April 19 – The Train
I was on a train, alone, in the middle of the night, thousands of miles from my family in the states and with four hours of sleep fighting against four beers in the battlefield that was my body. I’m not usually prone to such surreal, existential realizations, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at where I was in that very moment and how natural it felt to be there.
I had spent the day in Berlin, slowly learning how to navigate the sprawling public transportation system as well as taking a look at several second-hand shops and a Turkish market. I had been with Gabs from my program, a chill guy from the Netherlands that she’d previously met on a subway and several Californians that were from a different program than we were. You know, it’s really funny. When you travel long distances, you give yourself the idea that our planet is this vast world, but as you meet and talk to more people, you begin to realize just how small it actually is.
After the shopping, we went to a park where we drank beer and held conversations ranging from the German education systems to the nature of time itself. Then the clouds of the horizon tinted violet with the sundown, and I decided to make my way back home. One of the Berliner-Californians walked me to the subway station and put me on a train, assuring me it would take me where I needed to go. It didn’t. After intense study of the S-Bahn and U-Bahn maps (which look something like thirteen different colored games of Pipe Dream bleeding into each other), I was able to hop on to one train, get off, get on another, get stranded in the middle of nowhere and then finally board the train that would surely take me back home to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof.
And after such a rush of confusion and leaps of faith, I was able to relax, which is when it hit me that I was on a train, alone, in the middle of the night and so on. After my little moment, I came back to the world around me and couldn’t help but notice the few others that were also riding the night train.
Directly across from me was a young couple with their baby girl. Their luggage implied that they had come from an extended trip somewhere or were on their way. They spoke only in quiet and short sentences to each other, but always with a smile. Every once in a while, they’d bend down to kiss their daughter. Then the father bounced the baby up and down on his knee, making a whoosh noise as he lifted her and she would laugh as she rose—a rocket propelled by giggles. After her flight, she turned around and stared at me. I couldn’t decide if she was confused or just being curious, but then it occurred to me that if I was trying to analyze a baby’s expression, I was probably staring at it for too long and should probably stop.
That’s when I looked at the girl in the corner seat, leaning against her backpack and bundled up in a big green jacket. She couldn’t have been more than twenty and she spent a majority of the ride with her face lit up by that dim cell-phone blue. She kept putting her phone down and picking it back up. And with every time she put it down, crimson crept deeper and deeper into her eyes. She was trying so hard not to cry. Then, she fell asleep. And she must have dreamed, because that was the only time she smiled.
The only significant noise in the train car was at the far end. Two guys were sitting under a sign that specifically warned against open alcohol. In their hands were open bottles and between their feet was a case of beer. Laughter and clinks of glass traveled over to my side of the train constantly. Strangely enough, despite their laughter being uproarious, I didn’t hear them say single word. They were like alcoholic hyenas, able to communicate purely through wordless cheers and that level of laughter that shoots all of your blood to your cheeks and forehead. Full-on, tomato-faced hysterics. I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit with them, partially because that obnoxious level of joy is contagious and partially because of how they were on the other side of the train car as the girl and also on the other side emotionally.
The last person I noticed was an old man by himself leaned against one of the windows. His gray beard poofed up as he rested his face upon the glass. I wouldn’t say that his blue and white raincoat was dirty, but it would probably need a wash sometime soon. He would switch between holding his hand over his eyes and placing it on his lap, where he would continue to stare down at it. He never looked up once the entire ride to Potsdam. I was still dozing from my lack of sleep the previous night, but I could still see that this man had weariness in his face that I haven’t come close to ever experiencing.
Finally, we came to the end of the line in Potsdam. The couple and their giggle-rocket, the heartbroken girl, the hyenas, the tired man and I all shuffled out of the train and into the station. And I couldn’t decide why, but I felt like I’d met all those people before. Those faces of innocence, sadness, hilarity and fatigue — I know I’ve seen them before. Maybe on different people, but I’ve seen those same faces. And as I waited for the bus to take me back to my dorms, it didn’t feel like I was living in a foreign country anymore. I spent so much time in the previous weeks paying attention to all the little different things, but that ride on the train showed me just how some things are exactly the same as everywhere else. Hmm, or maybe I am just prone to surreal, existential realizations after all.