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Rant #434
(published May 14, 2009)
U.S. Bums
(A Poor Mojo's "My Travel Fiasco" Rant Contest Notable Entry)
by Kristopher B. Jacobs
I don't know where we were coming from most recently. Amsterdam or Frankfort or Munich. Or maybe we were coming up from the other way, from Milan or Florence. Through the fog of the hash smoke and the deeper haze of a half-dozen languages that none of us understood things like cardinal points and spatio-temporal location tended to lose their significance. Either way, when we got off the train at Innsbruck at three in the morning it wasn't because we had any kind of reason, no plan or destination or anything. Somewhere back down the tracks Chad had mentioned that he'd heard Innsbruck was nice and we had evidently heard him. So at three a.m., stiff from sitting too long and irritable because the bar car on the train had been closed since midnight, we staggered out into an Austrian night none of us knew the slightest thing about.

We were traveling light. One bag apiece and we took turns carrying the guitar I'd bought back in Italy in the however-long-ago. We stood on the front steps of the station for several long minutes, railroad weary and dingy, looking every bit the seasoned travelers we were trying so hard to become. No one spoke but all at once the three of us started walking as if on some unseen cue. No one had to say we were looking for a bar. Where else were we going to go? Because of our limited budget hotels were out of the question, and no hostel was going to open its door to us at this ungodly hour. We needed drinks—fuel—and a place to regroup, to gather our hash-dazed thoughts. We picked a direction at random and set off into the waning night.

After the first little bit of aimless tromping Mike said, "Hey, guys, wherever we're going, we'd better get there quick. Look up. The sky's totally black. I think it's about to pour." Chad and I looked up automatically and saw that he was right. Except for a little patch of stars directly overhead, the rest of the Innsbruck sky was lost in total darkness. We had no better idea of where we were going or even if there was anywhere to go, but we started walking faster. The lightless buildings on either side of every street diminished our hopes of finding anything, but that little patch of stars was still visible above and as long as the rain held off we thought we'd be okay.

Eventually we found a pub about a dozen blocks from the train station, just off what seemed to be the main road through that part of town. It might have been the only place open in all of Innsbruck, in all of Western Europe for all we knew. Chad pushed open the door and we were met with the somehow mournful sound of a little tinkling bell. The place appeared to be empty and we stood in the doorway unsure of ourselves. After a moment we heard movement from back behind the bar somewhere and a gruff-looking, bleary-eyed man in a greasy T-shirt came through a narrow doorway into view. He muttered something in German that we didn't understand and when he noticed our incomprehension he paused for a moment as if searching hard through his memory before saying loudly, "Drinks?"

As well as we could tell it was the only English word he knew. That gave him the decided advantage over us considering that between the three of us we knew only two German words: danke and nein. It turned out that we also happened to know the Low German word for beer, but we got no points for that one because it was only our dumb luck that the word was the same in both of our respective languages. The three pints of ale the man brought us were cold, frothy, and strong. Exactly what we were looking for.

Despite the fact that we had clearly woken him up far earlier than he might have liked, the man was a gracious host. He stood there smiling at us as we conversed awkwardly among ourselves. When our glasses were empty he rushed to fill them again. At a certain point Mike tried to ask him—through a combination of hand gestures and single syllable English—if there was anywhere he knew of that we might stay the night. It was useless. Language is a greater barrier in the wee hours of the morning than it is during the light of day. We were all too tired to make any sense of anything. After the second round we paid the man and, using fully half of our store of native vocabulary words, we thanked him for the beers before tramping back to the only other place we knew: the Innsbruck train station.

By now it was sometime after four a.m. and we were resigned to waiting at least until the sun came up before we made our next move. We found what looked like a quiet corner in the deserted station and using our bags as pillows and the guitar case as a pathetic little privacy wall, we lay down on the sticky floor and tried our best to sleep.

Chad was the first to mention the flies. The little bastards were everywhere. We'd all been swatting at them unconsciously ever since we'd lain down, but now that they'd been acknowledged, now that the menace had been given a name, their relentless swarming was all but unbearable. They crawled all over us, over every inch of exposed skin. They tickled and they stung and they buzzed in our ears, but despite our increasingly frantic flailing they were too quick to be killed. It was hot in the train station, but our only recourse was to go into our bags for long sleeves and to cover our faces and heads with our jackets to keep the filthy creatures off. We were sweltering in an instant and some of the buggers still found their way through our defenses, but it was better than simply lying there exposed. We fully abandoned any prospect of falling asleep.

I never completely lost consciousness—among a host of other reasons I felt vulnerable lying there with my entire world under my head and what amounted to my life's worth in Euros in my pockets—but I managed to put myself into a sort of trance state where the discomfort of the situation more or less faded into the background. It was from that place of not-quite-sleep, not-quite-waking that the banging noises and the yelling came to find me. The first comprehensible sound I heard was Mike saying in an altogether disagreeable tone, "What the fuck, people?!" I lay there a bit longer hoping that whatever was making all that abominable racket would just go away. When I became aware that Chad and Mike were both getting furiously to their feet I decided I'd better at least open my eyes.

It took me a minute to make sense of what I was seeing. A dark-haired guy, about the same age as the three of us, was crossing the floor of the station and coming toward us at unnatural speed. It looked as if he were going to stampede right over our guitar case wall and crash into the three of us, but at the last instant he spun around a full 180° and sped off the way he had come. It was only then, as the raucous laughter of a second stranger reached me from across the room, that I realized the dark-haired one was on a skateboard and that the banging noises that had woken us were from the two of them ollying onto and off of every chair, bench, and platform in the station.

