We stride into the large warehouse, gazing at the gray cement flooring and boxes scattered about, filled to the brim with off-brand candy.
I skip in front of my friend, Lara Hellenbrand, spreading my arms eagle-style as a weak “tada!” leaves my lips.
“This is Wal-Mart.”
She falls into step with me, wrinkling her nose slightly. “It’s really freaking dirty.”
I look around sheepishly. “Yeah…”
Lara and I met one hot morning during cross country practice and connected over our mutual dislike for the heat and running. We discovered that we had loads of things in common. There’s just one small difference between Lara and I: we were born and raised in different countries. She’s a German exchange student.
We ran together at least once a week in cross country, and I just barely got a sense of how different some aspects of our cultures were. Lara didn’t know how trick-or-treating worked, and when she tried to educate me on the German school system, I just kind of stood there, fish-mouthing. She’d never even been to a football game before. I took her to one or two, which resulted in her staring blankly, trying to comprehend the chants while I cheered like a lunatic.
We started hanging out outside of school obligations a few weeks later. It started out in a Starbucks, and then a blur of other places, like thrift shops and my grandmother’s house, until we ended up in the language aisle of a Half Price Books, where I learned my first word of German: kartoffel. It means potato in English.
There are no Wal-Marts in Germany. There aren’t any Targets or Taco Bells either. There are only Starbucks in large towns, and Lara lives in a small village about seven hours from Berlin. Now, we frequent Starbucks. I’ll stand in line behind Lara, snickering as the barista attempts to comprehend her accent. Lara will spell her name for the third time, and the lady behind the counter still fails to get it. We walk over to the counter where we get our drinks, and I’ll let out a cackle at the sight of “Lala” printed on Lara’s cup.
We take a seat by the windows of the Starbucks to people watch, and I pull out my phone to figure out a place to go. Lara takes my phone from me, scanning the list of shops and locations I’ve created to provide her with the true American experience.
It involves going to a bunch of really mundane places and me watching her react to them. The cool thing is that she gets to see places like Downtown Kansas City for the very first time, and I get to relive it through her. It makes me appreciate the little things.
Our greatest visit so far, aside from Wal-Mart, was the trip we took to Taco Bell a month or two back. We got two soft tacos apiece and sat in a booth, observing the place where so, so many arteries had been clogged.
“What did you think of that one, Lara?”
“I thought that it would be pretty disgusting, but after I tried it I really liked it.”
We went to IKEA directly afterwards. It’s like the Nebraska Furniture Mart of Europe, apparently. Despite the store being overwhelmingly Swedish, it reminds Lara of home. She told me stories of she and her brother competing to see who could snatch the most miniature pencils from the holders they had sitting around, and was horrified when I admitted I’d never tried their Swedish meatballs.
The single thing we did on our next trip to IKEA was sit in the food court, munching on meatballs. I don’t think I’ve ever received such a disgusted look when I told her I disliked them. We spent the remainder of our time shoving miniature pencils into our pockets.
“I got 14, how about you?”
We’ve also been privileged enough to expand our knowledge culturally by teaching each other words in our respective languages. I know approximately three words of German: hello, goodbye, and potato. I’ve taught her the words sketch, snazzy, and swaggie. With the help of each other, our dialects have never been more authentic. It’s just terrific.
Nagging in the back of both of our minds is the fact that this all is temporary. As excited as I am for Lara to be reunited with her family, friends and cats, it’s really weird to think that such a large part of my life is going to be five thousand miles away in less than two months.
We’re trying to cram as much as possible into the time we have left together, like those trips to Crown Center and Winsteads we always talk about making but never really do. I don’t want to think of the day I’ll have to say goodbye.
But we’ve got that kind of friendship where we’re trying to find an island in the Atlantic Ocean to meet up on, because we believe it’d make an excellent halfway point between Germany and America. Both of us have declared that this most definitely will not be a goodbye, just an “until we meet again.”