The blocky, colorless apartment buildings rose up behind me, blending with the darkening sky. They seemed to accentuate the chill, as I stood impatiently on the open-air platform, stamping my feet for warmth. It didn’t help much, but it was something to do. Awkwardly, I shifted bags containing salad fixings and gifts from one numb hand to the other. I had been waiting at the S-Bahn stop for over half an hour now, and mysteriously my train had not arrived. This was a strange state of affairs for the famously punctual and frequent German trains. After just four months of living in Cologne, even I—who was used to the nearly schedule-free transportation system of San Francisco—had taken to scrutinizing my watch with annoyance if a train or bus was even a minute late.
This was Christmas Eve, but the rest of the day had been business as usual, so I didn’t expect a holiday schedule. I assumed the sparsely populated platform meant that everyone was at home preparing for the big Christmas Eve dinner—the big Christmas event in Germany. My friend Nicole had invited me to the suburb of Pülheim to celebrate with her and her father. She instructed me to take the S-Bahn to the end of the line, and she’d meet me there. It started to dawn on me that I might have picked a bad day to run a little late.
A train arrived, but I watched with disappointment as it rolled noisily to a stop. It wasn’t my train. A grandmotherly woman with young, laughing eyes and a big smile disembarked and walked toward me. Her short, black curls poked out from under a colorful wool cap. She asked if I knew what was happening with the trains. “I took one train and it ended. I took another train and it ended. I want to be at dinner with my family, but here I am—I do not know where!” I was impressed that she was still smiling and bubbly after an hour of waiting on various platforms in the cold. She was Greek and was feeling the cold as bitterly as I was.
She suggested we split a taxi, since we were going in more or less the same direction. Stupidly, though, I left the house with only twelve deutschmarks in my pocket, which wasn’t enough for much of anything. She couldn’t afford the long ride without my half of the fare, so we waited together, stamping our feet ineffectively against the gathering frost.
It wasn’t long before our train approached. We raised our gloved hands in celebration. The jubilation ended abruptly, though, with the illumination of the ‘going out of service’ sign. The driver assured us that another train would come right away. Did Christmas really make Germany uncharacteristically disorganized, or had he lied to two desperately cold foreigners so we’d let him go peacefully on his way to his warm Christmas dinner? I feared that the latter was true.
A towering man in his early thirties approached, shaking his head with annoyance. He had been traversing the S-Bahn system for over an hour on his way to a party. I was impressed that his unruly blond hair was hat-free. Even the prospect of severe hat-head could not dissuade me from going out in this sub-freezing weather without a hat—sometimes even two. He seemed gruff and imposing, despite the gift bag with a cutesy winter scene involving bunnies in mittens, dangling from his huge, striped glove. The Greek woman chatted away to him, not the least bit bothered that her German was far from perfect or that he was towering above her, oozing disgruntled rage. His manner seemed to amuse rather than deter her. He was several feet taller, and she had to lean her head back to peer up as she peppered him with questions. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “Where do you work?” This is how I found out that he was Dutch, and that he worked in a factory not far from Cologne. He hated his work. “ I miss my country, but the work, it is better here.” You could see it on his face, the homesickness.
A tall, young Chinese guy walked onto the platform tentatively. “Do you know what is happening with the trains?” he asked the Greek woman, who had an open manner that invited conversation. “I have walked many kilometers and have not seen a single train.” He was late to his dinner party, but despite the frustrating situation, he spoke quietly and calmly.
I told him I’d seen a train from another line; this seemed to give him enough hope to stay and wait. He seemed shy, so I was surprised that he continued chatting with us. The Greek woman started in on him with her questions. With an amused expression, he regarded her through small, wire-framed glasses, as we learned that he came from China to study Engineering. “The university is good. I learn many things there, but this is not home for me. I meet nice people, but they are not my family. I will return to China.” Like us, he was feeling dispirited at the prospect of spending the holiday evening on a train platform.
I went up and down the platform again, searching for some sort of holiday schedule or notification that anarchy was reining on the transportation system of Cologne, but with no success. “The schedule today is a national secret,” the Dutch guy said dryly.
It wasn’t lost on us that we were all foreigners. It felt like we were the opening to some kind of joke. “Have you heard the one about the Dutchman, the American, the Greek and the Chinese guy freezing their butts off on a German train platform?” Here we were shivering together on the cold concrete slab of a platform, while the people who were ‘in the know’ were snug at home with their Christmas dinners. Yet, we were laughing over it in a language that was foreign to all of us.
The Greek woman, in particular, kept our spirits up. She was late for a big family gathering, and she worried about them worrying about her, and yet she was the perkiest with her easy laugh. “A young girl alone here in Germany!” she said to me. “You will come with me to my family and not wander around by yourself in this cold!” When I insisted that I had to meet my friend, who would be waiting, she clicked her tongue, sighed and offered me half of her two-ride train ticket. She was worried that I had so little cash with me. I had a transportation pass, but I thanked her, touched by the gesture. She looked at me with a ‘suit yourself, you crazy girl’ expression and I knew there was no use trying to explain.
