I stood facing the train schedule comprehending nothing.
The tables of departures and lines and train numbers were indecipherable to my jet-lagged brain. The train platform was empty in the dark hall somewhere under the Frankfurt airport. I looked back at the tracks with their little numbers on the signs above them. My ignorance was limitless.
I only had a small window of time to gawk and wonder, though. Pitted against my lack of understanding of precise German train schedules was the unyielding certainty of the clock. I had never been to Europe, and I was attempting a rite of passage of any novice traveler … the slap-dash city visit on a layover.
Germany is possibly one of the best countries to visit first when you know nothing. International travel is an unending stream of unknowns and uncertainties, but somehow in Central Europe even these seem to have been planned and scheduled. You may not know what is going on at all, but you can trust that whatever is happening, it will happen very regularly and predictably. Any path or train can probably be reversed and traced back to its source, provided you can do it in time to still catch the same flight as your luggage.
As I stood staring at the train schedule, an unsteady guess at which train I needed beginning to form in the primordial ooze of my mind. I was suddenly shocked to hear a human voice next to me. An older man in a dress shirt and dated beige trench coat looked expectantly at me through small glasses. I responded to what must have been a question with uncomprehending silence. He repeated his question in German, pointing hopefully to the map. Apparently he was asking for directions.
The feeble circuitry in my mind that remained from my one German class in college was not up to the wattage, and melted instantly. Not even an apology or a “nein” came up on the board in my mind. An awkward moment passed before the man, realizing his mistake, apologized in English. “I am sorry”, he continued with a smile and casual wave of his hand. “I thought you were from here.”
I was baffled. I had always assumed that any American was immediately identified when we left the country, as though a little flag was waving out of sight over your head. Little did I know all you had to do was not be visibly holding a camera and keep your mouth shut and your origin was somewhat less certain.
Eventually, I realized my guesses about the trains were not going to improve. I bought the ticket (I thought) I needed for the city center and boarded what seemed like a promising train. As we blasted out into the daylight I wondered how likely it was I would make it back in time for my plane to Chicago.
The central train station in a European city is a wonderful thing for the time-pressed traveler. Fly into Newark or San Francisco and you are hopelessly distant from anything more interesting than acres of long-term parking and industrial warehouses. No layover is long enough for any meaningful exploration unless something has gone seriously wrong with your itinerary. In Germany, however, I was discovering that a couple euros and twenty minutes, not counting the time staring at the map, could bring me to the very heart of a bustling, enlivening new world to wander around in.
As a photographer, my first order of business was to take every picture possible. Of everything.
This is always hazardous business for me. As anyone who has traveled with me knows, time means nothing to the absorbed photo enthusiast, and whole hours can vanish as you hunt up angles and try to get bothersome telephone poles out of your frame.
All morning I walked around like a baby bird, head lifted upward toward the cold pavement-grey sky, demanding the rooflines feed me one novel bit of architecture after another. Doing so had brought the Fleming’s Hotel Frankfurt Riverside to my notice. I briefly wondered how distantly related to me the owners might be, and if they would be willing to share a room as well as a last name if I should turn up there again later having failed to find my way back to the airport. Years later I would discover the name had been lifted from a chance encounter in the 1960s between James Bond author Ian Fleming and a young chauffeur with ambitions of owning his own hotel chain. Just as well I hadn’t stopped in, then. It hadn’t looked like the sort of place I could afford anyhow.
A couple hours’ good wander up and down the Main river (its actual name as I found out, not a designation of primacy), and through the older alleys and squares of the Innenstadt had left me realizing I had not eaten anything but airplane food since I was on a different continent entirely. Ordering an entire meal seemed a little daunting, though, so I turned my attention to what was perhaps a more rewarding pursuit at 10 in the morning. Coffee.
My life-long love affair with the macchiato had begun in Ethiopia, where I had discovered the wondrous drink that bore no resemblance at all to what was passed out at drive-thru windows back in the States. The miniscule powderkeg of flavor and potency, with only the most delicate covering of foam on top was to become a mainstay for me.
Years would pass before I would be ordering macchiatos daily in Italian cafes. At this early stage of my travelling and coffee drinking career, speaking its name was more like encanting a spell than ordering a solid thing. It was a mysterious word that resulted in wonders, though, and I thought it might sound like I knew what I wanted.
Being in Europe, of course, there were more coffee shops lying about than I could ever have needed. I finally picked one that looked promising. Packing in the line amidst the woolen pea-coated locals, I shuffled to the bar to utter my little incantation that would produce the drink I was after.
