As the Munich bound train from Venice neared the Brenner Pass and the Austrian border, I could tell the woman across from me was growing nervous. She fidgeted and was noticeably more anxious when the conductor announced the train would be standing at Brenner station, the border control. For this woman, a Syrian refugee traveling with her daughter and husband, every moment on the Italian side of the boarder increased the chances of getting stopped and derailing a journey that is unimaginable for the vast majority of us.
Since moving to Vienna, many of my encounters with refugees have occurred in train stations and on trains. They’ve come to remind me of two things. One is that there is a certain egalitarianism to train travel that is one of its great virtues. The other, which is related in a way to the first, is that train travel creates spaces for unexpected personal interactions between strangers that are absent from other forms of transportation.
In the discourse about rail travel and its benefits, the focus remains on the most tangible benefits: improved urban environments, sustainable transportation, better connectivity, better travel times. It’s easy to overlook some of the more subtle benefits, especially since they’re less tangible and can be fleeting. Some of these–helping others carry luggage on and off trains, shared seating arrangements and compartments, even the bar car–radically change our relationship to travel and those we’re traveling alongside in dynamic ways, which isn’t an overlooked benefit of rail travel, but is certainly under appreciated.
When debating the value of air versus rail based travel, aspects like the bar car or private seating compartments on trains are sold as comforts that benefit passengers on a individuals basis. We don’t discuss the communal benefits that also result. These are immense. They manage to bring people together in unexpected ways. Traveling within Austria and Germany, I’ve had fantastic conversations with people who could only happen, because of seating arrangements you don’t see on buses and planes. On one occasion, an unexpectedly overcrowded train resulted in more people piled into the bar car than was probably allowable. Rounds of beers and some vivacious drinking songs resolved any frustrations with a train well over a comfortable capacity.
Starting in September these rail based encounters changed dramatically. The swelling numbers of refugees fleeing to the safety of Northern Europe dominated trains international trains. A trip to Oktoberfest from Vienna was a logistical battle (closing even on border within the Schengen Zone, Europe’s barrier-free travel area, creates huge problems), but also a moment when the full humanitarian weight of the refugee crisis came crashing down. Staking out a place in the bar car (an always reliably beer filled alternative to an actual seat) I became a de facto translator. I’m convinced word spread that there was a German-speaking American on the train who could translate; over the course of two hours I found myself on phones talking to people’s families Hamburg, looking up train connections, translating tickets, ordering food, and, most importantly, hearing people’s stories.
The bartender was nice enough to give me a free beer for all of this, but it was the experience of seeing and hearing what was happening that became my impetus to help even if it was in the most minuscule manner possible. I don’t think such encounters would have or could have happened on any other form of transportation. This speaks to something vital about what makes rail based travel so valuable.
On my way from Venice back to Vienna, I found myself sitting with a Syrian family clearly headed to Germany. In English, they could say their please’s and thank you’, yes’ and no’s. Beyond that, there was no available form of communication beyond pantomime. They were amongst the kindest people I have ever met. Beyond their general politeness and sense of regard for the people around them, some of whom probably resented their presence, they offered to share all their food and drink with me. Never have I seen such levels of generosity. Briefly we became entwined in each other’s world. When we reached the border the nervousness of the mother made me nervous. At that point I knew I would intervene on their behalf in spite of not knowing what to say if an Austrian boarder guard were to question and challenge their ability to passage. The 15 minutes passed though without incident and we moved across the pass into Austria.
In Innsbruck I bid them farewell with the hope they feel at home in Europe, can make a new life full of happiness and joy, and that they’re provided the same generosity. I feel grateful for these experiences, because it reconnects me to the larger issues playing out in our world. It is so easy to fall into the habit of consciously ignoring what is happening around us. Communal spaces are essential in helping us forge these connections, even if such spaces are very functional tools, such as for transportation. In spite of being a highly social species, we have a bad tendency of cutting ourselves off and staying in boxes. Being forced out of them, even if only to travel, is a healthy experience.
The help I’ve provided during the refugee crisis is in the gran scheme of things somewhat pathetic. While I’m proud I helped when I did, I’m highly aware more needs to be done.
For those looking to provide assistance, I’m providing links to resources in the USA, Germany, and Austria. Note, that many of these articles were published in the fall 2015, so information may have changed since then.