POSTED: July 4th, 2013
The following is a recount of the week I spent in Augsburg, Germany attending the yearly TOP Systema Seminar. The seminar is hosted in early April by Andreas Weitzel, the head of Systema Europa, who invites Michail Ryabko, the founder and head of what we know today as "Systema", from Moscow to teach over the weekend. In addition to the TOP Seminar, every year Andreas teaches a "preparation seminar" during the week leading up to the weekend. Not wanting to miss a chance at learning from the Head Honcho himself, I signed up for the full-meal-deal months in advance and eagerly awaited the date. On top of having an absolute blast and learning more than I could have expected, the week was fraught with trials and tribulations which, while not unexpected in my general experience of adventuring, were a bit more surprising than I had bargained for. The story ended up coming out rather long, but I hope you can enjoy it.
Day 1 (Monday April 1st) — The Hike
On the train platform next to my girlfriend Sabrina in Trautsmannsdorf, Austria I had everything ready. My hat, computer, clothes, acupressure torture mat, training ball, little black book for taking notes, signs for Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, and Augsburg, Smartwool long underwear, soap, toothbrush, bathing suit, an envelope of 330 euros to cover training costs, and 40 euros in my wallet otherwise. The latter item in the list was a bit concerning for me, as both my American and Austrian bank accounts were skidding the ground near zero. This had left me in a peculiar financial situation. I had three sources of money bail out and get delayed on me at the last minute before the trip, but I wasn't too worried — Sabrina said she would transfer 200 euros to my Austrian account later that day.
Great lengths had been taken to make sure everything was planned out. I had carefully planned how to get where to stand and which people I would be couchsurfing with when I got to Augsburg. Daniel, Yuraj, and Christoph (my friends from our Systema group) would be driving out of Vienna the next day and sleeping in the training hall all week. The overnight costs were 10 euros a night, and I figured that having to pay to crash on a stiff training floor was a stupid idea in comparison to staying for free on a bed or a couch. I attempted to convey this idea to the others but they weren't interested. Most of the people I attempt to convey this idea to think I'm crazy.
"You're just going to sleep on some stranger's couch?!" they cry.
Yes, yes I will. I've done it before and I'll do it again. You guys can pay for your shitty accommodations, I'm going to be staying everywhere for free!
They also freak the fuck out when I tell them about hitchhiking.
"What if you get picked up by some psycho?!"
No amount of explanations about my past successes, statistical analyses of what actually is dangerous (i.e. driving a car in the first place), or the application of responsible and wise decision-making could overcome anyone's stereotypical fear of psychotic rapists with chainsaws and kitchen knives.
"At least you're a guy," I always hear everyone say, "there's no way a girl could ever do that."
I just sigh. They're never willing to listen to me talk about the girls I know and have heard of that go hitchhiking alone all the time. Whatever. Just like always, I was going to have to prove that everyone else was full of shit by simply doing what I was talking about.
Which, of course, is what I was planning on doing.
The train pulled up and Sabrina gave me a kiss goodbye before I got on. I sat down for the uneventful ride to Vienna, where I was intending to make my first hitchhiking post in Hütteldorf, the western-most metro station in the city that is adjacent to the west-bound freeway. Other than a complication of the train not going as far as I wanted and me having to navigate myself through the Viennese underground (a favorite activity of mine, I can assure you), I arrived successfully at Hütteldorf. Sabrina had sent me a text message in the meantime telling me she had transferred the 200 euros over to my account, so I decided to see if I could withdraw some of it already.
I had my bank card out of my wallet before I realized the ATM was out of order. Oh well. I figured that in the case of an emergency, I could just spend some of the 330 euros I had set aside to cover the training costs and just explain the situation to Systema teacher, Andreas, when I got to Augsburg.
I made my way outside and dropped my backpack down next to the bus stop (bus stops are good places to give oncoming cars enough room to pull over), dug out my "MüNCHEN" (Munich) and "SALZBURG" signs, and stood next to the road, holding the signs to make them as visible as possible to the cars passing by. The weather was rather nasty — spring had exploded in all its glory about two weeks prior only to be crushed down again by its ugly sister Winter, who apparently wasn't serious about going to sleep. I had made a bet with myself that the weather simply had to be better 500 kilometers to the west, or at least it had to get better within the space of the next week. This led me to decide not to dress for winter. This, like usual, was ultimately a bad decision. At least I had brought my long underwear.
The reason for holding two signs was to let the drivers know that, even though I preferred to go all the way to Munich, I would take a ride to Salzburg if they were only going that far. Knowing that the only thing a driver has in order to decide to pick up a hitchhiker is physical appearance, I decided taking my hat off would make me look a little less weird.
I had hitchhiked from this point two times before and both times I didn't have to wait more than 10 minutes before someone picked me up. This led to me being rather disappointed in having to wait 30 or more minutes out in the cold before a young girl in what looked like a moving van pulled up to me. She began to speak quickly and she must have heard my accent when I asked her to repeat herself. She slowed down.
