St. Nikolaus Day – Germany MANNHEIM – Three whole days bedridden with a stomach bug, likely from a German sausage that didn’t sit well with me. The last 48 hours on nothing but water with electrolyte tablets dissolved in it. Welcome to Germany. Outside my window, twin white smokestacks belch white steam into gray sky. Flat-fronted, boxy Mercedes trucks back in and out of work lots. German zoning isn’t like American zoning. When I first got off the tram in this district with its manufacturing plants, factories, and construction yards everywhere, I thought I had been given the wrong address. Surely, I thought, nobody lives here. They do, though. Couched between paved lots where cranes haul yellow girders skyward, surrounded by industrial buildings, vehicles, and smokestacks, there is a sturdy German apartment where I’ve got an Airbnb. Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours in audio, hardcover, or paperback here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another. I came to Mannheim to spend time with a friend from back home. She advised me not to bring up the fact that Germany is still not allowed to have a military. Apparently, her German fiancé reacted quite badly to this topic and spluttered about the small army and further rearmaments going on due to Russia and Ukraine. Don’t know much about it. Not that I have anybody to talk to about current or historical events while lying in bed with a stomach bug. But alone and woozy, I do have time to think about that no military, or small military rule. I mean, surely enough is enough by now, right? So much time has passed. So much cultural evolution has happened. Right? Daylight breaks. It’s just below freezing outside. Lightheaded and extra cold after 48 hours without a bite of solid food, I layer up and begin the half-hour walk to the nearest tram station. I step outside and inhale the fresh air. Scratch that, it’s not fresh at all, it all stinks of rotten eggs. The rows of factories all churn up groundwater and kick hydrogen sulfide stink into the neighborhood’s air every single morning. My stomach flips over. I shiver and try not to breathe too much. As I cross the Alter Rhine, the rotten egg smell blows away, but the temperature drops sharply as I walk over the bridge. The Alter Rhines – leftover bodies of water created when the Germans straightened the Rhine. After all, you can’t have a river running wherever it will, wild and free. That’s just unruly and disorganized. The water-chilled wind rips through my peacoat and two sweaters. It’s so cold I might as well be out here shivering naked. “Nein, nein! Du wirst dir das Bein brechen, wenn du das so machst!” A work crew foreman is barking orders at a crew member who was about to drop down a manhole with a tool bag slung over his shoulder. The workmen all wear rubber suits with reflective cuffs on the legs. Look at the rage on the foreman’s face. Listen to the murder in his voice. The wrongness in the work of his crew stinks like filth in his nose. I shrug my head into my coat and press forward into the wind. The sky is gray. The water is brown. The old brick buildings have broken-out windows, walls with missing chunks, and exposed peeling plaster. Vines grow over bricks. The newer buildings feature the same harsh industrial angles you might see in any other city. This part of Mannheim is either old and abandoned or indistinct and unremarkable. There is an underground tunnel leading to the train station across the street. The walls are covered in graffiti. Puddles and creeks of piss run down into the sewer grates. You have to pay to use the scattered public bathrooms around here. Men, women, and children alike all find hidden corners and go in the streets rather than cough up a half Euro for the pay toilets. I hold my breath and focus on making it to the other end of the tunnel to catch the train. Train Ride To be honest, I don’t have a plan. I just ride the train until the area out the window looks promising. The buildings don’t have signs. There’s no indication of restaurants around. The train pulls to a stop with a cafe. Maybe they have soup on the menu. I hop off the train and walk over to read the menu posted outside. I study it and work to remember my survival-level German vocabulary or decode what I’m reading. Through the streaky brown glass, I see people inside smoking like it’s 1959. The woman behind the counter throws her hands up at me in impatient rage. I check to see if I’m blocking anybody’s way, but I’m not, I’m alone out here. Come on lady, can’t I read the menu in peace? Nobody else has ever done this? I lift a hand to thank and appease her and walk away. What hospitality! What warm hearts. I should just go back to the Airbnb and sleep. I can make it one more day without eating. More than halfway there already. Though the hunger seems to double or even triple the cold weather. Wonder if the cleaning lady is still there. She’s another figure who projected an air of silent, clenched rage. Her eyebrows tweezed to pitch-black perfection. Hair disciplined in a gelled black bun. A snarl in her mouth. The hard angles of her shoulders as she whipped dust out of the corners of the room. More disgusted than the foreman of that work crew. OK, what is with this place? My friend can’t hang out with me, I’m all alone. Can’t stomach the food, see a ray of sunshine, or even a smile for that matter. Yeah, I’ve changed my mind. No military for you sausage-fueled, shivering, snarling, barking little martinets. Who straightens a river? Leave it alone. Germany, your coldness, harshness, and anger are seeping into my blood like the windchill. Back Home The cleaners leave all the windows open, so even though I step inside I can’t really warm up yet. I leave my coat on. What’s this outside my door? There’s a chocolate Saint Nikolaus standing there. Wrapped in red tinfoil with gold crosses on his red hat and shoulders. I pick it up and stare at it. It unbolts my brain for a moment. How many years since a Christmas at home? How many years more since a Christmas with magic? This little chocolate saint. Taking an auger to mood and memory. I’m too old to think about stuff like that anymore! I’ve got to put this guy down. He’s dredging my spirit too much. I can’t be in a foreign country so woozy, witless, and starving that a chocolate saint can strip the years and makes me a kid again. I’ve got to get inside my room fast where I’m not exposed. I text the Airbnb host, “thank you for the chocolate!” She writes back, “It was left by Saint Nikolaus, of course!” She adds a winking emoji. Ah, you guys aren’t so bad. You’re the sweetest people ever. Sorry for what I thought earlier – the sausage-munching rage machine thing. I didn’t mean it. This chocolate is rich and delicious, and it’s the one thing I’ve had to eat all day. I eat it sitting near the radiator.