The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.
It started out like so many pivotal scenes from a psychological thriller. The dim festival lighting, the crowds of unwitting drinkers enjoying themselves, the spitting rain on a chilly September night. Then, out of the shadows, the creepily cheery voice of a man who knows something you don’t.
I was at a craft beer festival in Düsseldorf with my friend Chris at the time. We had just debated heading out for some food, having had more than our fair share of brews over the past three or so hours.
“Let’s go back to that one brewery with the guy from Tennessee and talk to him before we go,” suggested Chris. “He seemed like a cool guy.”
Indeed, Justin did seem like an interesting guy. He had moved to Berlin, left, and went back again at an age when most of his peers were probably planning or waiting on a marriage proposal, getting ready to put a downpayment on a suburban home (with help from parents who did the same thing), and starting to conceptualize life with children. They certainly weren’t working at a small craft brewery and doing some filmmaking on the side. Even more impressive was his German, having learned almost exclusively through customer interactions in a city with more than its fair share of monolingual Americans and Brits who can’t get much further than “How are you?” in a conversation.
Foot traffic had picked up substantially since we first stopped by Justin’s stall, but he was happy to squeeze us in between pours and chat about life in Germany and favorite films. Having lost track of how much six-plus percent alcohol beer I had consumed, the rest remains a little fuzzy. All I know for certain is that in mid-conversation with Chris, the sound of an anxious violin chamber started to simmer––the kind that tells viewers, “The killer is in the room.”
“Hello,” said the stranger in a thick sing-songy German accent. Stepping out of the shadows, a wide grin smeared across his face as if he just struck gold. Let’s call him Hannibal Myers. “Vhere are you from?”
Well on my way to inebriation, my defenses were hindered, to say the least. In general, I’m a quiet, private person. But with some drinks, I tend to open up a bit, willingly sharing private information with strangers the more my liver fails to filter out the alcohol from my bloodstream.
I responded truthfully.
“The States. Ohio. Cleveland,” I said, working backward as I usually do when I’m overseas.
“Oh, American,” he said, acknowledging the most basic aspect of the information I supplied, his Joker smile hanging like an injection gone wrong as he turned to Chris. “And you?”
“Texas,” the man repeated.
Then, a pause. The murmur of the festival crowd became faint as if someone put their hands over my ears. Hannibal Myers moved his gaze back to me in a mechanical way that was reminiscent of The Terminator processing information.
TWO AMERICANS. NOT ENTIRELY INEBRIATED, BUT BLOOD ALCOHOL CONTENT RISING. DEFENSELESS CONFIRMED.
We watched on in silence as his core processor deciphered the zeros and ones.
“I vill practice my English with you,” he said, the violins coming to a sudden, high-pitched scratch, that haunting smile unchanged.
Despite the uneasy scene, this man was the spitting image of Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker’s straightlaced partner in medicine from The Muppets. There was the round-shaped head put sideways like an egg lying on the kitchen counter and the same puffy cheeks. All that was missing were the glasses and the lab coat.
There was an unintended creepiness to it all. (Dear God, I hope it was unintended.) The way he said, “I vill practice my English with you” must have been similar in tone to what the witch in Hansel & Gretel said to herself when she selected her victims. “Yes. You will do.”
He left the matter with no discussion, his operating system had already determined our intertwined futures. I felt a sense of premonition as his toothy smile grew wider, like the Grinch when he realizes his wonderful, awful idea.
Suddenly I could see myself in a dry well, trapped below the basement floor as American rock music echoed above. Hannibal Myers occasionally lowers a pale down to me. Inside, his handwritten sentences in English with obvious direct translation errors and phrases clearly learned from watching American television. “Hello together” from “Hallo zusammen” when we’d say “Hello everyone.” An aggressive, all caps, “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” to convey a pause in the workday.
Then Hannibal Myers’ voice, bubbling with joy from above.
“It conjugates the verbs within unless it vants the hose again.”
Though I could see this harrowing future, I was caught too far off my guard to respond rationally. That’s why I gave in to his demands so easily as he rattled them off.
“You are on Facebook?” he asked, that smile still unperturbed.
“Facebook owns the world,” is what came out of my mouth in an odd attempt to avoid saying “Yes.”
He smiled and handed me his phone. I entered my name into the search bar as I heard distant murmurs of Fox News hosts saying, “He shared his Facebook profile with the guy! He was asking for it!”
I handed it back after opening my page. His thumb slammed against the button to add me as a friend, and with it, another scratch of the violin.
“Done,” he said, the violins wailing to a crescendo. “You?” he added, turning back to Chris.
“Uh, I don’t have Facebook,” he said. This was not true. Though not by any means an active user, Chris does have an account. But I vouched for him nonetheless. There was no reason both of us had to go down into the well.
“He really doesn’t,” I said. “He’s not just saying it.”
“Well, then you have WhatsApp?”
Foiled. Everyone in Europe uses WhatsApp in place of iMessage. Saying “no” would be an obvious, uncomfortable lie––a lie that, in retrospect, would have been preferable to conjugating verbs in a hole in the ground while “Might As Well Jump” played on repeat.
A savvy woman would have known how to confidently enter in a fake phone number. But the last time I was hit on, linguistically or otherwise, was almost a decade earlier at a gay bar in Chicago. It was my first night out with new friends and a new girlfriend since moving to Chicago and I had drunkenly proclaimed, “I don’t want this night to end!” The only bars open at that hour were the gay bars of Halsted Street where a man instantly zeroed in on me and started buying me drinks in hopes of making me reconsider my sexual orientation.
“Are you sure you’re not even a little gay?” I remember the skinny guy in a tank top asking when my girlfriend went to the bathroom. I think at that moment, he really wished it were a choice.
“I’m sure, but I do like these whiskeys,” I said (more likely slurred) as I accepted another drink on his tab.
My brush off game had since gotten rusty. I punched in my digits and Chris followed suit.
“Exzellent,” Hannibal Myers said. “I vill practice my English with you.”
Chris and I managed to leave, but we knew he wouldn’t take us hostage in a public setting anyway. By the time we sat down for some greasy pizza to soak up the booze and sober us up, a series of messages had come in.
“Hello together,” it started with that common mistake I feared I’d be correcting for the rest of my life. “Today I met new friends at the beer festival. They are from US. It’s very good to improve my English. I will invite you for a nice fondue in my flat to speak in English.”
Another message came in as I read the first.
“The group picture is from the last fondue with friends.”
I clicked the profile image to pull the picture up. In it, a table set for a group meal. The only thing missing? People. Nobody was sitting at the table.
To this day, I still listen for the faint, dissonant sound of a violin plucking away in a minor key. It’s the only warning I’ll get.