"I'm only going to Mondsee (Moon Lake), so I can only take you that far. Are you interested?"
I didn't know where Mondsee was and I asked her to clarify. She told me it was on the way to Salzburg, maybe 20 or 30 minutes before it, and it was an excellent place to catch another ride, as there was a large rest stop there. I thought about it for a second before realizing how badly I wanted to sit in a warm vehicle, so I agreed. I threw my backpack into the back and jumped into the passenger's seat. We continued chatting in German for awhile about where exactly Mondsee was and how good of a place it would be to get another ride. Once the technicalities of my trip were out of the way, she asked,
"Where are you from?" My accent apparently was clear as day.
"The US." I replied. I was a bit shocked to find that this response shocked her.
"Wow," she said, "I thought you were from the Netherlands." Netherlands? Mreh?
"From the way you look and your accent." While technically Dutch is the biggest fraction of my ethnic pie, I'm such a mutt that this "large section" amounts to a whopping quarter of my total ethnicity. So while theoretically I could look Dutch, I had no idea how in the hell my accent would sound Dutch. I don't think I had ever spoken a Dutch word in my life.
"What exactly about my accent sounds... Dutch?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said, "just something about the way you pronounce everything." Whatever. If German-speakers were no longer immediately identifying me as a native speaker of English, I would consider it progress.
She then told me that when she initially saw me, she wanted to pick me up but she was in the wrong lane and it was too late for her to pull over. She then drove back around in a circle to come back to give me a ride.
"Wow." I said, "Much appreciated."
We exchanged some quick personal information and I found out her name was Paula. She started off by interrogating me with the standard set of questions: why the hell are you in Austria, how long have you been here, what are your plans, why are you hitchhiking, where are you going, etc. This led me to explaining more or less my entire story since my arrival and, if anything, it was really good German practice. After I caught the story up to the present moment I switched the conversation around and got her to answer the same things. Funny enough, she switched to English to do it.
She was 23 years old and worked on sets for Austrian movies and TV series. The whole van was loaded up with set equipment for the series she was going to help film that week near Mondsee — something about four women investigating a murder in a small village because the local police wouldn't do their jobs. As an avid proclaimer of anti-TV rhetoric, I wasn't able to comment much, other than I thought it was cool that she was doing a job that wasn't lame and, more specifically, that she was enjoying it.
Having nothing more than stereotypes to work from, I asked her if actors were the drama queens that everyone hears about so often. She confirmed that yes, indeed, the actors usually had their noses so high in the air that they couldn't see you through the clouds. Not all of them, of course, but Paula explained it was like dealing with five year olds. Many of the actors and actresses were too stupid to figure out the thermostat in the trailers they were provided (and by "too stupid" she meant that they just wanted to be able to complain about something and have someone else do it for them), and would often come bitching to the set workers and managers that it was too hot or too cold, and soon after having the temperature adjusted they would come back moaning about the opposite.
"That's why I usually deal with them," she explained, "I'm really good at making them feel stupid for complaining about such stupid stuff."
"So if they act like five year olds, you treat them like five year olds?"
"Yeah, exactly! I go up to them and say, 'awww, come here, I'll show you how it works. See this little knob here? If you turn it this way, it gets warmer! Wow! And if you turn it this way, it gets colder! Check that out! Isn't that cool?'" I laughed. "After that they don't come bugging anyone about it."
She went on, "There was the one actor named..." she told me his name, which I immediately forgot as I don't give a rat's ass about actors, "...he's the most popular actor in Austria. He doesn't stay in a trailer and always drives to work in his really expensive car, and he won't do anything unless he has the closest parking spot to the set. I mean really — he'll throw a complete fit."
"He wants to be the king, huh?"
"Exactly. There was one day that I was moving some stuff from my van to the set and the only place to park was in his special parking place. He showed up to work and got all upset that he couldn't park in the closest spot to the set. He told me that as the most important actor, he should have the shortest walk to the set."
"Despite the fact that if you were somehow not able to create the set, there would be no need for actors?"
"Yeah. Even after I told him that I needed to use this parking space to move the set equipment, he still threw a fit." I laughed again and told her I would never be able to work with such schmucks. She just shrugged it off and said she didn't let it get to her.
The conversation drifted around and I decided to use her for some statistical hitchhiking analysis. Like I mentioned before, the only thing a driver has to go off of when they decide whether or not to pick up a hitchhiker is the hiker's physical appearance. Reading a book by its cover is not the best way to get to know someone, but when the cover is all you got, it needs to look as good as possible. I grabbed my hat from the seat and put it on my head and asked her if she would have picked me up if I was wearing it.
"No, definitely not. I would keep the hat off when you want a ride. You look just a little too... weird while wearing it."
The ride continued and she got a call from her boyfriend. He was the boss of the filming set. Apparently had seen me standing next to the road with my signs when he had left Vienna 20 minutes before Paula picked me up. Funny world.
