The setting sun casts warm shadows across the beige stucco and red painted iron balconies of the resident apartments across the street. The view from the forth floor window ledge of our hostel room isn’t anything spectacular but it holds an allure, maybe about the days to come or about the regrowth of this city since the last world war. The sky is small here, even more so than in Amsterdam, as the long, wide buildings reach across blocks of downtown nearly touching each other. Despite its size though, the powder blue of a late summer’s sunset now deepens to periwinkle, boasting beauty and with it, shedding a stillness in the air. Cars roll by on the street below, but none disrupt the stillness here, just as the babbling of a few men in the room next door do not disturb. We are all peaceful, ready to spend the night inside and around the hostel. Our roommates are ghosts for now, a nice touch, and we decide to hang around and do laundry.
Five hours spent in the Duisberg train station last night was generally uneventful. By the time we’d arrived at the station it was after midnight, so the only people around were beggers, drunks, and a handful of backpackers like ourselves. At the entrance to the station, four rows of benches were nearly crowded by us, our friends, and a handful of others, who all seemed to be waiting for the train the next morning.
With thirteen platforms and double that may shops, only two were open upon our arrival. A baker stood at one open counter, his thick German accent I’d hadn’t adjusted to when I’d asked where the bathrooms were. I repeated my question and understood his answer the second time. Charley swooned at the pastries in the glass case, and I couldn’t help but reciprocate.
Our friend who’d confirm the suspicion that we’d missed our train at the Arnhem station was still tagging along and we finally introduced ourselves. Her name was Claudia.
I walked right past the bathroom at platform ten, stopping at the bottom of the stairs, and not listening so well, Fati had to repeat herself twice before I realized she was pointing at the bathroom entrance. It was covered in bright royal blue and yellow graphics without a door handle, but next to a coin machine, asking 1 euro for entry. I stuck my hand in my right pocket, rattling around the change I’d collected through the day.
“Well, we’re all in this together,” I annouced, and I dropped a 2 euro piece in the coin slot, expecting change, but not getting it.
Surprisingly, the four of us and all our packs fit comfortably inside the bathroom. Fati thought that maybe we could’ve just slid in and out as the door opened for each of us, and though the forethought was good, we’d already begun.
From there, we wandered to the other end of the station, where we found the entrance, the boys, and the rows of seats. They were navy blue and shared armrests, just like the ones in American airports.
We stopped next to the only other open concession stand in the station, a McDonalds, eyeballing couch bench seats as a decent place to try and sleep. We had five hours ahead of us to fill, and considering it was midnight, sleep seemed like the mostly viable option.
Stood in a circle, Fati suggested having a smoke and I concurred.
“Weed or tobacoo?” I asked.
“Well, we’re not in Amsterdam anymore, so I don’t think we can just smoke anywhere.” she replied. I nodded in agreement, but wondered where we could go.
To my left, just outside the glass doors of the station, a small group of drunkards and vagrants leaned, stood, and sat against an information kiosk covered by a gray tarp. They looked harmless, but still, I didn’t know anything about the German people. Matter of fact, I had still thought we were in the Netherlands, and I didn’t know much about their people either.
What I did know was mixed. Most of the couch surfing accounts Fati had looked into for us in Berlin seemed weird: off-beat humor and interests, so I found and booked a hostel. Hostels in Berlin were cheap, most around 25 euro a night, but we found one for 19 and I jumped on it.
I also knew that a few people in Amsterdam had told us that the German people were a bit mean and unaccomodating, but then, from another momentary friend, were told how great the city was. On the last platform, Claudia had expresses to us how much she liked Berlin, though she hadn’t been there on as a tourist, but visiting friends outside of City Center.
Then, she taught us something else. “Oh, you can,” she nodded, making the motion for smoking with her hands while nodding.
“We can smoke outside?” I asked her, and she nodded in response.
“You can here. And in Spain too. Just when the police come…” she motioned extinguising a joint on the sidewalk, “It’s ok.”
So we walked outside to the end of the entrance patio, which stopped at sets of large stone pottery filled with dirt and plants and benches attached to the sides. We formed a circle again, facing inwards on each other and dropping our packs in the middle. Charley’s day pack fell to the outside of her left foot.
“Watch that man,” Fati pointed at it while she spoke.
