Trains: They Bring Us Together

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.



Sounds of the City: Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-14627,_Marlene_DietrichAm 6. Mai 1992 ist die deutsche Sängerin Marlene Dietrich in Paris vom Leben umgekommen. Obwohl sie viele Jahren von ihrem Erwachsensein weg von Berlin–ihre Heimat–verbracht hatte, wurde sie nach ihren Wünschen in Berlin begraben. Dietrichs Verhältnis zu Berlin und ihre Liebe für die Stadt empfindet man nirgends besser zu hören abgesehen von dem Lied “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin.”

Wann man hört das Lied, hat man so viel Lieb für Berlin wie Marlene. Aber kann man auch eher einfach den Namen Berlin mit dem einer anderen Stadt ersetzen. Das Lied drückt ein Gefühl von liebevoller Heimweh aus, das wir alle uns irgendwo, irgendwann gefühlt haben, also dazu eine Beziehung haben können. Diese Qualität macht “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” so ein großartiges Stadtlied. Es ist universell. Wie kein anderes äußert das Lied den Macht Heimwehs.

Oft bleiben unsere Erfahrungen angenehm in unseren Erinnerungen. Wir erinnern uns Orte von der Kindheit oder von eindrucksvollen Momenten unseres Lebens und sie sind immer für uns wichtig. Wir halten diese Erinnerungen nah. Die Städte, die wir erfuhren, die wir geliebt haben und immer noch lieben, sind selten die Gleichen als die wir in der Realität erfahren. Das Heimweh fallt wegen Distanz und wegen Frist vor.

Und manchmal wird Heimweh nie völlig behandelt.

Marlene singt ein Lied von Traurigkeit und Liebe, Heimweh und Trost. Sie singt für Verlorenheit und die ewige Seligkeiten von Erinnerungen. Sie singt für ihre Stadt, ihre Heimat, Berlin.


Und noch ein Berliner Lied von Dietrich ist “Das ist Berlin”. Nach meiner Meinung ist es auf keiner Weise so tief wie “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin”, trotzdem das Lied in derselben Art als “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin” ertönt. Also finde ich es passend dabei zu posten.


Und so Marlene, ich danke Dir für ihre Musik und die schöne unendlichen Verbindung zu Berlin.

On May 6, 1992 the German singer Marlene Dietrich passed from this world while living in Paris. Although she spent much of her adult life in other places, she was interred according to her wishes in Berlin–her hometown. Dietrichs love for her hometown and her relationship to it can’t be experienced better than by listening to the song “Ich hab’ noch einen Koffer in Berlin”. 

When you listen to the song, you love Berlin as much as Dietrich. But, you can really replace the name Berlin with the name of most any city. The songs expresses a sense of homesickness that we’ve all experienced sometime, somewhere. That’s what makes this song so great. It’s universal. Like no other is shows the power of homesickness. 

Often our experiences stay in the comfort of our memories. We remember places from our childhood or impressive moments in our lives that always remain important to us. We hold these memories close. The cities, those we’ve experienced, the ones we loved and still love, are rarely the ones we actually experience in reality. Homesickness is the result of distance and time. 

And sometimes it’s never quite cured. 

Marlene sings about love and sadness, homesickness and solace. She sings for lose and the eternal bliss of memories. She’s singing for her city, her home, Berlin.