It’s obvious that if you travel you set yourself up for discovery, at least something unusual, modestly different horizons. And surprise can be the welcome outrider of every trip.
The homely Greyhound trip from Milwaukee to Chicago is usually crowded with just a cross-section of very domestic folks off to visit relatives. Except last week. There were four young travelers, all speaking German in the terminal as they one by one surfaced from individual hypnotic stares at IPhone screens. Aboard, one of the young men asked if he could sit next to me. (That is a courtesy always welcome and just about always a surprise.)
Settling, then a start: “Where you from?”
Assuming—in my case correctly—a U.S. ignorance of Euro geography, he opted for the generic: “Germany.”
“Where?” as if I was really able to summon up coordinates relating other than Munich, Berlin, and maybe Cologne.
“Ulm?” A question, wisely presuming I would be lost—except for the cathedral.
So he led me to about a half-way point between Munich and Stuttgart. How could he have guessed that I loved both Circus Krone and the Stuttgart Ballet? He didn’t.
“And are you a student here?”
“Yes. At UWM.”
“What do you study?”
“A master’s in the mathematics. It’s my second master’s. In Germany I got a master’s in the economics.”
“And what do you hope to do professionally?”
Ask questions. You learn. And here’s where he drove me to the dictionary and a good laugh.
“I want to be an actuary.” He saw me wince a bit. “An actuary?” he repeated, in the same tone as “Ulm?” And he explained with a profile that sounded a bit like our certified public accountant or notary public. The laugh? Over “Everybody in Germany told me Americans all know what an actuary is.” (I have only encountered the word in Shakespeare. Go ahead look it up. You’ll be aswirl between court clerk and insurance risks.) Then we got on to travel and what he should see of our national parks and more immediately, during this, his first trip to Chicago.
On my way back from Gary, Indiana to Chicago, I sat next to a prayer tree from West Virginia. Really. It was on top of a small suitcase on the lap of a gracious elderly lady.
“How long you been riding?”
“Since yesterday morning. Got on in Lewisburg, West Virginia where I was born.” (Ulm?). “Not too much farther. Champagne this evening.” (I knew she meant Illinois.)
“What kind of plant is that?”“Mimosa. Very delicate. It’s the start of a full grown tree. Dug it up from my old front yard—where my heart is. Very fragile. These little leaves curl up at night. That’s why they call it a ‘prayer tree.’”
“Really?” Here I was thinking about a drink made with champagne (not Illinois) and orange juice after a night of anything but prayer.
“Yeah. The mother of this one was split in two by lightning and lived.”
Finally I got a chuckle out of her. “Well I guess she knew the right prayers!”
“I’m worried with all this bouncing and shaking of these tiny branches. So I pet the leaves from time to time and whisper to it.”
Then silence all the way into Chicago. I caught myself dozing between glances at that lacelike foliage on tiny shoots sprouting from small clods of West Virginia earth.
Kind of a rolling prayer.