Travelling Symbols

My tenth journey to Poland began almost two weeks ago in Berlin, where I recovered from the long flight and visited some dear friends in nearby Hamburg.

My host and caretaker in Berlin was a woman I’d met in August, 2014 at the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto. Also a writer, Sabine had carved six months out of her life to live in Lodz, absorbing its history and studying Polish—mirroring the journey I’d taken in 2009, though she was born German not Jewish. We’d bonded almost instantly.

On the day of my departure for Poland, we left Sabine’s apartment headed for a central landmark, the Reichstag, where I was to meet my ride to Poznan. The first ride had fallen apart at the last moment after Sabine and her Polish-speaking friend had put it together for me, so we were determined not to miss this second one.

Just after we exited the S-Bahn station, Sabine tripped and fell down on her bad knee. “Still plenty of time,” she said, after I’d found a band aid in my purse and carefully sealed it on her bleeding knee. Our bus to the Reichstag was due in eight minutes.

“It must mean something that I fell on this knee again,” she said. “The previous wound closed only a few days ago.”

I nodded, pondering the question, and a minute later watched a man across the street fall down in exactly the same way for no apparent reason. Sabine was facing the opposite direction so she didn’t see him. Odd, I thought, no longer believing such coincidences were entirely random.

After eight minutes a message blinked in orange light at the growing crowd: BUS DELAYED.  Was Germany somehow holding me captive?  Don’t panic, I told myself. If we don’t get to the meeting place in time, there must be a reason.  Maybe Poznan wasn’t the place to go, or today wasn’t the right day.

“We’ll take a taxi,” said Sabine, heading to a nearby cab driver to ask how long it would take and how much it would cost.

I shook my head. “No, something’s not right. If the bus doesn’t come in time, we should go back to your place and make a different plan.”

I felt certain the situation was telling us something, but what? Going with the flow was something I was trying to learn, and right now things definitely weren’t flowing. But Sabine’s view of the situation was colored by her need to have her apartment back—minus one complicated American guest.  And resisting Sabine’s stronger will would have required an order of conviction or knowledge of the future that I didn’t possess. So we jumped into the taxi where another obstacle suddenly appeared. The street next to the Reichstag was unexpectedly closed to traffic.

“We better get off here and run for it,” I said as Sabine paid the driver and I grabbed my heavy suitcase and backpack. Just as we arrived at the Reichstag, the traffic barricade was taken away. But my ride was nowhere in sight.

“We call him,” said Sabine. The driver was Polish and spoke little English. The phone reception was terrible and the only thing either of us could understand was that he was waiting somewhere else because the street had been closed. I handed Sabine’s mobile back to her since she knew the surrounding streets.

“Brandenburg Tor, Brandenburg Tor,” she shouted. “Okay, we go there now. Just two minutes and we are at Brandenburg Tor.”

We arrived at the monolithic gate, but our driver wasn’t there. Standing in the sweltering heat at the edge of the curb, we kept scanning the cars circling the roundabout for the next half hour.  Even if Brandenburg Tor was incorrect, she’d repeated the name to him several times.

“Why doesn’t he come? He knows we are here. Why doesn’t he call us?”  Clearly the guy wasn’t making any effort at all while we were taking taxis, running, calling, etc.

“I knew something was wrong,” I said. This time Sabine agreed. “Why weren’t you stronger to refuse my taxi idea?” Why indeed—now that we’d wasted money on a taxi. “Now I don’t make more decisions,” she said, deferring to me. Except for one small decision I didn’t know she had made—a decision that I couldn’t imagine making myself, and therefore refused to entertain.

“We’ll go to the central bus station next, to find a bus to Poznan,” I said. If that didn’t work, I assumed we’d return to Sabine’s place and I’d buy a ticket online to travel the next day.

Two S-Bahns later we arrived at the bus station. A bus was leaving in one hour for Vilnius with a scheduled stop in Poznan. Perfect. But when I tried to buy a ticket I was informed that every seat was sold.  We decided to wait anyway, just in case a passenger didn’t show up and the driver would sell me that seat.

While we waited, the situation became quite clear; if the bus didn’t work out, Sabine wouldn’t have me back for another night. She had a deadline to meet for her book.  It was nothing personal, she just needed her space.  As a fellow writer I understood it perfectly . . . but on another level I was in shock, silently sliced through the heart.  I had become unwelcome.

Did Sabine realize the re-enactment taking place?  Was it just my personal projection that I had become an unwelcome Jew on German soil, regardless of our friendship?

“Perhaps you can stay with another friend,” she said. But I had no current phone number for that friend. “Or I will buy you the train ticket.” Sabine was being more than generous, for on the same day the train ticket would be rather expensive. I couldn’t fault her in the slightest.

My difficulty getting out of Germany was blinking its message in neon light—a meaning beyond personal relationships or normal logic. It wasn’t personal at all, and yet it was so stunningly personal that I couldn’t say anything to Sabine, not yet.

As soon as I felt the anguish of this emotion, apparently waiting for me to experience it, suddenly all obstacles disappeared.  As it turned out, the bus to Vilnius was not sold out. In fact it was mostly empty, the coach comfortably air conditioned, even providing wifi.  Sabine and I hugged goodbye.

Written on the full moon of July 1, 2015 in the light-filled village of Pamiatkowo near Poznan, and on July 4, 2015 in Lodz.