She was shivering, so I offered her my second scarf. She scoffed at the thought. “You need it more. Look! I have padding. You have no padding! You are a skinny girl for this cold.” There was no swaying her, even when I explained that I had another scarf in my arsenal against the cold. My friends joked that it took me ten minutes to undress from all my outerwear whenever I arrived anywhere—and this wasn’t far from the truth.
An off-duty train driver strode by. He was privy to the Christmas schedule, which he let us look at with great reluctance. Apparently, he was late for festivities, too. I asked why there wasn’t a schedule posted, and he shrugged as if to say, “For what?” If it were true that trains were on an hourly schedule, as this piece of paper alleged, we now had ten more minutes to wait. We felt comforted. I decided not to mention that I had already been there over an hour.
I was now more than half an hour late now to meet Nicole and I still had a lot of city and suburb to traverse. Neither of us had cell phones. I was torn, not knowing if I should go on, possibly finding myself stuck yet further from home. I imagined Nicole waiting for me in her unheated Citroen, and decided I’d better give it my all to get there.
After finding a phone, so I could try and leave her a message, I peeled off my gloves to search for my phone card. I pushed it into the slot to find too late that the phone was out of order—and the card stuck. I tried every way I could think of to pull it out, but it wouldn’t budge. This evening was getting better by the minute. A young Turkish couple asked if they could borrow it when I was finished. I couldn’t stand another second without my gloves, so I told them it was all theirs if they could get it out. They tried the whole time I waited for my train and I could understand their desperation all too well. No shops were open now, so it was impossible to buy a new one.
At last our train arrived and our group piled on. We smiled at each other with wary relief. It was welcome reprieve from the cold, but I wondered how long we would be stranded at the next platform, waiting for our connection. I tried to savor the warm moments. Ten minutes later, we were standing on an underground platform, relieved to find that the next train was due to arrive soon. Although it wasn’t warm by any means, our new location was an improvement over exposure to the elements outside. My feet were stiff and numb, like ice blocks inside my shoes. I tried to recall the signs of frostbite, but was pretty sure ‘feet like ice blocks’ wasn’t one of them. I hoped. At least they wouldn’t get much worse now.
The Greek woman lent me her phone card to try Nicole. No answer. “They must be waiting for me at the station,” I thought. I imagined them there, shaking their heads and heartily regretting their invitation.
On the train, we had acquired a stylish, young Italian woman. She was equally confused and exasperated by the strange commute. “I think I am going in circles—going from one freezing platform to the next!” Through the grilling given her by the Greek woman, we learned that she was a history student at the university. “Let me guess,” said the Dutchman. “You are supposed to be at a dinner party and now you are severely late.” Of course it was true. She was just as funny as the rest of the group. “I think if I move too quickly, one of my toes might snap off, they are so cold! Why did I not study in Greece?”
We had quite an unlikely array of people in our little group, joined together by this single thread. Everyone was freezing and worried about how we would make it across the city, but still managing to laugh. “Perhaps they will find us here in the morning, a circle of multi-national icicles,” said the Chinese student.
The Greek woman sidled over to peek into the Dutch guy’s gift bag. We’d all been curious. “Take it,” he said in his deadpan voice.
“No! No!” she exclaimed with surprise.
“Really. Take it.”
“But that present is for someone!”
“Take it. It is for you. I got it from the factory and I do not want it. Take it.”
She took it then with glee, and passed it around for each of us to reach in for a present. I pulled out an enormous chocolate bar—an effective mood booster. Others pulled out bags of marzipan, cookies, candy. I offered to share my booty—because, in my opinion, I made out the best—but everyone said, “No! No! That is your present! Keep it!”
We were all talking and laughing over our presents, and—if it weren’t for the uncomfortable conditions—it almost felt like a party. The Dutch guy looked on with a vaguely amused expression. I asked if he was sure about giving up his presents. He just smiled.
We found common ground in our trials and tribulations, living in a foreign city—the adjustment, the inevitable homesickness. I entertained them with stories of my first linguistic stumbling in Germany. I once went into a post office to ask if they sold large, padded airmail envelopes. I was met with a blank stare when I ended up asking for a ‘large flying purse.’ I also misinterpreted the ‘Einbahnstraße’ signs I saw everywhere showing ‘one way streets.’ I thought they were ‘one train streets’—In my defense, this could be true, if translated word for word. I spent weeks looking for train stations by following one-way street signs, on strange routes down tiny side streets. Miraculously, I always encountered a station eventually, so it took a while to catch on.
More time went by than we were expecting—and still no train. The Dutch guy was fed up. “The party will be over before I get there!”
“I was just thinking this, too. I am beginning to wonder why I am still waiting here.” the Chinese student said in his trademark serene voice.
