I only just reach the train in time, hopping on just before the doors slam and we glide out of Munich main station. We’re headed to Verona, one stop on my way to Venice to visit my friend. I smile to myself, my relief at catching the train turning to excitement that every clatter of wheels brings me closer to my destination.
I stumble through the carriages as the train sways, but finally make it to my reserved seat. I heave my rucksack onto the overhead rack and take my seat by the window. Beside me, a man in a faded red jacket is sitting with his hands folded over his paunch. He’s smiling at me, eyes a mass of crinkles behind his thick glasses. He’s turned to look at me, still smiling. He’s staring, but his face is open and warm, and I don’t feel uncomfortable.
He leans over to me now, and says something in heavily accented Italian. I smile back but say nothing. He catches sight of the English title of my book.
I nod. He carries on smiling, but doesn’t say anything more.
The other side of the aisle, a small child is kicking her seat and scowling. Opposite, a woman is rocking a grizzling baby and trying to ignore her. The little girl kicks her seat harder. The woman makes shushing noises and closes her eyes, leaning her cheek on the window.
The train stops at another Munich station and a woman sits opposite me. She’s wearing heels and her hair is neatly styled. She pulls out a fashion magazine and opens the front page, but she’s still looking out of the window. We start to pull out of the station.
Immediately, the woman’s face creases up and for a minute I think she’s trying to suppress laughter. Then I notice the tears streaming down her face. I avert my eyes and concentrate on my book. I can still hear her shaky breathing as she tries to silence her sobs. I glance up, and she’s hidden behind her magazine now, her breathing a little calmer.
I want to talk to her, see if she’s OK, but I know she’d probably rather be left alone. I want to tell her that I’ve been there. I was the one stifling my sobs when my train pulled out of London and I left my mum on the platform, pulling me away from all that I knew and into the unknown. But my sadness then was only temporary. Maybe this woman’s sorrow is deeper. Maybe she’s been in town for a funeral. Maybe she’s leaving someone she loves for the last time.
It occurs to me that I don’t know anything about my fellow passengers, or what their journeys are for. We’re all on the same train, but our destinations, our purposes, our individual journeys are different. Mine is one of excitement and fun, and reunion with an old friend. For the others, this journey could mean anything. A stressful family visit? A boring commute? An adventure? A homecoming? Regret? Heartbreak?
We’ve all got our own journeys, and our own stories to tell. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that others do to.