There is something distinctly isolating about airplane travel. Everyone is either rushing to catch a flight and oblivious to the stream of humanity moving around them; or they sit quietly at a boarding gate, plugged into some form of electronic device and studiously avoid eye contact. Once on board, the whine of the jet engines and the inflight movies all but eliminate the possibility for human interaction.
Traveling by train however, provides more intimate glimpses into the private lives of those around us; you know, the stuff we all wonder about while discreetly eyeing up the strangers sharing the journey to our final destinations.
“Would you mind switching seats with me? I don’t like to face backwards” says the elderly woman to one of the two other ladies sharing a four – seater directly in front of me on Train 44. The younger woman (a daughter?) jumps up obligingly and quickly resettles her traveling companion in the row that faces the direction we are headed. They laugh amicably when the steward explains the emergency procedures for which they are responsible, sitting as they are in the emergency exit row.
“Oh I know all about this! Get the little hammer, smash the glass and chuck everyone out the window!” The ladies twitter amongst themselves and the steward awards them the green sticker signifying they have been appropriately briefed on how to save all of our lives. I quickly come to think of them as something akin to that book <em>The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants</em>; these ladies might be returning from a girls getaway that has formed part of a yearly tradition or this might be their first adventure. Whichever; they are clearly at ease together.
The train picks up speed as an older British couple across the aisle each tap away on their individual iPads. They’ve told the train steward that they are traveling across the country visiting many of the major cities, and the steward offers travel tips and a few points of interest at their upcoming stop. I imagine the fun they have had planning this trip, maybe their first since retiring; searching online for sights to see and local culture to experience. A travel book pokes out of the backpack at the gentleman’s feet and his wife queries him about the next leg of their journey.
“Will we fly from Halifax to Montreal? Could we catch the train down to New York City?” She cannot remember the final details they settled on after weeks of planning. Nonetheless they are relaxed; perhaps they have made countless such train trips in the course of their marriage, bringing home the photos and memories which make up the tapestry of a life woven together.
(“You have to lie and pass yourself off as a professional Christmas tree decorator!” chortles the youngest woman of the Sisterhood, digging into an egg salad sandwich just purchased from the obliging steward.)
“Is there WiFi on this train?” asks a young man as he settles in next to another young man in the seats directly behind me. “Yeah, I think so” responds the second, which is met by a relieved grunt of thanks from the first. College-aged, headphones already on, they won’t be the most chatty of companions – a hypothesis that is gratified when I turn moments later to see that one of them has resettled himself elsewhere on the partially full train.
(“There I went, flat on my face down into the bull’s pen!” recounts the elderly sisterhood lady, prompting an incomprehensible exchange about cows with giant nose rings.)
Elsewhere on the train the din of friendly chatter filters back to me as cornfields, trees and lakes slip by outside the window. Sun shines in on my face as we slow to pass through small towns where cars have stopped behind the flashing lights of railway crossings, waiting patiently while we pass.
A father and son speak to each other in a foreign language (Polish?), apparently on a long journey to visit family.
A young woman rests her head, asleep, against a balled up sweater rolled into a makeshift pillow.
The Sisterhood ladies have lapsed into full flow gossip.
“She really is snippy. I’m not fond of that Brenda at all.” “Well what about Terry?” “I don’t know, he hasn’t been around lately.” “Maybe she killed him!”
I smile and settle in with my own book, grateful for the empty seat next to me affording me my own private bubble from which I am free to observe and enjoy the moments of regular life unfolding all around me. Although I don’t speak with them, I share the rest of the trip with these people. We approach the train station at our destination and I privately wish them well as we pack up our belongings and prepare to de-board Train 44.