Exhausted of conversational topics, we spent the last part of the ride in quiet tranquility. The signs for Mondsee began to appear and we pulled into the rest stop. It was huge and full of cars, and the there were only two ways to leave from it: toward Vienna or toward Salzburg. That sounded like a good recipe for me to get a ride!
Paula came inside with me to the gas station. I used the bathroom and she bought me a bottle of water despite my insistences that she didn't need to. I noticed an ATM in the corner of store and decided to give my bank card another try. I stuck it in, typed out my bank code, and told it to give me 50 euros. The machine hummed happily and I let out a sigh of relief. I took a look around the store while I was waiting and when I looked back at the ATM, I noticed my bank card sticking out and no money. "TRANSACTION NOT POSSIBLE" was spelled out on the screen. I groaned — apparently the money hadn't gone through yet. What made matters worse was that the day before had been Easter Sunday, and in Austria both Monday and Tuesday after Easter are considered holidays. Sabrina's text message had clearly told me that the money had left her account, but there was no indication on when it would be arriving in mine.
Whatever. I hadn't spent any money so far and I still could use the training money in case of emergency.
I met with Paula one last time to get my stuff out of her van. I gave her the URL for my website, shook her hand, and made my way off into the parking lot to find the next place to stand to hitch a ride.
I made my way through the parking lot until I saw a sign that described the directions to Salzburg. The parking lot was packed, so I stood in front of the space reserved for the bus (people were parking there, anyway), whipped out my two signs, and hunkered down for the wait.
In most of my hitchhiking experience, the cars driving passed me are usually far enough away and moving fast enough that I get the feeling the people in the vehicles are in some sort of non-interactive bubble a world away from me. They can choose the avoid the uncomfortable thought that they think they're stiffing you out of a ride or that you're a psycho ready to rape and kill them the moment they're off the main road by simply ignoring you. However, this time that wasn't so easily accomplished. Many people had to walk past me first to get to their cars and those who didn't were driving so slowly they couldn't pretend to ignore me. This was a perfect time to gauge everyone's reaction. Most people would either give a mean look ("look at this psycho who wants a ride"), a mildly amused look ("Aww... look at the kid trying to hitch a ride."), or try to ignore me. Others would laugh or wave and some would shrug apologetically and either motion that they weren't going in the right direction or that their cars were too full (usually with skiing or snowboarding gear).
My original estimate that hitching a ride wouldn't take very long was turning out to be a pretty bad one. The beautiful view of the Alps of Salzburg dusted in snow didn't alleviate the fact that I was getting colder. I kept telling myself that spring was going to jump around the corner any minute now, but car after car driving away without me was gnawing away at my optimism. Suddenly I heard:
"Junger Mann! Junger Mann!" ("Young man! Young man!") I turned around to see a guy leaning out the door of his car (which was sitting in the spot for the bus) looking at me. I could clearly hear a foreign accent. "Wohin fährst du?" ("Where are you going?") I was so excited that he was calling out to me that I didn't catch his question and just starting moving toward him. He repeated it.
"Wohin fährst du?" I wondered how he had managed to get past me without seeing my signs. I turned them up so he could.
"Naaa... ich bin davon gerade gekommen!" ("Ahh... I just came from there!") I made an effort to make my grunt of frustration sound positive, thanked him anyway, and turned back around to hold my signs up.
After a good 30 or 40 minutes of waiting in the brisk Alpen air, I was taking some more time to gaze at the mountains (there wasn't anything better to do when no cars were coming) when I heard a VRROOOMM BUMBUMBUMBUMMMBUMMMM pull up along side of me. I turned around to find the smallest VW bug I had ever seen in my life. It was painted neon green and had a pair of skis and a suitcase strapped to the back that looked like they had just been pulled out of the 1940s. There was a black steel rack on the roof. I could see a guy crouching over the steering wheel waving at me to come in. I opened the door, tossed my backpack into what must have been the back seat (I sure wouldn't have fit in it), and we took off. I had to crouch — the thing was small enough to be a clown car.
He told me he was only going to Salzburg. While this was causing my number of rides to stack up, I was willing to take what I could get. Plus I had hitchhiked from Salzburg in the past and knew where to stand.
I didn't have much to talk about with this guy. His English wasn't so great so most of the conversation was carried out in German. I asked him what was up with the car and he told me that it was an early 80s model and he had pretty much rebuilt the whole damn thing. The skis and the suitcase were just for show. He told me that, being a skier, he had a lot of experience hitchhiking himself and he knew what it was like to have to stand there for half the day trying to get a ride, so he likes to pick people up whenever he can find them. One day he had even found two guys with kayaks who, thinking that they would never get a ride, found one with him; the kayaks were strapped to the rack on the roof and they squished right into the car. I took a look at the backseat and cringed.
Meanwhile on the freeway, I noticed he was flooring it (it probably had to with the constantly ascending VRRRRRRRRROOOOOMMMM that made it sound like the car was about to get a hernia) and I checked over at the speedometer. It was bouncing between 90 and 100 kph (56 to 62 mph). The speed limit on freeways in Austria is 130 kmh (81 mph), which is generally ignored and you will usually find yourself getting passed like you're going backwards if you keep that speed. He noticed me looking over and explained that the car couldn't go over 100 kmh. He laughed and said he never had to worry about speeding tickets.
