After high school, I was a typical small-town red-blooded American boy in Michigan, working for my father who had a small music store located in Benton Harbor. The store sold all types of musical instruments to all walks of life. My mother's beauty salon was just a hop, skip, and a jump away, right down the road from him. Up until that point, I had never left the United States and to be honest with you, never really been out of my own city that much. A big trip for me would have been driving with my parents an hour away to South Bend, Indiana, or Kalamazoo, Michigan. Chicago was two and half hours away and even going there was like making a trip around the world. Now, it was time for me to literally make a trip half way across the planet and I wasn't even sure when and if I was coming back. (.)
I was on my way to Vienna, Austria, a city known throughout the decades for its classical music, located in the heart of Europe. For the entire past year, I had been counting down the days until my flight and couldn't wait. Finally, the day of my departure had arrived. Thinking about the fact that my waiting had come to an end, never having left my own city before on my own, I was scared to death.
Suddenly, fear set in and I started having second thoughts about the whole thing. Craziness took hold of me and I got up from my seat, ran to the stewardess and said, "I changed my mind! Please, could you let me off?"
"No, Sir, we have already shut the door for departure. I do apologize, but at this time, we can't let anyone off the plane," she said, as she looked at me a bit confounded. (.)
Even though I was afraid, there was part of me that was happy that the door was shut, not allowing me to change my mind. After all, I had been practicing the guitar so much and it seemed so obvious that nothing could stop me from passing that entrance exam at the Viennese Academy of Music. A new chapter in my life was soon to begin. (.)
After arriving, getting my luggage, and finding the train into the city, I boarded and took a seat across from two sweet little ladies that must have been in their late sixties or early seventies. It was pretty exciting to try out my foreign language abilities for the first time with real native speakers. I said hello to them in German and they retorted by asking me where I was from. I had only been learning German for the past year at a local college so I could communicate, but that was all.
Whenever I said something to the ladies, they seemed to understand the point I was trying to get across, but I was having great difficulty understanding anything they were saying. The only thing I could make out was the German word for yes. Instead of admitting to my inability to speak the language, I just pretended to understand, nodding my head again and again.
That turned out to be quite a problem when they asked me why my pants were full of sticky chocolate. I just stared at them with a dazed look nodding while saying, "Yes, I understand."
As the conductor came checking tickets, he started yelling at the group of people sitting nearby on account of the fact that they had their feet propped up against the seat across from them. Obviously, it was not allowed to put your feet up on the train seats, which I figured by singling out the word "Fuss" in his monologue. My fellow travelers turned out to be Americans also, who repeatedly told the conductor, "We don't speak German."
I was just getting ready to enter into the conversation and impress them with my interpreting skills when the conductor started hitting their feet violently and yelling. Witnessing this act, I realized that he didn't need an interpreter. My fellow patriots got the point quite quickly.
Without a doubt, some languages are international. I was just baffled and wondered if something similar would happen in the US without somebody getting sued.
Focusing on my own thoughts again, I started looking out of the window, which was like looking into another world. It wasn't just the language that made me feel far away from home, but the way the light fell on the strange looking buildings, the look on everyone's faces when they talked, lacking a smile, and above all the smell.
Yes, there was an odor in the air since I had arrived. In addition to the smell, it occurred to me how colorful everything was. There were so many buildings that were painted in pastel colors. I found it absolutely beautiful. Having read it in my guide book, I was aware that Vienna was a big city. Smiling at the older ladies sitting across from me, I said in my very best German, "This city is big!"
They both chattered something back that made me think of the possibility that they were speaking another language all together. Unfortunately, I heard the word, "Ja," confirming that they were truly speaking German. This was also my own personal verification of how much more I would have to learn if I wanted to stay there.
After a few moments, I then said in my very best German. "This city is beautiful!" gazing at all of the huge ornate stone houses with beautiful cast iron balconies full of flowers as our train passed. The two older ladies both answered me with an avalanche of words and I nodded back with a mere smile.
"Bist du alleine hier?" asked the ladies, wanting to know if I was traveling by myself. I was aware that I looked a lot younger than my age. Trying to calm them by saying how old I was, the concerned look on their faces did not disappear. I am not sure to this day if it was my age or my German skills that made them worry so much.
"I have to buy a ticket for the subway," asking them if they knew where the nearest ticket agent was when I got off the train. By the look on their faces, it was apparent that they had not only understood exactly what I had said, but also knew exactly where to buy a ticket. Unfortunately, I still didn't.
As I was exiting the train and started walking toward the entrance hall of the station, the two elderly ladies were waiting for me anxiously. They were trying to say something with no avail and ended up taking me by the arm and literally leading me like a blind man to a tobacco shop where they actually purchased a subway ticket for me with their own money. While entering, I gazed around and realized that the little tobacco shop did not only sell cigarettes but also magazines, postcards, and what seemed to be lottery tickets. As they were opening the door, the ladies made gestures for me to follow them, which at the time seemed a bit scary.
Trying to convey that it wasn't necessary that they accompany me any further, I took out the piece of notebook paper that my guitar teacher, who had lived in Vienna for a long time, had given me. In my eyes, this was the proof that I knew where to go. He had written exact instructions on how to get to the church he had arranged for me to stay at.
After careful examination, the older ladies took me by the arm again, leading me right down into the subway where they put me on and said goodbye. As the subway doors were closing, I finally understood something they were saying. "Auf Wiedersehen!" Vienna had given me quite a warm welcome.
Cultural misunderstandings, crazy and dangerous situations, inter-cultural friendships, love and disappointment and the excitement of exploring. "Crossing Borders" tells the story of living and becoming an adult in a foreign country away from friends and family. This narrative is not a simple travel log of pondering curiosities; it unites the weirdest, most interesting and funniest experiences from twelve years living abroad.
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