I meet Romanian-German Girl over dinner on my fifth night at the London hostel. It’s the beginning of January, but the temperature outside is more than bearable, where a simple jacket or two will suffice.
She’s eating multi-grain bread with sliced avocados. She is the first person at the hostel I’ve met who both speaks English and seems interested in talking. I’ve met other travelers in the kitchen while making breakfast or lunch or dinner, but most are too busy or tired or don’t speak English at all. During the day the ornate building feels like a ghost hostel, with few people in the common areas. Anyone who is around is reading book, skimming social media, or chatting in small groups with friends.
It takes Romanian-German Girl a very long time to eat. “I’m from Romania, but I live in Germany,” she says. She lives there alone—the rest of her family is still in Romania. She’s attending a German school to finish her secondary education even though she’s now in her twenties. The way other countries do education is very different from the way we do things here in the U.S. For instance, they don’t call anything “high school”; they call it “secondary education.” Anything before that is “primary school” not elementary, not middle. And grades don’t go by numbers—there isn’t first and then second and then third. It’s so much more complicated than that. Later, I’ll meet someone who tells me that in their country—Australia? Germany?—you decide at 15 whether you want to be on the college-track or not, and you don’t get to change your mind afterward.
Before meeting Romanian-German Girl, I took a free tour and made a friend who also had to leave the next day. Since then, I’ve spent my days mostly alone, checking out the town that surrounds my hostel, and walking past mansions guarded by cast-iron fences, and palm trees in their gardens. I walked all the way to a canal one day, where I saw graffiti under bridges and admired castle-like homes from across the river, and stared longingly at the herd of houseboats gathered along the dock behind a locked gate. I imagined living in one of those boats. What would it feel like to live as a river-dweller?
So, Romanian-German Girl is visiting London for a few days, and when she goes home she’ll return to her secondary education. We decide to hang out the next day, so I wait for her in the downstairs dining area of the hostel the next morning. I wait while she makes breakfast, and then slowly begins eating breakfast; I wait when she starts talking to Argentinian friends that she met the night before; and then I wait while she gets all her stuff together and stores it in the downstairs lockers, since she’s leaving this afternoon. I also give her a pound so she doesn’t have to run to an ATM to afford the locker. I am such a patient person, clearly.
And then we walk to the bus station, where I wait as she tries to figure out how the busses work, because they cost half as much as the subway. I wait as bus #13 parks and then drives away, and she says, “Oh, that was the bus we were supposed to take…” and I say, “Let’s take the Underground,” because I am sick of so much waiting. On the subway—Underground or Tube in British-speak—I like to see how long I can balance without having to hold onto anything. But when we get onto the car, my new friend suggests helpfully, “the bar is for holding onto.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Yes, I know.” I keep my hands at my sides, balancing.
When we get out at Hyde Park, I start crossing the street, but she hasn’t moved. “The walk sign isn’t lit up,” she says, just a touch exasperated by my rule-breaking tendencies.
“Do all Germans follow rules so stringently?” I ask her, sick of her helpful demands.
“I guess so?” She says.
We visit Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, and as we’re waiting in line for them to search our bags, she sees a sign that says NO PLASTIC WATER BOTTLES.
“Just hide it in your jacket,” I say, since it’s clear that no one is being patted down. We’re all wearing heavy sweatshirts or light winter coats for the 40 or 50’s-ish weather outside. This, to Londoners is winter; but this is more like spring or fall to a New Englander like myself.
“Maybe,” she says, and she tucks it into her jacket. But as we’re going through the checkpoint, she breaks it out and says, “Is this okay? Can I have this?” And the searcher takes it from her and tosses it into the garbage can.
I sigh and just keep walking so she can catch up.
After walking around Winter Wonderland, we pass Marble Arch and approach a giant sculpture of a horse head balanced on its nose. It’s made of bronze and appears to stand at twice the height of the double-decker busses. And nearby is a herd of orphan elephants (also bronze).
When I see the elephants, I shriek with glee and run toward them, knowing that Romanian-German Girl will follow. To see a herd of elephants—even if they aren’t alive—in the middle of this concrete jungle is thrilling. It does for me what yoga or hiking often can; I feel happy and relieved. The calves’ heads nearly reach my shoulders. I take out my camera and begin snapping pictures of the elephants, trying to uncover the sculptures’ significance without reading the walkway plaque. I figure it out when I get to the mother, who is sinking into the mud, her massive tusks lowering as she dies.
I’m obsessed with these young elephants—there are twenty of them, all in various poses of standing, sitting, lying down, alone or with others. “It must be about poaching for tusks,” I say.
Romanian-German Girl is reading the plaque. “Come read this,” she says. “It’s about the orphans.”
“I wonder where they get the number,” I say while reading beside her. “It says here that fifty-five elephants a day are murdered for their tusks.”
“I think they just do that to get peoples’ attention,” Romanian German Girl says.
“I just hope it’s a real number and not something they made up,” I say. “It must be based on something—maybe they counted the number dead in a year and then divided it by three-hundred and sixty-five. If fifty-five elephants a day are killed, and there are only four-hundred-thousand left in the wild, then doesn’t that mean that all the elephants will be dead within the next two years?” I totally butcher the math. Later, I’ll realize I had mistaken 20,000 for 200,000, meaning that the elephants may survive for another twenty years, which still isn’t long, but is a lot longer than two years.
Romanian German Girl is looking at the shops in the distance. “I think they just include the numbers to make people think,” She says. “Do you want to get some tea?”
After Green tea, Romanian German Girl brings me to Daunt Books, a massive multi-level bookstore that’s broken its materials into sections by country: England, Ireland, Spain, France, Romania, Greece… “Isn’t this an amazing library?” She keeps saying.
“It’s a bookstore,” I keep correcting. “And yes, it’s awesome.”
I skim travel books and travelogues and histories about Spain and Greece.
“I need to leave soon,” she says. “Let me show you where to go in Romania.” I stare forlornly at the Greek books, ready to escape the constant go-go-go hustle of London and stay somewhere a little more laid back. I follow her to the Romania section, which has remarkably fewer books than some nearby countries. She opens a book and points to a map, showing me which cities I should visit, and explaining why. I’m grateful that she’s so helpful, even if I would rather be looking at other books, because I don’t know if I’ll meet anyone else who’s lived in Romania and can make good suggestions. But soon it’s time for her to go.
We return to the hostel together, and when she leaves I’m happy to have my time as my own again, but I’m also sad to lose the one friend I’ve really made at the hostel, even if we didn’t have all that much in common. I feel like I’ve lost a little sister.