I journeyed alone through Germany, France and Spain as a college student. A favorite part of traveling solo for me is I am not insulated from the culture I visit or from meeting new people. I open up to strangers and they to me, in the search for food, water, shelter, and direction. In each country I realized more of my independence and interdependence.
In Germany, I learned that human connection does not depend on language. Frau Brönner ran the small inn where I stayed in Nuremberg. I spoke thirteen words of German; Guten morgen, Guten tag, ya, nien, eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, bitte, danke, Auf Wiedersehen.* She knew ten words of English; Good morning, did you sleep well? Breakfast? Yes? No? Room. Frau Brönner kept immaculate rooms complete with beds covered in duvets. I slept so cozily. At 20, I felt safe and cared for in her presence, staying abroad in a hotel without family, friends, or bunk-mates for the first time. She served an excellent continental breakfast of fresh bread, butter, gouda cheeses the size of a York’s Peppermint Patty, and tea or coffee. Ya, danke, or Yes, thank you, said in a kind voice with a smile conveys a lot of meaning. She showed such kind and gracious hospitality. Mornings, she searched for more mini-gouda rounds for me, once I delightedly consumed all five from my table. We made friends despite our 23 words in common.
My first international rail experience, I took the train from Germany to Spain by myself. I felt nervous, but determined to get to my exchange program in Toledo in time for the first day of classes. Studying the paper train tables, I chose my route and gave myself four days to cross through Germany, France and half of Spain. In the south of Germany, a girl and her grandmother boarded the train and sat near me. The girl introduced herself as Anke. She asked what languages I spoke. She knew German, a bit of English and some French. With my Spanish, English, and smatterings of German and French, and her three languages, we conversed for two hours about school and our families. We wrote out our addresses for one another and were pen pals for two years, until she moved and we lost touch. Another woman from the United States and I made friends on the official border crossing between France and northern Spain. We stayed together in a youth hostel in Barcelona, until our travels took us in opposite directions.
I made it to the Fundación Ortega y Gasset in Toledo one day early. The doorman Don José was firm but kind. There was no room at the inn. I wanted to cry. I could store my bags, but the dormitory was not ready yet. He helped me find an inexpensive youth hostel and a taxi. Over the next three months, he and his wife became two of my closest Spanish friends. They gave me a sandwich when I missed dinner, gently taught me new traditions, and ensured I stayed immersed in their language and culture. They were uncle and aunt to me while I was far away from home.
Those kindred spirits I met as I traveled alone that autumn I remember with affection. True, in my solitude I got lost on occasion, didn’t know where to stay, or felt confused about local customs. But, those were also points on my journey when my heart opened to make friends. I was delighted to find that even when I don’t understand the foreign words, I do understand the good intentions of a friendly stranger.
* German words in translation: Good morning, good afternoon, yes, no, 1-5, please, thank you, goodbye.
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