Vedrana Damjanovic

Chapter 1 – Always ask a taxi driver!

As an international student at the University of Florida, coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am technically already abroad. Yet, as a United World College Scholar, I decided to go for a double abroad experience. I journeyed to a country I’ve learned a lot about but never have gotten a chance to actually experience. I chose to study in Germany. The main goal for such a move? To improve my language skills and become fluent in German. After a longer winter break at home back in Bosnia, I packed my two loyal black and grey friends that move on four wheels and made it to Mannheim, Germany. Though I am now safely here and eagerly anticipating my new semester, how I made it to the city is the story of chapter one.

I know it will sound strange, but I could easily cross the ocean and enter a new continent, travel within the United States by myself, without any issues or fear. Strangely enough, on the two-hour flight from Bosnia to Germany, I was scared to death. In retrospect, I sensed trouble. When I got off from the plane in Frankfurt Hahn, — a smaller airport, not the international Frankfurt am Main — the wind was unbearable. A long line of passengers, mostly Bosnians working and living in Germany, only enhanced my “enjoyment” of the windy weather. As we entered airport, the wind became lethal, hurling in through still-open doors. Three young German guys laughed uproariously as we scurried in, mocking the Balkan people. I could understand almost everything, but their dialect was pretty strong.

“Wir kommen aus Tuzla, ahahahaha (We’re coming from Tuzla),” said one of them, stressing and spelling out Tuzla, the city in Bosnia where our flight was from.

Their xenophobia was apparent. Standing in the wind, shaking from the cold, and being ridiculed by the three local guys with a lack of manners, conjured the image of refugees, who come to Germany everyday. For a second, I even felt like one. I could barely stand the wind for these 15 minutes of waiting, and my heart ached to think of the refugees suffering worse over a period of months. To put it simply, it wasn’t the best first impression I could get.

After checking in and grabbing my suitcases, I went to get a coffee and cope with my headache. Instead of feeling better, I endured a sudden, intense nosebleed. I was just overwhelmed. My tears felt like uninvited guests. The bus from the airport to Mannheim was in three hours, so I had time to calm down, eat something, and rest a little bit. The worker at the info desk explained me, albeit poorly, where to wait for the bus:

“Go all the way down, left from McDonald’s, go outside, bus stop number 3.”

So I did. I sat down and waited. My headache was gone and I was ready to see the beautiful city of Mannheim. Except that my bus wasn’t coming. I had seen other buses coming in front, but not mine. It was 7 o’clock – and it still wasn’t there. Based on common knowledge of German punctuality, a bus in Germany wouldn’t be late. I asked one lady inside, and she told me I need to go outside and farther down to the right. Another older man in front told me it’s in the opposite direction, where all the other people were going. My heart started beating at hyper speed, and I careened back and forth, not knowing if I should go left or right. I ran with my two suitcases and a backpack to catch the bus where everyone was going. I got there and it was the one to Frankfurt am Main. Again, I asked a lady who sells the tickets, she told me I need to go back where I was, walk farther down, cross the bridge and then it’s at the little bus station, bus stop number three. Well, that’s the little detail the worker at the info desk missed to tell me. It’s already 7:05 p.m. and I know it’s gone. My head is exploding and I’m still running back. Another worker standing outside told me I could get on the city bus to get me to that station. A kind older bus driver from Spain with very poor German drove me there and was pretty sure the bus was gone.

Photography by the author

And there I was, alone at night at the airport, with my bus gone and unaware how to go to Mannheim. I was supposed to be there by 10 p.m. and pick up the keys of my dorm room. The Spanish bus driver was very kind, and he tried to calm me down. He allowed me to leave the suitcases on the bus and go back to the airport to check if there were any other buses. I soon learned that yes, there is the last one at midnight, which means I would get to Mannheim around 2 a.m. – and then wonder where to sleep. I had no intention of staying at that airport any minute longer. As I breathed in deeply, the only option left was to ask a taxi driver, even though I knew it was going to be ridiculously expensive.

“245 Euros,” said a middle-aged driver with Turkish accent. For that much money I could fly three times to Bosnia and back. “Oh, please don’t cry, we can find a solution,” he was consoling me.

This wonderful man then proceeded to take out his phone. In ten seconds, he found a connection, and he told me I could get on the fast train from Bingen, a city next to Frankfurt Hahn, to make it to Mannheim.

“Congratulations, now you have to deal with fast trains,” I thought to myself.

I had not a single atom of energy left, and was exhausted from so much stress, headaches, and tiredness. The journey seemed endless and I still had a way to go. I grabbed my suitcases from the bus and said goodbye to my Spanish friend in the few Spanish words I could think of at that moment:

“Muchas gracias señor. Le deseo todo lo mejor.”

The Turkish taxi driver did his best to make it easier for me. He told me a story of a guy who forgot his backpack in the plane (with his laptop and his passport and everything), took a taxi, and then sat on the bus to go to Frankfurt. By the time he realized his predicament, his plane had lifted off to Thailand.

“These things happen all the time. You will be fine now. Don’t worry,” he tried to convince me. “The assistance at the airport is very poor. They don’t explain you anything. Always ask the taxi drivers — they know the best,” were his words that I will remember them for the rest of my life.

I constantly messaged my German “buddy,” whom I got from the Visum Program, a student organization at the university, to help me out with everything.  He was supposed to pick me up in Mannheim and get me to my dorm. In the end, he also picked up the keys for me, because I was going to be late for the check-in appointment at 10. I cannot thank him enough for everything he has done for me. Being 100 Euros lighter, I arrived to the train station in Bingen. I had no idea where I was or in which direction I was going. The taxi driver took my big suitcase, went outside with me, and showed me how to buy the ticket on the automat. He also went downstairs and upstairs of the underground station to show me exactly where I was supposed to get on the train. I was so thankful for everything he had done for me that I hugged him in the end.

The train, 30 minutes away, forced me to fight one more round with the wind. Standing there alone in night, thinking of what I went through for just one day, I realized I had a good reason for all my initial fears. What a warm welcome to Germany, I thought sardonically. While I waited for my train, two other fast trains flew by me. The second one was so long that I could not see the end of it. It transported hundreds and hundreds of cars. If nothing else, I will have a lot of stories to tell one day to my grandchildren. Everyone in the train looked at me as if I came from a foreign planet with all my luggage. I knew I had about one hour to get to Mannheim, but I was so afraid to fall asleep and miss the station. My eyes were just drained, and the stress weighed heavily on my shoulders. Once I arrived in Mannheim, everything was fine. I made it with my Buddy to the dorm and the day was over. Though my trip was horrific, it set a low bar that I will inevitably surpass throughout the rest of my study abroad.

Photography by the author