Chad and Mike were crossing the floor in a rage before I was even on my feet. Mike is a big guy, and, wearing the black leather biker's jacket he had put on to shield himself from the flies, he cut an imposing figure. Chad is pretty scrawny, but he's fearless and he occasionally gets this crazy look in his eyes that can make anyone question the wisdom of antagonizing him for very long. I could tell from the way the two strangers were drawing closer together and clutching their boards like weapons that Chad must have been showing them the look. Mike's fists were clinched tightly at his sides, the tension in the air palpable. All four of them were yelling at each other, two in English and two in German, and while I obviously couldn't understand the German, it was pretty clear that the two locals were using language every bit as colorful as my friends'. I came up behind Chad and Mike braced for whatever was about to happen next.

"U.S. bums! U.S. bums!" the dark-haired one was almost chanting in a thick German accent. He was continually slapping himself on the chest while his lighter-haired friend brandished his skateboard. "U.S. bums! U.S. bums!" The taunting and the slapping and the brandishing continued.

"You calling us bums, shitbrains?" Chad was clearly ready for a fight. "You calling us bums? Why don't you put down the boards and we'll see who the fucking bums are, huh?"

The light-haired Austrian appeared to draw back his skateboard as if to swing it at Chad but Mike was on him in an instant. With a single backhanded striking motion Mike sent the skateboard skittering out of the guy's hands and across the floor. Mike had the guy by the front of the shirt and was drawing his fist back to do damage when the dark-haired one jumped between them.

"No! No! No! No!" he screamed sounding panicked. "U.S. bums! U.S. bums!" and he jabbed an index finger repeatedly at the collar of Mike's jacket. For an instant Mike appeared confused and looked as if he might just go ahead and swing his fist without worrying about which one of the two of them he hit. Then suddenly a flicker of comprehension crossed my friend's face.

The black leather jacket had been Mike's prized possession for as long as I had known him. He wore it nearly all the time, and if he wasn't wearing it, it was a good bet it was slung across the back of a chair somewhere nearby. The metal buttons across the shoulders and lapels of the jacket changed periodically depending on what bands Mike was most into at the time, but I never really noticed what they said. I knew there was a Misfits skull in there somewhere, but I couldn't have told you what the others represented.

I saw Mike's expression change from one of fatigued anger to confusion to amusement the way a traffic light changes colors. He let go of the light-haired guy's shirt and before I knew what was happening both Mike and Chad were grinning and holding up their hands in mock surrender. Once they were certain the threat had passed, the two Austrians allowed smiles to spread across their faces as well. Evidently, I was the only one not to have realized what was going on. The dark-haired Austrian was looking at me and earnestly continuing to repeat, "U.S. bums! U.S. bums!" which did nothing to allay my confusion.

Finally Mike turned to me and pointed at one of the buttons on the lapel of his jacket and the comedy and the irony and the linguistic slap-stick of the situation came at last to light. Right there in plain English on my friend's chest were the words the dark-haired Austrian had been trying to express. He hadn't been calling us bums at all; he had been trying to indicate to us that he liked Mike's taste in music as evidenced by the skull and crossbones logo depicted on a button beneath the name of the American punk rock band the U.S. Bombs.

At that point, what else was there to do but laugh? It was barely light outside and already we'd nearly instigated an international brawl over a simple mispronunciation. We could blame our fatigue or our ignorance of the native language or any number of other things, but a vowel sound had been formed just the other side of properly and there had almost been bloodshed. We laughed because we didn't know what else we were supposed to do.

An hour later the five of us were sitting down in a little café to a breakfast of sausage and eggs and strong coffee. There wasn't a whole lot we were able to talk about, but whenever the silences became too awkward someone would simply begin to chant, "U.S. Bombs! U.S. bums!..." Mike and the dark-haired guy got along by simply naming off an endless series of punk bands and indicating how they ranked the quality of their music by a varying frequency of head nods and thumbs-ups. The rest of us just kept laughing.

We spent most of the day with them. After breakfast we felt rejuvenated, alive once again. We still hadn't slept, but we were in a new country with new friends and it was a new day. There would be plenty of time for sleeping on the next train ride. Outside the café in the light of the morning we realized why we thought it had been about to rain the night before. On every side the Alps reared up toward the heavens nearly blocking out the sky. Even in bright day only a small disc of blue was visible; the rest was mountains.

By noon we were all drinking heavily. Our new friends had a refrigerator full of large bottles of beer and they were insistent upon sharing it with us. We gladly agreed, but only on the condition that they allow us to share what was left of our hash with them. We drank and smoked and took turns showing each other songs on the guitar. Sometimes there are other ways than language to communicate.

Just before sunset I woke up in a panic. I hadn't meant to fall asleep and there was a second's worry that we might have been robbed. I felt for my wallet which was right where it ought to have been, and my bag and the guitar case were still in the corner where I had left them. Mike and Chad were both snoring loudly on the couch across the room. The Austrians were gone.

I woke the other two up and we hung around for an hour or so waiting to see if our new friends would return. Eventually it was Chad who said, "Alright, world travelers, we've got a train to catch." Of course we didn't have a train to catch—we had no obligations at all and we liked it that way—but Mike and I agreed that it was probably time to be moving along. We gathered our things and left a note in English under an empty beer bottle on the kitchen table. We knew perfectly well our hosts would probably not understand a word of it. Not a word except for the last bit where Mike had scrawled in big block letters, "DANKE, U.S. BUMS!"

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