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Her mum buys her two new pairs of jeans and gives her the credit card, but only for emergencies. Her grandmother sends her a jumper in the post and two pairs of socks that she has knitted herself because she’s going to Austria and it’s cold there.
Her dad calls her on the way to the airport. He’s sorry – they thought she wasn’t leaving until next week. The semester dates are earlier there, she explains. He says that he and Fiona were going to send a cheque, but it’s too late now anyway. They’ll email her a picture of the twins soon. When the weather’s better, they’re going to get professional shots taken in the garden by Fiona’s friend.
She hangs up. She is not sure what to do with a cheque, even if he had sent one.
She hasn’t been on a plane since she was ten, when they went to Disney World. She has forgotten the pressure of take-off, the sensation of being forced back into her seat. She remembers it being smoother than this, the bit in the middle when they have reached their height.
“You do not like flying,” says the man next to her, gesturing to her hand gripping the seat rest between them. He is south Asian, grey hair at his temples.
“I’m just not used to it,” she says.
“You are going on holiday?” he asks. “Tell me about it, take your mind off the flight.”
“No,” she says. “I’m studying abroad.”
“How nice,” he says. He never got to do anything like that when he was her age. His children didn’t study abroad when they were at university either. He talks at her about his children until the drinks service appears. She is about to ask for one of the small bottles of wine, rosé if they have it, but then she sees that people on the other side of the aisle are pulling out their cards to pay.
It must have been free when they went to Disney World she thinks, remembering the plastic trays of food. She doesn’t think her mum would have paid for it.
She nods no thanks when the air hostess gets to her.
In Innsbruck airport she follows the signs for EU passports. Then, when the last person in front of her has stepped through the electronic barriers and she is being waved through by an official on the other side, she realises this might be the wrong queue for her. She pauses, and the official waves again, saying something brusquely in German that she can’t catch.
She walks forward. She holds her passport up to the electronic reader. An egg timer appears on the screen, turning over and over, and then a big green tick, and then the barrier opens. She takes a train to a tram, and then she has to walk across campus to an office to get the key to her room.
She doesn’t understand the man behind the desk. He is wearing round glasses with very thin frames, and he talks at her for a long time until she realises that he is expecting an answer.
“Was?” she asks. He shakes his head, as though she is an annoyance.
He gives her a plastic binder of papers and booklets, and a key card. He draws her a map on a piece of lined A4 to explain how to get to her room. He takes a different colour biro and draws a dotted line from where they are to her room. Then he turns the biro over and retraces the route with the bottom of the pen, talking to her very slowly. She understands about half.
It’s easier just to nod.
Her first class is three days after she arrives. Post-world war Austrian literature. The course instructor is a woman about her mum’s age. She is very thin. She walks around the classroom with a limp, giving out copies of the syllabus.
One of the main texts they are going to study is a book she has already read in English.
Everyone else in the class seems to know each other. They drift off in groups after it ends.
Later she gets a text from her mum. Hope the first class went well!! :) Remember I can take the jeans back when you come home in the summer if they don’t fit, just keep the tags on xxx.
She reads the rest of the papers in the plastic binder the man gave her on the first day. One seems to say that she can change classes if she wants to.
She goes to the building where she thinks she can do this. She waits in line to talk to people behind a glass-enclosed counter. One becomes free, and she walks up to it. The woman on the other side does not smile.
She holds up the brochure that she thinks says she can switch classes. She flicks to the page with the class that she wants to take. She points to it. She says – she thinks she says – that she wants to change from her history class to a journalism option, taught in English.
She is there for almost two hours. When she leaves, she is still unsure if she has changed classes.
She goes to both classes for the next two weeks, just to make sure. Then the journalism teacher asks why she is there and she knows she doesn’t have to go back.
She goes to Lidl and buys five kilograms of pasta and as many tins as she can carry. She eats alone most nights in her room. She is sharing the kitchen with other people but they rarely seem to be around. She has only seen two of the others on her corridor.
One of the first weekends, one of them is in the kitchen eating eggs on Sunday morning. She forces herself to go in and say hello. He is a doctoral student, visiting from a university in Iran. Would she prefer they speak in English?
“Yes,” she says.
