Im Januar

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Artist rendition of Benrath Castle

As of January 2020 I’ve been in Germany for two years.

When we arrived, my partner on a work visa and I a tourist visa, I didn’t know if I’d be staying one or 10 years or breaking up with him and flying home after three months. It seemed practical to see as much of everything as possible, but I didn’t have money for trains and museums.

I’d inherited my partner’s old phone when he signed up for a German plan, and for the first time I had mobile data. This came two years after my first smartphone, which I’d used as little more than a camera.

Now I had a camera with GPS.

We could only afford cabbage for the first three months*. Every afternoon I woke up cold and hungry, chose a minor point of interest in Google Maps, and ran there with the magic of GPS. Anything within a 20-kilometer radius worked; by the time I got home I wouldn’t even be hungry anymore.

*In February we bought a shaker of celery salt. It turned cabbage water into cabbage soup!

Schloss Benrath (Benrath Palace) lay 10km southeast of Düsseldorf city centre. GPS took me past the central train station, through the ugliest part of town, between factories, and finally into Benrath the district, the only scenic part of the route.

I stood at the edge of a great pond ringed with light, before a floodlit palace.

They were disappointingly pink, the palace and two side buildings (now natural history and garden art museums), and closed for the day. I peered through the windows and thought bad things about the rich.

Then I went through a side gate to look for the gardens.

On the back steps, more blindingly lit than the front, a bunch of girls danced and sang around whatever a boombox was called after the ’90s. Beyond, the gardens were lightless and apparently full of owls.

Back at the side gate, I blew my nose, wondering if I should head home. One of the youngest girls {maybe my niece’s age [so somewhere between 6 and 10 (I’m the worst aunt)]}, came over and said something. I didn’t speak German.

Englisch!” she called to the group. They surrounded us.

The oldest, who looked to be in their late teens, told me in English that they had found my dog. i.e. They’d seen a lost-looking dog, and I looked like someone who’d lost a dog.

While explaining I hadn’t lost a dog, I realised I was slightly lost. Could they point me in the general direction of the central train station, I asked.

They corrected my pronunciation of “central train station” and said they lived beside it! No, near it! No, their uncle did! And they’d take me there!

They set off, laughing, and one ought not say “no” to new experiences in new countries or whatever so I walked with them like a reverse Pied Piper and hoped they weren’t taking me to a black market organ dealer.

We talked and walked long enough for me to be sure it wasn’t in the right direction. A small train station came into view just as the oldest girls asked how old I was. I discovered they were much younger than I’d thought, they discovered I was much older, and everything became creepy and uncomfortable.

Hoping to fall behind, as they had monthly passes, I took out my wallet and said I had to buy a ticket. They assured me there were machines on the train. “Come on! Don’t worry! We’ll ride with you!”

We pushed on board to see… the fare checker. He was looking down, writing in a small logbook. The girls hurried me a few metres over to the next door.

“Where do I buy the ticket?”

“No machine!” “This train doesn’t have the machine!” “We thought this was the other kind of train!”

“You will have to run very fast when someone asks to see your ticket.”

“Shh shh shh,” the younger ones said in stage whispers.

They all dramatically mimed looking over at the man to see if he’d overheard.

“You’ll have to go maybe four stops!” they said, hopping out at the next stop.

“Be strong!” the last one shouted.

They disappeared into the night.

A Schwarzfahrer (lit. black rider)

I considered getting off at the next stop, “D-Zoo”, but the central station was the only stop I knew. My hands gripped the wallet that signalled my intention to buy a ticket––later I learnt my emergency 2 euro coin wouldn’t have been enough––the phone and GPS forgotten.

Eventually I reached the central station and ran home. Next time I’d visit the zoo, I thought.

Later I walked/ran much longer distances on colder nights to the castle ruins 10km in the opposite direction, to the former zoo, to the neighbouring cities: Neuss, Ratingen, Duisburg.

But this night set the tone for at least the year to come, when I wandered mostly alone around the city, when I had to assume the people I met meant well––even if they were yelling or laughing or leaving me to be a fare dodger––when I felt I should be drawing deep meaning out of these experiences, rather than being merely confused.

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