The woman sitting across me in the ICE from Basel to Karlsruhe wore dark glasses and was reading what appeared, through the edges of photos that flashed across as she turned its pages, like a culinary magazine. She was large – she occupied one and half seats – and once she’d settled down she didn’t move an inch.
A short while after Basel, few uniformed men entered the compartment and announced for “der Ausweis“. There was a rustle among passengers who opened their bags, purses, wallets for identification papers; the lady in front seemed puzzled by it all.
“Ausweis?” she asked, turning towards me. “Aber warum? Ich hab kein Ausweis.”
She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to check identification papers in a train; she shook her head and opened her handbag, looking for papers. The officer checked my passport and moved on; the lady was spared an explanation. For the time being.
Next came the ticket collector, a middle-aged man in blue uniform. This time the lady took out a card, but the collector shook his head.
“This is an ICE.” he said, in German. “You can’t use your local train pass – you need a ticket.”
The lady seemed not to understand. “So this won’t do?”
“No. But I can issue you a ticket.” He pulled out a small machine from his bag. “Where did you start your journey?”
The lady hesitated a bit, and then replied: “Offenburg”.
“But we haven’t reached Offenburg yet! It must have been Basel, right?”
“Was it? Let me think… yes, it was Basel.”
The collector punched out a ticket, took money from the lady, and moved to the next row. I couldn’t detect any emotion on him; such incidents seemed part of his daily routine.
* * *
In July 2001, six months after we moved to Germany, I got my company car. That put an end to our train travels: car journeys were faster, more comfortable and less expensive. But travelling by car is like carrying a wall around you – you have privacy, but you limit encounters and meet fewer people. So when Wife moved to Switzerland for her MBA earlier this year, I decided to make my weekend trips by train.
These train journeys took me back to my early days in Germany, to my fascination for the many elements surrounding trains: the punctuality of arrivals and departures, the reading habits of Germans (I’d never seen so many people reading in trains before, and it was fascinating to watch my fellow passengers in their own worlds, absorbed in the book in their hands), the politeness of Germans (people alighting from trains would always get preference; people would always ask if a seat was free before taking it; people would greet you while taking a seat next to you, and bid goodbye while leaving).
Around May, I began to notice an important change: announcements in German were followed by a shorter, truncated version in English – thanks to the Football World Cup. The intention was laudable, the consequences sometimes hilarious. New words – creatively constructed – would crop up, and literal translations into English would result in sentences with the verb at the end:
“The train destinated for Köln you will in platform 8 find.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen… in a few minutes we arrive in Basel SBB. This train ended here. Thank you for driving Deutsche Bahn.”
On a few occasions, even fellow German passengers couldn’t help noticing the bloopers and would laugh out loud. A promising beginning, though. I hope it doesn’t end with the world cup – practice makes perfect.
* * *
The seats in front are empty, and I scan the faces of passengers as they walk across looking for suitable places, stopping next to some before walking past. A lady with a brown bag stops next to the seat across me, and moves on. The seat remains empty until everyone has crossed. Then the lady returns, asks if the seat is free – I smile and nod – and sits down. (I cannot help reminding myself that this practice of asking if a seat is free before taking it is diametrically opposite to the practice in India, where the place you are holding for your fellow passenger taking a toilet break can be usurped by anyone. “No reservations allowed here!” , “Baap ka seat samajh ke rakha hai kya?!” “Adjust kar lo sir – there is place for three here.”)
She must be in her mid thirties. She has blond hair, and is wearing a green top over a knee-length black skirt. As she sits down, her eyes – keen and intelligent – search for the title of the book I’m reading. She pulls out a set of papers and a pencil from her bag, and begins to read what looks like an essay. I can only make out the title: “Rom/Berlin Achse” – probably an essay on the axis forged by Mussolini and Hitler in the nineteen thirties. She underlines some lines as she reads, and occasionally scribbles a few words in the wide margin on the right. Is she a teacher? Or a student of History? What does the essay describe? I want to begin a conversation, but I am unable to do so. Language is one barrier (I’ll have to start with the question “Sprechen Sie English?”); the crowded compartment with people all around us is another. And there’s the issue of interrupting her while she is working. I do not like to struggle too much with such doubts; I simply let it be.
Suddenly music fills the air – violins playing Vivaldi – and then, after a few seconds, stops abruptly. We look up, our eyes lock, she smiles for an instant and I smile back; then she gets back to her papers and I to my book. It is a strangely beautiful moment – as if we were sharing a little secret, unbeknownst to the passengers around us.
When the train nears Karlsruhe, I get up to leave. “Tschüss!” she says, and I reply with a nod: “Tschüss.” At the end of the compartment I realize that I’ve forgotten my bottle of Coke – I walk back to my seat. As I reach for the bottle, she looks up, and seeing me pick up the bottle she smiles – a wide, wonderful smile. I smile back and turn around.