I was just shy of 17 years old when I received my first passport. It was the summer of 2004, the gap between my junior and senior years of high school. Packing for Germany, my biggest concern was how cool I’d look. I was and still am a humongous nerd. I was rocking only the best in khaki cargo pants, white gym shoes, a windbreaker more suitable for camping than wandering around beautiful historic cities, and a stable of ‘fun’ baseball caps that would put a real baseball player to shame. I was one fanny pack short of screaming ‘I’M A TOURIST AND MY PARENTS LET ME GO SOMEWHERE BY MYSELF, P.S. I’M AMERICAN!’ Instead, I only screamed ‘MUG ME! P.S. I’M AMERICAN!’
The trip was for our German class. Every couple of years they would organize a trip to a few countries in Europe, the primary destination being, you know, Germany. Never having been out of the country before, I was understandably nervous. Luckily for my anxious self, my two best friends, Rob and Reid, were going with me. Those are pseudonyms of course, but oh so easy to figure out. Go on, try it at home!
The European goodwill towards Americans prior to and at the beginning of the Iraq War was winding down a bit, and we were unnecessarily worried about how we’d be treated (except for the French, they treated us like dog shit). We’d been hearing on the news and through its more reliable sister source, internet comment sections, that Europe was getting frustrated with our foreign policy. As an adult now, I realize that this is a normal part of life. I get frustrated with aspects of our government, European governments, and so on, but to a naïve High School student who hadn’t been east of Ohio, my thoughts jumped a little to the scary end of the spectrum.
After shoring up my resolve and deciding not to buy the ‘Canadian Tourist Disguise Pack’ which was an actual thing marketed to Americans, my two buddies and I set out with the rest of our German class for a 10 day excursion to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
Since the school wanted to make sure that we weren’t wandering around out there, they set us up with a travel and tour company specifically geared towards schools. For paying the bunch of money to go, our rewards were tickets, organized airfare, the tour itself, and our own neon blue and orange backpack emblazoned with the company’s logo. It really looked like it was designed for children so their parents couldn’t lose them in a crowd. I had enough sense to realize that wearing that would straight-up get my ass kicked no matter the country, and left it at home.
The time came to leave, and my family took me to the airport. In order to save money, and to test us to see if we really wanted to go, the travel company arranged a hideous series of stopovers and transfers throughout the country. First we flew from O’Hare International to Detroit, then from Detroit to LaGuardia in New York, wherein we had a five-hour layover and had to take a bus to JFK International Airport. From there, we took the big international flight to Paris, following finally with a short flight to Vienna, Austria where our trip would actually start. All in all it would be nearly 24 hours travelling.
First thing, I had never been to New York City before, and I still say I haven’t. I was so tired at the point where we got on the bus for the transfer I fell asleep the entire way through the city. The absolute only thing I remember is being stuck in a traffic jam on some sort of highway junction. The only reason I was even to see that is because Rob nudged me awake for falling asleep on his shoulder (this would happen so often during the trip he finally stopped caring, and I’m sure the other schools on the trip thought we made a cute couple.)
The Lufthansa overseas flight went well, and we ended at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Now, I want to make something clear at this point. In America, this was the time of the whole ‘Freedom Fries’ and anger at the French for not getting involved in our conflicts overseas. I thought the entire situation was ridiculous, and harbor no ill will towards the French people. However, there are two exceptions to this. One is when I’m around Reid, since he and his wife lived there for a year and are huge Francophiles so playing up the stereotypes gets them hilariously fired up. The other is Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
Fuck that airport and everyone that works there. Our international flight was delayed and we landed at the airport with only thirty minutes to reach our connecting flight. Needless to say, we did not make it. The unloading of passengers was the longest I’ve suffered through in my life (speaking as someone who makes at least one flight a year, usually multiple.) This was not due to the size of the plane or anything like that, but the ground crew sent to retrieve us. The plane landed and offloaded on the ramp, and they forgot to bring shuttle busses to bring us to the terminal. The Lufthansa flight crew was radioing ground control to figure out what was going on, the French ground crew that had supervised the off-loading had no idea where the busses were. Finally after twenty minutes busses started to trickle in. Once we arrived in the terminal, it was clear we would need to arrange a new flight.
Now, Charles de Gaulle has a main terminal that is more confusing to navigate than an Ikea. Poorly posted and contradictory signage, switch backs, and dead ends all combine to make navigation reminiscent of Theseus and the Minotaur. Combine this with airport staff that pretended to not speak English, refuse to speak English, or if you confirm with them that they do speak English, usually just tell you to ‘go that way’ and point. At one point, one staff member told us that he did not speak English and pointed at a woman about 50 feet away. When we got to her, she told us she did not speak English very well, and said that the man we spoke with spoke it fluently, and pointed us back to him.
Eventually after several frustrating hours, our German teacher was able to get us on a quick regional flight to Austria.
