12 Characters You’ll Meet on Trains in Europe
1. Groups of Australian gap-years
They’re freshly graduated, or perhaps cashing in on their month-long “holidays.” I don’t think I’ve ever traveled through Europe by train without hearing rowdy Australian kids from three cars down. They’re usually playing drinking games, or exchanging stories about surfing, partying, and where to acquire drugs.
And yet, I’m envious of them. It feels like every country in the world encourages its youth to explore the world after graduation, except for America. The gregarious Australians on my trains were probably learning more about the world, and about themselves, than any college freshman. They were always inclusive when it came to chatting with strangers, which is usually how I ended up pub crawling with them at the next station, or allowing six of them to sleep on my apartment floor in Prague after traveling from Dresden during Oktoberfest.
2. Well-dressed British men
I always feel so out of place on trains in Great Britain; people there know how to travel in style. I never worked there, but always found myself traveling at rush hour between places like London and Winchester, or on my way to Luton to catch a flight. The men all looked like supermodels, in pressed slacks and crisp button-down shirts, navy or black blazers, and charming cufflinks. Their shoes were shined and buffed, their hair impeccably cut. Some of the older gentlemen wore full suits of tweed and khaki trench coats. Everyone carried umbrellas, whether it was raining or not.
I used to hope I’d meet my future husband on a British train, like the plot of some cheesy, romantic novel. But they were more interested in their newspapers, or staring out the window at the gray sky, than flirting with me at seven o’clock in the morning.
3. The “has-their-shit-together” French family
They spoke rapidly and, armed with my college-level French, I could only catch a few words. It seemed they were visiting family; we were somewhere between Lyon and Paris, breezing past stony French farmhouses, nothing for miles but perfectly manicured pastures, maybe a few bales of hay that reminded me of overturned teacups.
I’d witnessed similar scenes throughout Paris, especially while traveling by train. In America, travel is a burden most families can’t be bothered with — too complicated, too frustrating, too stressful, too calculated. But I admired this family who made it look so easy. Their two children, around the ages of seven and four I guessed, sat quietly playing with a toy doll and reading a book. Every so often the mother handed the younger girl some grapes to snack on, her gaze never leaving the conversation she continued with her husband. She was beautiful, relaxed. Her husband gently held her hand the entire time from across the cabin.
When the train pulled into Paris, they waited for the majority of the passengers to disembark. With one swooping motion, the father was carrying the bags down the platform, the mother was rolling the daughter in her stroller, and the boy was happily trotting along. There was no struggle, there were no tantrums, no toys were left behind, no trace of trash. It was as if they’d never traveled by train to begin with, but just magically appeared on the platform to continue their day.
4. Maternal Croatians
I was feeling homesick; she knew it. She could sense the sadness, even though she didn’t know it was because my wallet had been stolen, I’d run out of minutes on my mobile phone, and once I got to Budapest I wasn’t sure if I could get my family to wire me money. She sat across from me, knitting what looked like a pair of socks for a child, a knowing glance in my direction as if to say, “Everything will be all right.”
A group of young men tumbled into our car. I wasn’t sure what language they spoke, but I knew they were speaking about me, looking at me and smiling, sniggering as they stared from my breasts to my face and back again. I was wedged up against the window and one of the larger boys; he laughed as he brushed my knee. But granny got the better of them. She began to shout and stuck her needle into the arms of the boys, who argued with her but left after she seemed to threaten them in a harsher tone. Once the car quieted, she resumed her knitting, after offering me a woolly doily to wipe away my tears.
5. Brooding creatives from Chicago
He sat curled up on the seat against the window. He was thin and pale, and while I didn’t want to pigeonhole him as an artistic type, I couldn’t help it. The large moleskine notebook tucked under his arm, complete with an old-fashioned fountain pen, confirmed my stereotyping. Every so often, he’d break out of his fetal position to scribble things down on the creamy pages. Sometimes he’d write for an hour, other times he jotted down notes. Then he’d resume what I supposed to be a comfortable position, knees drawn in, heels resting on the chair cushion, eyes staring at nothing but the scenery breezing by the window outside.
The train stopped in Antwerp, where he bolted upright and departed. A thin piece of paper fell from his notebook; I rushed out of the cabin to find him, but his tall, thin body was too far down the platform. I re-boarded, lest I miss my train to Amsterdam. I noticed he didn’t have any luggage with him; when I looked down at the paper, it was a receipt for toilet paper and cigarettes from a 7-11 in Chicago.
6. Curt Germans
“These are our seats.” The tall, weathered man with a crew cut stood firmly in the doorway of the train car. “I must demand that you leave at once.”
A young Egyptian family struggled to gather their belongings. They didn’t realize that the seats on this particular train were reserved. It was a simple mistake, one that would’ve been remedied by a patrolling conductor who could kindly escort them to the proper area.
“Will you hurry up?” the German boomed. His massive red suitcase blocked the corridor, and to his left a line of passengers waited to pass. The train from Prague to Ústí nad Labem was about to leave, and all we wanted to do was find our seats.
“We are doing the best we can!” one of the daughters shouted from inside the compartment.