Charley moved it between her feet.
We chatted for a bit in English, while Fati packed a pipe of tobacco, but as would happen again the next day, Claudia asked for a single world translation to English, which spurred them into a side conversation in Spanish.
I had the pipe, had remembered again how to smoke tobacco out of it, and was thoroughy enjoying the whisps of tobacco in my mouth, even as they escaped. I handed the pipe back to Fati.
Inside, Claudia had told us she’d never smoke weed from a pipe before, so once we finished the tobacco, Fati packed a bowl up and we set on instructing her. Fati handed her the pipe, while telling her, but she attempted to light it without having the hitter in her mouth and pulling.
Fati continued to explain, but after another failed attempt, I put my hands out, asking to take it from her, to show her how to do it.
She’d told us that none of her friends smoked this way, but that she’d mostly smoked joints, and a couple times out of a homemade bong.
“Made with a plastic bottle?” I asked enthusiatically, to which she nodded and laughed, exhaling the smoke. I laughed rotundly too, hopping up on one foot and throwing my right arm out pointing.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, “It’s a universal experience.” We all laughed a bit.
A few minutes later, Fati asked Claudia if she spoke Catalan and we diverted into a conversation about Catalonian history. Though she spoke fluent Spanish, she also spoke Catalan as her native language, and we asked her what it sounded like.
“What do you want me to say?” she giggled a little through.
“The sky is blue.” I responded, to which she interpreted and rolled off her tongue. It sounded a bit French to me, with maybe a bit of Spanish as well, but Fati thought it was more French than anything, with a little Portuguese. We asked her a bit more about Catalonia.
She explained to us the old world movement to succeed from Spain, but that it was undesirable for her to vote for such a referendum because she didn’t want to lose her EU citizenship. Makes sense, I thought.
Then, as I had mentioned earlier that Fati and I had originally planned to begin our trip in Barcelona and move up the French Rivieria, she told us that the Rivieria wasn’t much to see anymore. She said that maybe ten or fifteen years ago it had been beautiful, but now, it was overdeveloped with all large buildings.
She stuttered trying to expand in English upon her idea, but stopped, agreeing with me when I asked her if it was just like a resort, and agreeing, but saying, “I cannot explain because I would compare it to other places in Europe, but you do not know these places.”
I nodded, accepting the explanation.
Fati and Claudia broke into a Spanish conversation, of which I tried my best to listen and understand, but was soon lost, just trying to pick out words then, when Charley caught my eye, shifting her weight onto her toes, popping up and asking, “Can we eat?”
She hadn’t been loud enough to interrupt our companions, but I nodded agreeing it was time for a snack. That was one big blessing for the trip- we were all on the same eating schedule.
After a request to the others, a bit of waiting once conversation took a turn and then died down, we trompsed back inside to the bakery, where Charley and I picked out a sandwich and a pastry quickly. I pulled more euro coins out of my pocket, paying less than two euros for my chocolate vanilla square. It was good too, and fresh. Charley gnawed into a sandwich on baguette.
Fati had seemed a bit undecided about getting anything, but as Charley, Claudia, and I began to wander away, she hollered out to us, “Hold on guys,” and grabbed the same pastry as me.
She bit into it, thinking aloud, “I shoulda just gotten the chocolate.”
We meandered back to the rows of seats. McDonalds was now closed, so retired in the empty spaces next to the boys, we all took turns napping, uncomfortably with our heads laid over sideways on our shoulders or slouched down so far in the seats that most of our asses hung off.
The rest is a blur. I awaken sharply in the station, my contact lenses glued to my eyes. I rub them to create some tears. Upstairs, we boarded the train, and quickly fall back asleep. Claudia’s head folded down on the table between our seat like that of a tired school child and I wedged myself perpendicularly across the seat up against the glass window outside.
Hours later, we arrived in Berlin, all still sleeping. Luckily, the boys woke us up when we arrived. Foggy eyed still, we exited, thanking the boys and taking the escalators up to the main level of the station, where we parted ways. It was five stories tall, full of open shops, the morning sun bursting through the glass-paned exterior walls of the station. It was time to wake up, if only briefly, and find our way around a new city. To Tiergarten we’d head, after dropping our luggage and grabbing groceries for lunch.