Friday, June 3, 2011

Train to Munich

Many years ago while I was studying in Rome, Italy, I took an overnight train to Munich. My friends all opted for the sleep cars, but I decided to try my luck in second class. The seats on the train were designed to slide down and meet in the middle creating a sort of bed, which was more than sufficient for my needs as a traveler.

On the platform, my friends and I parted ways for the approximately eleven hour journey, they, to the front of the train, I, the back. Each train car contained several discreet compartments along with some pull down seats along the aisle. I chose a compartment in which two older gentlemen had already claimed the window seats. It was clear that they knew each other and, not long after our night train departed, they began preparing the little fold out tables for their train picnic. Each brought something- a little sausage, some wine, bread, cheese, a cylinder package of cookies and a thermos of coffee, perfect for two travelers settling in for the long journey from Rome to Munich. The two chatted quietly to each other and offered to me various morsels of their dinner for two. I declined, not wanting to usurp their meal or invade their conversation.

As the evening wore on and the book and my eyes grew tired, I began studying these two men. Both in their late 50s, early 60s, each a little round about the waste, with hands showing signs of hard work. Each supported a kind face and permanent crinkles around their eyes, which still sparkled with boyish charm, as many men’s eyes continue to do long after they have finished their rites of passage of rough housing and pranks.

We all settled in for the night. Pushing the two seats together I laid down, covered myself with my coat and fell fast asleep. The two men did the same- each trying carefully not to invade my space.

Some time late into the night we awoke to the Austrian border patrol pounding on our compartment door demanding to see our papers. All three of us, blurry eyed and chilled by the icy air pouring through the open doors, produced our various forms of id. This was still at a time when Europe had borders, a strange concept now that we can zip in and out of countries no differently than leaving city limits. Apparently, there had been an avalanche on the tracks and we were being rerouted. No problem.

The night continued. Falling in and out of sleep as happens on trains when someone needs to exit the compartment to use the bathroom, smoke or just move their legs. We three moved through the night, through tunnels and valleys, without being able to see a thing. At some point, the heat in our train car went out. The thermos reappeared and this time, when the thermos was offered, I thankfully accepted.

As the temperature dipped further and we were able to see our breath, the two men began their quest with me now under their wing. They told me to stay put and they would find a more suitable location for the three of us to ride out the rest of our journey. (Note: I am not used to this kind of ... chivalry? Letting someone else take care of things? What a very strange idea.)

A short while later, they returned, suggesting I grab my bag and we were off, through stomach of the snaking train to our new, warmer compartment. This compartment was cozily crammed with significantly more people and luggage. We shimmied into our assigned seats exchanging pleasantries with our new neighbors. Sitting next to me was one of my original train mates, now awake and prepared for an even longer journey than originally bargained for. We swapped stories and photos.

Although life long Italian resident, this lovely man had made up his mind to relocate and open a pizza restaurant in Munich. How amazing is that? How often do we, at any age, throw caution to the wind and follow our dreams? His friend, as he told me, was coming along to help him set up and visit his son while there.

The early morning became late morning. We shared stories and cookies amongst the group. Instant friendship- we melded together so easily - crossing the abyss of language and culture and age. I cannot say I have ever experienced something as naturally cohesive as that group. Oddly, I felt at home in my overcrowded compartment.

Pulling into the station we each said our goodbyes and wished each other well. They continued on their journey, I on mine. Further down the platform I found my friends wide eyed, refreshed and ready to tackle Munich. I cannot say I was quite as refreshed, but I was happy, and Munich awaited us.