Violently, the drink was shaking in my hand. A skinquake of the higher order, my whole body serious geo-activity.
It had been a bitter fight raging within me: to come here or not to come here. After all, there were good reasons against it. Plenty of them really:
– I had only just arrived in town.
– I had scarcely made any sort of conversation at all.
– I was intimidated to death by the foreign language.
– I couldn´t even measure the shock the gibberish they seemed to call their dialect gave me.
– I was frustrated of not even understanding a single word of what the man with the fat golden ring at the Lidl cashier said to me.
– I was generally speaking a bleepin coward.
These simple facts had kept causing me terrible splitting unsuspended headaches. Eventually I had decided to go, insisting that forcing myself into making first contacts in the new country on this very evening was the only bloody possibility of social survival. And still, I now felt entirely like running away. Like turning around on the very spot, leaving no trace of my shameful little existence behind but a cold Coke decorated with my sweaty finger prints.
The sole person I knew over here was a student from my home university. With a serious face, he had briefed me about the close-by crime-ridden districts (“You look out! A friend of mine´s once had a gun at his head!”), about the dos and don´ts in the company of drunken scousers (“Say yes exactly, smile and offer them a beer when they call you a Nazi.”) and about the dialect of the town (“Don´t worry, it´s crazy, but it´ll grow on you.”). But the central piece of advice he provided me with was to, when those friendly ladies around the campus asked if I cared for “business”, better pay attention to the surveillance cameras all around town. Just to make sure: No business in the bushes. You never know, said Jonathan.
By now, I had spent the bigger portion of my first week here hiding in my small room, panicking over my general state and fearing any kind of human interaction and potentially dangerous encounter outside my door.
Picture me like this: For all my petty life, I´d been a really stable guy in his little town together with his dear old friends, his dear old family, indulging in his dear old hobbies and following his dear old goals of life, one of which and certainly not the least central one had always been to never ever leave. Dodging danger and giving the big world a wide berth, I had grown from small boy to hairy heavy man without ever changing much on the inside.
And now, thrusted into a world of sound and light and alienation, this bulky frame of a bloke moved like a shy kitten, far away from home for the first time, alone, his every step a tour de force of its own.
Not so easy, all that.
The club was filled with a mob of fresh gleaming partying people of various nationalities; an armada of bodies, an army of mouths and ears and eyes that spoke and listened and watched, with me in the middle like a rat in a tube waiting for an electrical shock. Anyone seemed to mingle with anyone else, and every single person was sunk into conversation headfirst. I was left with no obvious chance of intrusion.
Alone, I made my steady way through the crowd. I was looking for a stuttering Greek I vaguely remembered from my first day at the university. Ya, I had spoken to someone! My problem was, though, and a big problem it was, that it was indeed only very vaguely that I remembered him. Honestly, I did not recall his looks. For all this week I had been on such a constantly high level of nervousness that I was neither able to remember his face nor his height, nor his name.
So when I saw a slightly darker guy sitting in a wasp nest of chattering people, I took my chance and glided into the mass. I emerged at the back of the field to sit down somewhere in the huddle, quite close to the potential Greek, but from smaller distance I felt pretty sure I had been awfully mistaken. Howsoever the guy I looked for looked like, he bore no resemblance to the person I had my eyes on now. None whatsoever.
“Hey there.” An elbow poked me. I looked to my left. The guy attached to the elbow was a good-looking muscular guy with well-composed three-day stubble and a nonchalant I´m-pretty-cool-how-bout-you hint of a smile. “Where´ve you suddenly come from, mæn?”
“Are you an Erasmus student?” I asked without replying to his question, yet I had said something. And that was something.
“No, not really”, he answered in baritone. “I´m from Chicawgo”, he said. “But I hang out with them.”
With them. That sounded just amazing. Like being part of a movement, some kind of secret clique. Magic. Nothing appeared to be more attractive to me than being an Erasmus student in that moment. I needed to be one of them. Hey, I was!
Chicago quickly passed me on to Garreth, the local next to him, who said a thing or two and then passed me on to his girlfriend. She was German and told me in her squeaking voice that people compared her to Britney Spears – it was a debatable compliment in my eyes. It was then Melli´s turn, a small sporty girl standing by. Glasses and long fair hair. She was yet again German and now had to stand my stutter. Melli was thoroughly pissed and talked with a broad smile and barely finished silent sentences, half facing me, half staring elsewhere. Still, she was an Erasmus and by that one of them.
So I was not alone anymore, was I? And yet, I wasn´t quite sure how to feel. Not only was I worrying whether Melli talked to me or the fata morgana to my right, I was also uneasy. My pulse didn´t feel even. My tongue was tired, dry and undependable.
Not so easy, all that.
To give me a break, some others came over from the bar, fresh glasses of beer in hand, and out of a sudden, everyone started singing Happy Birthday. As I was just sitting there anyway, not quite knowing what to do really, I simply sang along. The birthday boy, an impish smile on his face, looked startlingly like John Lennon. He was introduced to me shortly afterwards. His name was Rick, his buddies were Lasse and Karsten. All of them were Germans. I had in fact within minutes managed to maneuver myself into the very centre of the Teutonic Erasmus scene – Britney, Melli, even the guy I had wrongly held for the Greek was German, and being the rectilineal nation that we are, we were the calm centre of the clubby whirlwind – around us, the faces kept changing in a blur. And I was just standing there.
“Xey there!” Someone popped up in front of me. I hadn´t seen that coming. But what did I see coming? Besides me running home?
