On a hot day last July, there was a severe electrical outage in the transportation system in Paris, causing all trains leaving the French capital to be delayed. As I ran up flights of stairs after getting off a very delayed RER, I found the Gare du Nord to be humid and distracting, with what appeared to be half the tourist population of the world blocking my every step.
Thankfully, I didn’t miss my train (I have the bad luck of missing trains, regardless of whether I arrive on time or not, for those of you who know me well). I took stock of the five other people I was about to share 15 hours and an overnight journey into Germany with. An American and his Japanese wife. Lennon and Ono, I thought, and smiled mischievously, as I introduced myself. Unfortunately, they were a bit blander than I imagine either Yoko or John would have been, and they fell asleep by 8 PM.
Amongst the others was a British banker who had just been fired, and was going to be visiting his sister who lived somewhere near Wondelpark. The British lad was busy with drafting cover letters.
And two Turkish businessmen, recent postgraduates looking to have a fun time in Euroepan parts before real world responsibilities took over.
One had the cleanest shave possible, inquisitive eyes, and a shy smile, as he offered to help midget me park my little trolley suitcase on the ledge above the seat. The same shy smile persisted later, as he asked me to join him for a beer in the dining car.
The other Turkish lad listened to death metal all evening and promptly proceeded to ignore our lively banter.
Hence, it was just the two of us chatting, long before the evening had caused the sky to redden and deepen.I forget all their names.
What I do remember is how sensitive the lad was about the bad rap Turkish immigrants receive in Germany, which often translates to a less than ideal treatment of regular travelers. We spoke about the anxiety that prevails when given hostile looks, of the deep disdain that permeates from many we will never see again.
Yes, I remember this confession, because his voice faltered as he gauged my reaction to his revelations. I remember his hazel eyes peering into mine as he spoke to me, as we shared a beer, then another, and finally, a third. The easy laughs, the joy that came with being strangers without expectations, bound only by a simple sense of adventure, of wanderlust, of a shared love for żubrówka.
After several hours of conversation, we went back to the train carriage and sat back in our seats, feeling more knowledgeable about the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent, respectively.
The next morning was cold, and as we neared Berlin, the sky was dark.
At the train station, death-metal addict needed to use the restroom.
“Are you free tonight? We know of this great club,” my new Turkish mate asked, as we waited for his friend to come back.
In response, I mumbled something about college reunions and prior commitments with old friends.
Realizing it was time to say goodbye, we nodded simultaneously, and shook hands, as strangers tend to do, when introduced.
As we parted, I realized I was blushing, and felt grateful that my tan was too deep for the red to show through.
There are handsome men everywhere in the world, and in that respect, this Turkish lad was no anomaly, but I felt absurdly sad leaving this man in a glassy train station as the sky raged above us.
At the top of the escalator, I turned around and waved goodbye. He was still looking. He waved again, for one last time.
Sighing, I walked out into the rain, out of the Hauptbahnhof, and hailed down a cab.
As I settled into the taxi, I wondered, what is it about some strangers that make us want to get to know them better, and why do we stop ourselves from pursuing these desires? Is it the inevitability of disappointment that comes with the reality of distance? With the disappointment that is inevitable with expectations being unmet? On one hand, we are taught to be reserved around those we don’t know, and yet some of the most poignant conversations about politics, about life, and love, can happen only with those to whom we owe nothing, and who owe us nothing, but when we are bound, spatially and temporally in a confined setting, we find a release and voice to the eccentricities that those who know us well may not understand.
Our last concern as busy human beings is intimacy. As we get busier, many of us pay little attention to the development, to the growth, of relationships and of friendships. There is a joy that exists, which is purely possible with the choice to entertain and acknowledge that each stranger has a full life, is interesting, and is worthy of interest, even in a fleeting setting. This same joy is enhanced when we give people a chance to to enjoy them.
During my year of living in Budapest, I realized that the nonchalance I had acquired of strangers during my NYC days, had crumbled completely with the disdainful looks I received in the Hungarian capital, where I was often mistaken for Roma, and hence treated like a black man would have been in NYC in the 1940s.
What I take away, a year later, almost exactly a year after my chance encounter with this handsome Turkish lad is that you really should go with your gut instinct. On a similar but different note, almost a decade ago, I was en route to London. Before boarding at the terminal at JFK, and as has become customary after 9/11, I was body searched by security personnel.
I’m used to this.
Having a green passport and a Muslim last name has gained some unwanted implications for us liberal and agnostic brown folks, but something wonderful happened that night- a German girl who was also body searched alongside me, decided our shared annoyance was enough of a bonding point to engage in a seven hour long conversation that caused us to ask for seat changes so we could enjoy our conversation without interruption during the flight.
Between cups of coffee, dinner, dessert, sugar-induced adrenaline and a broken television set in flight, we spoke about Kierkegaard, about graphic design, and even rice pudding.
And when we parted, we exchanged contact information. I have never seen her again, but when Facebook was created, we dutifully became friends on social media. We message each other infrequently, but enough that I know that as I type, she’s filming in Laos. It’s comforting, this connection with this random stranger.
In both situations, obviously, there was simply a convergence of different lives, one that was deepened by a mutual sense of entertainment from sharing anecdotes. One was with a woman, and the other with a man, but I know myself enough to know that I do not base furthering encounters with anyone based on their gender, so something else happened with the lad- I reckon I hesitated out of a sense of self preservation- prolonging the inevitable departure does nothing but prolong the pain of saying goodbye.
As a female born to liberal but careful parents, I’ve been taught to be wary of strangers, and yet, especially when I allow myself to trust the situation, I have learnt a great deal (after all, it’s unlikely that a stranger in a high speed train sitting in first class, or a cramped economy flight, for that matter, has homicidal tendencies towards you. But of course, I usually have carried pepper spray).
Being open to vulnerable sharing, human compassion is expanded. Perhaps this is why we humans travel, in order to feel, in order to feel deeply while feeling. More so, traveling allows us to savour meeting new people without needing to apologize, particularly because you never know what you can learn, or the impact someone will leave behind.