WINDOW SEAT.

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HE SET FORTH WITH HOPES OF FOREIGN ROMANCE. INSTEAD, HE FOUND TOO MANY AMERICANS
[posted 01.26.2001]

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DRUNK WITH THE TALES of backpackers and the memory of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise, I steeled myself for chance encounters, blown kisses enshrouded in steam in railroad stations, an international affair born anew, only to be riven by an ocean of tears.

There were slightly fewer heavy-lidded International Femmes des Mystique to be had during my ten-day stab at Eurotraveling than I had at first anticipated.

But I can’t say I didn’t meet anyone.

It’s just that most of the people I met and spoke to were particularly unattractive Americans, and the more familiar they seemed to me, the more I felt annoyance rather than relief. My seatmate on the Amsterdam train from Kankakee, Illinois, which is about 50 miles from where I grew up, wasn’t going to Amsterdam “for the same reasons most people do” — i.e., he had no interest in drugs. He liked the Dutch Masters, and hated Modernism, so we couldn’t really talk about art. But we could try to figure out if we knew any of the same people at U of I. When he fell asleep, I was pleased to be able to turn back to the window, taking care to watch the flat, featureless landscape for windmills to remind myself that I was a few ticks out of Rotterdam, not Rantoul. In the cramped compartment — full of Americans only — on an overnight train to Copenhagen, a fat woman of Swedish citizenship, but possessed of a grating Dallas accent, used the word “stoked” to describe her feelings about returning to the homeland.

I had to go into the corridor to get some air.

I don’t know why I felt that traveling alone would somehow enable me to meet more people — specifically, more girls; specifically lost American girls who needed consoling (I didn’t even delude myself that I would seduce any European girls). This actually happened twice, in Paris and in Amsterdam, but finding an English speaker who could direct them to their destination made it seem as if we were suddenly transported back to a corner in America, where I routinely point women in the proper direction and go conspicuously unrewarded. Taken out of context, it was as if we warped back to that corner, into our own hermetic bubble, and, as their relief melted into familiarity, the old routines were assumed: small talk at best, and separation without seduction.

One of the other reasons I chose to travel alone, of course, was that I knew that I would be able to see everything I wanted to see when I wanted to see it, and no one’s hangover or one-night stand was going to interfere with that. Certainly mine didn’t, because I had neither. What makes an uglier American? A drunken, stoned lout careering through the alleyways, leering at the local schoolgirls? Or the hellbent tourist with 15 rolls of film, loud Hawaiian shirts and a habit of raising one’s voice as if the recipient were hard-of-hearing rather than unable to speak English?

Aim for the middle, I guess?

CERTAIN PEOPLE I NOW KNOW

My favorite of the people I met abroad was a starry-eyed, romantic French-Canadian helicopter pilot named Patrick who had flown to London to meet his Internet love for the first time. He showed me the picture of his Bangkok-residing Thai mistress, a flight attendant on Dubai-based Emirates Airlines, who was to land in town for one night of zesty international passion. She had a boyfriend in Thailand, but for Patrick this one day on neutral terra incognita was fertile ground for true love to flourish. And he sowed the seeds by placing headphones on his true love’s ears, and playing along on a harmonica to an A-Ha ballad while ducks sailed serenely along the Thames in front of Parliament. Did I mention Patrick is the self-appointed World’s Biggest A-Ha Fan? (And, yes, they’re still together and producing albums.)

Also, I definitely could have stood to spend more time talking to the grimy anarchist from Scotland who, when he realized I was a journalist, complained about the way the cameras portrayed his bloody face after he plunged through the window of a McDonald’s in London: “It was only the negatives, then, wasn’t it?”

Or the Italian grad student who was visiting London to ply ancient books on the silk trade in the British Library for his thesis. But I had to dash off to the manufactured wonders of the Millennium Dome, and it was a timed ticket. Twenty quid or a conversation, that was the choice.

The most interesting European traveling companions were those who provided a juxtaposition of ignorance and tolerance that we take for granted in the States but don’t really consider when we think we’re traveling through a magical fairy land.

In a second-class compartment between Amsterdam and Duisburg, Germany, I ended up sharing space with five Russian “graphic designers,” who immediately offered me beer and chips. The “designer” who spoke the best English became the spokesman for the group. Between bouts of videotaping windmills and dancing in the corridors in recently purchased two-foot-long Dutch wooden shoes, he would ask me provocative questions like, “Don’t you agree there are too many colored people in Europe?” while his too-burly-to-be-“graphic-designer” compatriots eyed me with suspicion.

On the flight from Amsterdam to Newark, I sat beside a very beautiful, black, Surinamian-Dutch KLM flight attendant, who was reading an American novel called Move Over, Girl, about race relations at a state college. She was flummoxed by one of the central themes in the book, which was that the black kids don’t hang out with the white kids. “Is this true?” she wanted to know. I told her that at Northwestern University, the very fratty private school I had attended, it was probably even more true. To this former colonial subject, international traveler and resident of Amsterdam, such separations were inconceivable.

And just when I’d become convinced that solitude was the best road to cultural absorption, as I was sitting in a cafe on the Boulevard St. Germain watching the French do their thing, I received my affirmation that I was doing, at long last, one thing right. A middle-aged man passed by and did a double take at my gray four-button suit that fastened high near the collar, black shirt and silver tie, gray slacks, shined black shoes and ubiquitous Fly shades.

“Vous êtes italien?” he asked.

“Non, je suis américain.”

Incredulous, he asked if he could sit down next to me. We spoke of our travels. Being a naturalized New Yorker, my first thought was that he was either hitting on me or trying to sell me something. But I guess he just wanted company — both of us had ventured out from our home countries alone. We agreed to meet later, at an expatriates’ haunt in the Montparnasse. Before we parted company for the afternoon, I just had to know: Was it the suit? It was.

“I was going for the Fellini thing,” I said. And I was.

I’m glad I asked for and received the Bona Fide Euroman Approximation Affirmation when I did: Later that night, he stood me up.

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dan safarik hasn’t published anything of significance. he lives in new york city.