I looked out the window and watched row after row of grape trellises flash past. It had been like this for over an hour and I decided that Germany must be nothing but forest and vineyards. I looked across the aisle and saw the Rhine slide past the other row of windows as if it were on a filmstrip. I wished I had taken a seat on that side. The sameness of grapes was not very inspiring.
The train jolted and my pen rolled out of my lap and onto the floor. I picked it up and set it back in the crease of my notebook. I had come here hoping that the romantic landscapes would help with my writing, but I had already been here a week and my notebook contained only two things: useful German phrases and the names of old cathedrals.
I looked back across the aisle at the Rhine and wondered if it would be too conspicuously American to change seats. The car was less than half full, but I decided it would be better to wait for an excuse to move. A large group would probably get on at Andernach, and I would be able to offer them my place, which was surrounded by empty seats. Until then, I would force myself to write. I pulled a warm Bitburger out of my bag and opened it, then stared across the aisle. After I had taken a few sips from my beer, I picked up my pen.
Thomas watched the German countryside slide past as the train carried him to Munich. He felt like he was in a painting by Caspar David Friedrich. The Rhine snaked between a mountain covered in evergreens on the far bank and the railroad tracks on the near one. He noticed a white cross standing high in the forest on the other bank and wondered who had raised it there. He imagined there was a village deep in the trees that had not seen the outside world since the Middle Ages and that they still climbed the mountain every Sunday to hear Mass in Latin.
I heard someone walking down the aisle and looked up to see if it were the controller checking tickets. It was a young woman with a very full backpack. She found an open seat on the other side of the aisle and sat down, dropping her bag at her feet. She looked American, or at least not German. Her shorts were too short and she wore flip-flops.
I thought that she might be the excuse I was looking for. If I were to overhear her speaking English, it would not be impolite to ask her where she was from. Then I could move to the open seat across from her and when the conversation died, I would have the Rhine and I could really start writing.
I waited for a clear sign that she was American, but she was traveling alone and had no reason to speak English. I hoped the controller would come through soon. I could even translate a little for her if she were very American. The girl looked around and briefly made eye contact with me. Then she leaned her head against the window and looked outside.
The train sped on and Thomas lost himself in thought. As he was staring out the window, a girl entered the train car. Her name was Emma, and she had also come to Germany looking for something new. She had been traveling all day and was too tired to notice the white cross on the mountain. She had boarded the train at Thomas’s stop, but because she did not speak any German, she had accidentally sat down in first class. When the controller had come around, he had pointed out her mistake and politely asked her to change cars.
This had required some messy translation and had been very embarrassing, and Emma was emotionally exhausted by the time she found an open seat in coach.
Thomas and Emma both looked out the window at the river. They wanted very similar things out of Germany for very different reasons. Thomas needed inspiration for his writing. Emma wanted to get away from her parents. Both wanted to forget the States for a while.
Emma looked around as she sat down and accidentally made eye contact with Thomas as he stared in her direction. They were both pulled from their thoughts for a moment. Thomas thought it was admirable that such a pretty girl was traveling alone. Emma thought his eyes were kind. In other circumstances, she might have said hello to him. But she was tired and knew that she would never see him again after she got off at Andernach, so she turned away and pressed her forehead against the window.
The train jolted again and my finger smudged the last sentence.
“Fuck!” I heard from across the aisle. I looked up. The young woman had bumped her head against the window. She was rubbing her left temple and glaring angrily at her own reflection.
It now seemed very likely that she was American. Few Germans over the age of sixteen said “fuck.” But it might seem strange if I were to introduce myself just because of this. I would have to wait for something else.
The door at the front of the car opened and a controller walked in. I was quietly thankful. The young woman and I were near the back, so I would have to wait a little to make sure she was American. I kept my ear tilted in her direction and prepared a look of excited surprise that I could turn on her when she spoke to the controller.
Thomas and Emma watched the Rhine together, separated by the aisle. After some minutes, the door at the front of the car opened and a controller walked in. Thomas rummaged in his bag for his ticket.
“Fahrkarte, bitte,” he heard the controller say from the Rhine side. He looked up. Emma was pulling her ticket out of her bag without saying anything. It struck him that she might not speak any German.
Emma waited nervously while the controller looked at her ticket. She had already had enough trouble with him for one trip.
“Reisen Sie denn ganz allein?” the controller asked. Emma did not know how to respond. She felt panic rising in her stomach. She smiled at the controller, hoping he would just give her back the ticket. He repeated the question.
