Author Shelly Biswell and her husband, Ken, at one of the many train stations they’ve passed through.
It’s been just over a month since we began using our Eurail Global Passes. At this point “global” is a stretch, as we’ve found it hard to leave each country – let alone each village and city we’ve been to. Seriously. Ken laughs because each place we have landed I’ve said, “I don’t think it could get any better”.
This has meant that our travelling has transitioned from “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” to “How about a week in______ (name some smallish town in Europe – we chose Camogli, Italy, and Annecy, France, for our extended stays)?”
I’ve learned on this journey that while it’s important to read and learn about a place, a language, and a people before you arrive, it’s equally important to put that information in context. For example, I’d heard from many people (personal experiences included) that Barcelona has a significant problem with pickpocketing. However, it’s not something we experienced or witnessed there. In fact, the only place that someone half-heartedly attempted to get inside my bag was at the train station in Basel, Switzerland (yes, the country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world). I say “half-heartedly”, because my would-be pickpocketer sidled up to me and started to unzip my bag. When I asked what he was doing, he looked me in the eye and casually walked off.
I’ve loved travelling by train and would take waiting in a train station any day over waiting in an airport. The stations we’ve been in have been safe, clean, and well-staffed. As a cultural crossroads, however, train stations often seem to be places where tourists can be at their most demanding. I admit to a few moments of cultural cringe, such as waiting in line behind the extremely loud and insistent English-speaking couple who had Canada flag patches prominently displayed on their backpacks (just saying, not fooling anyone).
Train stations are also where I have felt the most obvious and, at times, vulnerable as a tourist: “No thank you, we don’t need a ride or three-day sightseeing package.” “Wonder why there are suddenly so many gendarmeries here?” “Wait, did they just change our platform?”
We were in the small train station in Arles, France, and blithely showed up for our early morning train only to discover there was a rail strike. This was our own fault, as the days of the strike had been publicised in advance. There were two workers at the station – a cleaner and a staff person who had the unenviable job of explaining to tourists like us (all the locals had wisely made other travel arrangements) that we would not be catching our train as planned. Yet, this worker – who spoke just a hint more English than our limited French – found us a route using alternative means of public transportation to our next destination. On a day when most of his colleagues were on strike, it would have been so easy, and even reasonable, for him to shrug and point to the split-flap display that showed all the annulé trains. But he didn’t.
One important note about this interaction: Ken has been good about learning and using the language basics for the countries we have travelled in. Thanks to our eldest daughter, Haley, I’ve been practising French and Spanish using the Duolingo app. Admittedly, my thick tongue and pronunciations sound horrible even to me, but I’ve been attempting to at least start a conversation in the main language of the country we’re in.
At the Arles train station, you could see the staff person’s shoulders relax as Ken used his rudimentary French. Not to question the wisdom of Master Yoda and his sage advice, “Do; or do not; there is no try,” but in the case of speaking a foreign language, our lesson has been that it’s better to try, even if we have a shocking accent or don’t know all the right words.
In the scheme of things, perhaps our experience at the Arles train station seems of small consequence, but to me it symbolises the way so many people are willing to give their knowledge, their skills, their resources, and their time to help others – day in, day out. It is humbling.
I’ve just finished Elizabeth Strout’s thought-provoking book My Name is Lucy Barton. In it, her main character muses, “I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Many of us have been saved by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.”
I agree. This journey has reminded me to appreciate and pass on that kindness.
When not on her OE, Shelly Farr Biswell works as a communications consultant in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram (shellybiswell).