It wasn't long until we pulled up to the gas station right on the Austrian-German border. I slowly emerged from the car, being careful not to hit my head or my back (honk honk! I'm a clown!), pulled the rest of my stuff out, shook the guys hand and he was off. I put my Salzburg sign away, took a drink of water, then went to jump over the concrete road blocks on to the shoulder of the highway to hitch my next ride.
It was another 20 minutes of standing in the cold before I saw the blinker of a white van similar to the one Paula was driving turn on in my direction. Even though the guy technically slowed down, he didn't exactly slow down as much as I would have appreciated as he swerved into the shoulder. He wouldn't have hit me had I stood my ground, but I took a step back just for good measure as he went by. I watched his parked car for a few seconds over my shoulder to make sure that he had indeed stopped for me. Deciding that he had done so, I picked up my backpack and made my way over to the passenger's door. I opened it up to find an older hippy-looking dude with dreadlocks and sunglasses behind the wheel. His face was stoic and his body stiff. For a moment I considered turning down the ride, but the thought of standing out in the cold when I was only half-way to my destination made me think twice. After confirming that he was going to Munich, I threw my backpack into the back of the van and hopped into the front seat.
We drove off and I could feel the waves of awkward energy coming off from him like hurled bricks. Realizing that I was potentially looking at an uncomfortable silent situation of shifting around in my seat for over an hour, I started looking for anything to talk about. I asked him his name (which I've now forgotten) and several other prodding questions to see if I could pull his stick out of the mud, but about the only thing I got from him was a small amount of chiding from him for standing on the shoulder of the freeway.
"You can't just stand on the shoulder of the freeway," he said, stone cold. The conversation was going on in German, "If the police drive by and see you standing there, they'll get angry and yell at you. You were lucky."
"So?" I said, "Then I would just go over to the other side of the roadblocks and lean toward the road with my sign. Plus I've hitchhiked here before and I was able to get a ride without any problems." I got something resembling a conceding grunt for this and the ride threatened to descend back into silence. I prodded him with so more basic questions: are you German or Austrian? Do you work in Austria from Germany? What's your job? Prod prod prod.
I slowly got him to warm up and he began to tell me bits about his life. He was a German living in Munich. He had just bought some land out in Hungary and was in the process of moving there. The van he had picked me up with was the one he had rented for the move. He had been a taxi driver for the last 20 years of his life and, now that the last of his three children had grown up and moved out of the house, he was saying fuck it all and moving out of the hustle and busted of modern western culture and city life. He told me he was tired of playing this rat race of having a good job, a good reputation, a good schooling, and everything else that boiled down to nothing important. He wanted to spend some time out in the country, keep it simple, and look for God. As he was describing this to me I could see him heating up to a steady simmer. I began to understand why he looked so pissed off (and why he decided to keep me on my toes by narrowly missing me when he picked me up). He had woken up from the trance of gaudy civilization in the years of approaching being an old man and he was not happy at what he saw in his surroundings and in his own past. He was sick of dealing with people obsessed with the rat race and he just wanted some peace solitude. As he was in the middle of his life's description, I realized that we might be on similar wavelengths and I attempted to communicate this to him. I told him I understood the complaints he was making and the need for something new.
"Bah." He spat back at me, "I drove a taxi for twenty years. I was able to meet all sorts of people every day, many of which told me that. But you know what? None of them ever did anything. It's always just talk. Just shit." Apparently he didn't agree. Whatever. I once learned a lesson from the God-Emperor, that you can never convince anyone who holds firm to their beliefs of anything, so I just sat back and continued to give him enough prodding to keep him talking.
Eventually he reached for a pack of gum. I squinted sideways at him while he pulled a stick out and unwrapped it. There's a common phenomenon in both America and Europe now that almost all gum has aspartame in it — both sugar-free and normal varieties. Subscribe to any type of conspiracy theory you want, but as a chemistry graduate and someone who distrusts anything touched by Donald Rumsfeld, whenever I see someone reaching for a Diet Coke or a stick of gum I want to jump up and down screaming, "IT'S POISON!! Don't eat it!" In more recent years I have learned to abstain from this sort of reaction, as it tends to cause the person I'm trying to warn to be even more steadfast in his determination to ingestion. I have never been able to fully figure this out — if I were in a forest and I noticed someone about to take a bite of a deadly plant and I screamed at them not to eat it, after recovering from their initial shock they would probably thank me profusely for saving them. When it comes to something bought from the grocery store, however, somehow I become a raving idiot. I'm willing to bet this phenomenon can somehow be traced back to Edward L. Bernays.
Another lesson I have learned, this time without the help of the God-Emperor, is never to offer information to someone unless they tell you they're willing to receive it first. Otherwise they'll slam down the portcullis to the gate of their minds and remain impenetrable to your siege of benevolence. Thus I remained quiet as he popped the sugar-substituted death-wad into his mouth.
