The first time I saw Erik was when he asked our tour guide at the Bundestag to speak in English. The second time was when the guide stopped the entire tour because my shoe was untied, and Erik stooped to tie it for me before I even noticed why we’d stopped. Our brief exchange in that moment was in German because neither of us knew yet the other spoke English fluently.
The third time was when we paused for a break and we sat in couches across from each other and he asked for everyone’s name and major. I told them about my plans for a Social Justice degree and wanting to work with children. I told him about my summer camp. He listened intently to my stories. He nodded eagerly when I explained how I preferred to explain the rules to the kids rather than just enforce them, give respect rather than just demand it, and learn from the kids rather than just act as the “sage on a stage.”
“What you’re doing, that’s what the world needs more of,” he said. “It’s amazing that you took the time to stand on the same level as your students.”
I smiled, self-conscious but pleased that someone was finally appreciating the extent to which I strived to help my kids. I went on the tell the story of how a group of the kids had started throwing a banana around until was brown and splattering against anything it touched; how that was the only time I spoke sharply to the kids, scaring them all a bit with my sudden firmness as I explained the food they ate was free and they needed to respect it.
“See, I hate that,” Erik said, leaning back on the couch. “You should never tell a child they have to do something. It shuts them down.”
I thought about that—he had a valid point, but I still believed what I had done was appropriate.
“Maybe I could have gone about it better,” I said. “But from my perspective, food is a precious resource. And I know a lot of these kids come from low-income homes, where food is not always easy to come by. For me, food is a task. It’s a commitment and a struggle. And I know a lot of the kids face the same things. So when they come to summer camp all the free food seems phenomenal. But I don’t want them to take it for granted. They have to understand that it comes from somewhere, too. And they’re lucky to have it, just like I was lucky to have free meals three times a day for taking that job. I appreciated every single one. I wanted them to, as well. And since it was the only time all summer I raised my voice at the kids, I think most of them didn’t shut down—they took me seriously, because they knew if I was yelling it must be serious.”
Erik looked at me keenly and leaned forward again. “You know, you’re right,” he said slowly. “Thank you. I take back what I said.” He reached over to shake my hand. I accepted the gesture, a bit taken aback by his graceful but significant redaction. I couldn’t remember the last time someone told me I was right about something like that.
Erik left a good impression on me then. I saw him here and there throughout the course of the trip, but it wasn’t until I almost got left alone on the train heading back to the hostel that we had our next, and last, significant interaction.
He waved at me through the window, already outside with the others, and seeing him out there I quickly jumped off the train right before it started off again. The others were a ways ahead of us now, leaving me and Erik alone amid the city throng.
“You almost got left behind,” he said, leading the way out of the train station. “That would not have been a good thing.”
“No, probs not,” I said, a bit uncomfortable by how close he was walking to me. I tried to inch myself away but it was difficult as we wound through crowded streets and up and down stairs. He had a habit of grabbing my every time I stumbled or tripped, and I found I had to shake myself free. I knew it was a cultural difference in spacing and contact preferences, but I couldn’t help feeling violated by how many times he grasped my shoulders or clutched my elbow to steer my around corners.
“Do you know which way to go?” he asked when we were about halfway to the hostel.
“Kind of,” I said, afraid that he didn’t and we were going to be lost. I hadn’t been paying much attention to directions to and from the train station during our excursions. I was irritated to be caught off guard.
“I ask you because I want you to be able to find your way back, if you are walking back by yourself sometime,” he explained.
Of course, that is totally logical and makes perfect sense, and it’s nice he was looking out for me. But his method was so annoyingly like that of my ex that I instantly became pissed off and defensive. I stepped away from him again and quickened my pace.
“I’m pretty sure we go down this street and then turn left,” I said, which was fairly accurate.
“Look, here’s the street sign. Boxhanger Strasse,” he pointed out. “You can always look for Boxhanger Strasse.”
“Boxhanger Strasse, got it,” I said, hoping we were almost there. I hopped off the curb and made my way across the street, half zoned out with thoughts of consent and exes, and half used to the small-town world I grew up in where pedestrians have the right of way and crossing lights aren’t a thing.
“Whoa, whoa!” Erik snatched me back again as the cars barreled towards me. Still irritated as hell, I yanked myself free of his grip and snapped, “I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, but we have this rule about no touching in my country.”
I couldn’t tell if he was offended or just annoyed. To be honest, I didn’t care. We crossed the street at the green light and he told me that I looked “irate” when I jumped into the street like that and people would think I was crazy or going to get hurt. All I could think was You mean erratic. But I didn’t say anything.
We made it to the hostel and for the rest of the Berlin trip I saw very little of Erik. Maybe he was avoiding me because I’d offended him. Maybe it was a coincidence. Either way, once we got to Kassel he seemed to have forgotten about our escapade. During a tour my shoe came untied yet again and he smiled at me, saying it was a habit my shoe seemed to have. I said only “Yeah, I guess.” At one point he quoted me in his notes during class and made sure I saw. I was confused but also pleased that he once again made a point to show his appreciation for my opinions. I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t have many more opportunities to test my feelings.
The last time I saw Erik he was surrounded by people and music and laughter and tears. He was a popular guy in our group. His smile seemed genuine and his farewells were touching. I even appreciated the poem he read at the talent show. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was wrong. Or maybe we both learned from each other, since that was what this trip was about.
People flicker in and out of our lives and I always wonder what impact those short-term relationships have on us. I’m still figuring out what the definition of Erik is in my life. For now I’ll just appreciate it as it stands. Annoying, yes. Uncomfortable, yes. Touching maybe, and funny. The man who stooped to tie my shoe on the front steps of the German Capital building and didn’t know about consent in touching and holding hands. People are a lot more complicated than I was raised to think.