Mar 18, 2012
I don’t know if I’m on the right train. I know that I am still in the Netherlands somewhere, but I don’t know where. I look everywhere for information that matches any number or letter than I have on my schedule, and there are many numbers and letters, but no matches.
Several people enter and exit the bathroom in front of me. To my right, there is a couple in love, making moonie eyes at each other and listening to one earbud each of an iPod.
Someone gets off and, before I can move, the drunkest teenager of all slides into the chair. The two guys who came out of the bathroom together come back and go into the bathroom together again. For a long time.
It was then that I looked down and saw a DKNY bag that I remembered from the interminable, freezing wait in Utrecht for the confounded bus. Maybe the bag wasn’t unique, but the tall black man carrying the bag, and nothing else, was.
“Do you speak English?”
Yes. He did speak English and I was on the train to Dusseldorf. He was gentle and had a quiet laugh. We chatted until a seat came empty. I had to sit down.
When I sat down, I looked up at the ceiling and there it was, a decalled train map all the way from Venlo to Hamm. Dusseldorf sat bold in the middle. When I looked down again, Tobias was sitting across the train from me, smiling. I live a charmed life.
He said, “Are you writing in your journal?” I was indeed holding my phone and writing about him. Maybe writing is conjuring, after all. I had confessed to him earlier that he was going to end up on my facebook page. He grinned then, and now.
He checked my info against the bahn.de site on his cell phone, to make sure I got where I was going. Then he turned his head and looked away from me, to give me permission to keep writing. Yes, I have written every letter of this on my phone.
In Dusseldorf, Tobias and I said our goodbyes and good-lucks. The only thing I had eaten since two eggs and two toasts at 9am (while my Dutch host watched me and chatted and did not eat a bite) was a cookie from a package that Celine had given Tobias for the trip. “She involves herself with other people,” Tobias said, and he meant that she cares. He’s going to be all right. I have a feeling.
He offered one last time to help me carry my things down the stairs and I declined. “You have five minutes to meet your train. I have twenty.” He agreed and was gone.
I lugged my personal burdens down the stone stairs and up the stone stairs to what I thought might be my next platform. Teenagers smoked in the hallway between.
There was a blue and red tower that said “info” and had directions in German and English. I pushed the button, just to verify that I was in the right place. A voice spoke in German and English and I was a bit shocked with the fidelity. I looked at the tower just below eye level and it said, “Neumann.” The maker of the world’s best microphones made the info tower at the train station. If you want the best thing in the world, just look for “Made in Germany.”
A lost woman on the platform asked me a question and I asked if she spoke English. “No speak Englis.” I felt her pain.
I rambled up a ways and met another guy I’d seen in Utrecht, three trains and a bus ago. What are the odds? He said he was headed to Frankfurt and would probably miss his flight to Brazil. This train arrived 30 minutes before his scheduled takeoff. He said he hoped the flights were delayed too or it would cost him the ticket. I told him I thought he’d make it, that in the absence of empirical evidence, I had faith that he would make the flight. He said something about coffee and damn that sounded great. 50 p from the machine 12 feet away. And it was good. How do they do that?!
The train pulled up as I got my coffee and I realized I couldn’t get my stuff on the train without help. My new companion helped me lug. This train had nice shelves at the door, so I didn’t have to hold all my stuff around me in the seat, legs draped over suitcase, bag in lap, guitar under three people’s feet.
I can’t pronounce his name, but it was something like Pelinõ. He asked if he could sit with me. I said, “Please,” and I meant it.
He was a lawyer in Brazil, in the middle of the country, along Paraguay and Bolivia. He said the summer was terrible, hot and rainy, so he saved up all his vacation time and put it together with the end-of-the-year holidays to make one 42-day chunk and he spent it in Europe in the winter. He said they were the second-largest producer of beef in the world and that the city he lived in was fueled by that industry. After that, he said, marijuana and cocaine smuggling were probably the biggest businesses. A woman came by and checked our tickets, the first time this whole day that I’d been asked. Isn’t that amazing? She understood why we were on the wrong train, the whole damn country is on the wrong train, and she kindly told me which platform my next train would be on.
He got off in Köln(Cologne) and I was puzzled as to why I was here at all. My friends from earlier in the day had split up to come here. I realized that I could have come here with them. We had definitely taken different trains. My head spun around the train-web of Europe for a moment, with times and numbers flashing in my head. Could I have gotten here sooner? Whatever. I got here. And it was a good story, as my first friend of this trip and I had agreed it would be.
I remembered that my hosts still thought they were picking me up at 9pm. I had written emails to them, but never found wifi to send them. So, I made one precious phone call. Stephen answered with an American accent and, bless my heart, I almost cried. He offered to pay for a hotel room in Basel, or that he and his wife would drive to Basel at midnight and pick me up. “About 87 kilometers” he said. Okay, if he’s American, then he’s been Swissified. Only the Swiss would say, “about” 87 kilometers. I look forward to meeting him.
I told Stephen that if I could wake up in his house, I would be a very happy man. It’s 11pm now and I only just realized I’d better purchase a bottle of water. The first water I’ve had all day. I guess it’s been nice not to need a public bathroom. I should probably use the one on this train before I leave the Germans behind again.
I hung up and looked out the window for the first time in a long time, and the lights of Köln flashed by me. In the apartments along the railway, each light was different, a lamp here, a chandelier in that one, a yellow window with its light hidden from view, a television, each one a racing snowflake, a fingerprint, as unique as the people who ate their supper by them, each one lit by the same fire, a power station somewhere in Köln, and I realized that I was burning the same fire in this train, burning through this great, lonely city, connected to no one. Connected to everyone.
I transferred in Mannheim to my final train, where I bought this bottle of water. The machine was another engineering feat that went up and cradled my water and brought it gently down to the opening. I walked around to the other side and a woman was cursing another machine that had just taken her money. It’s good to know that they are not perfect. Only very good. She hurled one last curse as we had to board the train.
I noticed that this train was beautiful and spacious, with leaning chairs and tables in between. Automatic glass doors. I looked down at the floor and it said, in a bright red strip, “1. Klasse.” There was no one in the car. I thought, what the hell, maybe they’ll ask me to move after I’ve had twenty minutes of luxury. A woman came immediately and offered me a chocolate cookie. You damn right I took it. I leaned my seat back and savored it as only an empty man can.
When another woman came to check my ticket, I showed her my Eurail pass and she said, “Thank you. I vish you a good chourney.” and she walked away.
I looked at the pass and realized for the first time that I HAVE A FIRST-CLASS TICKET. Had I known that, I never would have seen Tobias again or known his name. I never would have had my Brazilian companion. I never would have seen two men go into a train bathroom together – twice. I never would have seen beautiful old Muslim women and their silk flowers. And countless other things I haven’t even told you.
I think I have a first-class ticket through life. I was always on the right train. In 25 minutes, I will arrive in Basel, where my hosts will pick me up and drive another “about” 87 kilometers to take me home. I’m glad I chose the adventure. Thanks for hanging with me, alone there behind your liquid crystal spark of the fire. Maybe you feel like you’re connected to no one, but I want you to know: you are connected to everyone.