Apparently aware of the cold atmosphere he had been generating, he leaned over and offered a stick of gum to me.
"Nein danke." I said, waving my hand at it casually, "There's an ingredient in there that I don't eat."
"Really? What is it?" His remarked. Still cold, but becoming curious.
"Aspartame." I said back to him, careful to watch his reaction.
"Yeaaaahh...." I was pretty sure what answer I was about to get. It was a standard one. "Everything we eat today kills us. The water kills us, the air kills us — there's cancer in everything."
This answer provides me with a similar feeling I would imagine receiving from having my brain massaged with a cheese grater. But I didn't feel like giving up this time — there was still a ways to go before Munich.
"If you're interested..." I said nonchalantly, "I could tell you what exactly it is that's bad about it." He looked over at me a little more curiously. "I studied chemistry as well, so if you can bare with it, I'm a little specific about the description."
Even though he was wearing sunglasses, I could tell from his eyebrows that he was giving me the standard wide-eyed expression I get whenever I tell someone I studied chemistry. It must be a really hated subject in high school.
He nodded. "Okay. Tell me."
Bingo! The portcullis just went up!
Elated at my success, I began to gesture to help in my explanation, "Alright. Aspartame is made out of three parts. Methanol, aspartic acid, and phenylalanine." I took some time tripping over figuring out how to say aspartic acid and phenylalanine in German. I knew he didn't know what they were anyway, and finally just told him they were amino acids (Aminosäuren). "It's built from these three things and when you eat it, your body metabolizes it back down to these three things. Now, do you know what methanol is?" I scrutinized him across the middle seat and continued before he could answer, "Not ethanol, but methanol. Both of them are alcohols, but ethanol is the one we drink to get drunk — beer, wine, so forth. However methanol is a poison that you can get if you make whiskey, vodka, or schnapps wrong." He nodded in understanding. I'm well rehearsed at this talk by now — give enough chemistry talk to let the person know you know what you're talking about and switch it back to something more easily and readily understandable. Most people know about the hazards of bad distilling operations. "Your body metabolizes methanol into formic acid," luckily I knew formic acid in German, "and formic acid reacts by itself into formaldehyde, the stuff you use to, uh..." I didn't know the word for embalm, "...to keep dead bodies." He nodded to show me he understood what I meant. "Formaldehyde then reacts with your eyes and will cause you to go blind if you drink enough, which is often what you hear about from someone making bad whiskey. After blindness, if you drink enough, you die." Then I pointed at where he had thrown the pack of gum, "And that's ONE of the three parts of aspartame."
I had his attention now. It looked like my explanation had less bullshit than he was expecting.
"The two other parts," I continued, "are amino acids. The company who makes aspartame likes to use this as an excuse that the chemical is actually good for you, as it is a source of amino acids. However, your body normally gets amino acids by breaking down proteins." I wanted to make sure I wasn't taking the topic too fast, however I hate it when people tell me something I already know as if I didn't know it without checking to see if I know it first, so I checked, "do you know the difference between amino acids and proteins?" He shook his head no. "Proteins are built from amino acids in a chain. Basically, an amino acid is like a brick and a protein is like a house — you need a bunch of individual bricks to build a proper house. Your body is designed to rip apart full proteins, not get a big POOF of them." I simulated emptying a supplement bottle onto a table with my sound effect, "and the problem arises from the fact that when your body sends the amino acids from your digestive system to your brain, it doesn't pick and choose. It just scoops up whatever is available." I held my hand like a spoon and made a motion scooping something up, "So if the only thing there is a bunch of fluffy aspartic acid and phenylalanine, that's all your brain is going to get. THEN," I said, getting myself ready for the next part of the explanation, "aspartic acid has very similar chemical and biochemical properties to glutamic acid, which is the part of monosodium glutamate. You know about MSG, right?"
It was around this time he spit out his gum.
"Ja." He said.
"Phenylalanine, for whatever reason, is hard for humans to deal with and easy for rats, which is why you might not hear about it: tests on rats don't come up with much. However, often people are allergic to it and it can metabolize into... uh..." I hadn't the slightest clue how to say diketopiperazine in German, so I just shrugged at him and said it anyway, "diketopiperazine, which is a carcinogen. Also, when your brain cells receive too much of a single amino acid, they tend to... uh... die." My hands were at the head-level at the end of my explanation, having been gesticulated wildly up until now. I let them down back to my lap and turned my head back to him, "So there's your description of aspartame. I'm not telling you to chew gum or not chew gum, but I feel I have a moral obligation to tell people about what they're putting into their bodies, because I know they don't know what they're doing. So... yea. Now the information is yours. Do with it whatever you want."