That part worked fine. The barista spat back the price like a hail of bullets, knocking even basic numbers out of my brain. I wavered and fumbled some bills across the bar, much to her annoyance. I had not provided exact change. There was a disturbance in the force. The Matrix had been compromised. The tidy, perfect, German-ness of everyone’s morning had a wrinkle now, as she had to stop taking orders and count change and pass bills and strange coins back to me across the bar. I side-stepped foolishly, waited for my drink and retreated from the steamy warmth of the cafe to a stand-up table on the patio in the fresh February air.
I was only a few sips in before a short man in his fifties joined me. As he set his biscotti-laden saucer on the little table, he looked my way and said … something. I had no idea what it was, but it came across with the distracted, orchestrated friendliness of a comment about the weather. “Yah” I said. We both nodded and stared out into the street.
Soon a man walking by the rail of the patio slowed and looked squarely at me. I tried to hide my entire self behind a long sip from a nearly empty coffee cup the size of a fat walnut. Cocking his head to the side, the man asked … something. I raised an eyebrow over my uplifted cup. The question was repeated. I made a non-committal sound. Bwaaauugh?
Apparently, it had been yet another request for directions. Despite everything being perfectly ordered in Germany, apparently no one seemed to know where they were going. The man next to me pointed down the street and I barely caught the German words for right and left as they flew past me in a flock of other syllables I didn’t know. The man in the street left us with a “danke” and a nod. The old man looked up at me from under his hat, said … something in German and chuckled. “Yah” I agreed.
Sipping the last of his drink and buttoning his coat, my morning drinking companion put his cup and saucer in the bin on the shelf under the table. I hadn’t even noticed it at first. How efficient … how perfect. How German. No bussing of tables, no carrying of cutlery. One little bin for every table. “Auf wiedersein” he waved.
Jittery from a stomach full of coffee and nothing else, I began heading back to where I thought the train station ought to be.
The iPhone had only just come out that year, and having Google maps to hold your hand was not yet an option. I had to trust that Germans made square corners, two turns would keep the river on my left, and that should eventually produce a train station where I expected it to be.
I wandered down tiny streets, stumbling out into the touristy charm of the Römerberg and finally onto the Kaiserstrasse as it began to rain. There, my luck at being mistaken as a local, a point of pride among many seasoned travelers as I would later learn, finally ran out completely. A street cart was selling more wonderful sounding German food than I could pronounce or pay for in front of the Hauptbahnhof. I ducked under the canopy of the cart and ordered a schnitzel of some variety. “Five euro” the man said in English without hesitation. Damn.
I was laughably early for my train, but that felt just about right. Years later such a morning wandering around a city I didn’t know would have just been “Tuesday”, but for a novice, this had all been a bit much. I scuttled onto my tram and took a spot by the bright red doors in a car empty of everyone but a sullen teenager.
Back at passport control, the efficient, clean-cut customs officer hunted through my then-empty passport and found the entry stamp from earlier that morning. With that satisfying “ca-chunk” of the stamp, I had a matched set and my little journey was complete. I had left the airport and, more or less, eaten a meal. Germany could be checked off the list. I wandered aimlessly to my gate, the tension and immediacy of the morning now draining back into the dull background haze of jetlag.
I had, of course, seen nothing of Germany. I did not know that I had, on that grey winter morning along the Main, only awakened a hunger that would shape the next decade of my life. Whatever happened next, wandering through alleys and poking around cities across the world needed to be a part of it. That schnitzel would be the first of so many meals eaten on the run out of greasy paper or off little toothpicks, each one of them more amazing than the last.
Over the coming years, many things would change. For years my wife and I had the time and money and the schedules to travel together, and then, eventually, I would find myself beginning to travel alone again for reasons that didn’t make sense. The changing whims of American politics and foreign policy would bring congratulations and questions and curiosity from the people I would meet, and sometimes coolness and occasionally anger. The gravity well of work would be escaped at first, and then my carreer was shrunk to a little neutron star small, but impossibly heavy that would simply come along with me in my bag before vanishing almost completely for a while.
Over the years, some things did not change, though. Almost exactly 11 years later, when I would next find myself in Frankfurt, trudging sleepily out of the bottom of the airport to find a train on another cold February day, I would be confronted again by the same cryptic and overly-informative train schedule. The second time around, however, I did not need to stand slack-jawed and wondering in front of the board. I merely nodded and smiled and did what any seasoned traveler would do to find a train. I checked Google Maps.
Want to see more?
Digging through the archives, I found a photo of the actual coffee shop I visited! You can find it over on Patreon.