The Young Woman Who, in Telling a Simple Story, Made Herself Cry
If I`d be your psychologist, who would be the psychologist`s psychologist?
- Jens Lekman
Yuka attached herself to me on the tram at the Taipei Airport. We were both making the transfer from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2. Most Japanese people, especially women, are not so forward, but she asked me where I was going. I told her Vienna. She seemed relieved. She asked me if I spoke German. I told her I knew enough to get by. She was going to Vienna too; she spoke no German. After we got off the tram, we were walking next to each other and talking. I had wanted to be alone, but here I was just hours into my eight-day holiday, and I had already made a friend.
By the time I boarded, ninety minutes later, I had forgotten about Yuka. I like to be one of the last people on a plane, so I got to the gate late and just went and found my seat. After we lifted off, I ate a few bites of the dinner, watched a part of a movie, and then fitfully slept. At Abu Dhabi, when we deplaned to take on more fuel, I didn`t see her, wasn`t thinking about her. I remembered her only when I had cleared customs in Vienna and had collected my bag.
“What should I do?” I was ready to take the train into the city, but I paused. I looked around the baggage carousel but didn`t see her. She must still be in the long immigration line. So I waited. I waited about fifteen minutes. Then I saw her walking from the immigration booths. I waved. She seemed happy to see me. We found her bag. We were ready for the train. We bought our tickets and made our way to Wien Mitte. There, we had to transfer to the U-Bahn, the subway. I was going north to my hotel in the city center, she south to her youth hostel. I had two stops to go, she had four. I put in some euro into the ticket machine and bought our tickets. Then I pointed up at the U-bahn map on the wall over our heads and told her, “Four stops, okay?” I walked her over to the down escalator, the escalator that would take her to her platform and her train. Then I took out a scrap of paper and wrote down the name of my hotel, The Graben, and told her to come at 1:00. “I`ll buy you lunch,” I said. “Okay?” I pulled out a map I had and showed her where my hotel was in the city center. So. We were done.
“See you later,” I said.
After I made sure she punched her U-bahn ticket and I saw her disappear down the escalator, I felt bad. Was she afraid to go by herself? Was that fear in her eyes? I should have taken her to the youth hostel. That`s what I was thinking. Of course, Vienna is a safe city, but I felt that I should have done more. I was tired, though, and perhaps a little selfish. So I turned and made my way to my own train and to my hotel.
I got there and desperately wanted to check in and shower and sleep a few hours, but I couldn`t. It was only 9:00 a.m., after all, and a Sunday too. Arriving in any European city on a Sunday morning is never a good idea, but one cannot alter plane routes and times. So I left my bags with the front desk clerk and walked over to the Albertina; the museum opened at 10:00, and from some advertisements on the outside of the building, I could see that there was what seemed to be a good photography exhibit. So I walked around beautiful Vienna until 10:00; then I enjoyed the exhibit.
Over lunch, Yuka told me that she was an artist, that she was going to Innsbruck the next day for some kind of show. She withdrew a flyer from her large bag, unfolded it, passed it over to me. She told me I should go too. I told that I had stayed in Innsbruck a few years ago, that it`s a very nice place with a beautiful city center, that she would have a nice time. But I didn`t want to go.
I suppose I should tell you that from the beginning, from our first moments on the tram in Taipei to our present lunch in the Hotel Graben`s restaurant, we had been speaking Japanese. Just about everything she had told or asked me—minus a word or two of English—was in Japanese. My Japanese is not that good, so I found it very hard to follow along. She was an artist, she had been invited to Innsbruck for some kind of exhibition, she was going there tomorrow by train. I was trying very hard to process what she was saying. And I wanted to eat my schnitzel and drink my red wine. In response to some of her questions, I would, at times, revert to English. “My wife works at an office,” I would say very slowly. Then I would translate what I had just said in English into Japanese. I mean I would try. I was doing my best. When the waiter came over with her desert, of course I said “Arigato” instead of “Vielen Dank.” Japanese, English, German. It was a long, difficult lunch. I was exhausted from the thirteen-hour flight. Soon I had a bad headache.
After lunch, I took Yuka to the Kunsthistoriches Museum. You don`t have to talk much to look at paintings, and she had told me she was an artist, right? Plus, it`s a wonderful museum. One of Europe`s finest. I paid for two mobile interpretive devices, one with explanations in Japanese, the other in English. Then I took her up to the second flood to the Pieter Bruegel room. He`s one of my favorite painters. I told her this. I sat down on a couch in front of Hunters in the Snow. If I turned slightly to my right, I could see The Peasant Wedding. Behind me were more glorious works, perhaps six or seven, all by Bruegel. I lifted my hands in a what-more-do-you-want? gesture. There was absolutely nothing to say. We were surrounded by great paintings. I was pleased and content to be sitting in that room again. Yuka strolled around and examined the paintings.
