Shoes of a Nomad

Watching the World go by from a Train Window

I got to the train station early, on the day I headed back to Oslo from Stockholm. I spent the last bit of currency I had on candy at the gift shop. My daughters enjoy seeing candy from other countries when I travel. I thought they would especially enjoy the salted black licorice.

I checked the train schedule, a giant green board on a wall overhead. It silently changed while I was looking to find my train. It made me smile. The last time I was traveling in Europe by train I was in college, and in those days the train schedule boards were mechanical, not electrical. I remembered the clickity-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack when the board was updated. That sweet sound of glorious anticipation would get my heart beating faster: was my train on time? Was the track changed? Where were so many other trains headed? It took a few minutes for the whole board to settle down and stop moving, and all of the passengers would stand and stare until they were content that they had found their train’s information. Then they would drag or hoist their bags onto their back and head off down the tracks. In those few moments between anticipation and determination, we all stood in suspense listening to the mechanical clacking of the board—our fate in its hands.

Now, the silent board went unnoticed by everyone down below. People would casually walk up, see the schedule, and walk away. No more communal anticipation. It made me a little sad that this shared experience is just in history now.

I boarded my train and settled in with some coffee and a book. As with every trip, I am always sad as I turn the final corner for the last leg before I get home. It’s true that you return home different than when you left. Not only had I been navigating alone in a place where I don’t speak the language (although everyone spoke to me in Norwegian and Swedish because they didn’t at first glance realize I wasn’t a local), but I stepped out of my own reality and that is always a good thing.

It seems to me that we get comfortable in our own lives. When this happens, we set up walls of fear around what we have—even if we don’t like it much—against anything that might change our lives from the familiar. When we travel, we intentionally remove these walls, or go forth despite them, and we see ourselves in new situations and realize that the circumstances of our lives are facts that exist around us, but do not define us. We exist. We can be picked up and put into another time or place, and we still exist. It makes it easy to return to our familiar lives and feel excited again, to feel as though everything we have in our lives is very much our own choice and very much temporary.

I watched the rain hit the flat prairie grasslands of Sweden through my raindrop stained window, seeing the small villages flash by I tried to imagine the people who lived there. It is fun to skip through people’s lives and see them from the other side of a window, just observing. It all seems so easy, so simple. I won’t know of their fears or their dreams or the ways in which their lives have disappointed them. I will only see their smiling faces—the kids riding their bikes to school or the small cars of families waiting for the train gate as we speed past. It is always easier to observe someone else’s life than to live your own.

Every time I travel by train, I meet fascinating characters. This time, I had an entire row in the train car to myself. As I watched the faded land click past the window, I remembered the train trip I took across the US to see my mom for the last time. The man who sat in the seat in front of me had dropped his bags and gone straight to the bar. He returned a few hours later, barely able to walk, talking loudly to no one in particular. He said he needed some medication that was in his checked luggage now stowed in the underbelly of the car. The train car attendant had come to try to retrieve it but he wasn’t sure if he could. The man became almost hysterical, saying it was really important. Eventually, the attendant dug out the man’s luggage and got him the small brown prescription bottles of pills. The man again disappeared, only to return around midnight when the train made a long stop. I pulled my shoes on to get outside and stretch my legs, even though it was early spring and quite cold.

After doing a dozen or so laps around the train station (with various faces appearing in the windows of the train the longer it sat there heaving its heavy sigh of exhaust), the train was ready to depart once again. I returned to my seat and punched my backpack a few times to try to soften it as I was using it for my pillow. The man in front of me turned in his seat to face me.

“Can I ask a favor?” He said, his eyes wide. He didn’t give me a chance to respond before he said, “I need you to keep me awake. I can’t sleep. I mean I can’t fall asleep. I have to take all of this medication for my PTSD and I can’t fall asleep. If you see me starting to fall asleep, can you smack me? Just slap me really hard?”

I looked at him for a moment, then shook my head and said, “I can’t do that.” He said I had to help him, and he had nobody else to ask. I said, “If you need help, maybe you can ask one of the train attendants.”

