In October, I visited Austria with my mother-in-law for a conference. On our way back through Vienna, we decided to have a bite to eat at the fancy-looking café in the main station before taking the train back to Germany.
“We’re in Vienna, so let’s have a treat,” said my mother-in-law.
We chose a table in the back next to the window. The menu had names of cakes neither of us recognized, so when the waitress came by my mother-in-law asked what she would recommend.
“The chestnuts are in season,” she said.
When she returned, she brought us two cappuccinos and two slices of Mont Blanc, cake with chestnut cream squeezed in spaghetti-like strands on top.
At the next table from us, there sat a group of eight women of varying ages. They all had tall glasses of latté macchiatos with thick layers of foam in front of them. One woman had a baby on her lap and a toddler sat in a wooden high chair at the head of the table. Six were wearing headscarves and one of the two who was uncovered had ginger hair. They were all in serious conversation, taking turns speaking while the others nodded along. A woman on the right was wearing a pair of Nikes and next to her was a woman with a leopard print headscarf. There were roughly twenty dark backpacks piled against the walls surrounding them, each caked with bits of whitish dirt.
My mother-in-law got up to go to the bathroom and I now sat directly facing them with nothing obstructing my view. There was no reason to stare, so I turned my head to look out of the window on my left.
The little girl in the high chair began to squirm and whine. I turned my head to look in her direction. She was standing up in her chair and was looking at me. The mother stood next to her and tried to soothe her. I waved at the child. The mother saw and waved back with the little girl, while making cooing sounds at her. The child stopped crying, scrunched up her face, pressed her little hand to her mouth and blew me a kiss. I blew
kisses back. Soon she didn’t need her hand to send kisses my way and just kissed the air in my direction. I did the same and found myself getting slightly emotional.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. Should I even make a situation out of it? I went through all possible scenarios of who these women were and where they were going. They were just women in a café drinking coffee. Perhaps they were going on a group trip or a holiday? A women-only weekend? But perhaps it was exactly what I thought it was and what I kept coming back to. The jarring contradiction of these well-dressed, at ease-looking women and the images of war on television caused a cognitive dissonance in my mind and felt like my brain was forcing a circle into a square-shaped space.
The waitress brought the mother with the little girl a small round mousse cake with berries on top. Once it was placed on the table, the woman used a dainty fork to cut into it and brought the bite to her mouth.
When the time of our departure time neared, we went to the platform. We took a spot next to the escalator and waited as the crowd waiting slowly thickened. I had gone to the bathroom after my mother-in-law came back. About fifty people sat waiting in the station chairs in front of a timetable screen, and some were sleeping. They all had bags next to
them, similar to the women in the café.
Now on the platform, there were men and women in bright-colored vests over their coats guiding some of the people I’d seen and were answering their questions in Arabic. They walked the lengths of the platform behind the yellow line, calling to the others who waited further away in the gathering crowd.
A couple with two children stood next to us. The man wore a shiny brown leather jacket with fur lining the collar and similar-colored shoes. The woman wore a headscarf and a long beige soft leather coat also with fur lining. Her eyes looked tired and avoided mine when I looked in her direction. Their two little boys, ages about five and six, had ruffled
hair and wore too-thin spring jackets. One of them sat on a medium-sized duffel bag. They looked nervous and like they hadn’t slept for days.
It felt a bit surreal to all stand together there on the platform. There was something grotesque about belonging to what appeared to be an incredibly ordinary scenario under severely abnormal circumstances. Everyone acted the way they do when they are trying not to stare or know others are watching them from the periphery – stilted, awkward, trying to act natural. No one really spoke even though the platform was full now and I realized that I was holding my breath.
The train finally came. Bags were gathered, children were rallied and positions were strategically chosen to alight the international train. As we climbed in, people pushed to get to the seats, many lugging rolling suitcases. The aisles became packed and no one could move. The train departed and still no one could move any further. People sat in any
seat they could find – even the reserved ones – if only until the rightful owner managed to make it to the seat.
The determined ones lifted their suitcases and bags over the heads of the other passengers and pushed themselves down the crowded carriage, including a group of young men, who wore thin jackets and passed their bags to each other when they couldn’t fit them through the crowd.
I was caught in the middle of the carriage, where on both sides of me were four seats facing each other over tables. My mother-in-law sat at one of the tables with a group of elderly men and women traveling together. The family from the platform stood right beside me and were studying their tickets. Two blonde women in the seats to their right asked the woman if the children wanted to sit down next to them. The two ladies squished themselves into one seat and made space for one of the children, and then pulled out a new pack of chocolate chip cookies and gave it to the little boy. He didn’t seem to know what to do with it, but the mother thanked them. People standing nearby were helping the husband trying to decipher the tickets he held in his hand.
Eventually the crowds thinned as people managed to find seats. I found an empty seat that wasn’t reserved at the end of the carriage and sat next to a large man in a dark jacket.
“Is this seat free?” I asked in German. He didn’t respond but gestured toward the seat.As I sat down, he pulled out a little translucent package with a heart-shaped candy that had “Wilkommen” printed on it. He gave it to me and I thanked him. I opened it immediately and popped it into my mouth.
I tried to read, but I couldn’t focus my mind on the text. Children walked by once in a while, with different sized bags and their adults tagging along behind them. Once two children walked by, and the older one, a boy of about eight years old with chubby cheeks, had a backpack with several plastic bags tied to it. They were followed by a man who also carried a few plastic bags, including a black garbage bag.
I stuck my head out slightly into the aisle and saw that the woman from the platform had taken the spot of her son and was smiling and talking with the two blonde women – who were still sharing one seat – in a jumble of English and hand gestures. Her husband approached a man with white hair a few seats away from her, showed him his ticket and asked whether that was his reserved seat. It was very orderly and polite, and the man stood to give up the seat.
The train conductor came by to check tickets and told my companion loudly and slowly that his seat was actually in another carriage. Now that the seat was free, I went to get my mother-in-law so we could sit together.
Everyone was now in their proper seat. It was a perfectly ordinary German train ride. People got off and on at different stops, read newspapers, slept, and watched movies on their iPads or laptops.
After a few hours, the train slowed as we approached the first station after the German border. A nasal voice came on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the police will be coming onto the train to do an inspection, and we will be shortly delayed. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
The passengers looked around, not sure what to expect. A few minutes later, the family with the two children got up and waved goodbye to the women with whom they had shared their seat. More and more young men piled onto the platform, including a few families. The sun was slowly setting and shone a golden light on them as the mist from their breath filled the air.
A policeman came into the carriage and called loudly first in German and then in English, “This is the German police. Passports, please!”
I looked into my purse and considered my two passports. There were several dozens of people on the platform, who had purchased tickets, but could not travel any further. Not only could I travel freely, I had the luxury of choosing which nationality to go by in that instant and several places I could call home. I had come into this country as a foreigner, too, and although I felt ignorant and helpless in this country that wasn’t my own, I had moved here so easily and wasn’t subject to processing and numerous checks. I felt guilty as I showed my EU passport to the police officer as he passed.
Standing on the platform, a young man’s teeth chattered in a thin vest over his shirt as he huddled with his friends and the train pulled away.
Renee is half-Dutch and half-American, but having grown up mostly in Russia and South Korea, she’s not sure where she’s from. Her main interests are storytelling, representation, and figuring out the best way to listen to and tell stories. She also loves watching dystopian sci-fi with her German husband. She’s doing her MA in Critical Media at SOAS.