We were ready to get out of Venice. Not that it wasn’t lovely and haunting in all of it’s mystery and history, but we’d spent days in Italy and wanted to make the most of what was left of our three-week post college backpacking adventure. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to secure the remaining tickets on an overnight train leaving in minutes to Munich. Again, we found ourselves rushing to the platform and just barely hopping on before the tracks started rumbling. We should’ve planned better, but that is part of the adventure, right?
We were late finding our compartment, and the third occupant was already fresh in her nightgown. Her gray hair, pulled up to get it out of her face as she went about her nighttime routine, glinted in the dim light; she acknowledged our arrival with a slight nod. Alicia and I had been traveling for around 10 days and were in dire need of freshening our laundry up at the next stop. We set our bags on the remaining two bunks, stacked all the way to the ceiling in the tiny compartment, and proceeded to rummage around for toothbrushes and a clean pair of underwear before we headed off to the bathroom.
After doing the best we could with the dismal bathroom situation, we opened the door to our compartment to find the other guest lying on the bottom bunk, tucked in for the night with the light on, a small but welcomed courtesy.
“You are American?” asked the woman. She said it with a German accent, but crisp and clear with an air of sophistication.
Alicia stopped folding her shorts, and I looked up from the toiletries I was trying to shove back into my quart-sized plastic bag now wrought with holes from a rogue toothpaste corner or mascara tube trying to make its escape.
“Yes, we are,” Alicia responded.
“Where are you from?” I said, trying to make friendly small talk.
The woman sat up slowly and moved her bare feet over the edge of the bed in order to face us.
“Germany,” she replied. “I’m on my way home.”
I continued repacking as I engaged further in the casual conversation. “So were you in Venice for work or holiday?” As I spoke, her feet moved slowly to the cold bare floor and she stood.
“I hate Americans.”
Alicia and I met her eyes. We were only 21 years old, and had both grown up in small towns in the Mid-West. Throughout our travel in the States, and our short time in Europe, I’d never felt such hate – and directed soley at me. It burned. But it was also ice cold. It felt like someone was pushing down on my shoulders. I was speechless.
She continued, but it only got worse. “My father was killed by Americans. He was innocent man, and you killed him.”
“I – I’m sorry,” I managed to stammer. There was nothing else I could say. Her life had been up-ended by the American people. It was all she knew, and it had fueled her hatred from a very young age. I was sorry. I hated what had happened to her, and I knew I’d feel the same if it had been my family, my father.
She left the compartment without another word.
Alicia and I were somber as we climbed into our bunks, and left the light on, as a courtesy. We both pretended to be asleep when she returned and switched the light off, but I don’t think either of us slept that night.
The engine stopped at the station in Munich before the sun came up, and our guest hustled out before Alicia and I felt compelled to get our bodies moving. Around 6 am, the service attendants started knocking on doors down the hallway to make sure travelers were heading out, and so we did. We walked into the station with more hesitation than we had entered the past few countries and unsure if we’d be welcomed with open arms, but willing to be sensitive to the apparent pain that still ran through this beautiful country.