At 11am, April 2, 2015, Geoffroy picked me up in his Toyota something or other. Geoffroy is a member of Blablacar– a ride share website where people can look up routes and pay whatever the driver asks for a ride and is generally quite cheap, with personal references driving the trust component. In the back seat was a woman from Finland whose name I will not even attempt to write or pronounce.
After stopping for a coffee (two small black coffees in Switzerland set us back $8), we were on the road to Germany.
Geoffroy has an imepressive resume. He has had internships, periods of studying abroad, and foreign work assignments in over 20 countries and now works in international business. He is 24.
The Finnish woman – same thing. Has a Master’s degree in business administration and is currently in Switzerland (the fifth country she has lived in) doing a study abroad/internship combination on a full ride scholarship from the Finninsh government.
“We value international education more here,” she explained. “We believe it makes us more competent. You basically have to study in another country if you want to be successful here. And that’s why English is so important. It’s the common language of a lot of businesses, even if they’re from Spain or Germany, because everywhere in Europe people can learn English. And you have to learn how to save money and live and cook.”
Most of the way we talked about school and languages and work, listening to club music quietly and laughing at the stupidest things. Geoffroy insisted we stop for Burger King the second we crossed the German – Swiss border, because prices suddenly drop to a third of what they were in Switzerland.
“We go to France to go grocery shopping,” the Finnish woman explained. “It’s so much cheaper there than in Switzerland, and it’s so close. I go to the store, see how cheap everything is, and I want to buy it all!”
The weather was crap coming up through the most southern part of Germany, but it cleared up about an hour after the border. Gunnar, my friend in Braunschweig (northern Germany) advised me to see as much of southern Germany as I could, because it was more beautiful.
Having seen just from the highway what southern Germany looks like, I can now understand why all the German fairy tales are the way they are. Thick forests, with trees so close together you might not even be able to fall over inside a forest without hitting your head on one. Many of the lower parts of the trees had been trimmed, but if they were allowed to flesh out, surely not a single bit of light could pass through them to the ground. If someone got lost in a German forest, they would probably never find their way out.
Beyond the trees were little towns with white houses supported on the outside by interlocked, brown wooden bars and topped with bright red roofs. Behind those were mountains with castles sitting majestically over the little villages and clouds of mist that obscured the view of forested hills, making them look like little smoldering calderas. Even from the autobahn (the German highway), I could feel the history, lore, and wonder of the Bavarian countryside.
One thing to note about driving Germany: the speed limits on the autobahn are more like guidelines and no one is required to even look at them or adhere to them. You are allowed to drive as fast as is basically possible in your car. There are some area where you must slow down to the speed limit, but this system confuses even the Germans. Faster drivers stay in the left lane and zoom past the slower people in the right. While normal speed limits are somewhere between 100-120 km/h (62-75mph), we were driving on the autobahn in areas of very little traffic at almost 240kmh (150mph). Instead of being scary, it was just awesome.
We made several stops during the day and made it to Frankfurt much later than I had expected to be there. The original plan had been to continue north to Hannover to meet Gunnar, but hitching out of a city center at nightfall is a stupid idea (most of the time). Geoffroy offered for me to stay with him at his friends’ place, since the other people that were coming to party wouldn’t get there until the following day. I agreed.
Frankfurt is a beautiful, clean, fragrant city. During the week, it is inhabited by bankers, engineers, and other professionals. The Germans know Frankfurt as the “business city.” When the weekend hits, everyone leaves to go home and the population of the city nearly halves. We had come on a rare weekend where everything closed early for the Easter holiday and everyone was already in the middle of leaving. As a result, I couldn’t get a German SIM card, and all stores would be closed the next day (even bars and clubs, right up until midnight when Saturday began) because of a national law.
Geoffroy and I did a little bit of exploring, stopping at a German waffle restaurant and eventually heading back to his friend’s home. His friend, who was from Lyon originally (as Geoffroy was) introduced himself in perfect English as Eric, a financial advisor working and living in Frankfurt to improve his German. I introduced myself in French.
“Oh, but where are you from?”
“St. Louis, in Missouri.”
“And you speak French!”
“Just a little. My Spanish is much better. I don’t know any German.”
