Jumping From A Train
By: Anne Swannell, Victoria. BC, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant
One of my most life-changing experiences took place
on a train my husband and I boarded in Copenhagen one Friday
evening in October of 1991. Ray and I, then in our early fifties,
had been staying in that many-spired city with a young Danish geologist
and her sailor husband - Servas
travellers we' d met when they visited us on Vancouver Island a
couple of years earlier. Now we were headed for Italy to stay with
other Servas friends, and were looking forward to a succession of
long, contemplative train journeys down through Germany, then over
to northern Italy, and, eventually, back to Paris.
However, as we trundled through Germany in the dark,
down towards Munich, where we were to change trains, we realized
that this leg of the journey looked like being anything but contemplative!
Though neither of us speaks German, it gradually dawned on us that
most of our fellow passengers were headed for Munich' s Oktoberfest,
which we had not taken into account. They would be with us
all the way. Young people in Hamburg, Hanover, Nuremberg, and all
the little towns in between pushed on board the train, beer in hand,
eager to get a head start on the festivities. Soon our tiny compartment
was chock-full. So were all the others. The corridors
too were jammed with lager-lovers, their luggage, their long legs,
and their laughter. As the train grew more crowded, the passengers
grew more convivial. Old friends were hailed and new friendships
bloomed into possibilities: Ray and I looked at each other and rolled
our eyes. It was clear that, as the night progressed, things would
only get noisier and even more uninhibited. We felt very much in
the way and in the wrong place.
Then, our worst fears came true. The two boisterous
young fellows sitting across from us, who clearly wished we old
fogies weren' t there, got up, then plunged into the melee
in the corridor. This would have been good news except that
we knew replacements were inevitable. Almost immediately, two
slightly-older, much tougher-looking, black-booted fellows slid
open the door of our compartment, nodded at us, and sat down. Ray
squeezed my hand, and we moved over to give the big-boned pair more
room. The blond, thin-lipped one had a swastika embroidered on the
back of his jacket, I noticed, as he stepped over our feet; he looked
to me like a stereotypical SS officer from a World War Two movie.
“You are minding ? he asked a few moments later,
gesturing with a package of cigarettes he' d fished from a breast-pocket.
Oh-oh, thought I. This was a non-smoking compartment: the
sign was on the window: verboten. “Well,
yes, I' m afraid we do mind, I said, somewhat apologetically,
but determined to stand up for my rights, even with Mr. SS Man here.
I think I half-expected him to smirk and light up, saying, “Vell,
zis is most unfortunate for you: you must suffer, it seems!”
But he just nodded and smiled and put his cigarettes away. Not quite
what I' d thought would happen.
The train rattled on into the night, and soon Mr.
SS Man' s travelling companion took out a bottle of wine and an
opener. The swastika-decorated one pulled out two plastic wine glasses
from his back-back. Hmmmmph! Rather more civilized,
than I' d expected. And then out came two more, which were
offered to us, with raised eyebrows and a tentative “If
you vould care to join us?”
As we shared that bottle of wine- a very good wine,
I might add- the four of us began to talk. It quickly became
quite clear that these two were not Neo-Nazis at all: they were
gentle, intelligent souls, interested- not in starting riots- but
in conserving the environment and promoting peace! They were for
reduced wrapping. They hated litter just like me. They were against
the recent Gulf War. All war. I felt confused: the signs were
all wrong. As the warmth of the conversation and the wine
loosened my tongue, I ventured a question. So..um, why the swastika?
The leather jacket? The jack boots?”
They laughed. Jergen, I think his name was, unfolded
his jacket to show us the swastika. Now - up close - we could
see there was a bar embroidered across it, just like the no-smoking
sign across the circle on the window. We hadn' t noticed that little
detail! They told us that they were part of an anti-Fascist
organization. They travelled to Munich every year for Oktoberfest,
went specifically to keep rowdies from making trouble. They
went as a calming influence: if a fight broke out, they tried to
“Isn' t that a little dangerous?” asked
Ray. “Ja, sure. It is,” was the answer. “But -
there is no point in trying to fight Fascism where I live.
There are no Fascists there! I told them what I' d thought about
them when they first came into our compartment. “Ja, we know
this,” they said, obviously amused.
They got out, of course, at Munich in the morning, with all the
others, as did we ourselves, since we were to catch a train for
Milan in half an hour. They helped us to find the right platform.
By then we had grown very fond of them: meeting and talking with
these two had been first a revelation, and then a delight.
We have never forgotten how our perceptions altered minute by minute
as we talked and realized how wrong we' d been at first.
They, of course, had taken a certain delight in watching this process
as well, and that thought makes us smile.
I can' t say definitively that I no longer
make decisions about people from the way they dress, or from first
impressions, but The Oktoberfest Incident,
as we later came to call it, did make me a whole lot less likely
to jump to conclusions, on trains or off! It' s one of
the things travel does for you.