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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 stop it.

“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.

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