The steaming cup of coffee in front of me seems to come from another world. The golden brown liquid is a part of the of the ongoing bistro chatter, the roaring laughter of the barman and the clinking of cutlery, while my figure, even though sitting in the dark corner, seems to stand out like a flashing light bulb.
Everywhere I go, I am the intruder.
When I stepped into the Munich airport, the security woman smiled derisively at my broken German. As I walked away, my footsteps seemed to be too loud.
What would she have said if I had told her that I was actually born here, in the Munich hospital, overlooking the ‘Englischer Garten’? I would have liked to tell her that I knew how good ‘Brezeln’ taste like and that I had biked around the Bodensee one hot summer day.
After living for ten years in Australia, I learnt English, burned my feet on hot summer sand and loved the embrace of the deep-blue sea. I fell in love with a surfer, her hair bleached from sun and surf, and I learnt to say “No worries mate.”
But when people heard my name, they knew that I was not a part of this red-earthed country.
“So where are you from?” Wherever I go, this phrase comes with me. It is like a shadow that mockingly follows me around, restless and immortal.
Often I tell myself, “Pierre, you are from France. You speak French at home, your iPod is full of French Hip Hop, and you know the sweet joy of a ‘Galette des Rois’…”
But then another voice creeps up on me and sardonically whispers into my ear,“How can you be French, Pierre, if you have never lived in France? How can you be French if you were born in Germany?
With the sound of the banging bistro doors comes the cold draught from outside, reminding commuters that winter is coming.
The man’s coat is a dirty dark red and his black boots seem to have gone through many seasons. While his light-blue scarf makes his eyes stand out amidst a visage lined with wrinkles, his stride is confident, almost majestic. With his dark skin, he stands out, like a red brick in the midst of a concrete jungle.
He greets the bartender in a booming but jovial voice, his tongue heavy with a foreign accent. Everything about him contradicts the sense of this place, yet somehow…
Somehow this foreign man fits into the scenery, he is a missing puzzle piece, and with him the bistro seems complete.
The smell of cigarette smoke mixed to the odour of coffee, the chatter of voices, the clinking of glasses and the worn wooden table underneath my hands. All of this seems centuries away. My eyes never leave the old man, sitting comfortably at the bar. The bartender erupts into laughter and other men come over casually, eager to join the conversation.
How can he feel so much at ease? Everything about him invites difference. Isn’t difference always aligned with rejection, with alienation? Yet his body is a part of this smoky room, his laughter unanimous with that of the others. Nobody sees him as an intruder.
Outside, darkness begins to intrude the streets. My coffee has stopped steaming, not even the cup is warm anymore. Sitting in the corner, the old man does not know he has an observer.
I now know that he enjoys a glass of absinthe, that he often fingers his scarf thoughtfully and always listens, his eyes fixed upon his interlocutor. However, these are all but simple details which make up a personality.
In complete truth, my heart yearns to know his secret. How does he fit into this atmosphere with so much effortlessness?
For a short moment, I close my eyes…
She sits in front of me, her curly dark hair dancing in the wind, itself cool upon our faces. I remember the glowing sunrise and her shining almond eyes. The stone wall against which we were sitting hurt my back, but I dared not move, scared to break this moment in time. Her voice had a chocolate like smoothness to it, each word beautiful upon her lips.
When the city began to awake, she paused and asked me, “So Pierre, where do you come from?”
As soon as I had uttered the words “I am French”, she burst out into laughter.
She took my hand into hers and leaned upon my shoulder.
“Come on, you cannot be French. You have an accent when you speak. And I don’t know…”
She gazed towards the cloudless sky,
“You… Your manners, your mentality, it’s not French. Aren’t you German? You were born in Germany, no?”
I have never been able to forget her words.
The bistro door shuts loudly and outside the dirty red coat disappears around a corner. Hastily, I place a few Euros next to my untouched coffee and dash into the coldness of the night.
He walks slowly, whistling a tune that is strangely melancholic. His steps are easy to follow; down the street and into the park.
Silently, I wait in the shadows of a nearby tree and wait for courage to come. He calmly lets himself down upon an old wooden bench facing an unused fountain, its stone statues sprayed with graffiti.
My heart thumps as seconds, minutes go by. A car screeches in the distance, a cat scurries by, its eyes two shining saucers amidst the obscurity of the night.
I stop thinking, resolutely move out of the shadows and place myself upon the bench.
Smiling, he turns his head towards me, then looks up to the sky. The white moon glares down at us, but the stars remain hidden beneath a sheet of clouds.
Suddenly, disrupting the stillness that surrounds us, I ask, “Do people think you are French?”
His voice is deep, but somehow comforting.
“That is a strange question indeed… Nobody thinks I am French. I mean, look at me!”
He chuckles softly, then continues, “But is that important?”
In a street not far from the park, a drunk begins to sing raucously, “Liiive…like you never need to say anythiiiiing…”
The old man continues, “I think it is more important to say that, in my heart, I am French.”
I look down upon my hands, towards the fountain; everywhere except at the old man.
“You see, in my heart, I am one with this country.”
Slowly I glance into his face. His eyes are shining, bright.
He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Young man, it is not society that decides if you are a part of a country, a culture; it is you. If you believe that you come from somewhere, if you know it, then it won’t matter what others say.”
As the old man walks away, I draw my legs up and place my chin upon my knees.
When the sun rises and colours the sky into shades of pink and orange, I am still sitting there, in front of the graffiti sprayed fountain.
Story written in 2014
Image source: libcom.com