When you travel abroad, people are going to talk to you on trains. It’s like you’re wearing a big shining badge that screams “I’m an American” (or maybe it’s the jeans/sneakers combo and the giant backpack, who knows). When Eurorail is your transportation of choice, you get to meet people of all nationalities. And because most of Europe is familiar with the English language, those people want to hear where you’re from and where you’re going.
First, you meet two women from Brussels traveling through the Swiss Alps on a ski trip. Your friend compliments them on their outfits and they ask you what you’re studying. To your surprise, you don’t parrot out your major but instead say the thing you really want to be when you grow up, the real job description, not that corporatized title. After all, to these women you could be anything at all. You realize that the labels you have at Cornell don’t translate unless you want them to, and you resolve to talk to everyone with the confidence of someone who could be anything at all.
You meet a Parisian man on an express train second. He doesn’t even ask you if you’re American, he just leans in and asks you if you want a piece of advice. You nod. “Wrong,” he says. “You don’t want any advice. Advice is just a person’s past, dug up and dusted off and recycled into a life lesson that is more for them than for you. You want people’s stories — that’s where the real advice is.” You think about all the stupid inspirational quotes on your Instagram feed, and resolve to find a bookstore on your way home.
The third person you meet on the train is woman born and raised in Florence, travelling to Milan for an art show. She tells you that she speaks six languages and you are overwhelmed by the urge to apologize for knowing only your own — it seems selfish. She’s a painter, she says, and she goes to New York for art shows. To her, New York is a city. She whips out her sketchbook and asks if she can draw you. While you wonder what your hair looks like today — you’ve been sleeping on a train, after all — she explains that she carries a sketchbook everywhere because she wants to remember what she sees, not what the photographs show. “It’s like reading a book,” she goes on. “When you read, you can picture whatever you like.” You think about this, and resolve to allow more than one perspective as valid.
Fourth, you come across two Londoners on a train through Spain (though not on a plain). They’re both jovial and displaying impressive facial hair. You listen to their conversation for a while — they’re laughing about how newspapers have gone to rubbish reporting silly local stories. They get off two stops before you do, and they leave their copy of a local newspaper, probably pilfered from a nearby hostel. Many of the news stories are about American politics and American culture. You remember how the cafes and grocery stores play Top 40 songs, how the movie theatres show more American films than European, how the bookstores display American novels. So much of Europe relies on American culture, you note, and you resolve to notice where you come from before you leave and not after.
Fifth, there is a old Scottish man who tells you he has travelled with the military; he looks grumpy and uncompromising but perks up as you ask him about the history of the town you’re passing through. He lives in a fancy Oxford neighborhood, he tells you, next door to “that American actor George Clooney.” His eyes light up as he launches into an account of the time he met the princess of Scotland, his whole face changed by the happy memory. You wanted to believe that you knew after just five minutes of his company. You resolve to make less judgments.
When you travel abroad, people are going to talk to you on trains. Hell, people are going to talk to you wherever you go — sometimes meaningfully, mostly perfunctorily. And sometimes what you talk about is going to mean something else to you, something bigger. The important thing is to be willing to talking to the strangers on trains.
Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.