Dear Dr. Rossbach,
How mad would you be if I ditch the group for the Schumann Roundabout?
Wait, did I say ‘ditch?’ I meant ditched.
I’ve made the trip and am currently sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for everyone to go Chez Leon for our farewell dinner. Over at the bar, a group of Scotsmen slam Guinness on the counter, raving about a run-in with two English men. A literal run-in. The patriarch figure, whose kilt I hear rustling from twenty yards away, stumbled and collapsed onto their table. Slurred words bubbled and boiled until one of the sons buys the men an apologetic round of drinks. Twenty-four hours on, bitterness barbs the patriarch’s words. If this is how the Scottish Nationalist Party and the rest of British Parliament handle secession talks next year, I demand C-SPAN be redirected overseas.
I suppose I should say I took off in Berlin as well. I composed my best Vertigo impression while scaling the narrow steps of the Victory Column. An iron gate was my only protection from the panoramic view of Berlin. My line of sight stretched from Brandenburg Gate to the Fernsehturm, a television tower influenced by Soviet design. Considering how standing on ladders gives me heart palpitations, I spent most of that view scooting down the stairs like a toddler across a hardwood floor. I took an early dinner at Oranienburger Strasse, at a café next door to a synagogue riddled with bullets from WWII. I rode the U-Bahn to East End and walked a section of the Berlin Wall, now turned into an art exhibit. I snapped pictures of fresh messages written in Sharpie calling for Merkel to step down and begging the EU to free Catalonia from Spain. Too bad the neighborhood exists on the back end of deindustrialization, or as Jackie calls it: the Lawrenceville of Berlin. Exploring behind the wall, I discovered overgrown weeds, sidewalks with bone-shattering craters, and broken glass sewn into the soil. Graffiti on this side marked territory rather than political sentiment. A few yards away, a police officer approached two greasy men clutching beer bottles in brown paper bags. The man brandished their bottles into weapons, and I broke the five-minute mile back to the U-Bahn station.
I realize there’s a matter of accountability. Chatham University probably frowns upon trip chaperones losing students during trips abroad. I subscribe to my father’s mode of travel, which involves wandering at a slight disregard for the self or others. It does explain how he trapped himself and his brother on the Soviet side of the wall back in the eighties. Somehow, I doubt favorable genetic coding assures anyone concerning my unannounced departure.
You see, Thoreau believed in the concept of abandoning civilization to gain self-perception. Franklin argued for moral perfection through analyzing individual experience. Seeing how this is an apology and not an ENG216 essay, I will not reason philosophical.
I am exhausted by Americans.
Specifically, these Americans:
“Guten Morgen, mother fucker!”
“Dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow, dishonor on your whole family!”
“I must shake my dancing legs!”
“David Dr. Rossbach, where ya runnin’ to?!”
Julie Victain and Jackie Worst: cultural commentators in ripped jeans and sweat-stained Chatham T-shirts. Now serving Berlin, Brussels, and the whole of central Europe. English only. Subtitle options mercifully unavailable.
If Mark Twain traveled with these innocents, he would have thrown them overboard before the Quaker City left port. He may initially applaud their protests toward the ‘awful German language’ echoed in the stone hallways of the Friedrichstrasse Station. However, whispered profanities at Vlaams Parliament in Brussels would have forced him to abandon the group and join the Scots at the bar. I accompany Mark in these frustrations. Granted, my taste for New Glarus beer, propensity to correct people when they ‘water fountain’ instead of ‘bubbler,’ and affection for ice fishing musicals reveals ardent state nationalism. If I could, I would wear the Wisconsin flag as a veritable cape of pride. Yet traveling has this way of transforming the landscape into an extended practice of etiquette. There’s the matter of presentation, assuming the correct posture, and wearing the right clothing. Shirts reading ‘Keep Calm and Cheer the Packers’ cause one to stand out. Failure to greet others with ‘bonjour’ or ‘guten tag’ warrants instant labeling as an American, complete with Hawaiian print clothing, bulky Jansport products, and a comical misunderstanding of global culture. If thirteen days in Berlin and Brussels taught me anything, it was when to keep my mouth shut. When to shove my Brewers jersey deeper into my duffel bag. When to abandon the Chatham group to experience a city on a cultural and linguistic level, independent of Julie and Jackie’s profane brand of the American narrative.
So off I went.
Outside, strips of sunlight peek through dense clouds and onto the marketplace outside our IBIS Hotel in Brussels. Underneath red and green tents, my eyes survey rows of homemade bracelets, earrings dangling from spinners, and oversized bags that would fetch hundreds at Urban Outfitters. I avoid locking eyes with the merchants (they’ve been known to launch over fold-up tables to harass potential customers). I glide through people bulging with pink Neuhaus chocolate bags. A street actor tries to entice me into taking a picture with him by mumbling ‘Go Obama.’ The scent of fried dough and Nutella from various waffle shops guide me on the road toward Gare de Bruxelles-Central.
