Sunday, June 08, 2008

Train Adventures - Germany

I really need to write this down. I realised I was forgetting details when I just couldn't remember the name of the protagonist any more. Sigh...is there anyway to unload useless trivia from our minds so we only remember the essential?

This adventure began in the Venizelos Airport in Athens, Greece. It was the summer of 2003 and I was about to fly to Frankfurt. I was attending a conference in a small town in Belgium named Leuven (Louvain in French) and because of some convoluted travel plans, I was flying to Frankfurt and then taking a train into Belgium.

At times I have an almost cavalier attitude to travel. This is especially true when I'm in countries where I tend to almost reflexively trust the transportation system. In my mind I was to disembark in Frankfurt airport and then immediately be whisked away by train to Leuven. Hard to believe, I know, but I didn't even check to see if there were indeed trains going from Frankfurt to Leuven.

A short, uneventful flight took me to Frankfurt and I landed at 7 pm Frankfurt time. I found out that the there was a train station right inside the airport where I could take long distance trains. Score one for German efficiency! My faith in German efficiency was a bit shaken when I was informed by a sullen looking ticket clerk that the next train to Brussels (with a stop in Leuven) would be next morning at 5 a.m. Umm...what do you mean there are no trains at all times of the night. You're supposed to be German and efficient, remember?

Anyway, I resigned to my fate of spending most of the night at Frankfurt airport, which is really not as exciting as it sounds (or maybe it doesn't even sound exciting). I slumped on a bench and spent several hours just listening to constant flight announcements. This was peak vacation travel season and there were budget flights leaving throughout the night. At some point, the announcements faded out and the terminal became almost quiet.

Apart from the fact that I was all alone and the sole keeper and defender of my luggage, I have a terribly hard time falling asleep in public places. I cannot sleep on a plane and can barely sleep on trains. So I spent all night wide awake, not a wink of sleep throughout this time. With an hour to go for my train departure, I trudged down to the train station below the terminal.

It was still dark and the train station was lit up with harsh neon lights. I realized that besides me the only one there was a skinny man in his early 20s, who looked like he could be Italian. He shot me a sheepish grin, but I was just uncomfortable about being alone on a deserted train station with him and just looked the other way.

After what seemed like eternity, the train rolled into the station. I walked towards it and with great effort started hoisting my suitcase into the compartment. But I had a suitcase that seemed to be filled with rocks (just my clothes and papers dammit) and I was struggling with it. Suddenly, I felt the suitcase being effortlessly lifted into the compartment. I turned around, and there was the man with the sheepish grin , grinning even more this time. In a second he was inside the compartment, and turned around and pulled me in.

I was a little stunned at his move, but glad to finally be inside my train. He motioned me to follow him, dragged my suitcase into the compartment vestibule and walked into the first empty coupe. He hoisted my suitcase up into the luggage hold and then with his happy grin intact, parked himself onto the berth, motioning me to the one opposite him. All this had been accomplished without a word exchanged between us.

I felt compelled to speak, so thanked him for his help with the suitcase. He was eager for the ice to be broken, so began a rapid-fire round of questions in broken English -

My name? Where to? Where from? What for?

I answered them and found out that my companion (let's call him Hasan, I'm so ashamed I forgot his real name) was originally from Algeria, but worked as a musician in Switzerland. He was traveling to Belgium to see his mother who lived there. All this was communicated with great difficulty as he spoke very little English. He really wanted to talk to me and asked me if I knew any of these languages

Arabic? No, not really.

Parlez vous francais? No, sorry.

Espanol? Nopes

He cursed in frustration. Here we were, with not a single language in common except an English vocabulary of maybe 100 odd words. But none the less, we tried. Bit by bit, with some effort, we created a pidgin vocabulary of English supplemented with Arabic, French and Spanish words that I might reasonably guess the meaning of.

I found out that he was frustrated by the attack of Islamic fundamentalists on musicians in Algeria.

Hasan: TM, Islam - good, fundamentalist - bad, very bad.

TM: You really love music, no?

Hasan (eyes lit up): Oui, oui - No I mean yes. I love music. Old Arabic music

TM: Like Umm Kulthum? Or Farid el Atrache?

This time his eyes were positively shining with joy.

He: You know! You know them! Wait, I give you something

With this he started fumbling into his backpack and then produced a cassette tape that was obviously a mixed tape he had made himself.

Hasan: Take.

TM: What's this?

Hasan Oh, all songs - Umm Kulthum, Farid el Atrache, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, all, all.

TM: I can't take this. It's your tape.

Hasan: No, no take, please take.

And with this he pushed the tape into my hands and refused to take it back. I put away the tape.

