We boarded the night-time train and headed for our booked compartment. We were on our way for our once a year vacation from Germany to Italy, the home of my mother. We would stay with my grandparents; enjoy the weather, the sea, an alternative life-style, food and language. As soon as we would settle into our 1st class compartment we would spread out, having use of all the seats, pull them out, turning the place into one giant bed, wrap ourselves into blankets and coats and sleep our way to Italy.
My father´s only childhood vacations, in the States during the thirties and forties, were one-day outings to islands on the lakes nearby or spending time in a rented cottage near the lakes. My mother went to the mountains above Rome during the summer, to escape the heat in the city. In our seventies moment in Germany we considered it a great luxury to stay in Rome for the summer vacation, although it did not compare to the frequency and variety of holidays our German friends considered normal. Winter and Spring was for skiing in Austria or Switzerland. Summer found them moving down the motorway in endless columns towards sunnier regions – in those days preferably Spain, Italy and France. It seemed the further away the better. If at the end of this travel they all ended up on overcrowded beaches full of their own kind, cursing the sand thrown up by running children and burning their pale skins to crisp, it was perfect.
Instead I looked forward to this 12-hour trip in relative comfort and relax on plush, red seats and surrounded by the dusty, slightly burned smell of travel. The gentle noise and movement of the train sang to us in our dreams. Sometimes the cold air of mountain ranges seeped under our blankets, and we would huddle closer for warmth and more sleep. At arrival all six of us would squeeze into a TAXI, enjoy a roller coaster ride through Rome and finally be greeted by our grandmother, who offered chicken soup to the tired travelers. We were lucky our grandparents lived where others went on Holiday.
We stood in front of our compartment and double checked the number on our tickets and on the door with our reservation stuck to it. It was definitely ours and we wondered why two Germans were sitting in it. We knew that Germans are very good at rules, so it had to be an honest mistake. The reservation stated clearly this train would be taken from our station onward. My mother patiently explained to them that we had booked the compartment and they would have to move. They grinned. Then we tried the authorities and called upon the train attendant; a tired, tiny man. He confirmed in heavily accented German that we were entitled to the whole compartment, but this left the men unimpressed and unmoved. The train attendant shrugged and turned to us with a sad smile playing on his lips. “What can one do?” he asked my mother in Italian.
The men were as large as they were tall and there was something about the way they ignored my mother, the Italian train attendant and a bundle of children that were longing for their compartment that made me uneasy. Even my ten year old mind detected that something was amiss, but I could not understand why these people behaved so differently from my German friends.
My mother knew. The train attendant knew. Maybe my older sisters got it too. And I know now my father knew and that explains what happened next.
My father, although tall, is a skinny fellow with glasses. He looks much younger than his age and all his secret weight lifting has no effect on making his visuals more impressive. Additionally he wears an eye-patch, where he is missing an eye.
When my father saw with his one eye and his whole heart that these men were behaving wrong for all the wrong reasons he transformed. I swear that he grew even taller, certainly wider. His face turned red and his one eye fixed on the men in a way that made them squirm. This took about two seconds. Not enough time for them to react to what happened in the next three seconds. My father pounced on the larger one, pulled at his shirt, lifting him out of the seat (this is where the weight lifting finally paid off) and broadcast in a voice tuned to all languages of the world, “If you don´t shift your ugly bottoms out of this place NOW you are going to be VERY SORRY!”
My mother nearly fainted, while we children readied ourselves to pull our father off his victims. The train attendant raised his eyebrows, scratched his head and smiled. Another second and we saw the backside of some very burly men scuttling off down the aisle in search of a safe haven. They just had made the acquaintance of the original hulk – our Daddy.
I hope the next time they met a large family of inoffensive and innocuous foreigners, they thought twice about acting superior. You never know where the Hulk might show up.