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Riders Auf Der Storm
by Duncan Myles McHugh

I am not a Doors fan. This should be cleared up right away. Sure, I own their greatest hits—who doesn't?—-but to call me a fan wouldn't be truthful. There was a moment in my life, however, when the sound of those four hippies from Los Angeles was the sweetest sound imaginable.

In May of 1997, I accompanied my paternal grandmother to visit her sister in Kripp, a small town 25 kilometres south of Bonn, Germany, on the Rhein river. I was filled with a feeling that suggested both excitement and extreme anxiety. This was my first trip to Europe and I eagerly anticipated steeping myself in Continental sophistication—a welcome respite from my North American suburbanite existence. At the same time, I was still reeling from an alienating and academically unsuccessful first year of university, and the ultimately-justified worry that my then-girlfriend would cheat on me while I was away.

Upon arrival, I was immediately confronted with a number of unexpected consequences. First of all, my smattering of high school German proved entirely useless. I could ask for directions to the washroom or for another serving of potato salad, but beyond that I was dependent upon my grandmother.

There were ways around the language barrier: first and foremost avoidance. I did my best to avoid having to speak. I became extremely adept at charades, working out trans-Atlantically-accepted gestures for most situations. My Uncle Hans, a kind, but bitter Socialist in his 70s, had a different approach; if we weren't understanding each other, he would slow down his speech and increase the volume, getting slower and louder each time he repeated himself. Clearly his method had its problems, but over time (i.e. the amount of time it took for me to just start pretending I understood him), it proved successful.

Another unexpected consequence was the amount of free time I had. My plan to immerse myself in European culture hit a setback when I realised my only real companions were senior citizens who spent most of their time laughing about jokes I didn't get. There were the occasional road trips to local sights, but mostly we just hung around at home and ate.

Given the food's quality and unusualness (white asparagus!), the near-constant eating was okay, but I did get restless after a few days. To fill in the mind-numbing boredom, I took to reading and biking (radfahren).

The biking was good. It was about twenty kilometres to Bonn, then the German capital. The route I took was a seawall along the Rhine and it was a beautiful trip. The Rhine valley would roll out for miles and there were all sorts of peculiar German idiosyncracies on that hour-long bike ride: the seaside beer gardens, the austere German monuments and the starkness of the Bauhaus-styled Bundeshaus (the German parliament).

I enjoyed riding along the Rhine. It was solitary, but it cleared my head and I got to reflect on where my life was at and how to put it past me. I had just completed my first year at UBC and it had been a fairly spirit-crushing endeavour. I'm one of those people that had a great experience in high school and to this day my high school friends remain some of my best friends. University for me was something akin to prematurely slipping out of the womb.

I had no real desire to be at UBC, but familial pressure and societal expectation assured that I would be attending. It was a brutal experience, mired in alienation and confusion. I began listening to the Smiths incessantly and Kerouac fueled my dreams of escape. Serving as my grandmother's sherpa on a trip to her sister's did not really constitute an "escape."

Contributing to this malaise was the ever-worsening condition of my relationship with Anne. Anne was my first serious girlfriend and she was just finishing Grade twelve when I left for Europe. She had been growing distant and our trans-Atlantic phone calls were dispassionate and frustrating. During one of these calls, she had the task of informing me that she was going to be at an Eastern university in the fall. I think I would have weaselled out of relaying such a heartbreaking message over that distance, but she approached it with a casual professionalism. Of course, I would find out later that she had cheated on me with some one from Kamloops, which probably contributed a significant amount to her not-really-there vibe.

Bonn itself didn't have a lot going for it. It was pretty, owing to the fact that it was one of the few cities in that area of Germany to not be firebombed during the Second World War. This didn't mean there was anything to do. My cousin joked about B-O-N-N being a German acronym for city without a nightlife, but I never really understood the translation.

On my days in town, I would eat food acquired by pointing at menus and hit bookstores looking for English books, which were always overpriced. I eventually took to reading English-language newspapers like the European edition of The Wall Street Journal and The European, both of which were focused almost entirely on business news. Ordinarily, I would have no appetite for stock tips or CEO profiles, but under the circumstances, I was voracious for it.

I started to go crazy. No more novels or financial news, I thought to myself, I needed a more engaging medium-I needed to hear English. To meet this formidable task, I turned to the short wave radio in the bedroom I as staying in. Scanning the airwaves, I heard a Russian news broadcast (or at least what sounded, to my ear, like a Russian news broadcast), an Italian radio drama, some German and a bunch of static.

I remember thinking how odd it was that there were so many disparate radio broadcasts in the air; that the city was saturated in these floating transmissions. But my philosophising on radio waves was cut short. Suddenly, the radio became a linguistic conduit. The words—the sonorous English words—came humming to my ears.

"There's a killer on the road
His brain is squirmin' like a toad."

A wave of relief came over me.

"Take a long holiday
Let your children play."

Never had the voice of someone so dead sounded so alive.

"If ya give this man a ride
Sweet family will die
Killer on the road."

I was being led back to the confines of my comfortable language and Jim Morrison was leading me by the hand.

"Girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand
Make him understand
The world on you depends
Our life will never end
Gotta love your man"

What the fuck is he talking about? Who cares! Finally, someone was giving me English and it wasn't a reluctant German or a distracted girlfriend. It was Jim fucking Morrison and he and I were loving it.

"Riders on the storm," he sang
"Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm"

Mother of Christ what a song. "Dog without a bone," "actor out on loan," what did it all mean? To this day I haven't figured it out, but-incomprehensible as it may be-that song got me through that day and through the rest of my trip.

I don't know when I'll make it back to Germany. I'm still at UBC, though now much more happily. With my grandmother's death last year, however, I wished that I'd been a bit more open to the experience of living without my mother tongue. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all— Jim Morrison died living in Paris.


Duncan Myles McHugh got out of here alive.

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