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Jonathan Byrd singer songwriter musician touring Europe travel train



6. Tobias My suitcase made it but I almost left it behind. I got off the bus at the station in den Bosch, like everyone. I looked for someone who might be going to Frankfurt, so that I could have a German-speaking ally there and I chose wisely. I chose him because of his glasses and jacket. Don't ask me how. There's a look.

But as I walked beside him, almost to the entrance, I realized there was 69 pounds missing. I wheeled and trotted back to the bus, where the driver was keeping one hand on the suitcase. Somehow, he knew that an enormous orange suitcase did not belong to anyone he'd yet seen. Maybe he noticed me before, as he knocked me over into the crowd. Maybe it's the hat.

I got the suitcase and ran back into the station to get in line at the information desk. The young student fell in right behind me. The man before us was going to Frankfurt as well, so I relayed the information and we ran for the train that was leaving that moment to Eindhoven. As I write this, I still don't know where that is or where I am. I have faith.

There was an elevator but no time to wait. The young man asked me if he could carry my suitcase and I said, "You'd better not. Here, take my guitar." We hustled down the stairs and arrived just in time to see the doors closing. Down the line, there was a shout, and we saw a worker blocking an open door on another car with his body and waving to us. We were on.

There were no seats. We ended up standing in the middle of an aisle, with my guitar and my big orange suitcase blocking the pathway. As we rolled, I found a way to create a path as people begged their way past. We were rolling to Eindhoven.

We chatted. Tobias was his name. Our other friend, back from Australia, was seated close by and seemed to know the schedule. He was going to Köln, which wasn't Frankfurt, but it's close and in the general direction.

I'm not really going to Frankfurt. I'm going to Basel, which is where the international train terminates and I have to take a local train to a little Swiss town called Grenchen. I make a mental note that Frankfurt is no longer important when asking directions.

Tobias is great. He's going to school for math. To be an accountant, maybe work in banking. So we talk about me mostly. Which is how it goes. But I love what I do and I love talking about it.

I explain that I am known for my stories, but that sometimes there is no story, sometimes there is only a coyote crossing the river. But there are things that an artist can say that no one else can say, but we have it in our hearts, and when we hear it said by the only one who can say it, we agree and are joyous that we are not alone inside ourselves. Or we disagree and feel the passion of that, that we must not be alone in our disagreement. And those who disagree and those who agree will all agree that we care, that we may not have the same answer, but now we know the question and we know that the question lives inside others. And we are not alone. And that is why art is important.

Tobias says he has heard this explanation before and retells it from his experience. We have found a common passion. I ask what artists he likes and he pulls out his phone and shows me a painting of a man standing on a mountain, looking over a stunning alpine scene, the clouds roiling below him, each peak an island in a sea of vapor. He says to me, "The artist is very religious. I think these three distant peaks represent the three... I don't know the word."

"The Trinity?," I offer.

"Yes, the Trinity. And these smaller hills, um... up to him?"


"Yes. Closer. They are the people. The society, I think."

You don't have to wonder why I love this young man. We talk about psychology. Socialism. I offer that in America, we are all from different places, so we don't stand together as a culture to help one another, whereas in Europe, the cultures are old and they stand together as countries, proud of their cultures. He counters, Yes, but not so much in Germany. And I ask why.

Tobias says that Germany is still ashamed of the war. That when Germany is strong, the world says shame on you. He says it is like a card that they hold, that whenever times are good, like now when Germany has weathered the recession better than any other European country, the world pulls the card and says, you should be ashamed of your success. You should help other countries. Tobias says that the recent World Cup win was the first time in his life that everyday Germans took to the streets with German flags and painted their faces with German colors and were proud to be Germans. And I don't give a damn about sports, I never have, but I imagine what a day in heaven that must have been, to finally be proud to be German, to shed the greatest guilt that the world has perhaps ever known, the sins of their grandparents for God's sake, just for a day. To feel, for a moment, like a worthy people. To climb the mountain and gaze upon God and not forget all that separates us, the roiling world below us to which we must return, but look! There is God!

I remember a similar scene in Naples, Italy when I was in the Navy. Italy had won the world cup and naked Italians danced on their cars in the world's largest and most ecstatic traffic jam. And I note to myself, that's why sports are important.

I confess to him that I just read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I know I'm taking a chance here. But Tobias doesn't miss a beat. We talk about psychology, mass consciousness, how people will agree with a wrong thing if they feel outnumbered or informed by a supposed expert. And I talk about how playing to 5,000 people is like playing to one person, or even 20 people in a room that bursts at the seams with the bulk of 20 people. But every empty seat is like a hole I have to fill and the space between them makes them five different people again. And I have, in this time, given him a CD, and we have since arrived in Eindhoven where he went to check information and I watched his bag, and I went for a coffee while he watched nearly $8,000 worth of my things, and the coffee was free because "it is cold and the trains are delayed," and we have gotten on a train to Venlo, and now we are walking off of that train and Tobias says, "Yes, the empty seats are questions that make people wonder how good you are, even if you are great." And we laugh when we realize we finally know a common story, the famous and brilliant violinist who plays in the subway in Washington, DC and is ignored, even avoided, by thousands.

Now we're standing on the platform and I'm not sure I want to go to Köln, as these guys are doing. I grab my things without asking Tobias to look after them, I don't know why, and I go into information to get a reality check.

The man tells me that to go to Frankfurt is not on my way, that I should go to Dusseldorf, then Mannheim, and then on to Basel. I can be there by 23:55. Midnight. He shrugs his shoulders to say, "That's the best you can do." He points out the window and I think what that means is that my train is leaving. I don't know for sure but if I want to catch that train, there is no more time for discussion.

I hump like a mad Marine back out to the platform and, for some odd reason, the train has not pulled all the way up. Everyone is running to get on the train, a hundred yards down. I don't see Tobias, so I refuse the first door and keep going to the third car. I can't go farther without missing the train, so I jump on.

The train is stuffed full as a sausage. I stand in the doorway and stack my belongings around my feet. It stinks. I realize the bathroom is right in front of me. There's a pissed-off looking man in a German Army jacket, waiting his turn. I look for Tobias. Damn.

I try to ascertain whether I am on the right train, having lost my friend and interpreter who also had a cellular Internet connection that didn't cost $20 per megabyte, as mine does here. The pissed-off man is standing in front of a screen with information and I ask him to move. He moves, glaring at me, and I compare the schedule the information guy gave me with the info on the screen. Nothing matches. The army jacket guy knocks loudly on the door of the bathroom. A voice murmurs inside.

I ask around for English speakers, but most people are German or immigrants. I point to the floor and say, "Dusseldorf?" and everyone just shrugs.

The pissed-off guy finally walks off in a huff and several drunk teenagers take his place. They all crack fresh Heinekens and drunk-dial their friends. The bathroom door opens and two men come out together. One is sniffing loudly. They ignore everyone and talk excitedly to each other as they walk toward the front of the train.

I still don't know if I'm on the right train. And I wish I'd said goodbye to Tobias.