“Guten morgen,” she said in a friendly voice.
“Traurig, spreche ich Deutsch nicht,” I replied, sloppily, in her native tongue.
“You speak it well enough to know how to tell me that you don’t know how to speak German, in German,” she quipped.
“Thank heavens you speak English,” I replied. By now, I had a chance to look outside my window. The train I was on bulleted through a lush, hilly landscape. The passenger car gently rocked back and forth as I noticed that this train’s passengers looked nothing like the throng of people who had boarded it in Munich the night before. “Fräulein,” I began after a long pause, “are we in Nürnberg yet?”
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“Would you kindly tell me how restful of a schlaf I had? Where am I?” Now her giggle became a raucous laugh. A man sitting across the aisle from her asked her a question in German. She answered him in German. Then the Germans laughed at me, in German.
“Herr Tiger,” she began (I had a small stuffed animal tiger attached to my backpack), “you are about 300 kilometers from Nürnberg. We’re only 20 minutes away from Bonn.”
“Bonn?” I asked. More laughter.
“Bonn,” the lady replied. Then the man across the aisle chimed in. “Ja, Bonn!”
“Nein!” I roared. Most of the train was laughing now.
The night before, my friends and I had boarded the night train from Munich to Nürnberg. In Nürnberg, we were to transfer trains and head south to Interlaken, Switzerland. There were eight of us, all recent college graduates and all pals for the past four years. We’d decided to have one last adventure together — this one in Europe — before returning to the States and beginning our professional lives. And in true postcollege form, our three-week trip had us covering some serious ground.
We flew into Dublin. From there, we went to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Munich — where I met a boisterous group of Scottish soccer players, hung out with them in a different train car and fell asleep, only to awaken 20 minutes from Bonn — Interlaken, Rome, Nice and then, finally, Paris.
Getting to Europe was not without its hiccups. Our parents were naturally concerned, as most of us had never been out of the country before. Of course, we were legally adults, but even newbie adults need their parents’ conditional blessing. Looking back 12 years later, and as a parent myself, I understand now what I couldn’t understand then: It’s a scary prospect for parents to send their baby to another continent. And I’m sure parents worry that their baby will party too much over there. However, I will submit to all you parents reading this column — whether you’re wrestling with the same concerns about sending your kids to Europe or you’re nervous wrecks because your babies are over there right now — that no formal education beats a boots-on-the-ground tour of Europe, or a rails-on-the-tracks tour of Europe (page 22).
When the Germans on the train stopped laughing at me, they pointed me in the right direction. Ten hours later, I was reunited with my buddies in Switzerland. The trip remains the best trip of our lives. We grew up, we grew closer, and we grew smarter. As evidence for parents that a European trip strengthens the mind, look at us 12 years ago, fresh out of college. In June 2011, two of these guys are doctors, one’s a veterinarian, one’s a lawyer, one’s an architect, one’s a businessman, one’s an athletic director — and then there’s me, anxiously awaiting the day when I can return to Europe with these guys.