Her mum texts. Elizabeth had the baby a boy very cute!! :) Is it still snowing there? xxx.
Elizabeth is her cousin. She hasn’t seen her since she was about eight. All she can remember is that she had a nose piercing and smelt like she hadn’t washed.
She hasn’t seen any snow since she arrived.
There is a TV room in the basement of the dorms, next to the laundry room. She goes down to watch it most nights.
One night there is a report about migrants in a camp in Greece. There is a long interview with a woman holding a small child, crying. Her words are dubbed into German. She only understands about half what the woman says. Something about a son, not knowing where he is.
The other people on her corridor – on the rare occasions that she sees them – all seem to be older. She talks to one of the women one morning, about a month after her arrival. The woman has just come from the shower and is wrapped in two towels, one around her head and one around her body.
“I’m sorry they stuck you with all of the postgraduate students,” she says. “You should be with other people on exchange like you. You must have bad luck.”
They talk in English. She is from Germany, visiting for a few months to work in a laboratory as part of her PhD. Something to do with rats, and their livers. The towel falls down as they talk, revealing the top of one of her nipples. She doesn’t seem to notice.
There is a new girl in her Austrian literature class, also on exchange.
She is from Vermont, her name is Susie, and she is a month late getting here because her father had a heart attack and she wanted to stay with him while he recovered. He almost died she says, at an Italian restaurant in front of the whole family. Have you ever known anyone who almost died, right in front of you like that?
She shakes her head and says no.
She talks to her mum on Skype after Neil at work downloads it for her onto her phone. Neil is nice, her mum says, but he is always banging on about Brexit. He has bought an EU flag and sewn it onto his backpack.
“Honestly, what is the fuss,” her mum says. “It’s over, it happened, they should just get on with it.”
She tells her mum about Susie.
“That’s nice,” her mum says. “Is she loud? Americans are always loud.”
Susie says that they should go to a coffee shop after class because coffee shops in Austria are divine and doesn’t she want to try all of the pastries that she can?
They have hot chocolates and share some sort of cream thing that Susie knows the name of. Her half of the bill costs the same as all of her Lidl pasta. The café is full of old people with wrinkles around their lips and mauve hair.
Does she have a boyfriend who will come to visit her? Susie asks. Or a girlfriend?
“No, no boyfriend,” she says.
Susie has a boyfriend. He is pre-med and might come to stay for Easter, and then they might go to Italy to ski; they haven’t decided yet. She nods. She doesn’t know what pre-med means.
They have to write two essays for the literature class. She writes the first one on the book she has read in English. She uses Google Translate a lot. She gets a B.
Susie has met other exchange students through an international club that seems to meet at the on-campus bar weekly. She had no idea it existed. Susie takes her one week and introduces her to everyone personally around the long table with their name and one very specific fact about them. Pablo – Mexico – four sisters – can you imagine being the only boy with four sisters?! Steven – Australia – he doesn’t know how to swim. How is that even possible?! He’s from an island!
Everyone speaks English, even people on exchange from Mexico, and France, and Sweden. They meet there every Thursday, and the beer is cheap, cheaper even than Lidl pasta.
She stops going to the TV room so much.
Susie likes to swim, so they go to the pool on campus twice a week with Sophie from Paris and Irene from San Sebastián. Admission is free for students if they go before ten. Sometimes Neculai, the Romanian with the almost-monobrow, joins them.
“You are from England?” he asks her, confused. “But why do you learn German now? Now you don’t need it?”
Susie organises a tour for all of the exchange students. They meet on a Saturday morning and take a bus into the city from campus. Susie leads them on a walking tour of the city that she seems to have on an app on her phone. They stop at two coffee shops in the morning, to warm up from the cold outside.
She has a small coffee at the first one. She sits next to Agnieszka, from Poland, who orders a hot chocolate that comes with whipped cream and a whole chocolate flake.
They have a guided tour in the afternoon in German with a tour guide who has a bad lisp. She understands some of it, even with the lisp, which makes her think her German might be getting better, but she’s at the back of the group and she can’t hear very well. They walk for hours, out to one of the palaces and through a big park and then end up back at the city hall.
Susie doesn’t seem to have a plan after this. The group mills around, sitting on the walls of the fountain outside. There are posters outside city hall, pictures of mostly men, smiling in suits. One of the French boys says that there are elections soon.