“No, no, NO! They aren’t trained for this! Nobody is able to help me! I only need this one favor, you just have to keep me awake.” He said as he looked at me harder, clearly agitated. In that moment, it occurred to me that there are no security gates of any sort when stepping onto a train. It crossed my mind that this man could be armed, and if he truly suffers from PTSD maybe it wasn’t safe to be near him while he was agitated. Still, the train was crowded and people were asleep—lounging across as much space as they could grab: shoes were off, coats were slung over their bodies, and CPAP machines were humming from two separate corners. There was no clear place for me to go.

I looked at him and said, “I’m really sorry that I can’t help you, but I can’t do what you are asking of me. If you want me to call an attendant, I will. Otherwise, I am going to sleep now.” I was somewhat surprised, but he nodded and leaned his head against the wall. I awoke a couple of hours later and he was sleeping soundly. He got off the train at a short stop just before sunrise.

Why I thought of him now on the train trip across Sweden, I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe it was partly because the rolling grassland reminded me of that long trip home or maybe just because I wondered about that stranger. Sometimes it’s hard to see how people try to piece themselves back together after the tragedies of life have broken them. I never learned his name or anything more about him. On the train trip this day, I held out hope that he would get some help and that karma or a guardian angel or maybe love alone would bring him some better days.

On this night, I got to my hotel in Oslo late and a group of men were watching a soccer game in the bar. After the long train journey I would have had a drink but a quick look around clearly put me as the only female in the bar. Instead, I dragged my backpack up three flights of stairs to my room. On the door of the stairs was a quote apparently attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. It was in Swedish, but as close as I could tell, it said, “We should do what we can with what we have, where we are.” I wasn’t sure if the translation was close or if Roosevelt had even said that, but I nodded in acknowledgement as I tossed open the door and braced it against my shoulder to swing my backpack through.

In the morning, I had breakfast at the hotel and wandered around a bit to see the sculptures of children around the grounds. I caught the shuttle to the airport and stood almost drooling at the amazing pastries on display at the coffee shop. They were on sale so I brought a bag along on my flight, even though I thought they would not be as good after a 9 hour day of travel. (My girls ate them with plenty of oohs and ahhs when I got home that night. I guess Norwegian pastries are none the worse for wear on a plane all day.)

While I was paying for my pastries, a couple of Irish men in line behind me were joking with a clerk who asked how they were doing. One said cheerily, “I’m doing well. Thank you for caring enough to ask, it’s nice to feel the love.” I overheard the conversation and turned around. I smiled and said, “It’s great, isn’t it?” They laughed and said it was great to be traveling in Norway, everyone was so friendly. They asked me where I lived in Norway.

The other clerk chimed in that I wasn’t Norwegian, and asked the men if they were American. They looked around and shook their heads, saying a little indignantly, “No! Why would you think that? We aren’t Americans!” I looked at them and said, “Aw, it’s alright. I’m an American.” Their eyes got big and they looked confused as I laughed. I winked and grabbed my stash of pastries as I heard the one closest to me say, “But you don’t seem like an American!”

As I settled into my window seat (I usually get the aisle seat but I am going to re-think that) and watched the fjords of Norway recede to the sea as we flew on to Iceland, I thought more about the Irish men, and how discovering my nationality interfered with the story they had already told of me in their mind. We identify folks by country of origin when such presumptions might be entirely false. We want to know who we are meeting (and I suppose, whether they are a thread), and we tell ourselves the stories of the people around us even if the stories are incorrect. I love to hear people’s stories, I love to know how they got here and what they long for or how they have been bruised by life and how they have triumphed. We are social beings- we share a primal need to connect with each other. Yet so much of our own stories are colored by the listener’s bias. It’s amazing we can relate to each other at all.

The plane flew to Reykjavik, passing by the snow-capped volcanoes along the southern coast. I fell asleep after leaving Reykjavik, awaking in time to see the snow-capped volcanoes of home in the fading light. I was tired but I was glad to be home.

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