Hasan: Ok, how old?

TM: You mean, how old am I?

Hasan: No, no - me, how old?

TM: Oh - I don't know, you look like you could be 24.

Hasan: Ha ha, I'm 22. OK, so how old?

TM: Huh?

Hasan: You.

TM: I'm 27.

Hasan: Yallah!!

TM: What happened?

Suddenly he was clutching his forehead with his hand and blushing and laughing.

TM: O....K...You thought I was younger, right?

Hasan (still laughing): Yes

TM: How old did you think I was?

Hasan: 22. But ok. It's ok. 27 - no problem.

TM: You're funny. Why did you even want to know?

Hasan: Boyfriend?

TM: Yes

He kept grinning. And blushed a bit more. At this point my sleep deprivation started catching up. I could barely sit up, so I lay down on the berth. He did the same. And with his broken English started telling me how happy he was to visit his mother, how he missed her, how he wished he wasn't in Switzerland but with her in Belgium. And then suddenly, he said

Hasan: TM, I wish you all the happiness, all you want.

TM (surprised and a little affected): I wish the same for you.

At this point, my eyes closed involuntarily, but sleep would not come. I was shivering with cold. My scatter brained travel plans meant that I was dressed for a Mediterranean summer in Germany, and to add to my misery, the vestibule AC was on full blast. This problem could have been solved by closing the coupe door, but Hasan had kept the door open to make me feel comfortable.

I had shut my eyes and was shivering for a minute, when suddenly I felt something warm being placed on me. I looked up to see that Hasan was draping his jacket over me. When I looked at him, he patted my head and said

Hasan: Sh sh! Sleep, sleep.

TM: But you'll be cold

Hasan: No, no, no cold

TM: Hasan, please.

Hasan: No, no, sleep.

I had no energy to argue. And as soon as the warmth of the jacket hit me, I was transported to the sleep I had missed so intently in the last few hours. I must have slept for only about an hour or so when I woke up again. I felt refreshed and decided to sit up and look outside.

Hasan was sleeping on his berth, and we were passing through the gorgeous Rhineland. Out of my train window I could see the lovely Rhine river, gleaming with the morning light and at short distances, there were castles and forts on top of small hills in the distance. Very surreal and very German.

Hasan turned in his berth and opened his eyes.

TM: Hasan, look, isn't it gorgeous?

Hasan raised his head and craned his neck to look out. And then with a glum look put his back on his berth.

Hasan: Eh, still Germany.

TM: But so beautiful, no?

Hasan: Eh.

And then he turned away and went back to sleep.

How odd! He had absolutely no appreciation for the beauty of the landscape. He just didn't care.

I kept looking out and admiring silently. At some point, the train veered away from the Rhine and the landscape changed. The hills and castles were replaced by meadows and grazing cows. After a little while we pulled into a station and I missed catching the name. After a few minutes, a train superintendent with a jolly face walked in and said:

Bonjour mademoiselle et monsieur! Welcome to Belgium. Passports please.

Hasan woke up as soon as he heard French being spoken, and his electrifying smile returned.

Hasan: Bonjour, bonjour!

We both showed our passports and the superintendent left. After a long time, the train started rolling. Now it was Hasan's turn to get excited, he was glued to the window, his eyes wide, breathing in the landscape.

Hasan: TM, so nice, so nice, no? L'Belgique, it's l'Belgique!

TM: Err...yeah, lots of cows.

Hasan: Nice - very nice. I like l'Belgique. Don't like Switzerland.

It was then I realized that since he lived in the German speaking part of Switzerland, he had transfered his dislike of Switzerland to Germany as well. French was his second language, so Belgium was like a second home. Besides, his mother was here.

His station was fast approaching. Mine was to come 20 minutes after his.

Hasan: What number in Louvain, I call you.

TM: I don't know. I don't have a place yet.

Hasan: Ok...Ok...I give my mother's number. You call, ok?

TM: Hasan, I don't promise. I really don't know if I'll be able to call. Is that Ok?

Hasan: Ok, ok. But try.

TM: I will try.

Hasan: I never see you again, no?

TM: Maybe not.

Hasan: Good luck then, yeah?

TM: To you too Hasan. Take care. And I'm sure one day you'll be a famous musician.

He smiled and glowed. After nearly a year, he was visiting his mother. He couldn't wait to see her. I sat alone in my coupe, waving goodbye to Hasan who was on the platform now, wondering about the surreality of this life, of the kindness of strangers, and of those whom we shall never meet again.

It doesn't matter, no? There is magic in the ephemerality of it all, the harsh glare of quotidian life destroys it. I never called Hasan. I just didn't want to.

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