He was quiet for a moment and I could see his demeanor finally warming up. He began to talk to me more friendly and we were then able to have real conversations instead of me feeling like I was laying siege to a castle. The topics began to range from the matrix-style system we live in, public education (especially it's relationship and origins in Prussia), meditative and breathing techniques, the ridiculousness of standardly striven-for social status, what passes for food in our modern western world, alternative methods of living and travel, and finally onto my favorite topic: the history, usage, and chemistry of fluoride. I'll save the description of the latter for now, as I would be finding myself explaining it more than once during this trip.
As we approached Munich the guy told me that he lived in the outskirts on the eastern side of the city, which meant I was going to have to make my way through to the other side to catch my next and hopefully final ride to Augsburg. I started to scratch my head in concern about how I was going to do this, when he told me that he lived right next to a metro station. This alleviated my problems, as in my preparations for the trip I had looked up the hitchwiki about how to navigate myself through Munich and where to stand for my next ride, provided I could get myself to the main train station.
"Great!" I said, "As long as there is a map I can find my way."
He took some time then to criticize the metro payment system, which sounded exactly like the Vienna metro payment system. When I told him this he laughed and said, "Bah! Those idiots learned it from us!"
We pulled up to the side of the road to the metro station. I jumped out of the van and went to the side door to pull my backpack out. By the time I got my stuff together he was out of the van as well and had come over to shake my hand. He wished me good luck, got back into the van, and was off.
I let out a huge sigh of relief — getting him in a good mood had been no easy task. I heaved up my backpack and made my way to the underground metro station to get out of the cold.
The underground station was cold, too. Dammit. I found the electronic ticket kiosk and began parsing my way through the congested city map. I figured out where I was, which direction I should go, bought my ticket (another 2.50 euros from my dwindling amount of cash), and made my way down the stairs. The ride was boring and the inside of the metro was a bit colder than I had preferred, and I arrived at the main station with barely any harassment (the ticket-checkers came through, power-tripping as per usual). I walked up to the main train station to meet an onslaught of travelers, native Munichites, and bums either going to their next metro station, catching the bus, waiting for a train, or being dumb teenagers with black clothes, neon hair, and bad posture just hanging out.
I took out my black book where I had written down all my directions. I needed to take an S2 tram in the direction Petershausen and to get out at Obermenzing. I asked a girl with a safety orange vest where to go after getting confused, but I was able to make it to the tram without further mishap. After waiting out in the cold for a few minutes (just a few degrees — all I wanted was a few degrees!) the tram pulled up and I got on. The warmth I was able to enjoy was short lived — when I walked over to the bus stop to check the times I saw that I had missed the last bus by a minute and the next one wasn't coming for twenty. Ungh.
After twenty minutes of chilling, bus #143 to Blutenberg finally arrived and I pulled out my black book once again when I sat down. Once I got off at the Blutenberg bus stop I was supposed to find a freeway entrance right in front of a... KFC. Yes, they have KFC in Germany.
The bus arrived dutifully at my stop and I got off. I was a bit worried at first — I didn't see a freeway, an on-ramp, or a KFC, but a quick walk down the street found me before the sacred temple of the Colonel. I still couldn't see a freeway, so I popped inside the KFC to ask if Augsburg was in the direction that I thought it was. My thoughts were confirmed and I went outside to find the best place to stand. I pulled out the final sign (woohoo!) AUGSBURG and settled in for the wait.
For the number of cars going by, I was rather disappointed in how long this wait turned out to be. 30 or 40 minutes of standing in the cold began to get me worrying for the first time whether or not I would be picked up. It was around six o'clock and dusk would be approaching soon, and I was sure as hell that no one would pick me up once it was dark. Most of the cars that passed me were full and giving me dirty looks. The creeping descent of the sun didn't help my current thermodynamic situation, either. I had been traveling for around seven hours now and the cold was beginning to sink deep. I was beginning to retrace the way back to the main train station in my mind in case I would be forced to take the train to Augsburg, but just as despair crept around the corner a car pulled up to me with two people inside. The guy in the passenger's seat rolled down his window and said something to me I couldn't understand. I walked over to the car and asked him to repeat what he said, but I still didn't understand it. I did this one or two more times before I told him that German wasn't my native language.
"Ah," he said, still in German, "I was saying that we can't drive you to the center of Augsburg, just to the outside of it. The place is called..." He then said the name of the place, which was the word I couldn't understand and had caused my confusion. At this point I was cold enough to jump into any car, even if it was going to drive in circles at the roundabout right in front of us. I asked them (there was a girl in the driver's seat who I assumed was his girlfriend) if there was a bus I would be able to take to the city center. They assured me there was and I happily accepted the ride.
We drove off and I was able to sit someplace warm for another 30 or 40 minutes. I got the standard barrage of questions, naturally including where I was from.
This question is always tricky for me because often people can hear my American accent from the get-go and are actually asking where in America I'm from*, but just as often it's the other way around and people genuinely want to know which country I'm from. Although for the latter they generally pick up the English accent and just want to know which English-speaking country.