“That’s no problem. Most people here can speak English if they want to.”
“Just speak in French if it’s easier, I’ll try and pick it back up.”
“Well, let’s go inside and put down out stuff, then we can go and eat.”
Eric had an extra mattress he’d borrowed from a flatmat that we set up for me to sleep on. As we walked outside thinking of places to eat, they rolled marijuana and began smoking.
“What do you call this in the US?” Eric asked, holding up the marijuana cigarette.
“Oh, joint. A joint. Here we say splif.”
He took us to a diner-style Italian restaurant, and as they were high as a kite, they thought everything was hilarious. The entire rest of the night, they spoke in English with a purposefully terrible French accent. When we were handed the menus, I could not believe how cheap the prices were.
“€3,50 for a glass of red wine?!” I gasped. “In Iceland that would have been at least €8.”
“Yeah, everything is cheap here,” Geoffroy said. “Just get what you like. We have jobs and you’re a student,” he said hurriedly, seeing the look of dismay on my face, “I think we’ll get the wine?”
“Yeah, what kind do you want?” Eric asked Geoffroy. They both began speaking in rapid French and I got lost in the menu, totally stunned by how cheap everything seemed after being in Nordic countries for so long. A pizza for €6? Soup for €3? Jesus. I was in a candy shop.
Our waiter was a tall black man with basic control over English, French, and German. He asked me where I was from after some polite conversation and I explained what I was doing there.
“And where are you from?” I asked.
“Me? I am from Ethiopia.”
“Oh! So you speak Amharic?”
“Yes I do, sir.” Eric looked at me like I was crazy and Geoffroy started laughing.
“I just know one word, ahmesugenalew?”
“Yes, very good!”
He took our order and came back shortly with three glasses of red wine and a bottle of white for us to taste before we gave the approving nod. Even at low end restaurants, it is a tradition to sip the wine and say whether or not it is acceptable before ordering it. If the table refuses the wine, the opened bottle goes back and you get a new one to try.
When our waiter came back, he set my tomatoe soup I front of me and a basket of bread and said, “This is free for you.”
“Ahmesugenalew!” I said, delighted.
“Minem aydelem. You’re welcome.”
I could feel a cold coming on so I stopped after one glass of the red wine. When we had finished out food, we changed seats to get into the smoking section so that Eric and Geoffroy could smoke. It was now that we decided to tell our life stories in turn.
“So tell us something really personal. Something the hits very hard. It must be between the ages of… Let’s say 15 and 20.” Eric ordered.
I told them the story of my coming out, and all the drama that ensued with my family.
“That’s insane!” Geoffroy cried. “There are some people that might act like that here, but not so extreme. Like me, I worked for six months in Paris as a social media manager for all the gay clubs and bars– there were 29 of us, and I was the one that actually had to go to all the bars and take pictures and write about going there. And I’m straight, but I don’t know. Some guys would hit on me, you know, and that made me feel good. Like they think I’m an attractive guy, you know?”
“Tell us your story,” I said, eager to get off the subject that in my life had already been beaten to death and flogged into mincemeat.
“Well,” he began, “there was this girl I was seeing when I was really young, like sixteen. She was Dutch and um… We were together for like a year before we split up because I went to China for six months and she was going to Spain. And long distance things, they just don’t work. But then when I was back in Paris like five years later, she just messaged me that she was going to come back while traveling. I told her to come and visit, so we set up a time and place, even though we really hadn’t talked very much in like all the five years.
So finally there was the day she came to Paris, and she had to wait at the bus station several hours because I was still working, I was really anxious to stop working that day. When I finally got to see her, neither of us knew how to feel, so we just went to some bar and talked. We talked until almost four in the morning. This was such a good conversation, and we talked about just everything you can think of.”
He took a deep breath and continued.
“So she was staying at my place just for the night, and I can remember just feeling so in love again, all the older feeling coming back to me but hitting a lot harder this time. We were just laying on opposite sides of the bed, looking at each other. I can’t remember ever feeling so strongly all at one time ever in my life. And I think it won’t happen again. I really loved her in that moment, you know.”
I nodded my head solemnly, and Eric was wiping tears from his eyes.
“Sorry man, I need a minute.” I never got to hear his story.