Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .
German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:
I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.
A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.
This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends. His nationality was Austrian.
He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.
We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.
“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”
We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.
He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”
“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”
I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25. And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.
There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:
“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”
My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”
“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”
My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.
A new understanding rushed over me of how . . . simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . . and the signs would still be true.