*This of course immediately leads to the problem that I'm from Washington, and as soon as I say that everyone assumes Washington, D.C. I started awhile ago just saying Seattle, but this usually results in people jumping up and down saying, "Oh! Like Sleepless in Seattle/Gray's Anatomy!" (neither of which I've seen or have any desire to) or occasionally even weirder predicaments. As of now I'm stumped how to properly address this question.
I don't remember if I said the US, Washington, or Seattle, but whatever the case was, it turned out they were surprised that I was American. They thought I was Dutch. Once again, not just from the way I look, but from my fuckin' accent. Of all the two times this has happened to me in my nearly two years staying in German-speaking countries, both of them happened in the same day. I expressed my shock to them and explained how Paula had though the same thing, but the two just shrugged it off and said I looked and sounded Dutch. Hokay, if you say so.
The two then voiced to me their befuddlement at my choice of places to visit. Why are you going to Augsburg?
I received further confusion when I told them I was going to a Systema seminar. Usually no one has heard of it. The word Russian seems to be incompatible with the words martial art in our modern sense of thinking (I'm sure the image that most people immediately get is a bunch of guys drinking vodka and unceremoniously whacking each other... which I guess isn't too far from the truth). This got the girlfriend excited and she told me she used to do Aikido, which of course is also right up my alley. However, I'm generally wary of Aikido schools as they often tend to be crap, but I held a positive attitude and got her talking about it (remember, I was trying to avoid awkward dead time in the conversation during the ride). Her mood turned a little frustrated as she told me a story of how the instructors in the class became prejudiced against her (I don't remember what the reason was, whether she was a girl, young, or whatever else) and, despite her dedication to the art for four years, seemed unable to advance through the belt system. I let her complain about this for a little while before interjecting:
"Yea, that's one of the things I like about Systema. We don't have to worry about all that belt shit and we try to have everything based on what you can do. Even when I was doing Aikido, in my school everyone was focused so much on training that no one really cared about the belts—"
"Hey!" She snapped back, "Belts can be important!" Crap. I hit a nerve. She started on a mini-tirade and we weren't even halfway there. Even though I have some rather firm beliefs on the ludicrousness of belt systems in martial arts and feel it's often the way dojos degenerate basically into dance schools with martial art influences that teach you easy-to-learn moves so you can quickly buy your next belt, I didn't want the giver-of-my-ride irritated with me. She was still talking and approaching being angry, and I could see anything I could say more on the subject would lead to a worthless argument that would end in awkwardness. I made an attempt to change the subject and was successful. For a second she looked like she wanted to keep at it, but must have seen the out I was offering and took it. The hostile air lingered for a minute or so but eventually blew off. I gave a mental sigh of relief.
We arrived at the bus stop in south Augsburg with no further mishap. The sunset was beginning to blaze across the sky and to my dismay the air was still cold 500 kilometers from Vienna. The boyfriend got out of the car with me to ask the tram driver if the tram was going to the center of the city. It was confirmed. I shook the guy's hand and got on my last ride for the day. Another 2.40 euros brought me to a grand whopping total of 9.10 euros to get from the home village outside of Vienna to my destination in the center of Augsburg. Not bad. It also brought me closer to no money. Mrek.
Even after eight hours of travel, the 15 minute tram-ride felt like forever. I was cold to the bone and exhausted. I never realized how much energy it would take to stand waiting for a ride and actively keeping the driver engaged in conversation. I took another look at my black book. I was supposed to meet my Couchsurfing host in Königsplatz: a 20 year old Chinese exchange student named Xiaoyou. The plan was to stay with her until Friday where I would "change couches" to stay with another girl named Anne, as Xiaoyou had to leave town. I had already sent her a text message that I had arrived in Augsburg and I was supposed to call her when I made it to Königsplatz.
The tram dumped me off somewhere in the middle of Augsburg and I asked someone for directions to Königsplatz. The pointed me through the city and in five minutes I found myself there. I called Xiaoyou and she told me to make my way towards the bus stop. I did so and within a few minutes saw a small Asian girl coming from down the street. Without a lot of Asians to choose from in the center of Bavaria, I made my way over to her and greeted her. She shook my hand rather timidly and we spent a few seconds figuring out if it was easier to speak to each other in English or in German. She claimed that there wasn't any difference for her, but it was clear she had a lot more recent experience in German, and that was what we decided on.
Never in my life would I have thought that I would be talking to a Chinese girl in German. It was even weirder when I realized that she was better at it than I was.
She led me to her dormitory/apartment which she was sharing with four other students, all of which were gone on the Easter holiday. I had the initial fear that the rooms would be shared and I would be shoved in between the beds to sleep, but as we went through the hallway (which I noted to be not very warm) and into her room, I was relieved to find that not only was she the only one in it, it was big enough that she had two full beds. I wasn't even going to have to sleep on the couch! I snickered, thinking of my Systema buddies who would be sleeping on the floor in the training hall all week.
