Bridges to Humanity

The train rocked and swayed along the tracks from Duesseldorf to Bonn. Thrown hither and thither as the train fought to stay on its course, I staggered along the narrow passageway, carrying my two heavy suitcases.  I’d never been on a European train and thus had only seen enclosed compartments in the movies.  I bounced off the walls wondering whether I was in a first class car.  Behind the row of windowed, sliding doors were compartments containing six red seats, three facing toward the front of the train and three facing the rear.  I peered through one door after another until I found an empty compartment.  With some effort, the door slid open and I stepped in and proceeded to fill the racks with my luggage.  I was sweating profusely as I collapsed into the window seat.  I looked at my watch.

 

"8:39," I said to myself, "Get off the train at 8:39," remembering the counsel from my English-speaking acquaintances.  "The trains in Germany are always punctual, so if you get off the train at 8:39, you will be in Bonn."

 

I had been in Germany for less than 24 hours.  In preparation for my stay in Germany, I had memorized a number of words and phrases, all of which seemed terribly useless thus far in my journey.  I hadn't understood a single word anyone had said at the train station.

 

I was away from home for the first time, alone in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak the language.  Lost in thoughts of loneliness and fear, I was suddenly shocked back to reality by the thud of the sliding door.  A uniformed guard stood in front of me.  The glint of silver in his hand told me that he was holding a pistol and I thought, “I am in first class and he’s going to arrest me.”

 

"Fahrkarte, bitte?"  He said.

 

My eyes bulged as I heard a clicking noise from the gun in his hand.

 

"Fahrkarte, bitte?"  He said again.

 

I glanced down to face my doom, but the gun had no barrel.  “Could this policeman be holding a ticket punch?”  I thought.  I carefully pulled the cardboard ticket from my shirt pocket and held it out to him.  He took it, punched a hole in it, returned it saying, "Bitte schoen."  He turned abruptly and disappeared with a thunk.

 

"He didn't even notice that I don't have a first class ticket," I thought, somewhat relieved.  "I wish the train wouldn't stop until 8:39," I said knowing that it would stop in Cologne.

 

With that thought, I felt the train jerk and noticed that the blur of German countryside had turned into houses and buildings.  I saw a sign that said "Leverkusen."  That didn't sound like Cologne to me.  Soon, the train stood silent except for the thudding of doors and thumping of footsteps.  I sat in terror, waiting for another policeman to discover me in the first class compartment.  I let out a deep sigh when a minute later I felt the train jolt.  The German landscape soon resumed its journey past my window.

 

I breathed easier.  My mind was full of images of Germany, fantastic multi-spired castles surrounded by towering mountain peaks.  But the scenery passing my window did not inspire much fantasy.  It seemed flat and boring.  Ignoring my disappointment, I began thinking about Cologne.  Its cathedral was supposed to be one of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture.  I wondered whether I might be able to see it from the train.  Moments later its awesome size loomed over the city as the train clattered across the bridge that spanned the Rhine River.

 

Suddenly, the bright, sunny morning was obliterated as the train pulled into the most fantastic station I had ever seen or even imagined.  There must have been one hundred tracks all running parallel, all under the same black wrought iron roof.  In spite of the dinginess, I was enthralled by the sheer size of the structure.

 

My wonder turned to panic as a very large, round woman slid the door open and filled my only exit.  She said something, and then laughed hungrily.  In retrospect, she probably said, "Is that seat taken?" At the time, however, I thought she said, "What are you doing in First Class, you presumptuous foreigner.  I haven't decided whether I'm going to call the conductor and have you bodily thrown from this train or whether I'm just going to eat you.  Cackle, cackle."

 

To the woman’s dismay, I quickly stood up, pulled my bags off their perch.  I proceeded to bash, crash and smash my way through the sliding door with a giant shove from the train as it jerked forward toward Bonn.  The poor woman probably thought she smelled bad or something.  Once again, I found myself staggering down the ever-quaking passage searching for an empty compartment.  Car after car, I searched, and car after car was full.  Arms aching and fingers frozen, I dropped my bags in the roaring roller coaster alcove that joined two of the cars.  Huffing and puffing, my frustration overwhelmed me.

 

"I can't communicate!!!"  I screamed, my voice drowned by the clattering noise.  I exploded, "All that time memorizing hasn't helped me at all.  I can't read the signs.  I can't express my thoughts.  I can't understand anything anybody says.  What am I doing in this place?"  My world had transformed into a huge, frightening monster that filled me with dread and fear.  I stood like a zombie... dazed... lost...

 

The slowing of the train brought me to my senses.  I looked at my watch.  "8:38.  Finally, the capital city of Germany... and hopefully someone who speaks English."  I looked out the tiny window of the exit door and saw one pair of tracks—not one hundred, not even fifty, just one.

 

Panic again swelled in my chest.  "What if this isn't Bonn?  This can't be the capitol of Germany!  A Capitol City must have more than two tracks!  This must be a suburb.  How will I be able to explain that I'm lost? "

 

I looked at my watch.  It clicked to 8:39 just as the train screeched to a halt.  A voice whispered, “The trains in Germany are always punctual.” Doors began banging and people started pouring into the alcove from both cars. Angry looks and comments were aimed my way as I blocked the exit.  A man push passed me and turned the crank on the door, which screeched open exposing the narrow stairs below.  I gathered courage and my luggage and stepped into a booming metropolis of 56,000 people.  A large sign stated boldly, “Bonn.”  I shook my head in disbelief.

 

A tall thin young American appeared beside me.  "Welcome to Bonn, Bruder Halliday."

We stepped out of the train station and were greeted by a horse drawn wagon filled with potatoes.  Again, I shook my head at the idea that this was the capital of Germany.  Bruder Stevens said, “We have a room in a nice house not too far from here.”  He carried one of my bags and I carried the other, but it somehow it seemed lighter weight than while I was on the train.  We walked up Poppeldorfer Allee past the lovely palace and down a pleasant street.  We soon passed Robert and Clara Shumann’s home where Johannes Brahms was often inspired to compose his amazing music.  Bruder Steven said, “You know that Bonn is Beethoven’s birthplace, too.  We’ll visit his house one day.”  I smiled with growing enthusiasm.  Bonn looked like it might be fun after all… and it was.

 

 

12/11/99