"What's your name?"
"What are you doing in Europe?"
"I'm an exchange student in Finland."
"Really, do you live in the dorms?"
"If I come to Finland can I crash on your floor?"
"Sure. Why not?"
"I was wondering, do you have any idea why so many Scandinavians dye their hair black?"
"It's the craziest thing, isn't it?"
"I guess so."
"What was your name again?"
Ben was the veteran traveler. He never paid for a room.
Ben's luck ran out in Madrid. He had to pay $20 for a closet in a youth hostel without any windows. Desperate for company, he sat on a couch in the hostel's common area. Others began to filter in.
That's where he met Deiter, a traveler from Berlin. Deiter was decked out in black from head to toe. His thinning blond hair was slicked back and a pair of thin, wire-rimmed glasses were perched on the end of his nose. Deiter looked every bit the mid-80's pre-techno Euro-hipster.
Deiter spent the evening charming a group of Swedish women staying in the hostel. He wasn't successful. Ben felt sorry for him.
"If I come to Berlin can I crash in your apartment?" Ben asked.
A few months later, Ben was at Deiter's place in the former East Berlin. The place was a squat in an old communist housing project. The area was a magnet for semi-artsy types.
They hung out for nights on end. They talked politics and art. They smoked extra-light cigarettes. Deiter turned Ben on to German beer. They were having an amazing time.
Ben felt a need to explore the urban wilderness of Berlin.
Ben felt a need to explore the urban wilderness of Berlin. He bought a bottle of water and a sandwich, stuffed them into his backpack and wandered off down side streets and back alleys. He walked around for a few hours. Everything looked basically the same.
"I think I'm lost," he said to himself looking up at the rows and rows of East German architecture. Unfazed, he looked in his backpack for the not-so-neatly-folded map from the tourist information center he'd stuffed into a pocket. Gone.
He looked again through his pockets and fumbled through some papers. The map was nowhere to be found.
"No big deal," he thought to himself. "I've been lost before. I'll just wander around until I see a place I recognize."
He wandered on for another half-an-hour. Nothing looked familiar. Hungry, he looked in his bag for the sandwich and water. Gone. "I knew my bag felt lighter," he thought. "I guess it fell out while I was looking for the map."
He tried to retrace his steps. He got more lost.
The sun went down and the streetlights came up. Most of the stores were closed. Ben was starving and thirsty. He spied out of the corner of his eye a lone Coke machine next to a beat looking warehouse. He looked for his money. He fumbled through his pockets for some change. Nothing.
"This isn't funny anymore," he said to himself.
It was dark. He sensed he'd wandered into a type of industrial center. Every door was locked. Every building seemed shut down. There wasn't a person in sight.
He nervously picked up his pace.
"A Jew lost in Berlin," he thought to himself. "Great."
Hours passed. It was after midnight. Ben was exhausted and hungry. A cab passed. He flagged it down.
"Can you help me? I'm lost," he said to the cabby.
"I not speaking the English," the cabby answered.
"Bitte ... sprechen zie."
The cabby gave him a look that said, "Get in, just give me the address."
He pulled his pockets inside out in what seemed to him the universal gesture to indicate he was broke.
"I don't have any money," he said pulling his pockets inside out in what seemed to him the universal gesture to indicate he was broke.
The cabby pulled off. Ben was disgusted. He sat on a bench and dozed off in exhaustion.
The heat of the morning sun woke Ben up from his slumber. "My neck is killing me," he said out loud, grabbing the back of his head. "I feel like I've slept on a bench all night."
Determined and with a renewed vigor he picked a direction and walked. He walked for hours. He finally came to a place that looked vaguely familiar. He walked a bit more and found himself on the main drag of Deiter's trendy neighborhood. He spotted the coffeehouse where he and Deiter had spent hours immersed in pretentious conversation. He made his way to Deiter's apartment relieved.
Something seemed wrong. He walked down the hall to Deiter's apartment and found the door ripped off its hinges. A white swastika had been painted on it. He walked in.
The place was a mess. Every drawer had been overturned and dumped on the floor. Broken glass was everywhere. Deiter was lying in a corner unconscious, beaten to a pulp.
Deiter was lying in a corner unconscious, beaten to a pulp.
Ben spent the next few days visiting Deiter in the hospital. He'd found out from a neighbor what had happened. "Skinheads from the slums down the road occasionally come into the neighborhood looking for Jews and gays," the neighbor told him. "They'd somehow heard of a tourist staying with Deiter and came by in the night to cause trouble."
Staring at Deiter's sleeping body, Ben became aware of the miracle that had happened to him. "That should have been me," he thought.
He thought through the craziness of what had transpired. "If I hadn't gotten lost, I would have been there at Deiter's. If I had found my map, if I hadn't lost my money, I would have made my way back that night. If I had had something to eat, maybe I would have had the strength to get back. It's amazing, what seemed at the time to be such a drag, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me."
Ben came to the profound realization that things aren't always what they seem. Sometimes life's biggest disappointments are really blessings in disguise.
He went back to Deiter's place to pack up his stuff. He needed to get moving. "Maybe I'll go to Prague," he thought. "I hear they sell beer there for less than a buck."
He went to the train station to catch the 9:15 to Prague. Two hours later he was still waiting for it to come.
"No big deal," he thought. "Things could be worse."