There is no barbaric yawp here, or at least none I can hear. But I’m having trouble hearing this new place, so it’s hard to tell.
The boy on the bus, wearing a Yankee’s ball cap, slightly drunk, too loud in the crowded dark, says, “Danke, danke what?” The old Chinese man, manning the restaurant all by himself, while wooden dragons watch from the walls, corrects every syllable of our American accents with his own of Cantonese. “I’m not surprised,” the woman says behind me in British, window shopping at the store called New York, where the mannequins are topless, touting panties and plastic breasts, “he was absolutely ruthless.”
It’s easier to notice the internationals, the ex-pats, as if, adrift like asteroids, we foreigners find each other, bunching up into fields. And there’s nothing communicating this, no nod or handshake, no secret look or wink, but we know, and we draw together. Foreigner to foreigner, we know. The Germans know because we’re strange, we stand out as obvious as if we were wearing red-striped shirts and funny hats, but we know each other just because we know. We come together like clusters of Waldos in the crowded city.
When the snow melts, the sand sifts down between cobblestones. When the river freezes, people throw things to see if it’s solid, and the things we discard collect on the ice with the frost: A balloon, a bottle cap, a duck, a Christmas tree. In a window above, a Swabian woman beats out a blanket.
All the cultural markers are moved and I can’t read them. I don’t know what it means when a man has long hair. I don’t know what it means when the big man in a big beard orders fries – pomme frites – and the cat comes into the hotel restaurant like the lord and owner. I can’t interpret the cars. When the beggar won’t touch his cup to count the coins, but instead leans over and looks in, trying to see them stacked in there, what does that mean? When an old man, clean and wrinkled, reads the newspaper in a little chair in the children’s section of the library, who is he? It’s hard to just let the fragments be. I want to interpret them, read them, say what they mean beyond what they are. I want to induct reasons, extrapolate explanations and things which can be said so as to understand. Even though I know they’d all be wrong. Even though I know the only way to hear the yawp is to leave it alone, leave it un interpreted, straining my ears for a high note coming through.
The first two notes on the sirens are the same as the two opening notes of the theme music for Jeopardy. In front of the grocery store, the panhandler sings House of the Rising Sun. The Ikea hotdog stand doesn’t offer kraut. Helmut tells me he’s transporting stem cells from Tübingen to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and that’s all he does as a medical courier. The sign says, Goethe threw up here, and the other one says, Herman Hesse worked in this bookstore. There is not, anywhere I can see, a sign for Ratzinger, for when he was here. The postal worker, wearing yellow, gets on the bus, shoves her mail cart into the corner, and blows her nose until the next stop.
When the kid spills down the hill, left foot down spinning his sled into a spiral and then a tumble and a roll, he crashes laughing and raises his arm in victory, in the triumph of a 10-year-old. I take his picture and he smiles and I take his picture and he says, “Was? Was?” I understand the question, but I don’t know the answer, so I just give a thumbs up.