Vienna to me is the most beautiful city I’ve been in. The old architecture, mixed with newer developments and pedestrian only zones, ended up complimenting each other instead of clashing. A group of us ended up at a small café and ice cream shop and braced ourselves for our first attempt at conversational German. The first guy in our group wasn’t known for his grasp of the German language, I mean hell, none of us were unless we needed to ask where the bathroom was, but he figured out how to ask for a chocolate shake. He asked (apologies to German speakers, Google Translate was my partner in crime here) ”Ich möchte einen Schokoladenmilchshake mit Schokolade zu bekommen.” Roughly translated, this means “I would like a chocolate milkshake with chocolate.” The rest of us cracked up when she responded, in perfect and lightly accented English, “Do you mean you want a chocolate milkshake?” Embarrassed, he nodded yes and the rest of us sheepishly ordered in English. The joke was on us though because apparently he has become super fluent in German, where the rest of us can tell you how old we are or what people are shouting in Saving Private Ryan.
Munich was our first major stop in Germany, where we stayed in a hostel. Reid, Rob and I shared a room. Having the night to ourselves, the three of us and a friend who wasn’t old enough to drink decided to try to find a bar. Our hostel was away from touristy areas, and we found a small hole in the wall bar, and trying to put on an air of maturity, walked in and greeted the bartender. The bartender, a woman in her 20’s tending the tiniest bar I’ve ever seen, asked us what we wanted.
Our eyes darted back and forth between each other. In the excitement of going into our first legal bar, we never really considered what we would actually… well drink.
Rob, determined and brave, stepped forward and made the first decision. “I would like a vodka martini, shaken not stirred,” he said proudly. To us, he was the manliest person on the planet. I stepped forward, emboldened by our new leader, and ordered the only thing that popped into my mind, “I would like a glass of Bailey’s please!” Oh yeah, that was the ticket. Not sampling German beer or at least try to drink whiskey, or hell even make an Irish Car Bomb. I blew right through all those and ended up with what my grandpa sips after he finishes dinner. I would have to be careful to keep the bartender from latching on to my raw animal magnetism as I gently sipped a drink that goes perfectly well with whipped cream. The other guys ordered water, because not everyone in a group are meant to be the alphas.
We found a dark booth near the back and were enjoying our spoils when a voice yelled from the front in incomprehensible German. Turning in unison, we saw a group that we missed when we came in: an absolutely tiny, middle-aged man flanked on either side by six-foot men with beer guts. The little guy was absolutely tanked, and his friends were trying their best to keep their friend from slipping off his bar height stool. It looked like a mad king being guarded by his knights. The yell had come from the drunk man, and his friends looked at us. “He wants to know if you’re American,” says the knight to his left.
“Yeah,” we mutter. Realization sweeps over us, this is how it starts. They’re between us and the door, and we’re going to get our asses whipped in our first drunken bar fight.
The knight confirms this with the mad king, and there is an eerie silence that hangs over the room as we size each other up. I look towards our new Captain, Rob, and steady myself to motivationally cheer him on as I run my terrified 120 pound self out the door.
“I love America!” screams the little man in heavily accented English jumping out of his seat.
All of us unclench and start laughing. Then came the loaded question we were dreading. His eyes narrow and quietly he asks, “Vote Bush?”
“No, we’re Democrats, we don’t like him,” stammered all of us in various ways. We didn’t mention we couldn’t vote anyways.
“Ah! We not like him!” his eyes light up. “Where from?” he asks excitedly, the knight who I figure is the leader of the guard steps in when the king starts to sway.
“Chicago.” Which is kind of true since ‘suburbs ten minutes outside of Chicago’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The King laughs and cheers and lifts up his right arm and starts waving it wildly, “Michael Jordan, Chicago Bull!” His pantomime of a jump shot becomes clear at that point. Through his translators we entertain him with the times we saw the Bulls play.
As soon as the conversation starts to dwindle, there’s a sparkle in the little man’s eye. He points his fingers at us in gun shapes, “Al Capone! Gangsters! Rat-tat-tat!” We’re amazed that American pop culture really can transcend borders and language. We tell him what roughly true facts we know about the 1920’s and 1930’s, most of which comes from the Kevin Costner classic “The Untouchables” also starring Sean Connery as an Irishman with an inexplicable Scottish accent. It takes us several minutes to convince him that Chicago is not still ruled by warring Italian gangs, and he reluctantly accepts this.
We finish our drinks and he finds one more Americanism to throw at us. He leaps up in his chair, fists thrust towards the sky, and screams “Superman! I am Superman!” While we were leaving we gave some euros to the bartender for a round of drinks for King Superman and his knights, and were repaid in kind by hugs from the king himself. We bid the king farewell, and marched off into the quiet summer night. When people ask me what was my favorite part of Germany, I have to tell the truth. The culture, architecture, and history were wonderful. The people were absolutely friendly and charming, with great humor and tolerance for dumb teenagers.
My favorite moment though, was the honor of sharing court with King Superman.