I put my gear on the floor and collapsed down into the bed. I wanted to fall asleep immediately, but I still had three things to deal with: shower, food, and the bank problem. My body was numb from the cold and I had barely eaten the entire day — my breakfast had consisted of two hard-boiled Easter eggs and I had taken two more along with me. For whatever reason I hadn't felt hungry the whole day and they were still sitting in the tupperware in my backpack. I still had a money problem and I wanted to check my bank account to see if the bank had some sort of acknowledgement that Sabrina had sent me money, or even if there was a problem with the account (I have a tendency to not deal with and not look at my bank accounts for months at a time and always end up wanting something from them at the last minute). Being a first-generation creature of the new Information Age, I decided to deal with my most basic of biological problems first.
"What's the password on your internet?" I asked. I already had my laptop out and was looking for an electrical outlet.
"Oh, you can't get on the internet with your computer." Came back the answer, "We can't add any new computers to the network. You have to use one of ours, and the internet is really slow." Ick. That wasn't the answer I was looking for. Whatever; I had grown up on AOL dial-up and I figured I could live without checking my email and just dealing with the bank.
This good-willed patience didn't last more than a few minutes when the browser couldn't even get past a white screen. I grunted inwardly. I was down to about 30 euros plus change and the training money. I said "the hell with it" and figured in the case of a super-emergency, I would be able to borrow money from one of my buddies coming the next day.
Next I dealt with the food situation. I asked Xiaoyou what she had to eat and she gave me a frustrated laugh.
"I forgot! Today is a holiday! Everything's closed! So... I don't really have any food." Aw fuck.
"Well, what do you have?"
"Just a few things. And... I can't really cook." Oh my. This is just getting better and better.
"Doesn't matter," I said, "I'll cook. What do we have?"
She led me into the kitchen and we were able to find some noodles, carrots, sausages, and canola oil. Adding my two hard-boiled eggs into the mix, I was able to come up with something edible and more or less filling. She watch with an intense curiosity the whole time I cooked.
"Where did you learn to cook?" She asked.
"I didn't." I said back, "I figured it out through a combination of watching other people cook and being a starving college student." This comment seemed reflective enough of the situation.
"Oh yea," I said at one point during the cooking, "How do you pronounce your name?" I was aware of the sing-song nature of Chinese where single sounds have multiple meanings depending on how you intone the syllables. She sang her name out to me, and by the disgruntled stare I got in return, I knew I had butchered it in my own attempt. I figured she was used to this (no one in Austria can pronounce my name, either) and I just stuck with how I had imagined the name upon reading it in the first place.
With the noodles done I grabbed a pair of chopsticks (I don't find a lot of opportunities to use them here in Europe) and we went back to her room to chat while I ate. I took the time between bites to ask her what she was doing in Europe and, specifically, why Germany. I found the way she interacted with me to be rather fascinating and, if I didn't suspect that something was up, to be really rude. Along with her computer, she had an iPad which she would immediately turn her attention to the moment there was any silence in the conversation. From this position she would rarely venture forth something to say, and I would be forced to bring something up or ask a question to continue the conversation. She would pop her head up and chat with me until the topic was adequately discussed, whereupon she would immediately go back to her iPad. I could tell from the conversation that she was genuinely interested in what we were talking about and that she either didn't mean to be or wasn't aware that this behavior was "rude". This aroused my curiosity and my questions became a little more prying.
She ended up telling me a rather sad tale of abusive parents, particularly of her father, who had divorced when she was very young. The father remarried when she was 13 and the new mother-in-law hated her, convincing the father to send Xiaoyou to boarding school. The school, as I'm sure anyone could imagine, was also abusive and she basically had to bounce back and forth between an abusive school and an abusive father (the mother had remarried and moved to Canada long ago). Despite liking life in China, she had decided that the only way to achieve some level of freedom was to move to the other side of the world out of the grips of her dad. She hadn't been home in over two years and, despite complaining bitterly about how boring it was in Germany, couldn't imagine going back and visiting China.
After this explanation I didn't feel so offended when she turned her attention to Facebook and FruitNinja on her iPad — she had never been allowed a chance to learn social interactions. I was impressed at her drive and persistence to leave her country and I began to get the idea that she wasn't as timid as she gave off.
I scraped the last of the smashed-up eggs and sausages into my mouth and announced that I wanted to take a shower.
"Uh... I don't have a towel for you." Surprise! I told her not to worry about it because I had brought my own — luckily I've read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and I know the importance of bringing a towel. The situation, however, was turning out to be more and more harrowing. Part of the reason for wanting to couchsurf was to have some things provided for me (I know it sounds selfish, but that is what is expected in couchsurfing) and I worried about added stress to a week that was already going to be stressful.
Whatever the case, the only thing I could do now was shower and get a good night's sleep. I finally got to terms on how cold I was when the hot water hit me — it was like pouring the hot contents of a teapot onto an ice cube. After much moaning and groaning and standing there like a drooling idiot, I got out, brushed my teeth, went back to Xiaoyou's room, and collapsed onto my bed.
"You're sleeping already?" I heard through my half-consciousness. I had intended to stay up and chat, but the journey had taken its toll. I mumbled some half-intelligible reply and it wasn't long before I was asleep.