A Moment Of Friendship On Foreign Soil

I AWOKE with a start in a strange bed, staring out the window into blackness. Where was I? Oh yes. In a time zone six hours ahead of my own.

It was my first full day as a resident in Vienna, and I had promised myself that I'd learn my way around the entire city before I left the following year. Everything from the underground subway routes to the Imperial playgrounds. No tourist guides for me.

So after dawn broke, I set out toward the police station to register as a foreign resident. My landlady had given me directions, and I'd brought the map, but my attention was glued to the street itself, the neighborhood I now called home but did not yet understand.

I passed acres of stubby gray apartment buildings - monuments to the post-World War I renovation of Red Vienna. I walked by gardens and the market where I would buy most of my groceries in the coming year. On the sidewalk, small children with gleaming dark eyes trotted next to their mothers and fathers, out for a weekend Spaziergang.

This was the zehnten Bezirk, 10th district of Vienna, the poorest section of an otherwise grand city. No gold-plated monuments here, and no tourist highlights. But the price of my apartment was right, and I really was interested in socialist architecture.

After several wrong turns, I reached the large concrete building identified with the sign Bezirks-polizeiamt. Once inside, I stopped short. Long lines of hopefuls from Czechoslovakia, Turkey, and what was then Yugoslavia already extended down the corridor toward the door for Anmeldung. The lights had been turned off because of the summer heat, and everyone leaned wearily against the walls. One older woman, covered in a long black shawl, held a red passport marked Jugoslawien. She muttered with a thick accent: ``Warten, warten ... immer warten.'' Waiting, always waiting. Waiting for what? A better life?

I decided to get in line with them when a tall young woman with bouncy hair spotted my blue passport with the eagle.

``You're American, too?'' she asked. She was from Los Angeles. ``No way will you be able to get in today. These people all got in line and took numbers before 8 a.m., when the doors open. The office closes down at 1; many of them won't get in and will have to come back tomorrow.''

I asked her how long she'd been in Vienna. She explained that she'd married an Austrian in California and that they'd moved to Vienna together. But she couldn't speak German, and even though she took lessons it was hard to meet people. ``No one smiles,'' she said.

I looked around at the people in line with us, and she was right. But they also seemed to have little to smile about until they got through the door ahead of them.

The next day, I got to the police station at 6:30 a.m., and I wasn't even the first one there. We sat on the sidewalk casually, though, until a tough-looking guy missing a front tooth and needing a shave marched up and planted himself directly in front of the door - ahead of where we had been sitting. I smiled grimly. It didn't seem appropriate to cry, ``Hey, he's cutting!''

But it did seem appropriate to become his friend. I stood behind him, and a line formed behind me. By 7:15 the line was at least 50 people deep. I decided to smile at the tough-looking guy, noticing that he had several different passports in his hand. A businessman.

Again, I thought better of remarking, ``Hey, each person has to bring his own passport!'' He looked down and studied me for a moment. The silence made me nervous, so I spoke in a low voice I didn't think he'd hear. ``Eine lange Schlange,'' I said. A long line.He decided to talk to me as those behind us began to press closer. Maybe he was bored. Maybe it was the first time anyone in this tense group had tried striking up a conversation with him.

However rough, his voice, aggravated by the sing-song of his abrasive Viennese dialect mixed with Czech, was oddly beautiful - perhaps because I had to try so hard to understand it. Austria was not what he thought it would be, he said. A firm had promised him a good deal of money to emigrate from Czechoslovakia and work for them. But once he got here, he wasn't treated well, and the money wasn't as much as the firm had promised.

I didn't understand any more than that, but from watching him closely - his unkempt hair, dirty nails, wrinkled clothes, and leathered face - I reckoned he was younger than he looked and tougher than he might have been.

``Und woher kommen Sie?,'' he asked. I knew the question would come, and I didn't want to tell him that I was from America, the land of riches. He would ask me about my country - most people did. But we would lose our fragile camaraderie. He would be a poor Eastern laborer, and I the privileged student. I wanted to hold on to what we were in that moment - two people trying to make a home.So I just shook my head silently. He smiled for the first time and nodded knowingly. My answer seemed to raise me in his esteem. ``We all have our secrets,'' he said.

SOMEONE shoved me and I turned around. It was 7:45 and the line had exploded into a mass of more than 200 people. They were impatient and jostling for an advantageous position. I remembered that only a fraction of the 100 tickets given out actually brought their holders a turn before the office closed. I braced myself. Just how badly did these people want to register today? My friend set his hand on the door handle. He'd seen this before.

A policeman appeared from inside the glass doors, and the press tightened and grew loud. When the officer at last turned the key in the lock, the general shoving became more specific, and I realized that someone was trying to push me behind the door itself, so it would open against me and the flood would pass me by. I feared I might get trampled.

Part of me wanted to duck into obscurity behind the door. But I gave the person next to me a good elbow in the gut, reaching out to grab my comrade's shabby denim jacket. I held on as he unwittingly dragged me through the doorway. A policeman pushed a piece of paper into my hand, and I ran down the hall to the door marked Auslander. Victory!

I saw my friend once more, as he was on his way from the office and I on my way in. I began to smile, but he didn't even see me as he walked away with his sheaf of papers. I guess he had no reason to.

Once I got to the counter, I slapped down my passport with the eagle. No one questioned whether I had entered the country illegally, or if I had somewhere to return after my visa expired. I felt uncomfortably special as I left the building and the now-silent line of foreigners with tickets. But many of them would get papers that day, and I was grateful to my host country for that.

From then on, the city was officially ``mine,'' from the droll Prater to the gleaming, metallic United Nations building, to the Cafe Hawelka tucked away in the Dorotheergasse. I got to know my way around. But I never got closer to touching my new home than I did that morning at the police station.

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