When we crossed from Switzerland into Germany, the faintest outline of the Alps fading behind us, I listened as our local bus driver made a call on his cell phone. He spoke in a German dialect I would later understand as Swabian. All I knew then was that his words were full of an easier music, a rounded lightness. Lynn, our German teacher and my fellow chaperone, leaned over to me and whispered, "He just said, 'Germany has us in her arms again.'"
From that moment, something very specific about our trip changed. We were still and always foreigners in another land. We were reminded of our differentness constantly, by our shoes, the boys' baseball caps, our cravings for ketchup. But our bus pulled up into a school parking lot full of families--still strangers, but families with moms and dads and little brothers, all eager to incorporate us into their daily lives--and as the American students left with the German students, and as the American teachers were greeted by the German teachers, we were no longer travelers in the same way, and we felt something in our hearts open as door upon door was held wide for us.
For me, there was the car ride down side streets to "my apartment" in Carolin's vintage Mini Cooper; there was the way we talked immediately of London and college and husbands; the key she handed me, the welcome wine on the table, the space to unpack my things. There was Annette who, for the duration of my stay, lent me her purple bike with the beautiful basket. There was a guided trip to the local grocery store, a welcome dinner on a hill, a sweater given to me when I was cold, two little children who looked me shyly in the eyes and spoke their phrases of English, a whole night full of German flags clipped to car windows and flung over balconies and worn across chests in anticipation for the Euro Cup match that I would later watch in German, and though I wouldn't understand the announcer's words, I still somehow felt a part of things. I still cheered at the goals. I still pulled open my screenless windows at 11:00 pm and listened to the sound of incessant and jubilant honking throughout Lahr as Denmark's fooseball team fell to the Motherland. After, that first night, I pulled down the outdoor shades and slept for ten hours.
Travel, for me, is many things, but it has never been sleep. I woke the next morning astounded at my comfort, at my disregard for time passing like any other day. I made breakfast. I reopened the windows and listened to the songbirds flit across the garden.
The truth is I would have become lonely in the apartment had that Sunday been longer. I had a kitchen and a patio, and no students I had to look after, no museum I had to navigate, no bus I had to catch, and spaces that could have felt so easily like my Minnesota rooms except I knew that they weren't mine. That I wasn't home. That instead I was an ocean away from people who knew me. So when Heimfried and Ingrid, the couple who owned and lived above the apartment I was staying in and who were also retired English teachers, invited me up that night to share drinks and local maps and books and their genuine and generous spirits, I felt a bit like crying, so grateful was I for even their momentary friendship.
Throughout the three weeks I stayed in Lahr, though, these two became much more than an evening's company. They were under no obligation, yet they drove me to the train station, had me up to dinner, brought me to the market, lent me their carrot peeler, insisted I try some cake, shared their backyard garden, let me wash my laundry, helped me purchase tickets, taught me German phrases, drove us to the Black Forest and over the Rhine and into the Alsace, participated in countless conversations about their global travels and the German education system and the Green Party and the history of the region and American literature and their soon-to-be-a-father son; in short, showed so much compassion for a woman they couldn't have imagined just a few days before, that I simply fell in love with them. They felt, so quickly, like a kind of family.