“I could use a beer. How about you?” asked the Dutch guy. It didn’t take much to convince the student. “Why not?” he replied. They tried to convince the rest of us of the futility of the journey, but we hadn’t given up quite yet. They yelled back over their shoulders, “You are sure?” And off they went down the platform—a most unlikely pair. I was surprised at how sad it was to see two near strangers disappear up the steps.
It was just the three of us when the train arrived fifteen minutes later. We were sullen now. It was a relief to be on the train, but we had no idea how it would go from there. Slowly but surely, though, the train plodded on. The Greek woman looked at us strangely. “Two young girls here alone! I think your families must worry.”
We both shrugged. “It’s been many years since I’ve lived near any of my family,” I said. “I don’t think it’s so different that I’m in Germany now.” She was uncharacteristically speechless. After a few moments she asked, “But you are not lonely?” I told her that I have good friends—some of which are like family—and I see my family frequently when I’m in the States. She looked at me with a pitying expression, as though I was the most tragic figure she had encountered in some time.
We said sad good-byes, as they reached their respective stops. It was especially sad to see the Greek woman go. She had made these hours lovelier for all of us. “You are sure? You do not want to come with me to my family?” she asked with concern, as she stepped off into the harshly lit night and we raised our gloved hands one last time.
I arrived at the meeting point—the end of the line—more than an hour and a half late and there was no Nicole. Just another frozen platform. In fact, there was no one or any sign of civilization to speak of, besides a nearly empty parking lot and a phone booth. And me without a phone card. After a few minutes of rising desperation, a woman came by, and I asked if I could use her phone card. She handed it to me, refusing money for the call. “No! No! It’s Christmas after all!”
Still, no one answered. I didn’t know what to do. The warm feeling of camaraderie and Christmas spirit was quickly fading, as I stood freezing in that desolate parking lot, with no phone card and very little money in my pocket.
The empty train would soon make the return journey to Cologne. I was in a quandary as to what to do. After twenty minutes of waiting, though, I decided that I’d better take this chance to go back—my last chance to be warm for a little while. Nicole would likely come back eventually—but if not? And what if I was an American icicle by then?
Back at the connection station, I was shocked to see familiar faces. It was none other than the Dutchman and the Chinese student—and a friendly Polish woman they’d met along the way. “Oh my! There she is again with her salad!” the Dutch guy yelled, smiling widely.
It lifted my sagging spirit to see them again, especially after my trip to what felt like the freezing ends of the earth. How strange that I could be so comforted by people I’d only known a couple of hours. Besides meeting the young Polish woman on the street—also in a similar situation—they hadn’t had much luck with the Christmas Eve bar scene. Most places were closed, and the one bar they found was dismal. I told them what I’d been up to for the last hour or so, and then tried to phone Nicole again. Still no answer. My heart sank—I hoped they weren’t driving around looking for me.
“Come on. We will all go for a drink and forget this crazy German rail system!” If there was one thing I could use at this point, it was a drink. There was the cash issue, though, and their descriptions of the nightlife options were less than tantalizing. So, we said our goodbyes again, and I trudged up to the outdoor platform to await my last train of the evening, alone again.
A middle-aged Turkish man bundled up in a thick winter coat struck up a conversation with me, after I asked how long he’d been waiting. He’d already put in forty-five minutes, so I figured I could handle another fifteen. Several people—nearly all foreigners—were waiting on the platform and I hoped this was a sign that a train would arrive soon.
He told me that he had worked in California for a few years, “The money was nice, but there is no quality to the life. Here you make a little less money, but can have your family and friends and even have some time with them. Soon, I will return to Turkey, where I will have even less money, but I will have my family and a good life.”
A Turkish student overheard our conversation and had to interject. He was trying to get a visa to study in the States, but so far hadn’t had any luck, so he was studying in Germany in the meantime. It was his dream to go to the USA. The man said, “Go ahead and see for yourself. You can have all the money in the world, and still have no quality to your life.” He just looked at the man with an expression of calm determination that made me believe he might reach his goal.
After waiting for the train for twenty minutes, and feeling like my extremities were turning blue, I decided to flag a taxi. The Turkish guys had already put in too much time to give up, though. I told the driver that I only had twelve Deutschmarks. “Ah, come. It may be a bit short, but it is Christmas after all.” Just as I pulled the door closed, the train came into sight and I saw the Turkish guys waving to me wildly. “With me, though, you’ll have front door service!” the driver said. I couldn’t argue with that. I waved at them one last time and they yelled, “Merry Christmas!” It wasn’t until I was nearly home that I realized that they were all Muslim. It made me smile to think of them shouting out those last words to me, a stranger, for a holiday that wasn’t theirs.
I got home to find a message from Nicole. She was on her way to my apartment. All I wanted to do was climb into my warm bed, but of course that wasn’t possible. I would go on to have a great night and would be forgiven for my extreme tardiness—not a minor transgression in Germany. It was the hours I spent beforehand, though, that would stick in my memory—the comfort, laughter and solidarity I found in an unlikely group of strangers, who never even learned each other’s names.
Maybe the joke was on us that strange Christmas Eve, but at least we were laughing, too.