He was short and handsome. His black hair lay gently to his head in what looked like suppressed curls and there was an intelligent sparkle in his dark eyes. His smile showed that he knew me, and in the blink of a second I understood: it indeed had been him I was looking for. He really didn´t look like the other guy.
Excited, he padded me on the shoulder. “It´sh great to shee you again, Paul!”
I gulped. Apparently, he didn´t have any problems with his memory. What was his name, dammit?
“Yeah, great that you found me”, I tried. Playing it safe, hu? I would inch forward in the darkness until I bumped my head.
“I know!” said he. “L-look, I met Agnesh here. She´sh from Franche, and she´sh jusht f-fantashtic.”
The Greek grinned and pulled closer someone half-hidden under long, wild hair. When she brushed it aside, I saw a beautiful if a bit jittery smile and that quintessential petit French beauty patch on her lip. Agnes pulled at the end of her pretty baggy sweater.
“H-hi”, I said.
“´i, too”, said Agnes, shrugging.
“Agnesh, thishish Paul.”
“It´sh good that we meet çim. çe´s quite fa-fantashtic too.”
“Okay”, said I. I hadn´t been aware of that.
The Greek was bubbling with enthusiasm and instantly had a photo taken of us three, probably to always remember this moment of quirkiness; utter quirkiness, I say. He was jumpy and joyful and obviously delighted to see me again, while both Agnes and I played along without saying much.
And as the carrousel of faces kept revolving in high speed, new people came up. More and more of them. I was still in the Greek´s company, when this girl stood face to face with me, her hair a field of hay, her eyes a sandstorm. And even though I thought I saw she was slightly nervous, her smile dug the most disarming dimples into her cheeks. She had an aura the warmest of all colours leaking from her every milimetre.
A small Asian girl hung around the blonde´s shoulder. She was giggling sans interruption. Her glasses almost falling off, she pointed out in words clumsily melting into each other the rather obvious fact that she was oh so dramatically drunk. The poor blonde shrugged her shoulder without letting go off her charming smile for even the fraction of a second. She looked stunning, my goodness she did.
Rick, Lasse and Karsten introduced me to the scene. The Symphony was one of these clubs where parties generally started. The beer was cheap and so was the music. Flat bass pounded the room in a deep staccato, and the two floors were filled up to the brim with a buzzing crowd of students.
I was still holding tight to my Coke, in which the myriad of icecubes had melted away by then, responding positively to every fact I was offered (“Oh, wow! You have a guitar!” “Oh, wow! Your courses sound so interesting!” “Oh, wow! You walk on two legs!”) and was not sure if I made myself highly suspect in that way. But it was the one thing I managed to do.
I remember having the beautiful blonde pass me a second time, her smile gliding through the crowd like a shade of refreshing evening fog, and there was no way you wouldn´t fix your glance on her. Rick turned around and remarked this was indeed a very pretty girl, to which I replied with an awkwardly long “Oh yes!”, long enough to make myself feel like an idiot. And I followed her with my eyes for as long as possible without looking suspicious (or did I?).
It was soon afterwards that the group left the Symphony for a more stylish club right down the street. I trotted along. What else could I do? Garreth hung around the neck of one Kjartan and told him in a rusty alish voice not to talk gibberish with his Icelander companion Hvarti. Kjartan bared his teeth, grabbed Garreth by the shoulder and replied sharply: “Look who´s talking, mate.”
The street was full of young people, and I was following the pack like a will-less lemming.
The Bumper. Passing a trio of fierce bouncers. Not fierce like Beyonce fierce. Fierce like they had never smiled in their life fierce. Or if they did, it was because they had just beaten someone whose face they didn´t like to pulp. Fierce like that.
The club was dark. Little drunk Melli got straight to the dance floor and went into a strange kind of tribal dance with Karsten. The rest sat on a couch and did little but drinking some more pints and watching the action, possibly swinging feet to the beat. Which suited me just well.
I looked around. Jonathan had briefed me about the Bumper that girls often appeared without panties and guys were competing for places downstairs, from where you sometimes had chances to get a lucky peek. We sat upstairs.
I learned that Lasse was to leave the next day. Which was unbelievable in itself. I mean, what a professional was I! Not only had I made practically exclusive contact with Germans, I had also chosen those who´d leave again straight away!
Garreth was one of his best friends here, Lasse said, but now Garreth was gone someplace else, quaffing with the Icelanders and Lucas from Chicago and with his Britney Spears girlfriend. The Greek was gone, the French girl was gone, the blonde and the giggly Asian were gone. While the international groups danced elsewhere, I went to a fatty pizza shed with the bunch (“Shirraz, man. Remember that one!”) and ended up in Lasse´s flat kitchen. To be fair, the group were nice from tip to toe, straight-forward, good-humoured, honest people, and it was instant fun hanging out with them, just not very international. Melli, half-dead, gave tired signs of appreciation for the host, while Rick and the others philosophized upon sport, and Lasse said it was her problem not his, because she had a boyfriend while he was free, and Melli nodded slowly, and then Lasse told me, as if there was some sort of connection, that he was thoroughly terrified by the thought of his football coach at home and his reaction to the kilos he had gained here, to which he touched his belly and snorted.
“It´s a shame you appeared only know,” said Lasse, politely. I knew that. And I agreed.
I had been late for all introductory meetings, for every primary gathering, for any crash test for the new internationals. Quite simply, the others had a head start. Even though I was good at being late, I was not sure I was good at catching up too.
It was three or four o´clock in the morning when I came back to my room. I locked the door behind me, pulled the cover over my head and hoped the evening had not been in vain. Either this had been my first step into a bright future or I had made an utter fool out of myself and was now beached in the wildness of the Merseyside.