My first interaction with Marina was to ask her, using my German vocabulary of about 6 words, if I was on the right train to Stuttgart. She told me “Auf Stuttgart, ja” – “To Stuttgart, yes,” so I sat down and settled in.
This Deutschbahn train was obviously one of the older ones in service. When I finally found the lavatory, the flusher on the john literally opened up a trapdoor that dumped the contents on the tracks. I saw the tracks whizzing by below me (no pun intended).
I wouldn’t have understood the P.A. announcement anyway – this old-school train from Wurzburg to Stuttgart did its P.A. in German only. But even if I spoke German, I was in earbuds and oblivious to the world.
I vaguely noticed we were lingering at a far-flung station for a long time, but scarcely saw the train empty out. That is, until Marina, whose name I still did not know, was standing right in front of me waving a hand in my face. She said something to me in German. Sheepishly, I replied “Ich spreche kein deutsche,” which is German for “I’m a dumb American and I speak no German.”
Haltingly she switched to English and told me “The train is broken, we have to transfer to another train. You’re going to Stuttgart, right? … You can follow me.”
Grateful, I followed her two tracks over, and we got on a newer and much more crowded train. Still, I saw some free seats, and I didn’t want to be clingy, so I told Marina “I’m going to sit down. You’re welcome to join me.”
She didn’t join me, so I put my head back in my earbuds.
Another stop or two later, I was blissfully in my own world – until I saw Marina, outside the train, waving at me plaintively, a worried look on her face.
Oh shit. I hastily gathered together my luggage and sprinted off the train. Marina kindly explained to me that we had one more train change on our new route.
My exact words were “Okay, I’m not leaving your side. I’m your puppy now.”
The next train was the last one we had to get on, but we sat across from each other anyway, in a four-seat booth with two silent middle-aged German men, and finally got to know each other. We chatted away for the remainder of the 45 minute trip to Stuttgart. I learned about her travels to America, her studies, what she liked to do in Stuttgart, her favorite soccer team … she hadn’t practiced English in two years, but English was her favorite subject from grades 1-12 apparently. It came right back to her – I understood her perfectly.
By the time we got to Stuttgart, she was in full Mama Bear mode (even though I think I was about a decade older than her). She was determined to get me on the right subway to the airport. She was on a different S-train, so we parted there, after I thanked her profusely for the tenth time.
She remarked how friendly she found Americans and English people to be, compared to how formal and taciturn her own countrymen could be, and said she aspired to be better than that.
I told her she knocked it out of the park today. Then changed it from a baseball to a soccer metaphor, just in case.
Marina, instead of eating a horseradish salmon sandwich on pretzel bread for lunch at the Stuttgart airport, I could have eaten a stress-filled sprint-walk to try and catch my plane … or I could have missed my flight altogether, and been alone in a foreign land.
None of that happened to me, because you cared about a stranger who asked you if he was on the right train. Grazie mille, vielen dank, you special person.
First posted October 4, 2016
What was your most memorable random interaction with a local in a foreign country?