Thomas saw the panic tightening her face and suddenly felt very tender toward her. After the controller had asked her a second time and it was clear that she did not understand, he leaned over and said, “He wants to know if you’re traveling alone.”
Emma was filled with gratitude. She smiled at Thomas and Thomas could tell that she meant it. She turned back to the controller and nodded.
The controller turned to Thomas for a moment and gave him a wry smile. Then he handed the ticket back to Emma and said, “Alles in Ordnung. Schönen Tag noch.”
Emma turned back to Thomas as the controller continued on and said, “Thank you so much. I just had some trouble with my ticket earlier and I don’t know what I would’ve done if something else had gone wrong.”
“No problem,” Thomas said. “I’ve been there before.”
“Well, thank you,” she said. “Again.”
They were silent for a moment. Then she asked, “Are you American?”
“Yes,” Thomas said with a smile.
“Do you want to come and sit with me? This spot’s open, I think, and I could really use some English.”
“Sure,” Thomas said.
“Fahrkarte, bitte,” the controller said. I looked up. He was standing over me. I reached into my bag and pulled out my ticket. He checked it and moved on. I followed him with my eyes. The young woman was next.
“Fahrkarte, bitte,” the controller said to her. She reached into her bag and pulled out her ticket. The controller looked at it and asked, “Also steigen Sie in Andernach aus?”
Her mouth tightened. He repeated the question. Her mouth tightened even more. It was clear she did not speak German. I leaned over.
“He wants to know if you’re getting off at Andernach,” I said.
She looked at me with surprise. She had not expected help. She turned to the controller and said, “Ja.”
“Schon gut.” He gave her the ticket back and moved on.
She turned back to me and said, “So you’re American too, huh?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s nice to hear some English.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I can barely order a drink in German. I don’t know how I thought I was going to manage the train by myself. It’s so confusing.”
I smiled at her.
“Are you traveling alone?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “You?”
“Yeah.” We fell into conversation across the aisle. She spoke in short sentences and I somehow found this very attractive. After a while I realized we were flirting. I gathered my things slowly and moved to the seat across from her. She did not say anything and I took this as a good sign. I wondered what would happen if she were not to get off at Andernach.
We eventually stopped talking. She looked out the window at the Rhine and I watched her reflection and the river traveling next to one another in the glass.
They began to talk and Thomas began to fall in love. He liked that Emma was traveling alone. He thought it said a lot about her character. Emma was grateful for Thomas’s help with the controller, and she was glad that an excuse to talk with him had appeared.
The train drew near Andernach. Emma wished that she were going farther and Thomas wished he had decided to stay in the
Rhineland instead of going to Bavaria. They watched the river together, now separated only by their silence, and they both considered changing their plans. Emma was tired of not understanding things and she thought that a ticket to Munich would be a small price to pay for Thomas’s company. Thomas had no set itinerary for his time in Germany and could not think of anything more valuable than the possibility of love. He watched the Rhine turn orange and gold as the sun set and decided to get off with Emma.
They pulled into the station and people began to line up at the doors. Emma rose and gathered her things. She had decided she could not afford the ticket to Munich, but she secretly hoped Thomas would get off with her.
“So,” she said, standing awkwardly by her seat. “I guess this is my stop.”
Thomas prepared to stand up, but his legs would not move. He tried to tell her that this was also his stop, but his mouth would not open. He could not do it.
“Nice to meet you,” Emma said. She felt the prospect of two more weeks alone in Germany press heavily on her chest. “Maybe we’ll see each other back in the States some time.”
She turned and walked down the aisle. Just as she reached the end, Thomas shouted out, “Goodbye!” Then she was gone.
As the train pulled out of the station, Thomas rested his forehead on the window. He did not know why he had stayed in his seat. Then the train was back along the Rhine and the water was white with the light of the rising moon. And he knew.
The train pulled into Andernach and people began pulling their luggage to the doors. She stood up and slid her arms through the straps of her stuffed backpack.
“Well, it was nice meeting you,” she said. “Maybe we’ll catch each other on another train.”
“It was nice meeting you, too,” I said. Then she was gone.
The train pulled out of the station and I looked out the window. I almost wished for a moment that she had stayed on the train. She was attractive and spoke English, and I had not met any other Americans yet. It would have been nice to have had a friend.
The thought disappeared as I replaced it with thoughts about Munich—where I would eat, what conversations I might overhear, how beautiful the English Garden must be. I could see through the window that we were back on the Rhine. It was quiet and I was on the good side of the aisle. Now I could get some real writing done.