Birney Imes: A ride to the train station with Tony

July 20, 2013 9:36:40 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Bad Gandersheim, Germany -- Tony had said he would give me a ride to the train station. 


"Only you must tell me tonight if you want a ride because for me that's the middle of the night. I'll have to set my alarm." 


The train I hoped to take to Gottingen, a town about 30 miles away, departed at 10:37 the following morning. 


Tony, an Englishman by birth, is the de facto building super for the crumbling apartment building my friend Axel has lived in for 15 years. It's an L-shaped, two-story pile of white masonry and exposed beams with a tile roof. Its decrepitude makes it an anomaly in this otherwise well-kept village. 


Occupancy looks to be around 50 percent and holding. The rent is cheap, the apartments large and the atmosphere laissez-faire. The owner lives in another town and is rarely heard from as long as the rent gets paid. 


Tony's base of operations is a garage all tenants must pass as they enter and leave the parking lot of the building. The part-garage, part-living room is home for his almost-new Smart car, a computer station, a large flat-screen TV and a workbench. 


On pleasant days like this one Tony is perched on a folding chair just outside the garage, beer in hand. Standard attire is a T-shirt, dark blue double-knit pants and a tan photographer's vest. 


After 12 years in the British Army, he retired to Germany. He's been here for 40 years. 


"The beer's better here," he explained. "I love it here." 


Tony seems to have everything he needs except, it seems, company. When the opportunity to talk presents itself, he jumps on it. 


We've already had one conversation about the Smart car, which will go 1,000 kilometers on 35.5 liters of petrol (about 67 miles per gallon) and the Volkswagen Golf before that, which at 25 years old was still maintenance-free but cost him 380 Euros in taxes. 


"I don't spend that much for a year's worth of petrol for that," he says, pointing to his Smart car. The car looks like one of those capsules from a ride at the county fair we called the squirrel cages. (The car is manufactured by Mercedes and was developed by the same people responsible for Swatch watches.) 


I wondered aloud if the car would be able to contain me and my duffle. That was all the opening Tony needed. 


"I've carried a fridge in it," he boasted. "And 20 six-packs of beer." 


Tony beckoned me inside the garage to see the small refrigerator and then, if that wasn't proof enough, pulled up on his computer pictures of the car loaded with the refrigerator and then one with the six packs. 


"OK," I said. "If it's not too much trouble." 


The next morning we were rolling shortly after 10. The train station was only a few minutes drive. Turns out the Smart car has plenty of room and is surprisingly spacious for two passengers 


"I'll drive you to Gottingen if you like," Tony offered as we neared the station. 


"Are you sure?" I asked. 


"I wouldn't have offered if I weren't sure," he said. 


A Bob Dylan compilation was playing in the car's CD player. Wherever you go in Europe there's American music. In Munich a small truck roared by one morning with Credence Clearwater Revival blaring through its windows. 


Suddenly Tony hit the brakes. The car jerked in response. 


The van behind us had been following too close for Tony's liking, and he let go a stream of obscenities. Throughout our otherwise pleasant journey I was subjected to a running commentary about the misdeeds of other drivers. 


I asked about the windmills, a common sight in the German countryside. They along with arrays of shiny solar panels draped across the landscape and on the tops of houses are evidence of Germany's move away from nuclear power. 


In 2012 Germany generated 25 percent of its electricity through renewable sources; that includes not only wind and solar but biomass, hydroelectric and a small amount of geothermal. The country has a goal of 35 percent renewables by 2020. 


Finally, we arrived at the train station in Gottingen, one hour and 15 minutes after our departure -- the train ride would have taken 30 minutes. I thanked Tony and bid him tschus. 


Travel is more than merely where we go or things we see; it's also the people we meet along the way. Over the years we've received countless letters at The Dispatch from visitors to Columbus whose journey was enriched by an unexpected kindness from a stranger. 


Such was the case with me, too, thanks to a retired Brit with a fondness for German beer.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.