“What do you think about your President?” Pablo says to Susie, jokingly. Susie says she doesn’t like to talk about politics.
The weather gets warmer. She sits on the grass outside the library after the literature class one day with Susie and Maria, from Sweden.
“We need to talk to more Austrian people,” says Susie. “No Austrians came on the trip. I came all this way and I don’t have any Austrian friends! I want an Austrian boyfriend – I want him to take me to meet his family at some cabin in the mountains and cook me schnitzel.”
She wonders what happened to pre-med.
Her dad emails the picture of the twins. They are sitting on the grass, in matching sailor shirts and blue shorts. One has a bow in its hair.
He says that he hopes she’s doing well. He says that he spoke to her mum and she says she’s happy. He says she will have to come and visit in the summer when she’s back to see the twins, she won’t believe how big they are now.
But I can see how big they are, she thinks. You sent me a picture.
Her pasta runs out so she goes back to Lidl with Maria. Maria has a big shopping cart, the kind with wheels that grannies have. They buy enough food that Maria does not think they will need to do another trip before they leave.
It takes them ages to get home. Maria is in a different set of flats, on the other side of campus. They drop off Maria’s stuff first and then go back to her dorm. Maria helps her unpack the shopping. There is no one in the kitchen.
Maria is from Mälmo. Does she know where that is? She says no. Maria says it used to be nice but now it is so full of immigrants she doesn’t feel safe anymore. She isn’t being racist, she explains, they just don’t understand what it means to be Swedish.
Her mum texts. It is a picture of two pairs of running shorts, lined up on the couch. They were on sale in Aldi do you want me to send you them? xxx.
The next week Susie brings three Austrian boys to the international club meet up. They are from her Globalisations class, she says. Two of them sit at the far end of the table and don’t speak very much. The third one speaks very good English. His name is Mikkel. Susie takes him around the group, person to person, like she did with her the first time she met them all. Susie advances up the line closer and closer to her (Xu, Hong Kong, speaks five languages, isn’t that amazing? Pierre, France, played for the French under-12s football team. Sophia, Luxembourg, distantly related to European royalty.) She wonders what fact Susie will use when she reaches her.
Susie tells Mikkel her name, that she is from England, and then just says that she is the first person she met here, before she knew anyone else.
Susie doesn’t come to the literature class the next week.
“Do you think she is seeing Mikkel?” Maria asks her at the pool one day. She says she doesn’t know. “I thought you were friends,” Maria says.
She watches more TV in the TV room. Sometimes she walks across campus to Maria’s room to watch Netflix with her because Maria has an account.
Susie brings Mikkel back to the international club the week after. They are definitely together.
Susie mostly stops coming to the literature class. After she has not been to class for a few weeks, she emails. I’m in the MOUNTAINS, at his parents CABIN, and there are GOATS and COWS WITH BELLS and this is literally everything I wanted study abroad to be!!!! You would not BELIEVE!! Will you send me your notes from last week, thanks xxxxxxxx.
Her mum texts. Remember Grandma’s birthday. She’d really like some chocolates I think that’s a very Austrian thing?? Neil says FaceTime will work too if you have wifi? xxx.
She walks into town at the weekend and finds a tourist shop near the town hall. She buys a fridge magnet and a box of chocolates. She finds a post office and queues to post it. She holds the address up to the glass, but the woman asks a lot of questions that she doesn’t understand. The woman is getting frustrated, and eventually switches to English. “Fast or slow,” she says. “You want fast or slow?”
“Fast,” she replies.
The woman talks to the other man behind the counter. She rolls her eyes. She thinks they are talking about her.
The parcel costs as much to post as her big Lidl shop.
She thinks about the credit card, still at the bottom of the suitcase under her bed.
Susie comes back from the mountains. Susie brings Mikkel to the international meet-up every week. Susie doesn’t come swimming any more.
Neculai from Romania starts coming to the pool all the time. He always wants to ask her very specific questions about Brexit. What does she think immigration policy will look like? Doesn’t she think certain sectors of the economy will be forever damaged? Has she considered the influence it might have on her future career?
“I think that he likes you,” says Sophie from France.
She swims underwater for long stretches to avoid him.
