THE GERMAN-SPEAKING ROOSTER
The train arrived at Franfurt station at 7:30 in the morning, half an hour behind the schedule. I was anxiously looking for Huy in the waiting crowd when I heard somebody calling “Hey, babe! Little Chi!". Before I could do something, I was given a hug. The manner could only be Huy’s. Five years since we departed, two of us looked at each other, bewildered. He was as lean as ever despite his leather coat. His hair was so short that it looked like his head was shaved, and he wore a pair of glasses for the near-sighted.
-You''re also near-sighted, are you, little Chi? - he remarked - You studied too hard! You looked a bit worse than before, but with your face, you can still hook a bunch of western guys! Now hurry up, we need to catch another train to my place.
He hastily pulled me along and we ran so quickly that we bumped against some tall German guys. Luckily, when we hoped on the train, it pulled out.
- Such is life here. People have to be on the run all the time.
- I know. I had the same experience during my stay in France for a couple of months!
Huy opened to door to his apartment “This is my home! Don’t smile if you don’t want to get kicked out of here! This is the kitchen. Toilet is on your left and the sitting-room is also the bed-room.” I was not surprised about his tiny apartment because he had told me about it before my visit so that I could prepare myself. However, I couldn’t help being moved remembering the newly-built houses of his classmates. They were not as bright and dynamic as him, but they ended up more successfully.
- Take a shower and some rest if you feel tired – Huy said – I’ll cook and call the hotels in Berlin for our trip tomorrow.
I climbed onto the bed, feeling really exhausted due to the non-stop trip by train from Paris last night. In my hazy sleep, I smelt the delicious grilled meat and heard Huy talking continuously on the phone in German. I didn’t know how long my sleep lasted until I saw him taking a blanket out of the cabinet, putting it over me and going out.
When he came back, he slammed the door so hard that I woke up. He held a loaf of bread in his hand and said “Now you had enough sleep, take it!”
- I don’t think we can sit together like this – I said emotionally – I think you would come back to Vietnam to see me, I can’t imagine coming here to see you!
- Don’t shame me! I didn’t have enough money to go to Paris to meet you, so you had to come here to see me!
- I just went for fun. I haven’t been in Germany – I tried to console him – You spoke beautiful German. You’re great because you can manage such a difficult language!
Huy shrugged silently with a disdainful smile. This manner of his had caused misunderstanding before, so many people hated him. Actually, he had just laughed at himself and never meant to look down on anybody although he was pretty arrogant then. When I attended the University of Economics, he was the last-year college student of French. Rumors spread among students that he was rich, and the teachers talked about his reputation as a student who regularly cut class to work as a tour guide. It was the golden time of Vietnam’s tourism, and good students of foreign languages were free to become rich. During a college camping, Ngoc, a close highschool friend of mine, took me to her college camp site. On that day, Huy spotted Ngoc and tried his best to chase her. It didn’t take him much time because Ngoc happily accepted a well-known person like him. Ngoc studied badly, yet she was pretty. She became my friend because I supplemented what she didn’t have. Since I was Ngoc’s friend, I was also noticed by Huy. I asked him to join his tour to learn and tagged along with him for experiences. He used to introduce Ngoc as his girl-friend and me as his student. He was very proud his pretty girl-friend and his smart student.
- Did you study hard? – Huy asked curiously – You’re excellent, really. You won the fellowship to study in France, and I have to fund myself, ending up in Germany to start everything all over again. Who would ever have expected that the student has received a master, and the teacher hasn’t finished his bachelor!
He shrugged again with a disdainful smile. When he hadn’t finished his college, he prepared application for his overseas study and decided to drop out. He criticized the back-ward education in Vietnam. Eventually, he had problems with his application to study in France, and he rushed to Germany when he hardly spoke even a German word. Ngoc was really mad at him. She couldn’t understand why an undergraduate student who could make some hundred dollars a month was so indulged in two words “overseas study”. We were a few weeks into our second year when he left. Soon after that, Ngo decided not to keep her promise with her first boy-friend. She became fed up with his complaining letters from Germany. He changed from a seemingly successful person in a short time to a poor and cowardly one in that distant land. He said he had a hard time with his studies and had to work part-time to support himself and his family in Vietnam. He was so honest that he said he worked as a cleaner. Because he couldn’t afford buying vegetables, he had to stick to eating instant noodles, so he was suffering from bloody constipation. The more I felt sympathetic for him, the more Ngoc held him in contempt.
