As I grew up, I have had a unique feeling of belonging to more than one place. I grew up in Michigan. The town I grew up in was relatively small one, a perfect little chunk of suburbia, but any time we could, we drove up north to visit my grandparents who lived on private property in the woods near Reed City. This left me feeling like some sort of city-boy and country-kid hybrid. I could have gotten into any number of activities in a number of different communities, be it in an urban or a rural community.
Instead of participating in the world around me, I kept my head down and kept my nose in my Gameboy. I am a little brother. I never cared about where we were going, I never had to know. I just knew we were going somewhere and that I had enough batteries to keep training my Pokemon. My parents made me play a sport when I was young, but soccer never kept my attention. As I got older, I never left this mindset. Even when I started to drive, I had a GPS to hold my hand and guide me everywhere without having to learn the layout of the streets.
Oddly enough, it took a massive city to teach me to appreciate my home town.
One day, when my grandpa learned I was taking a German class, he decided he would pay for me to go visit my relatives in Germany. So, with one semester of the language under my belt, I went to Germany for a month.
I started my month in Germany in the city of Berlin. On my second day, I went to an event in a different part of town alone. My favorite video game, League of Legends, has a professional scene called the League of Legends Championship Series or LCS for short. E-sports isn’t popular but League of Legends holds events every week during the season. The European center for the LCS is in Berlin, and I was ecstatic. I was so eager to go that I decided I would go before I had even learned how to use the train system that runs throughout the city of Berlin.
My relatives showed me the tram that went straight from the place I was staying to Aldershof, where the event took place. It was simple and I couldn’t possibly screw it up. All I had to do was get on the same tram line to get back. I wasn’t worried.
I felt comfortable with my ability to survive alone. I knew enough German to communicate and I was still on the adventure kick that comes with leaving the country for the first time. I spent the day in town, exploring the area. Like a good tourist, I took half a thousand pictures as I walked around gawking. I eventually tried and struggled to order food at the “Chicken Planet.” Eventually I found the building where they hosted the event and I waited with a few people in line. Everything went better than I could have imagined, I even made a friend I still talk to today. Being in the crowd watching that game of League of Legends was one of the most exciting events in my not-so-eventful life.
I was living a dream. That is, until I tried to leave. I left the game early, but it was still too late. As I walked out of the building, I realized it had already gotten dark. Despite the foreboding darkness, I stayed positive at first as I found my way to tram station. I used what little German I knew to read the sign with the scheduled times displayed. My stomach sank when I read that the last tram came by an hour ago. In a moment, my positive outlook wilted. I went from living a dream to finding myself in a nightmare.
The reality of the situation hit me. Without the adventure-kick keeping me optimistic anymore, I suddenly felt tiny. I was alone in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language well enough to read specific directions, and it was dark in a big city. I didn’t even have the phone number of my relatives and they didn’t have my number either. I had no way of reaching them.
I was alone.
My mind raced so quickly and chaotically that the phrase “train of thought” didn’t quite do it justice. I didn’t think so much as direct my panic in a constructive direction. I didn’t have a plan and had no clue what I was going to do. What I did know was that I saw the train station down the street. I speed-walked so quickly that I practically ran. I was terrified and suspicious of everything and anything. A teenager in a hoody looking at me was enough for me to start praying to a God I don’t believe in.
Luckily, that wasn’t where my story ended.
On the platform I found a map and a schedule. The trains were running for another hour. The only problem was that I was so new to the city that I hadn’t used the trains before. I lived my entire life nearly an hour away from Detroit, the Motor City. The city where the motor industry was so big that the closest thing to a subway was the People Mover, which only ran through a small part of the city. I had never been on a train in my life.
Now I had to figure out how to use one to get across the city Berlin. Alone. At night.
I found a map I could take with me and I found the place I was staying at: Rahnsdorf. It was half way across the city. The trains were still running but they wouldn’t be running long enough for me to screw up. If I took the wrong one, I wouldn’t have the time to get on another one before the trains stopped for the night. If I didn’t take the right trains in the right direction, I’d be stuck until they started again in the morning. Thinking about that scared me more than anything. Thinking about that wouldn’t help me though.
I got onto the train that was heading towards the station where I would have to switch trains. I listened for the names of the stations and tracked where I was going on the map to make sure that I had not taken the wrong train.
Twenty minutes and two train changes later, I arrived at Rahnsdorf. My relatives were still awake despite it almost being midnight. They were terrified and worried about where I was and why I didn’t come back. As I explained what happened, I realized that such a massive city wasn’t quite as enchanting as the media makes it out to be.
In the end, getting lost in a country I didn’t know made me realize how valuable something as simple as being in a familiar place where everyone speaks the same language is. The only thing that could have made me appreciate the community around me in my home town was feeling utterly disconnected from the world around me in a city an ocean away from home. It took me going to Germany to see what was around me here in Michigan.
I’ve never been so thankful that I live in a small town.