There are the unabashed lovers. They sit one seat in front of you and carry on like Europeans. Kisses on the nose, forehead, cheekbone, upper and lower lip. Nuzzling. Giggling. You realize they’re your countrymen, United States tourists, when the exchange of their tender, sweet, occasionally nationally and geographically based appellations, in all their Yankee splendor, reaches such a crescendo that you’re privileged to overhear.
You’re my Hungarian meadow, tan and rolling underneath a setting sun.
You’re my Danube, blue and worthy of musical adaptation.
This is enough to permanently rattle all of your nearly reached conclusions about national identity and PDA. Perhaps it’s not as distinctly European as you thought. Maybe even Americans, with their big lawns and streets, will sacrifice their treasured personal space for some cuddle time. Your interior monologue continues to stage this debate with itself, weighing past experience against the spectacle of the lovers one seat in front of you. Of course PDA exists in the United States, but never had you seen it to the extent that you do in Europe. The Austrians, for example. It’s safe to say that the assumed Viennese escalator riding posture positions the shorter partner of the pair on the top step and his or her partner one step below. From there said couple can canoodle. You saw this, week in and week out for the entirety of your semester abroad and cling to it as proof of your hypothesis. But maybe you were at this point in your life lonelier and therefore took more notice of it. You tell yourself to resist the urge to turn every observation into a sweeping socio-
At this point a backpack frees itself from the overhead compartment and comes crashing to the bus floor inches from your right foot. There is a moment of intense silence as your traveling companions look around for a passenger whom they can shame with accusatory glances. At last an older, stodgy, bald man arises from his seat, gives you an understanding, not-quite-apologetic nod, and grabs the fallen rucksack and puts it between his feet.
You do not know which language this bald-headed man with the gruff but kind-looking face speaks. He might speak English. You only know that that English is the only language with which you could manage a response, one that’s subtle, reassuring, and with aplomb. At this moment you are met with multiple emotions. First, awe at the full complexity of language. Second, sympathy for those living outside of the geographical reach of their mother tongues. Finally, and most permanently, intense hopelessness for the progress of your German. Then you sigh.
Less than two hours into the trip, advertised as three hours, and you’ve hit traffic. Far off in the distance you see wind turbines, which you assume are across the border in Austria because, well you don’t really know, but Austria is richer than Hungary and can afford such alternative energy technologies.
I’m lost in the Old Glory of your blue, star-spangled eyes.
You overhear this and are proud of your homeland and the whimsy of its lovers. It almost feels like you’ve shared a moment with the couple. She’s seated on his lap with her arms around his neck. Occasionally you make eye contact with her.
There are the British frat boys. You don’t know whether or not the British Uni system has Greek life. You don’t yourself know much about Greek life because you went to a small, denominational liberal arts school where Greek letters are reserved for seminary students, wannabe seminary students, and, you know, THE Alpha and Omega.
On the bus, the frat boys really aren’t that bad. Before getting on the bus they were roughhousing—chest bumping, falling over, calling each other “mate”—in the metro station and you expected the worst from the bus ride. So far, however, you haven’t heard much from them; they are sitting somewhere behind you.
There is the Eastern European woman sitting next to you. She is in her mid-thirties, you estimate, and is preoccupied with a Nokia phone that looks like the grown-up version of your youngest sister’s Hello Kitty plaything. So far she has made four calls, each one of them longer than the last. You are confident she isn’t Hungarian because you know four words in Hungarian and you’re pretty sure you haven’t heard her say one.
More traffic up ahead by the turbines. You are nearing hour four of the trip and have just crossed the border. This irritates you and you aren’t alone. The frustrated sighs from the back are becoming audible. With each abrupt stop you hear luggage shuffling around overhead. The stodgy, old, bald man with the gruff-but-kind face hears it too. Then he looks at you. You don’t know how to respond, so you smile.
Eventually the traffic disperses. Out the window to your left you see two cars in a wreck. Standing next to the cars are two women; one in a headscarf and the other in jeans.
We all know whose fault that was
You smirk, knowing that came from the British frat boys. Then you remember your thought about the difficulty of living away from your native tongue. You feel bad.
Fifteen minutes before you arrive, your Eastern European neighbor takes a pickle out of a paper bag and starts eating it. That’s strange, you think, but it looks good. You resolve that six hours in a bus are probably enough to change the way you think about anything.
And that is how you got from Budapest to Vienna.