Our bags heavy but our eyelids heavier, we rolled into the final city of our trek, Frankfurt, just after lunch, the city wet and shiny from a mid-morning rain. We had no room for the night, our final in Europe, so first thing's first.
Frankfurt's train depot was all steel and stench and filled with every nationality imaginable. I suggested we try the Holiday Inn Express to my travel contingent, made up of lifelong friends Shelton and Brad. The Inn was located just down the street from the train station so it was a no-brainer for us, one of many on the trip. We've reached the point of the trip when going with the flow is just easiest.
With the states on the horizon, it's fair to say the wind had finally left our sails. We decided to goto dinner, walk around the city a bit, and retire early, to be well rested to make our flight on time, be responsible. There's that word again. Responsible.
We did exactly that. Dinner, walk, holla'd at some babies, made the kissy faces at them, even Usher-slid by some to elicit the giggles.
And then back to the Inn we went. But then I decided that it being our last night, I was going to roll the dice just a bit longer as a loner, check out the city late night with my camera. Brad and Shelton went their own way, I went mine.
I departed from my crew and entered the Frankfurt cityscape. I walked and walked, filmed and filmed. Then I got thirsty, so into the bar I went.
There was only one open seat at the bar, between an older gent and some local softball players, with the jerseys and the yelling and the drunken comradery.
I took the empty seat. The elderly man next to me realized I was alone and struck up conversation, asking which futbol team I preferred, this one or that one, as he pointed to an old TV up in the corner. After I spoke, revealing my American heritage, he was off and running.
He was born in Frankfurt but currently lived in China. His name was Werner and his Russian lady-friend's name escapes me. He was the 25th employee of Ikea in Germany, way back 28 years ago. Werner currently worked in the development department, so Ikea sent him to do just that in countries for expansion, China being his focus for the past 7 years. I took it that he didn't have to work but did so because he wanted to.
He knew English, Deutsche, Chinese, and Russian. Werner was as close to the Most Interesting Man in the World, appearance-wise, and I guess worldliness-wise, that I've seen so far in Europe. His gray hair thick at the temples and his forehead deeply wrinkled from years of furrowing at his company's products inane instruction manuals. He was nearer 70 than 60, but here we were, in Frankfurt, ordering shots at 1:30 in the morning, Werner doing the honors.
He taught me how to hand over your business card in China (with both hands, bowing low), spoke of his excursions in Budapest (his neck sore from the lady-watching), and how I need to learn a little bit of each country's native language that I visit next time (shows respect, you goober, people respect the respect).
Werner is alive. He was genuinely exited for me and my trip, the excitement for his country infectious, the passion for travel contagious.
He was young and reckless, responsible and carefree.
Werner insisted I hit the young people's disco, which he visited the previous week. Apparently, the bouncer stopped him before his entry, telling him that the club played young, poppy music that he might not like. Warning him, in essence. To this, Werner told the bouncer that he was going in to the disco to look for his Grandson, which wasn't a total lie, he did have grandsons, just not in Frankfurt. Ikea chairman Werner then partied till 5am.
When he left, the concerned bouncer asked him if he found his grandson. 'No, I didn't,' replied Werner, 'so, I'll come back next week and look for him again.'
And with that gem, a handshake and a tip of the cap, Werner and I parted ways.
I felt fantastic on the walk home (could have had something to do with the two shots of who-knows-what Werner bought for us). I was truly happy I met him.
I returned to our hotel to find my comrades asleep in the twin bed, leaving the pullout couch bed for me. There was Brad in his night mask, Shelton with his ass-crack.
I wouldn't have it any other way. Well, of course I would, but what the hey.
The following morning in the airport terminal, awaiting our flight, we found a little table and grabbed an espresso. The mood somber. Real world awaited us and it loomed like a cloud of smoke in a trendy European restaurant.
When we finally spoke, talk quickly turned to a return trip.
Brad said he would return soon. He's got unfinished business in Budapest remember.
Who knows what's in store for any of us, but one thing's for certain: time ticks, life moves, the world doesn't wait.
I encourage you to make time for that ice cream and espresso, say hello to every person you pass, grow your beard out, wear those Manties, get what the locals get, spend 300 bucks on laundry, put that tank top on, watch the sunrise in Budapest, invade Bratislava, find your inner Werner. Film it all.
And fer' cryssakes, get carried away.
Thank you for following our travels, kind reader, for sticking with me through even the roughest patches of my grammatical failings and punctuation imperfections. I hope you were entertained.
Without your eyes, these words would go unread, and unread words are the loneliest words in all the world.
Until next time.
Your Eastern Europe travel guide,
Justin Claus Harder
Travel logs with Shelton Sekac and Brad Kana.
May 17-June 3, 2012.
Stay tuned for the video.