Susie brings Mikkel to sit on the grass with her and Maria every week after literature class. They lounge: her head on his lap, holding hands on her stomach. “We should go out more, Susie says. “We don’t have much time left. I didn’t come to Europe to be boring.”
Her loan for the semester is all gone. She takes money out on the credit card. There isn’t much time left, after all.
Mikkel takes them to a bar on the other side of the city – her and Susie and Maria and Sophie and Irene and Pablo and Pierre and the other French boy whose name she can’t remember but whom she has talked to too much to ask what it is again. Sophie mentioned going out to Neculai at the pool, and she was worried he would come too, but he doesn’t show. There are some friends of Mikkel there as well, but it is loud and dark and she can’t hear all of their names.
Pierre buys her a beer and then she buys him one back, and then Maria buys a round of shots of something and then there are more beers and then, at some point, she is standing outside smoking with Mikkel and Susie and one of Mikkel’s friends. It takes her a second to understand but they are talking in English, she realises, thank God.
“It is funny, no? That we are all here and hanging out and it’s all cool?” Mikkel says.
Susie has her hand in Mikkel’s back pocket. She doesn’t have a cigarette. “It’s so cool,” Susie says.
“I mean it’s just great right, like we can all be friends now?” Mikkel totters slightly. “From all over the world and we are friends? Like, when you think about what happened – it is amazing, no?”
Susie is forcing them to stand closer, to take a selfie. He pushes her head into the picture, between Mikkel and the friend. The flash is bright. She blinks it away. Mikkel’s friend is next to her, frowning.
“Yes, but you know,” he says to Mikkel, “we don’t need to feel bad all the time. We don’t need people making us feel bad.”
Mikkel looks confused. Susie is trying to blow smoke rings, and failing.
“I don’t feel bad, man,” Mikkel says, laughing at his friend, “I feel happy.” He pulls Susie closer by the waist. She pushes him off, still concentrating on her phone.
“I know but that’s not what they all think, man,” says Mikkel’s friend, “like – they weren’t bad people. They were just following orders. Most of them didn’t really do anything bad.”
Mikkel’s eyes are glazed. Susie is reaching into his back pocket for a cigarette.
Mikkel’s friend looks at her instead. “Like, most of them didn’t do bad, you know? They just did what they were told to do.”
It’s easier just to nod.
She throws up in the kitchen sink back in the flat.
She wakes up, hungover, to a text from her mum. Did you use the credit card? I’m not angry I just want to know x.
She flies home a week later. The day before she goes she walks into town to buy more chocolates for her mum, to say sorry about the credit card. She leaves her extra pasta in the kitchen in case someone wants it.
Maria says that she will maybe come to England if she goes interrailing after she graduates. She says she can visit her too, if she ever wants to come to Sweden.
Sophie says she is going to London in the summer and maybe they could meet there, does she know where Knightsbridge is?
She goes to find Susie, but there is no answer for a long time on the intercom at her dorm.
Eventually someone sticks their head out of a window above her and yells something in German.
“Was?” she replies.
The man’s head says something again.
She tries to say she is looking for her friend, her American friend.
“Susie?” he says.
Then he says something about going, and America, and family, and maybe sickness?
She nods, thank you, yes.
They land at Heathrow and she is waiting to get through the electronic gates. The queue she is in has stopped, dead still, even as the other lines move around her. Up ahead a man is trying again and again, slipping his passport into the slot. A woman, her hair pulled back tight into a bun, comes towards him. She gestures off to the side, where the desks are. He throws up his hands. Another man in uniform walks up. The man trying to get through the barrier is shouting now, something she can’t hear. People around her are looking without trying to make it look as though they are looking, and shuffling from foot to foot.
“Please just let us do our job, sir,” the woman is saying.
The man picks up his bag and starts to walk towards the desk, but the woman shakes her head and points to a door on the other side, next to a window with tinted glass.
Her queue is moving quickly now. The woman official opens the door, and the man walks through. “Over here please, miss,” someone says, and points her to an open barrier. She rolls the suitcase in front of her and fumbles for her passport in her bag.
She holds her passport up to the electronic reader and slots it into the plastic holder. An egg timer appears on the screen, turning over and over, and then a big green tick, and then the barrier opens.