“I understand you better.” That was her verdict. At least that`s what Yuka told me twenty minutes later. At least that`s what I think she said in Japanese. I didn`t know what to say. I was getting sleepy. I hadn`t moved from my couch.
After another hour in the museum, I could barely walk I was so sleepy. I had to return to my hotel; and Yuka needed to go to the Westbanhof to buy her train ticket to Innsbruck. I told her the train ride itself would take about three or four hours, that the last hour was a stunning ride through the majestic Tyrols. I had been on that train. I told her she would enjoy the tremendous views. “So beautiful,” I enthused. I told her to make sure to sit by the window. I sensed Yuka wanted me to take her to the station, wanted me to assist her in purchasing her ticket. It was only a few tram stops from the museum—perhaps fifteen minutes tops—but I didn`t want to go. I was exhausted. I didn`t want to speak Japanese anymore. I didn`t want to talk at all. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to sleep. So I walked her down to the tram station. There was a kiosk there. I bought her a ticket and waited until her tram came. “Good luck, Yuka,” I said. “Goodbye.” I returned to my room and crawled into bed at 5:00 in the afternoon. I slept eleven wonderful hours.
I don`t recall what I did the next day. I thought of Yuka sometime in the morning, though. Did she make it? I sighed and wondered. I could only hope so. One part of me said that I should have done more to help; the other part said that I had done enough.
I spent a couple more Yuka-free days. To be honest, I had forgotten about her. I was just doing my thing, being alone and not speaking to others. At night, I read some short stories by Fitzgerald.
On Thursday afternoon when I returned to the hotel and asked for my room key, the front desk clerk told me that I had a guest. She nodded toward the lobby behind me. I was a little startled. “A guest? Impossible. Who could be…” As I wrote, I had forgotten all about Yuka, but when I turned, sure enough, there she was. I thought I had seen the last of her, but there she was, sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. “Sie hat zwei Stunden gewartet,” the front clerk said. She waited two hours. Well.
I gathered fortitude. I had been thinking about a nap, but obviously, that wouldn`t happen.
“So how was your trip?” I asked. “How was Innsbruck? Are you hungry? Should we eat?” Even though I wasn`t hungry, Yuka and I walked across the narrow street to an Italian restaurant. I ordered pizza salami and a large beer, she some pasta and a glass of wine.
It seemed Yuka had returned the previous afternoon. And she had gone to the opera in the evening. There were some standing room tickets available for five euro. “Well done,” I said. “That`s great!” She had checked her winter coat and something very important happened. “An old man took my coat. He smiled warmly. He was very kind. He showed me where to stand.” Something like that. She was telling me what had happened. And then she started to cry. “He was so kind,” she repeated. “Totemo yasashikatta!” Slowly, large tears rolled down her face. She was speaking her Japanese, and again I had trouble understanding. But it seems the gist is that the old coat-check man at the opera had been very kind to her.
What could I do or say? Selfishly, I wanted to eat my pizza, but I put down my fork and knife, sat back in my chair, and watched her cry. Of course, I have felt what was feeling. Actually, I feel it a lot. Sometimes the kindness of strangers can be overwhelming. You read in the newspaper about some people rushing into cold water to save some beached whales or you watch on TV the army of strangers who donate their time and materials to build a new home for the legless Iraqi war veteran with four kids. There he goes in his wheelchair up the ramp to his front door. Each child has his or her own comfortable room with a new bed and new furniture. Such a story overwhelms you. You get a little misty-eyed. At least I do. And as I watched Yuka cry, it was hard not to cry too. But I tried hard not to. I looked away for a few moments. Then I lifted my beer, finished it, and got the waiter`s attention. I ordered another. When he came to fetch the empty glass, he could see that something important was taking place. The two foreigners, perhaps, were having a quarrel. Outside, the afternoon sun was losing its strength.
The tears, fortunately, didn`t last long. When I saw that she was feeling better, I passed over a fresh napkin; Yuka wiped her eyes. Soon she was smiling again and feeling ashamed. I could tell by the look on her face. I wanted to tell her that she shouldn`t feel bad, but I didn`t know how to say that in Japanese. So I smiled too and picked up my fork and knife and tried a few more bites, but my pizza was cold. Her pasta sat in front of her. I don`t think she had eaten more than two or three bites. So I turned my attention to my new beer. I lifted it and proposed a toast. “Kampai!” I said. “It feels good to cry, doesn`t it?” I said in my bad Japanese. “Here`s to crying!” We clinked our glasses.
So that`s it. That`s what happened in Vienna a few years ago. We talked for a few more minutes. Then I paid and walked Yuka through Vienna`s charming city center to the U-bahn station. She was flying back to Okinawa the next morning. I had her business card and told her that I would call, but after I got back myself, a few days later, the days went by, and then a month, and I never did.
The Peasant Wedding -- Pieter Bruegel the Elder