Editors Note: Why I hate train stations

Editor’s Note: Why I hate train stations

I had studied French for five years.  In my mind, oui, merci and pardon-moi were second nature.  But nothing in le classe de français could have prepared me for a journey without English.

My journey began in Denver.  I flew to Atlanta and then Amsterdam.  Both flights were delayed and my final flight—from Amsterdam to Brussels—was cancelled.  I was supposed to meet my Rotary Youth Exchange host family at the Brussels airport earlier that morning.  They didn’t know that I was taking the train from Amsterdam.

I had never been to a train station before.  One step at a time, I walked around.  The clouds cascaded overhead and the wind picked up.  My blue backpack—filled with a few days of clothes and remnants of America—was the only sense of home that I had, as I meandered down the stairs to check when my connecting train was supposed to arrive.

The tile stairs opened up to an underground that I had never seen before; something that I had never been a part of.  The flickering lights seemed to manipulate me, broadening my curiosity.  As silent as a ghost town, the only sound was from the whispering wind above.  The vacant train station pulled me in.  I walked down the hall, led by a trail of dimly lit green and white tiles, slabbed in dirt, grime and litter. The history on the walls told an obvious story; one could imagine shops, full of tourists and commuters. Every day, there would be a bustling of places to go and people to see.  But today, the train stop was empty.  I was its only friend.  The unwritten history left me uneasy; unknowing.  But the path led me deeper and deeper into the station’s underground abyss.

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The whispering winds kept pulling me into the train station.  I noticed lights; these ones weren’t flickering.  I wandered closer and closer until my neck was tilted so I could see a sign.  It read:

05 — Bruxelles Natl Aero — 10 min

06 — Bruxelles Train — 5 min

07 — Oostend — 25 min

The whispering stopped.  I looked up and saw 05 to my left and 06 to my right, intertwined with one staircase.  The green and white steps led me up to the sur-ground.

There was a train to my right.  Was this the train to the Brussels airport? Or was this the train to the Brussels train station?  Not sure, I wandered over to a bench, where there was a plump, dark skinned woman sitting comfortably in jeans and a jacket.  I, on the other hand, shivered in a t-shirt and shorts; America’s projections on European weather are highly inaccurate.  I looked at her, knowing that this would be my first time outside of the classroom using a language that I thought I knew.  My palms were sweaty.  My voice was trembling.  And my mouth opened:

Pardon-moi, madame.  Mais, où est l’aéroport?” I asked her, with a stutter.

She looked at me, in my dark blue shirt that, ironically, said “Leave the Pond.”  Her eyes read me, from tip to toe.  Her gaze never quite seemed to leave my body.  Was she judging me? I thought.  Did she know I was American?  She responded with one brief word and pointed to the train to my right, “.”

Another man appeared out of nowhere, hooded by a hunch back and paper-boy cap.  He huddled near us and challenged the woman, “Non, le train de l’aéroport est là!” He pointed to my left.

Not knowing what to do (and a little confused by their accents), I stood frozen, both by the cold and my ignorance.  The woman looked at the man in the same way that she did at me.  She read him quickly and responded, “Non, l’aéroport est là!” She said as she wailed her arm to the right again.

Vous êtes faux!”  The hunchbacked man said, shaking his head quickly.  He sharply pointed to the left.

Vous êtes faux!” she shouted, “Il y a!” with another deliberate swing to the right.

I, with my mouth now ajar, stood alone.  I had created an argument in a language that I barely knew, in a country that I had never visited before, and with people whom I had never met.

The train to my right’s doors began to close.  “ALLEZ-VOUS!” the woman shouted, motioning her entire body to the right.

NON!  C’est pas le vrai train!” The man shouted, shaking his head continuously and waving his arms.

The man and the woman seemed so distant, yet so close.  They treated me as though I knew nothing.  I acted as though I knew nothing.  They spoke so quickly.  I comprehended so little.

The bickering continued, as the doors shut tightly.  Suddenly, a train appeared to my left, just as the one on my right was departing.

Allez-vous,” the man said to me with confidence, seeming like he was correct.

Je suis désole,” the woman said, melancholic that, in her mind, I had missed my train.

Still frozen, I mustered a mumble out of my open mouth, “Merci beaucoup.

The man and the woman, who still had not come to a conclusion, looked at me and simultaneously said, “De rien.”  Which, literally means nothing.

I turned to my left and committed to a chance.  Was this the train to the airport?  Was this the train to the station?  Hopefully this wasn’t a train to the sea-side town of Oostend.

I stumbled closer to the train, looking up at its double-decker seating arrangement.  How could something that seemed so foreign be the link between me and family?  I walked inside; my palms were still sweaty and my fingers were shaking.  I looked in front of me, and there wasn’t anyone.  I looked behind me, and there wasn’t anyone.  I was the only person in my section of the train.  The carvings in the seat in front of me told a history that once was.  “OUI,” one of them said.  “NON,” said another one right next to it.  I was in a place of conflict; one that had been battered with controversy since its creation.

The carvings took my mind off of the inevitable questions that had been lurking beyond the horizon.  Was I going to Brussels?  Was this indeed train number 05?  Was I really alone?

.     .     .

I walked off the train by myself, still not quite sure where I had ended up.  All I had was my blue backpack and the clothes on my back.  I walked toward a set of escalators.  Looking down at my feet, I stepped onto the black path, and let them take me to where I needed to go.

Something about the prior exchange of words prepared me for the moment where I reached my host family.  Even though my flights and trip had been delayed, I found something out about myself that day: I don’t know everything.  Nobody does.  I don’t understand many cultures; I don’t understand many languages; I don’t understand a lot about life.  But, it took me being an outsider to truly understand that I don’t understand everything.  I like to think that I know who I am, and I like to think that I know everything about a situation that there is to know.  But the fact of the matter is this: I don’t.  I didn’t know which train to take.  And, when I took one, I wasn’t sure if I was on the right one.  It’s in human nature to want to know the most and prove oneself.  The hunchbacked man and the woman will never know more than the other because it’s not a matter of knowing more or less at one specific time.  It’s a matter of knowing that you can always learn more, all the time.

Ethan Dayton

*Editor’s Notes are published the first and third Friday of every month, as well as the Friday that an issue is released.

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