- I still keep your encouraging letters – Huy fumbled in the cabinet and took out an old cookie box – They’re not lost although I moved a couple of times. Emails was not available at that time, and those handwritten letters are very valuable!
- It’s been five years, and so many things have happened!
- You have received your master’s degree, then moved here for the French D.E.A – Huy said with an inferiority complex – I have done many good and bad jobs, mostly bad, to earn my living and learn how to speak, read and write good German reading, but I haven’t received any undergraduate degree to to get rid of the shame.
- Degrees mean nothing – I continued to console him – I’m not as fluent in wertern languages as you are!
Again, Huy remained silent, shrugged and smiled meaninglessly. He went to the kitchen to cook the “noodles with meat balls of Manh street” for our dinner. He said proudly that he had imitated to make this noodle when he went on a tour to Hanoi, where he enjoyed it. When I saw him skillfully flavoring the meat and grilling it with his nose flaring to enjoy the smoke, I thought Ngoc would have fell fainted at this sight. She used to be carried by this guy on a splendid “Dream” motocycle to Cho Lon for fashionable grilled stuff. At that time, among poor students who rode on bycicles and spent very little for their living, Huy was a real prince.
The prince poured fish sauce into a bowl for me. He did an excellent job cooking this dish. After dinner, he had me wash the bowls so that he could prepare the bed. He would take me to Berlin for a tour tomorrow.
- You can take the bed, and I’ll do the sleeping bag here on the floor – he ordered – Go to bed early. I have to prepare water, bread and fruit for tomorrow.
Watching him loading the small suitcase with food and drinks, I was startled “Why do you carry to much? We can buy them there.” He grimaced "You’re idiot! Everything’s expensive! If we can bear the load, we can save our money!".
We trudged with heavy bags to the station at four in the morning. Huy bought a weekend local train ticket, and we had to change several trains to arrive at six in the evening. The ticket costed 40 marks for a group of five, and the express train ticket for a passenger for a four-hour trip was 166 marks. "Only idiots accept this price – Huy said from his experience – We will be more active and younger taking a local train!". It was true, since it was the weekend, these concessions attracted not only a huge bunch of the young but also the old people who fought for them. Huy held the schedule for arrivals, departures and changes. In Germany, I became deaf and mute because I didn’t speak German. If I lost Huy, I would be in big trouble. He said "Try to take a nap. We slept for only three hours last night. I’ll give you a holler when we need to jump out!". He slept soundly but exhaustedly with his eyes shut, a continuous snort from his open mouth and his head to one side. This posture of his looked familiar to me when I joined him on a tour. When the tourists had slept, the guide also took a nap. However, his sleep at that time was a real sleep, a sleep of a student who made a couple of hundred dollars a month. Now it was a sleep of a passenger who took the local train.
Huy suddenly woke up from his sound sleep when the destination was announced on speakers. “Let''s get off!". He quickly collected our stuff and ran before I could recover conciousness and ran after him.
- Why did you know the train pulled in while you are sleeping?
- It’s been five years – Huy sounded proudly – Go to work by train and take a nap on a train. This creates a habit. You can nap but you can also get off at the right station, ha ha!
It looked like it was the first time he gave a carefree laughter since we met. He took fruit out of the basket and told me to eat them for vitamins because the trip to Berlin was still very long. Actually, I didn’t remember how many times we changed trains. I just followed his instructions since I didn’t know what to do. He said "I remember my guide days in Vietnam. The tourists were as awkward as you are now!" However, I almost lost him once in one train. There were so many passengers that they crowded the narrow corridor. Huy told me to take an empty seat and went to another compartment for another seat. I could only asked him when we needed to change before he disappeared. Two hours later, I lost communication with my guide, who kept food, drinks and even tickets. Luckily, there were so many people in the train that the ticket-collector couldn’t get through, otherwise I would be in trouble. At the time given by Huy, I got off the train at a station, wishing he also got off from another compartment. He met me again and laughed "Are you hungry? I’ve made a sausage sandwich for you, but I couldn’t get through the crowd to your place. This kind of trip was fun, wasn’t it!" It was, but it was less fun than when we were put in an autocar instead of a train due to a damaged rail which was under reconstruction. We stood for 90 minutes, feasting our eyes on the poor and desolate area in Eastern Germany. In France, there was no place worse than this, and despite a long period of time after reunification, there remained vestiges of barrack-like buildings and dark grey walls in very bad shape due to lack of maintenance. Shrubs grew freely without man’s care unlike those in France, the Netherlands or Belgium. Passing the Eastern Germany, I recalled the Russian war movies. Native Germans suffered a lot, let alone foreigners like Huy although he said he was lucky to live in Western Germany. "German economy is better than France’s – he said as if he had read my mind – the welfare here is also much better than in Europe! Don’t you see that everything’s more expensive here?"
