We were all uniformed in blue jeans and dark jackets as we stood in front of the gigantic anchor before the Maritime museum. Giorgis found it an interesting symbol both of staying strictly at one place no matter what the crazy world around you threw at you and of conquering new lands. Agnes said he talked too much.
Liverpool had been the wide open door to the New World in the West, a haven for brave adventurers and sleek businessmen alike, and for slave traders.
Above us, the sky was of an undecided blue, and on the other side of the wide river, Birkenhead greeted us with its grey silhouette. Liverpool´s docks served as the enhanced mirror image, with Pier´s Head and the Royal Liver, the Cunard, and the Port of Liverpool Building as its spearhead. These Three Graces, as they called them, were why the town had been awarded World Heritage status just three years earlier.
Back at the train station stickers told us that an omnipresent CCTV system might make us liable for persecution, in case we planned any sort of mischief.
“Xow welcoming”, found Giorgis. “B-Big Brother is watching you. Thish ish all very Orwellian.”
“Yeah. Giorgi, you heard the prosecutors”, chuckled Tammy. She could speak and giggle simultaneously and did both with great precision. “Don´t be a menace to society – this time.”
“Wh-whatish that shupposhed to mean?”
“It meanz you shouldunt talk too much, non?” Agnes´ eyes showcased what I had already understood to be her trademark move: They did the full round, finishing into a short flash of triumph right into her opponent´s face.
But Giorgis wouldn´t have it. Smirking, he said, “I don´t shpeak that much really.”
“No, ovgourze not.” And the smirk was returned.
Our train set itself in motion for an excited drill into the black tunnel towards Birkenhead. The hole swallowed us with one bite.
The other side seemed strange. Why was the first thing of interest you came across a strangely phallic monument on the main square? Where were the people? The town seemed awfully deserted. Only sad, rattling heaps of garbage heralded some kind of recent existence. Every corner we turned a new depressing sight. Was that really what we had set out for? What I had sacrificed the trip with Jonathan and this Ken for? Very Birkenheadish, we said.
After some time, we were all the more surprised when we found a couple of disproportionally huge shopping malls. So we were not walking a complete ghost town. Tammy and Giorgis, pleased by our discovery, sped up and dived into the first Marks and Spencer. Agnes and I on the other hand were of the cynical kind, the old-fashioned kind, the one that does not buy clothes before the ones they own have turned into tatters. We rolled our eyes in unison and strolled along some feet behind the cooing shopping duo.
Then, I spied a penguin rucksack. For some it might have been a simple backpack, for me it was a symbol. And so, Agnes, poor Agnes, got to know everything about my leftwing uni friends back home in Franconia who had formed a mock terrorist cell called A.R.T., which was mostly about the Abolition of penguins, respect for the mint plant and total destruction to all potato farmers. Agnes found this a very interesting programme and asked where she could sign up.
“Bud why the penguinz?” That was of course a natural question, and the first one everyone came up with. I was prepared for it. Cute little monogamous chaps. They always received people´s pity. I wondered why hardly anyone ever enquired about the peasants. It was not that this point made much more sense really.
“Come on, that´s an obvious one”, I answered emphatically. “Penguins try to, I mean evidently so, they try to advance black and white thinking.”
“Yez, I believe thad.”
“You should, Agnes, you should. And black and white thinking means the French don´t like the Germans, and the Germans don´t like the French.”
“That´z not good.”
She was okay. No, she was great. I guess I took it for granted that if someone wanted to make friends with me, this person needed to know my dark side, well not so much dark as blatantly silly side, but it needed to be known. Agnes took it like a true champion.
When Giorgis and Tammy finally emerged from the shops, laden with things I would have never bought, we came around to the topic why we were here in the first place. Liverpudlian existencialism.
The Ancient history department of my home-university had sent me here. I had a very good relationship with one of my young lecturers, and I remembered the scene fairly well.
There we were in his little office and had a pleasant private chitchat about this and that and especially about how awfully the History Department used him as their de facto slave, when he remarked that the Erasmus programme he coordated came to an end and that no new contract had been signed for the lack of labour force.
“Really? Well, that´s quite a shame!” I said taken aback.
“It is”, Mr Heller answered with a nod.
“But that´s such an important part of university life!”
“I fully agree.”
“I mean, that´s awfully important for the reputation of this university, too, isn´t it?”
“Of course it is.”
“And… that means I am too late to register for the programme, aren´t I?”
“I´m afraid you are,” he shrugged.
“Wow. You see, that´s some kind of a shock there. I have not thought about it much recently, and I was probably always a little scared of leaving my place to be honest, but I also always thought that I should take the opportunity somehow at some point. I mean, I don´t think I could be a real English teacher without having stayed abroad for some time, right? It´s… it´s simply needed, I guess.”
“I think so, too.”
“Well, what do you reckon I should do now?” I asked after an awkward pause of pressing my lips together. I sincerely felt shorttaken and a wee bit angry that I had never cared about it earlier. Maybe I had hoped for foreign countries to come to me rather than the other way around.
I looked around in his modest little office, a room I had sat in often enough during exams and consultations to realize the spectacular posters of paragliders he had on his walls. Framed by picturesque clouds, people jumped off hills and ran straight on into the air, their flying apparatus carrying them on into the baby-blue sky like gigantic colourful birds.
“Are you by any chance receiving any adequate remuneration for your advertising efforts?”
He laughed. “Nonono, it´s just a hobby. Have you ever tried it?”
“I can´t believe you are actually asking me this!” I shook my head and blew some air through my nostrils to make clear that I was not the man for this kind of adventure at all.
“But, honestly, you need to try this. You do. It´s absolutely fantastic. It´s just you and the wind, and when you take off… Believe you me, you feel freer than ever before. There is nothing, honestly nothing like flying.”
“Well, I believe that it is. Well, that it is fantastic for you. But I am really – sincerely – terribly – afraid of heights.”
“And that´s exactly why you should try it.” He looked at me and frowned a bit. “Well, I tell you something. This is indeed short notice, but one person has recently dropped out of the programme and you might still fill the spot. It´s for Liverpool, starting from January. But we are already well past the deadline. So if you feel like considering it, you have three days.”
“I do love the Beatles”, I thought loudly.
“Then do think about it.”
It took me only one day to decide.
We passed many a dull grey corner that day. Luckily, we had enough things to talk about: The hilariousness of Tammy´s gay friends at home (“I could tell you stories about them!”), or why I would call my first son Doctor, the Greekness of Agnes´ name (“Oh wow, idz Greeg, id muzd be zoa importunt!”), the charming toothless couple we encountered, and of course, as anyone who came to the Mersey would discuss, about why the local vernacular was so much of a goddamned pain. Agnes promised, just like Jonathan had, that someday it would grow on us.
At the end of the day we were stood at the riverside, close to Birkenhead Brewery (“peerless beer and stout”), looking over the Mersey. You had the impression Liverpool was but a singular long line of connected buildings with some towers sticking out into the hazy air. A cover of foggy clouds hovered directly above the houses. Over there was the place we all lived at now, a strange place for us, many of its facets and secrets still to be uncovered. We took it in patiently.