trying to see

26 September 2015

And suddenly our perfectly planned trip comes to a heads with the outside world: the border into Germany from Italy is closed. Which means that the train that we had booked over three months ago for the sweet price of forty-nine euros each

[couchettes > regular train seats]

is not attached to the train to Vienna at the Venice train station. We are tired and about to board a what-will-now-be fourteen-hour train journey in the harried company of about fifty other people whose train has also not appeared. We are loud and angry and confused. We are mostly American. We want a refund. We want an explanation. We want our couchettes.

The tired man working for the Austrian train explains that we can get on this one, make a couple of changes and end up in Munich about four hours after we were promised. We will all get a refund

[Here, Laura and I look at each other and roll our eyes — as if, we’re thinking]

and we will all get a seat on the train. We won’t have to pay extra for the three other trains that we’ll have to catch. It’ll be alright. We’ll make it to Munich.

But no couchettes.

Being the brazen American women that we are, Laura and I politely nod to this tired Austrian man then pick up our carry-ons (shockingly purple and pink, respectively) and run to the third car. The one with the couchettes. The one that the man expressly forbade us to get on, though he told us that there was one empty one, winking at us but relaying no further information on the matter. We arrive to find closed doors and faces imploring us to keep on moving. Until we get to the middle. Seriously, it was like light from the heavens shining down on this empty couchette car. It was actually stale, flickering florescent lighting, but the beautiful isolation and the promise of reclining padded seats made me feel some sort of divine connection.

Two more young women came into the car and we slammed it shut, putting on the same imploring faces of the people that we had just passed, cramming the spare seats with luggage and backpacks and snacks. We nervously waited for the train to pull away, for us to safely inhabit our entire claimed space. The train began to move and, as we stared in giddy excitement out of the window, we caught the eye of the man who told us

You cannot have a couchette!

We waved laughingly and he winked and wagged his finger. In sheer disbelief, the four of us stared at each other and burst up laughing a second later – we successfully landed our own space for the next ten hours. We felt like queens in our dirty glass box. Then the ticket checker came through the aisle. Our faces grew ashen and we began to twitch nervously. He had been another worker who forbade us to claim the couchettes that we had paid for. He knocked on our door and we unceremoniously threw four tickets his way, refusing to make eye contact and hoping that our faces were unremarkable. They must have been, because after a quick look and a stamp, he handed our tickets back unquestioned and our private door swung shut once more.

We all let out a collective breath and proceeded to unfold the chairs into beds and tried to get some sleep on the rickety night train.

We were unloaded at a small and cold station in Litz, Austria where we were told to catch a regional train to the border town of Passau, where we could then get another regional train into Munich. We waited with the other unfortunate travellers in Litz and caught the train to Passau, where we debarked the train and found that we had to wait for about an hour to catch our final ride. We marched under the platform and, as we came up to the main station, we were met with a harrowing sight: a police station, a group of uniforms and a line moving slowly but dutifully off of a bus and into the station. Migrants, refugees, trying to come through Germany’s recently closed borders.

I was stunned, I guess, wavering between smiling at them or simply matching their expressionless gazes. They stared back at us – a line of people with newly manufactured backpacks and suitcases, eye masks still up on some of our brows, American passports tucked safely in some security belt buried at the bottom of our bags. I didn’t know how to relate or even if I could. Would a smile be too patronizing? Would it brighten a day? Would it say 

I can’t understand exactly, but I want to listen anyways?

Or would a stony stare be better perhaps? Would it convey the somber nature of the moment? Would it give solidarity? Would it say

I can’t understand exactly, but I want to listen anyways?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. They passed by in ten seconds and all I could do was wonder just what it was that my eyes said to them on the frosty platform in Passau at eight in the morning. I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what, I didn’t know where they’d gone, I didn’t know how to listen. There was nothing to do but think about it, forever knowing that what I had to think to myself would be insufficient and most definitely somehow wrong. Almost immediately, people from California started blabbing on about everything that they’ve ever heard on the news about the refugees, about the migrants.

I heard that these migrants are leaving trash everywhere – like seriously? At least pick up your garbage.

Rage swelled inside me – all I could do was look at this woman from Sacramento with a lime green backpack strapped perfectly to her back and wonder what it was that her eyes saw in the ten seconds that the line of people passed by. The man beside her continued her train of thought, musing about unemployment and garbage. What had he seen? The various Americans circled around this conversation – what had they seen?

What, really, had I seen?

People, I guess. Just people. People with stories – bad ones, good ones, sad ones, happy ones. But mainly, just people. Trying to be seen as the people that they are.

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