Thanks to his activeness that Huy proudly described as "experience of a guide during student days in Vietnam and a few years struggling for survival in Germany” he found a hotel in the center of Berlin, opposite the famous flat-top church at an incredibly cheap rate. And of course, we shared a room to save money. That night, although more exhausted than the previous night, we spent as much time as possible chatting because I had to go back to Paris by autocar. Huy asked me about some friends of his who took the same-year program. They stayed put and gradually moved up their career ladders without thinking about studying abroad. When they graduated, the labor market favored students of foreign languages unlike the hard situation of today. Therefore, most of the students held key positions. Some of them took in-service courses at my university to improve their knowledge. Now one of them became manager of a tourist company, one spent almost a hundred of gold bars to build his house thanks to his job in the airport import-export department, and another became director of a handicraft company
- Nobody is as bad as I am, right? – Huy gave a soft laughter – Sometimes I wonder whether I “took the wrong way”? No! I have had numerous valuable experiences. Only in the everyday struggle to keep my spirit that I understand the value of true success and happiness of life, those that I mistook for what I had already had while in Vietnam.
Huy paused silently. I gave no idea, thinking that it was pretty much to spend his five years just for understanding this.
- I never regret – he said monotomously as if he were talking to himself – If I hadn’t gone, I would have made money easily and become arrogant like a parvenue, and I’d have been done. My only regret is that I have to work to support myself, so I can’t concentrate on my studies, which is the goal of my trip.
- Why did you go to Germany so soon? You’d have been better if you went to France!
- Forget it! Thanks to that now I speak one more language. The German steel spirit is fantastic. It affects me a lot. I admire the Germans!
In the past, Huy admired nobody. As an active and good-spirited tour guide, he received a lot of tips from the tourists, but he laughed behind their backs about their stupidity. He remarked "Tour guides are horrible!"
- Among many jobs that I took in Germany, sometimes I worked again as a guide! I worked for 3 months in a small tourist company which needed a French-speaking guide. Before I came here, I was confident and I thought I would never have any trouble finding a job because of my fluent French. In reality, France is next door and a lot of French people go to German. Who wants to hire a French-speaking Vietnamese when French native speakers are everywhere! Only when we go out do we realize we are really small, weak, unprofessional and ignorant.
I thought Huy was right. His friends, since they seemed successful and made a lot of money, they had to think they were better than the others. However, if they had been put in the situation here, it wouldn’t have been easy for them. I knew from my few months’ experience that the young people here were dynamic.
- One thing that I don’t want you to know, but at a second thought, I guess it might be interesting for you. Ngoc is now a department faculty member, and both of us know very well about her knowledge!
Huy suddenly rose from his lying position:
- Wouldn''t it be worse? I had heard Ngoc’s uncle is a key leader in the university. How about the students? Ngoc dared to be a lecturer?
- Ngoc is very proud of this. She never feels ashamed to me since I know her knowledge. She’s even overacted to be very successful!
Huy saw me off to France at the station and promised to visit me in Paris.
- Do you plan to live in Germany forever? Come back to Vietnam and it’s easier for you to become successful!
- But I haven’t received any degree. How can I meet my friends again! – Huy pushed me onto the train – Little girl! Although I haven’t been successful here, at least I have become…a rooster! Take care of your studies!
The train pulled out. Huy waved at me smilingly. Beside the Germans standing around, the “rooster” looked small and lean. I opened the window and blew him a kiss. He stretched and ran after the train, shouting. His shout startled the other people “I’ll come back home!". A German guy in the train mimicked the strange Asian accent, and other passengers looked at me, laughing.