My mind ventures forward to the Schumann Roundabout, the headquarters of the European Union and my destination. Our Chatham group has gone there a few times, skipping across drying concrete to visit regional representatives. Since I was going on a Sunday, the Roundabout would be devoid of the usual pedantic grey suits cramming themselves into brasseries. Without the group dictating my pace, I could walk under the scarlet construction cranes hanging over each building. I envisioned walking down the blue and yellow construction barricade bordering the Consilium, home of the European Council, with its banners welcoming Ireland into a long line of rotating presidents. I would stand in the central median, listening to the elevator creaking into the Roundabout train station below. I would admire the sign draped proudly over the Berlaymont, the residence of European Parliament: “L’Enjeu C’est L’Europe, Il S’agit De Vous. It’s All About Europe, It’s All about You.”
Physical boundaries cannot restrict my nerdy compulsions.
The sidewalk proceeds uphill. In the entrances of closed banks buildings, Roma couples shove jingling hats to wandering tourists. One of their dogs sniffs my pant leg. Picking up the pace, I walk across the courtyard and into the lobby of Bruxelles-Central. Light streams down from the skylight onto the cream-colored marble. A staircase in the middle of the lobby leads down into the tracks. As I scrounge my purse for my rail pass, a language composed of two parts romance and three parts pretention greeted me.
French. Je deteste.
Another apology: I’m sorry for not listening carefully when Chatham’s visiting Fulbright scholar from France offered language lessons for our trip. I allowed my tongue to twist into the shape of his arrogance. Ultimately, the mold stench tattooing his skin captured my attention far more than learning how to order at a restaurant. This regret became more pertinent when I pull out the rail pass to find it expired the day before. My Cold War era phrasebook only covered asking for fruit cocktail and locating the discotheque in German, not French. Merde.
Next to a Starbucks, I spot a ticket machine. It welcomes me with a bright blue screen delivering the cheery message: ‘Bienvenue a Gare de Bruxelles-Central.’ No English option. I scan memories of ACT and SAT study guides, using context clues to buy my ticket. Then I click random buttons. The blue screen pools around my jabbing finger and threatens to crack. Two younger French men wearing Artic Zone jackets and High Sierra backpacks join behind the line. Their laughing causes a frustrated groan to escape between my lips. My slamming the side of the machine startles them to silence. After resting my head on the blue screen, I acquiesce my spot and head toward the ticket vendor underneath the timetable sign. The two men throw looks of sympathy, whispering to themselves. Another groan.
A small line forms around the ticket windows. As I fumble with crumpled Euro, I rehearse the bit of French I learned from my friend and fellow traveler Alexa, who studied abroad in Aix the year before. Advanced preparation could allow me to get my ticket and slip to the tracks unnoticed.
“Bonjour!” I say to the vendor. “Uhn bil-let a Bruxelles—?”
“Local tickets sold downstairs,” the vendor responds without looking up.
“Oh, uh, mur-ci.”
Biting my lip, I take to the stairs leading to the underbelly of the station. Chipped planks barricade long white hallways. Spray-painted arrows lead passengers around the station. Frozen LED signs above my head assure me in orange neon lettering that construction is only temporary. An older woman with chopped hay for hair marches slowly down the hallway. I recognize her as the same woman we passed while sprinting for already departed trains. Once she completes her trip, she will turn and walk back. Upon seeing her the first time, Jackie asked Julie to call a nearby hospital to see if they lost a corpse. I chuckle at the memory.
I find the vendor office wedged between two staircases going to the tracks. A group of female skiers buying group tickets huddle in front of the windows, their equipment adding a few yards to the line. My temples throb with each second lost for the Schumann Roundabout. Chez Leon looms closer, along with more commentary. My breath reduces to shortened bursts.
A problem occurs at the window. The ticket vendor attempts some explanation, but the girls shout louder. Their complaints in French turn my brain into a tuning fork. I crumple my ticket fare. Fingernail dents line the bottom of my palm. More congested shouting. My knuckles become white. More conjugated squeaks. I close my eyes.
“Je suis désolé, mais…”
“Ne peut pas vous voir…”
Goddammit, can’t you just speak fucking English?!
My eyes flicker open.
I check for snapping heads, narrowed eyes. The outburst pulses in my cheeks, but it never achieves sound. The group clears.
“Bonjour. Um, zone one Brussels. Round trip.”
A couple stops later I reach the Schumann Roundabout. The silence of stalled member state negotiations greet me in chilled May wind. I weave down the streets, taking pictures of Permanent Representative buildings. Somewhere in the lobby of the Latvian Permanent Representation building, there is a screenshot of me with my camera, proof of my subversive American activity. How mad would you be if I needed bail?
My thoughts return to the ticket vendor. Brussels, a city containing almost twenty languages assembled in the dialect of European politics, floats in its fragmented identity. Linguistic markers control globalized chaos. French buoys the ticket vendor working at an international train station. Profanity and Disney references buoy Julie and Jackie, two students facing first time global travel. Now, at the end of my third transatlantic journey, I perceived those nationalistic buoys as detrimental for my desire of cultural incorporation. Julie and Jackie have their Chatham clothing. I have my Wisconsin nationalism. The cultural experience remains strengthened. Even Mark Twain praised Lake Tahoe.
Next time, I’ll leave a post-it note when I almost verbally assault a ticket vendor.
If I disappear before Chez Leon, I’d join the Scots, claiming myself as the missing link in their family chain. Either that or I’m in my room, holding my Mac at a forty-five degree angle to listen to Bob Uecker broadcasting the Brewer game. Static sounds nice from four thousand miles away.