I did not want to be obvious American in Germany, but I also wanted a sausage egg sandwich from that ubiquitous red-and-gold giant and right there in the Stuttgart train station was a stand-alone poster offering, with a ten-times life-size image dripping with unnatural color, just that. 

     There was little I missed about living in the States, as I now called it. I did not miss driving everywhere, I did not miss sprawling parking lots and strip malls stretched thin along pedestrian-less thoroughfares. I did not miss riding lawnmowers or gallons of milk or constantly showing my ID or any number of other annoyances you don’t realize are unique until you move away. 

     But I did miss a breakfast sandwich. This was unknown to me before I saw the poster for the breakfast sandwich, every element of which larger than my own head. 

     Standing there in the Stuttgart train station I was backfilled with years of longing. I had been, I realized, deprived of even the idea of such a breakfast sandwich in Switzerland, where I lived, by some combination of licensing and bylaws which had struck breakfast from the menu in those spotless chapels of American cuisine. 

     I had spent the last five years purging myself, physically and spiritually of fast-food indulgences. The late-night tacos, the pizza ordered drunk, the bucket of fried chicken because it was right next to the grocery store. Switzerland, like everywhere else, was not lacking in fast-food, but said food was expensive and served in pristine castle of consumerism that, with their sleek, club-like interiors and intact leather seats and immaculate tabletops, were more oppressive than their cardboard-windowed cousins off the interstate in Arkansas. 

     I was, I felt, no longer plagued by empty, targeted calories, by the hauntings of factory farms. I no longer worried about the obesity epidemic, nor did I worry about worrying about the obesity and whether such worry was somehow racist or ableist or something else. 

     My body had found an equilibrium with food. My meals were often boring, but they came with little baggage. 

     Yet this hyper-colorized rendering of a breakfast sandwich, its familiarity, its immediate nostalgia, it flooded my mouth with saliva. 

     It was time for an indulgence. 

     And what else was I going to do in the Stuttgart train station for an hour? 

     The German train out of Basel had, predictably, left late. German trains serve as metaphors for punctuality and efficiency in America; in Switzerland they exemplify the opposite. Because the train left late, I missed the connection in Karlsruhe, which meant I missed the once-an-hour regional train from Stuttgart to Schwäbisch Hall where I was meant to take my final German exam. 

     Also, more than half of the train station was under construction, hidden behind walls of plywood walls stapled with posters of cultural events and scaffolding draped either with mammoth advertisements for some perfume or promises of what was to come. More than half the stores were closed, along with the restaurants and the Passarella, despite being in one of Germany’s bigger cities, was near deserted. Only the familiar red and gold lights spilled out onto the tiles, the restaurant itself beneath the low-ceilinged enclave. 

     I made my approach. My stomach grumbled. The floor stuck to my feet and this was comforting. A paper cup was lovingly tipped over on a tabletop, the plastic lid dangling from the tether of the straw. One of the fluorescents flickered when the buzzing and whirring of the station renovations reached a crescendo. 

     It was just after rush hour but the space did not vibrate with the echo of packed bodies, there was not the after effect of quick words exchanged, no ghosts of recollections left behind. The space was forgotten. Lost. The lone worker behind the counter was brushing a short-bristled broom in the empty fries tray. Beads of sweat glistened on his nape, drawn their by the heat lamps. 

     I waited. The brushing continued. I coughed. He spun around with arched eyebrows. 

     “Guten Morgen,” I said. 

     “Möerg,” he said. He stared at me. 

     “Gern eine Sausage Egg sandwich,“ I said. 

      „Gib’s nit mo,“ he said. He spoke in a thick dialect, but I understood that he was telling me there were no more breakfast sandwiches. 

     I pointed to the poster outside in the Passarella. He shook a fist at the poster. “Altig,” he said. Which I took to mean old or oldish, like the poster was a seasonal decoration they’d forgotten to take down. Christmas lights in April. “Sit viil Ziit nit gehabt.” For a long time not had. I was starting to translate him incorrectly in my head. It was unclear if German was his native tongue. 

     “Okay then,” I said. “Trotzdem aber danke.” Which was not proper German.

     The cashier rubbed his chin and said, “Wait a handful of moments, customer”—this was me continuing to translate him as a non-native speaker. He retrieved an old cordless phone from behind the register, looked intently at the punch buttons and then put the phone to his ear. He turned away from me and started nodding his head. Yes, yes, yes, he murmured. 

     He spun around to me. 

     “Okay, customer,” he said. “Go from here and take left”—he motioned right with this right hand—"walk to the end and there two big exits”—drew a tall arch twice in the air with his hands—“take right”—he motioned left with his left hand—“cross big street. Go, go, go. Then big, big street left”—motion right—“and there we are again. Ten minutes. We have your sandwich.” 

     I had nodded along the whole time. When he smiled at the end of his instructions I smiled back and thanked him. As I walked back to Passarella I felt his eyes on me. In front of the breakfast sandwich poster I looked left and right. At both ends twin arches were visible. Four clear exits from the train station. 

