We met on the platform of Berlin’s main train station early Sunday morning. He looked confused. I glanced in his direction and appeared pleasant and approachable. It worked. He came to me, pointed at the complicated travel itinerary he had printed out and asked if he was in the right place for Magdeburg.
He was. And I was going his way.
We sat in separate parts of the train. I looked out the window. Little patches of snow glistened on orange and golden bushes. Once I saw an animal I couldn’t identify squatting in a field. I guessed it might be a weasel, and then wondered if I knew what a weasel looked like.
We were scheduled to arrive in Magdeburg at 10.53. At 10.51 the display screen changed to “MAGDEBURG” and the train ground to a halt.
I disembarked. I looked around me and my heart sank. This looked nothing like the main train station to which I was headed. Then I saw the young man from before. He looked confused again. The station was otherwise deserted. “We’re wrong,” I said and suddenly sprung to action, trying to re-open the door that had closed behind me. It was too late. The train slid away.
I looked frantically at my own itinerary, which I had scribbled down on a scrap of paper.
“We need to get a taxi really quick,” I told him, as we made our way through the tiny, empty station. Our connecting train left in 7 minutes. We had landed in a station slightly outside of town. We had a choice of three taxis.
“Got off too early?” the driver asked. “Happens a lot.”
“We’ve got 7 minutes to get the next train.”
“I’ll do my best,” he said.
And so I sat in the back seat with the stranger. “Sorry I look so dishevelled,” he said. “I was out very late last night.” Four and a half minutes later we pulled up at the main train station. The driver opened the car boot and 30 seconds later I was running wildly with my suitcase and bag flying behind me and my new friend in tow.
We made it. My head was spinning with lack of sleep and the sudden exertion. That particular sensation was to become a feature of my day.
My new friend was in his early twenties. He had short brown hair and a nice face. He was polite, measured and American. He was spending some time studying in Germany while he completed his dual studies of international politics and officer training in the US army.
Over the next ten hours, we got to know each other intimately.
In Leipzig, over a steak sandwich (his) and a vegetarian kebab (mine) we talked about the responsibilities we had to our parents. He told me about his rural upbringing and how excited he was to get his first army salute. I talked about my German background and he told me about his Lithuanian one. I told him about Ireland and he told me about New Jersey.
Near Lutherstadt he said “I think I saw a fox earlier.”
“A fox?” I asked. “Where?”
“On the way to Magdeburg.”
“Was he alone?”
“Yeah, just sitting in a massive field.”
“I saw him too!” I said. “But I thought it was a weasel.”
He smiled. “I’m pretty sure it was a very small fox.”
Later still he said, “I’m not really into partying. But my friends were in town last night, and they made me stay out. That’s why I’m such a mess.” Then he paused and said “Did you say Let’s dash, earlier?”
“Yes, do yanks not say “dash?””
“No we don’t” he replied. “It’s cute though. Dash is a neat word.”
When we got to Hof he said “I hate talking about politics, especially in Europe.”
I bit my lip. This sounded interesting.
“I was talking to some French Canadians last night,” he continued, in spite of himself. “They just started attacking me. It’s so annoying. People here don’t know how American politics works.”
Ha, I thought. So I have finally met a Republican.
I was disappointed by how nice he was.
“I’m not a Republican,” he said. “I’m a libertarian. But Obama’s economics just doesn’t add up. I’ve studied it. And nationwide health insurance doesn’t make sense. This stuff has to come from individual states.”
I said the system seemed to work in Germany. “The US is a lot bigger,” he said.
We stopped there but politics hung in the air. He was right though. Along with most Europeans, I don’t really know how American politics works. I write snappy headlines about it, and I cut pictures and match them with entertaining soundbites. But do I know the numbers? Do I understand local government and the make-up of each state’s senate? No Sir, I do not.
I thought about this pleasant mild-mannered young man, with a life in the military in front of him. I thought about his girlfriend, also in the army. I thought about what he said about college boys having to be at least as fit if not fitter than the squad they lead. I thought about his mother, who has been sick. And I thought that there’s something very human that politics misses.
I hugged him when I got off the train in Regensburg and warned him that he might end up on my blog. As I was walking away, he turned in his seat and waved goodbye to me.