, but that was all he could make out.
"I do not understand," he replied, and he repeated the address. Finally, she motioned for him to look out of the driver's side windows. The university was located on the opposite side of the very same plaza as the train station. You could throw a rock and hit it from where they were. She would not take him there because they were already within 100 feet of it! So much for impressing the natives.
Paul crossed the plaza by foot and followed the signs, making his way to the building where he was to check in. Finally, he reached the room where the language students were gathered. There he was greeted by friendly staff and a large array of cakes, fruit, and drinks.
After meeting some of the university staff and other students, Paul was given a key to his student apartment and a map to where he would be staying. His dorm was in one of the student housing complexes furthest away from the university. The next day, Monday, was the first day of class. But the big event was that evening. The class was going to a dinner banquet out in the country, hosted at the farmhouse of Erlangen's mayor. The university had chartered a big tour bus to take everyone there. After thirty minutes, they arrived at a farm of green and gold fields. The late-afternoon August sun shone warmly upon the land. A banquet table had been set up outside the farmhouse, with everything from meats to cheeses, potatoes, cakes, and a full slate of fresh-baked breads for the group of just under a hundred people. It was a true cornucopia.
As Paul would learn over the coming days, there were about one hundred students from all over the Western world: the United States, England, France, Finland, Italy, Sardinia, Croatia, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, Malta, and others. After the meal, one of the Italian students, Enzo, asked everyone from a given country to get together to sing a song typical of their homeland. Sensing that the American contingency was waffling a little, Paul suggested New York, New York. The other Yankees ate that up. Since it was a popular song, many of the other students knew the words and joined in. The evening continued with music, food, drink, laughter, and, most important, getting to know one another. There was so much for Paul to write to his friends back home.
"You have a tremendous and rare opportunity here to learn German, get to know the great town of Erlangen, and make friendships with fellow students from all over the globe."
While these were not the first words spoken in the director's greeting, they were the ones that stayed with Paul. Classes lasted from morning through mid-afternoon. "The evenings are typically free; often, we will open a social room on campus where everyone can hang out together, play pool, and enjoy wine or Erlangers, the locally-brewed beer, at a very reasonable price." The opportunities of which the director spoke were clear. Another perk of the course was that it included a couple weekend excursions. One Saturday, the group went to visit nearby Nuremberg; another found them in Bamberg, known as the Venice of Germany, with its serpentine canals winding between many of the town's buildings.
Quickly, Paul came to realize that each day in Erlangen was a gift. Around the structure of learning a language, he also was meeting new friends, all the while together discovering the German culture. I can't wait for tomorrow, Paul found himself thinking each night as he went to bed.
The student housing Paul lived in was a bus ride away from the city center and the university building. Soon, he learned that for DM 20, or about $14, he would be able to rent an old, used bike for the entire four weeks. The nightly bike ride between the city center and his dorm room was magical. Following each evening's social gathering at either the university or a local restaurant or beer garden, Paul would ride home through a stretch of farmland that was illuminated only by the night's stars. The warm August air permeated his pores; the chirping of crickets filled his ears. Flanked by fields of wheat on either side, he was alone with his thoughts. They were reflective ones, and they lifted his spirit. While recounting the day's events, his sense of fulfillment was equaled only by the anticipation of what new experiences lay before him the next day. Although the group had been together at the course for a short time, strong friendships were already forming, some of them the kind a person holds onto for a long time. Paul's thoughts of whether he had made the right decision by coming here were a million miles away.
On most nights, the class would gather in the social hall and enjoy getting to know one another over beer, wine, and a game of pool. Sometime during the first week, Paul became acquainted with one of the girls in the language course. He had first noticed her while she was playing pool at the university social room one evening. She had a life-loving, easygoing, yet quietly strong, quality about her. And she had a great smile that was contagious. Paul ended up introducing himself, and they talked a little bit over the next couple of days.
Her name was Maria. She was from Pula, a small farming town on the southern coast of Sardinia that had become increasingly popular with the summer tourists. She told him about her country, her town, and the culture there. She also talked about her family: her younger sister and her parents. She told him how close she was with them, particularly her mom. When the two of them poured their morning coffee, they could talk for hours. Maria explained that her mom would say every now and then that when she got married, Maria and her husband would have to get a house on the same street as Maria's parents so they could keep their near-daily custom alive. It was obvious there was a special bond there.
They had only known each other for a few days, but Paul had a good sense about Maria; she struck him as exceptionally genuine, and he found it easy to be in her company. It was rare for him to feel this comfortable with a girl so quickly. He decided to wait a few more days, and if he still felt the same way, he would ask her out to either dinner or a movie. Because they were in different courses—she, having received the European language-propensity gene, was at a higher level than Paul—they only got to see one another for a little while each day. But at the nightly social gatherings, they found themselves migrating toward one another and talking most of the evening. Amazing—whenever we hang out, it feels like we are just being our complete selves. Paul had never experienced such a natural relationship with a girl before.
During the second week, the whole class took a five-day trip to Berlin. Paul roomed with two Polish students, Karol and Jarek. When the alarm clock rang in the morning, the very first thing Karol would do was get out of bed and do fifty push-ups. He also loved American movies.
"They really are an escape for me because in my country such opportunities really did not exist," he explained.
It was difficult for Paul to relate to this.
While in Berlin, Paul became friends with an Italian student, Carlo, with whom he would keep in contact for years afterward. They hung out together throughout the trip. Along with Barbara, one of Maria's friends in the course from Sardinia, Paul and Carlo, and one of Maria's friends from Sardinia visited the Brandenburg Gate, the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, East Berlin, the Parliament Building, and statues of Marx and Lenin. To top it off, they went to see a National Football League exhibition game between the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins that happened to be scheduled that weekend in Berlin. Carlo was a huge NFL fan, and although soccer was his true love, his knowledge of American football was impressive.
Excerpted from A Short Story by Luke Mesham Copyright © 2011 by Luke Mesham. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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