     I turned right. The enormous hallway that was the Passarella was not completely deserted, but my footfalls echoed, their sound bouncing off the stone walls and the high stone ceiling, off the metal tubes and the poster-plastered plywood. 

     At the twin exits it still felt like a decision. Both were half-obscured by scaffolding over which fabric had been stretched tight, printed with advertisements. On my left side an elephant with low arching tusks loomed, advertising the bull come to impregnate the cows at the local zoo. On my right a well-antlered stag invited me to a nearby hunting ground. I passed beneath the tusks of the elephant.

     The heat hit me across the face. It swept up from the asphalt and from the gleaming metal of the cars rushing past, gathered intensity on the stone steps stretched out as a sacrifice to the sun and swelled upon my body. I was from Texas, Houston, one of the many armpits wedged among former swamplands of the States. I ridiculed Europeans when they complained of heat. They had no idea. 

     There atop the steps I almost crumbled. I felt transported back to Houston. The traffic, the heat, the construction. 

     Had I been able to research later, I would have discovered that Stuttgart lay at the bottom of the Stuttgart Cauldron, a valley where heat and dust took refuge from the wind. I would have also found that the name Stuttgart meant a stud farm for war horses. I might have also come across the fact that the city was home to the headquarters of three car manufacturers. But I did not know any of this then. Here one knows everything. 

     I should have turned around, retreated to the deserted coolness of the train station and sat on a bench with my German books until the regional train returned. But a decision had been made. I was already outside. 

     I descended the stairs and waited at the cross walk. Cars roared past. The sun bounced off windshields and windows, radiated from the light poles and the newspapers boxes and the manhole covers. The signal waited. No one else was standing at the other three corners of the intersection. No one was walking toward me or away from me. 

     The signal changed. I darted across the street. Past the main thoroughfare the roar of the cars took on an insect-like quality—crickets in the evening at grandfather’s farm, a fly caught between the screen and the windowpane. The cashier had not said the number of blocks. Go, go, go. The streets branching off of mine were narrow, near alleyways, their surface patchworked with flecks of exposed brick. They slithered away, these imitations of streets, so that nothing of what they led to was revealed. Ten minutes, the cashier had said. A bell somewhere had tolled a quarter hour as I left the train station. If I heard the twin chimes of half past, I told myself, I would turn around. 

     But maybe I had not heard anything over the traffic. Maybe memory had backfilled expectant bells. I would not have heard anything over the traffic, all these people with somewhere to be. I had somewhere to be but still felt lazy in the sweep of all that tumult. Indeed laziness—and procrastination—had landed me there in Stuttgart on a sweaty midmorning questing after a sausage egg breakfast sandwich. 

      The teaching school I wished to attend required the ZDAF or the Certificate of German as a Foreign Language, definite proof that I had acquired the language. I had delayed, failed to make a decision. The single subject I was going to teach was English and for that I needed German. I had resisted until they only place to take the test in time was Schwäbisch Hall, four hours (now five) and three train connections away. 

     And the test was spread over two weekends. I had already made the journey once. There and back. Eight hours total. The town was as its name advertised: a picturesque Dorf undulating from a lick on ancient cobblestone, all benches by a rippling stream and café terraces with names written in Frakturschrift

     The first weekend had been reading and writing and listening. I was now returning, without knowing if I had passed all of those sections, for a ten-minute conversation. I needed a passing grade in all four sections to be able to teach English. If I was unable to teach English, I was not sure what I was going to do. 

     I pressed on, keeping my eyes open. I compared the widths of the streets that narrowed and widened, to see if I had come upon the big, big street. Signs hung with brand names I had grown up with, the words pizza and shoes and sales blinked in English, and advertisement for watches asked me, in Englishif I knew what time it was. I did not know what time it was. 

     I told myself every journey seemed longer the first time, the pace slowed without notice, all the details important. I still had—I told myself—plenty of time. 

     A big street. A bigger street. The shops splayed across the old stone like neon mold, notices on stands teetering at the edge of the sidewalk. This had to be it. I made a left and there they were not. A fast-food establishment stood before me, but the colors were wrong, the catch phrases off. Their posters offered up griddle cakes and hash browns, the food proffered on disembodied hands. I gazed down the street. Nothing. I arched my back to see further. Nothing. There had been no chiming, but I did not have time to wander. I entered the competition. The interior glowed antiseptic beneath club-like lightening. There was the low pulse of music, the sharpness of the edges. The floor squeaked beneath my feet.

     The establishment was empty save for two cashier, a male and a female, dancing behind the counter. Their rhythm did not match the ambient bass thumping in my ears. Their movements, limited and twisting, were choreographed. It was something they had practiced many times. 

     My approach interrupted them. 

     “Was?” they said in unison. What? With a single word they demonstrated their mastery of the German language. 

     In my best, well-studied syntax I asked if their competitor was in the area. 

     “That no longer exists,” said the male. His German like a textbook recording. 

     “Are you lost?” said the female a soft stand German. 

     “At the train station he told me come here.”

     The two looked at each other and then, in unison, said: “Train station?”

May 28, 2021 19:33

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