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On Making Friends

I’ve got something to say, but it keeps getting stuck in my throat.


I don’t know what I’m worried about. No one in the world reads this besides me.


Here’s what happened: Saturday was cold, hovering a degree or two above freezing. The typical greyness of west German winter had just rolled in, and tourists from the width and breadth of the Rhineland had come by car and bus and train to squeeze themselves into the old town marketplace of Aachen, under the fake-Baroque facade of the medieval Rathaus for which the city is famous. Every year, vendors from across the region set up a labyrinth of semi-permanent huts in the shadow of Charlemagne, directly over the buried ruins of his ancient palace/fortress. They sell knickknacks and trinkets, scented candles and wind chimes and just about any other nonsense you’d expect. Most importantly, they sell Gluehwein. I mentioned this last week, back when I had only sampled such gut rot-inducing drinks, but I felt it warranted another mention. So, how do you make it?


1. Several liters of red wine, preferably the kind that tastes like it was brewed in the kidneys of a homeless man

2. Spices. It doesn’t matter what kind. Check the above-mentioned homeless man for skin flakes and toe fungus. In a pinch, use coriander.

3. A willingness for self-punishment. This is the ingredient I brought.

Mix the above together and bring to a boil. Pour into chipped mugs. Learn to nod politely at whatever gobbledygook tourist language a person mutters at you (Christ, I even heard people speaking French. Where do they learn this stuff? (Hint: France.)). Become adept at all forms of sign language, including pointing, nodding, and smiling blankly.

It’s really that simple.

Honestly, though, there’s something magical about the whole process. Something alchemical. They take hobo urine and hobo spices and they blend them together to create some sorcerer’s potion of German speaking. I had five or six cups, not counting what dregs I spilled while gesticulating wildly at whatever hapless passersby would pause long enough to listen. My students were there in the beginning, but all but one left after an hour. They were German. They had their hobbies to practice and work to do. Sometimes I think Germans don’t believe in free time. The missus was there too, but she left when my last student did, barely two hours and three Gluehweine into the day.

At that point it was down to just me and another teacher, an English woman, to carry the burden of bringing the English language to the German masses. Things got a little fuzzy. Things I remember:

We met four groups of visiting Germans. The first was nondescript. Four middle-aged people from near Paderborn, I think. They were taking pictures of each other, and I offered to take one of them all together, but they declined. I then treated them to a friendly tirade on the differences between Americans and Germans, and how in the US you’d never have to worry about someone saying no when you offered to take a group picture for them. After five or so minutes, they relented so I’d leave them alone. This seems to happen to me a lot. But the picture was lovely.

The second group was the best. Their names were Peter and Renate (plus about 15 of their closest friends), and they had family in the US. You meet all kinds here: people who love the US and people who hate it. Universally, the people who hate it have never been there, and the people who love it have American friends or family. In any case, I practiced my German more in the hour they stood by us and chatted (they chatted, I rambled) than I probably have in the entire preceding year. As they were leaving, my fellow teacher declared that one of them (what was her name?) was her best friend for life. Where I’m from, this would be met with humor and happiness. The lady looked, however, a tad bit nonplussed. Then they scarpered.

The other two groups did not stay long. The Gluehwein was strong with me. All I remember is a heavy German accent suggesting we drink water.

Edit: Long story short, I have trouble making friends.

But Gluehwein makes it easier.

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