“Honestly, this is incredibly rude,” the German man continued. “These seats are assigned. You cannot take another person’s seat! It is uncalled for.”
“So is blocking the rest of the hallway so no one can pass,” I finally spoke up, arms folded across my chest.
“How dare you!” he hissed at me. “Mind your business!”
“Let them pass, you asshole!!” I shouted back, watching the poor Egyptian family trying to squeeze past the towering German. Their bags were too big to roll past his, and they carried them over his head.
“I have never been so insulted in my entire life!” he cried, lumbering past the last of the children rushing out. “Some people need to learn to travel in a civilized manner!”
No one waiting in the corridor sat in his compartment.
7. Americans binge traveling during their study abroad programs
It was easy to spot them — khaki shorts, obnoxiously bright-colored sneakers, ironic screen-printed t-shirt and messy hair, Osprey backpack stuffed to a point where you had to wonder, what was so important for these guys to carry around at such a capacity that they couldn’t just get it in whatever city they stumbled into next?
There were usually a few girls as well, wearing straw hats and halter tops, with brightly polished fingernails and raggedy Chuck Taylors. They treated their cabins as their personal tossing grounds. Bottles of Coca-Cola and gum wrappers littered the floor.
“So when we get to Vienna, we’ll hit up the number 9 tram,” the freckle-faced leader of the pack announced, loud enough for the entire car to hear. “It’s the one that sort of shows us around the entire city. Then we’ll get off at Westbahnhof for our hostel and let the night do its work.”
They reminisced about their backpacking adventure so far; using Florence as their home base, they had pub crawled their way through all the more popular Italian cities, as well as weekend trips to Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, and Prague. During their Easter break they’d been to Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest, and Zagreb, all within a week.
I wondered what the point of spending so little time in so many places was. Did none of them think they’d be back after college? Would they learn anything aside from what the bottom of their beer glass looked like, or was Europe to them just something to say they’d “done?”
8. Attractive conductors
There’s something incredibly sexy about a man in uniform, whether it’s a rubber jumpsuit worn for trash removal, or a high-profile military getup. Train conductors do it for me.
Their appearance isn’t overtly attractive; their blazers are boxy, their trousers are usually pressed so sharply they could give you a paper cut. Their round hats cover their bald spots, their vests hide their beer bellies. And yet, I have fantasies involving empty coach cabins, rubber stamps, and knowing I’ll be getting off at the next station (do with that what you will).
I wondered where these men came from, and what drew them to this occupation (it’s mostly men — it’s rare to meet a female conductor on a European train, unless I’m in England maybe, in which case their cheery disposition somewhat attracts me as well). In New York, conductors receive a cushy pension. Here, though, I have to wonder if nostalgia has a part to play. In Zurich I met a conductor whose father was a conductor, and his father before him. In Europe, punching tickets is more than just a way to pay the bills. It has a history to it. It has a legacy.
Anyone upholding that level of familial tradition is automatically attractive to me.
9. Hippies who haven’t showered (ever?)
You can smell them before you see them, and you wonder what you did wrong to be trapped in a sleeper car with them. The worst was when I took the EuroNight Jan Kiepura from Amsterdam to Warsaw. Over 17 hours from city to city, and I never did get used to the smell of body odor.
“Trains are so awesome,” a guy named Theo told me. He had wiry dreadlocks and didn’t like wearing shirts, despite various threats by conductors to kick him off if he didn’t comply. “Because you don’t even need a hostel. It’s like a free place to stay, just pay for the train ticket and you wake up in a totally different place.”
That may have been true, if I could get any sleep at all. Instead I dozed on and off, distracted by a chorus of snores, gasping for fresh air, wondering if any of my cabin mates had “borrowed” my toothbrush or tank top or the condoms I’d been saving in case I met up with a hot Polish guy (or a train conductor).
10. Russians smoking cigarettes next to the “No Smoking” sign
The trains that don’t require reservations are the most interesting. You wonder if the people standing in the corridors, not lucky enough to find seats, booked a ticket last minute, or just don’t realize a seat for them is guaranteed without a reservation. Maybe they don’t have a ticket at all.
Smoking is pretty much prohibited on trains throughout Europe, yet there are always some who know how to work the system. Or those who disregard the rules entirely, like the Russians I’d see lazing against the metal walls of the train. They’d rest their wrists on the ledge of the open windows, cigarettes dangling between their fingers, training themselves to hold the thinly rolled sticks against the force of the wind.
Sometimes the conductors would reprimand them, other times they’d join in for a drag. Surprisingly none of the passengers really complained.
11. Solo female travelers
Most female travelers I’ve met throughout Europe love trains. They’re safe, efficient, comfortable, and exciting. Solo female travelers tend to find each other on trains, forming close-knit groups to experience new cities with. Train travel also allows us long periods of time to talk introspectively, communicating in ways that are sometimes lost in male translation.
I loved hearing their stories, from falling in love in Lisbon, to fighting off purse snatchers in Istanbul. I felt empowered by what they’d achieved, and hoped to have the same sort of luck finding a homestay castle near Dublin, or watching the Northern Lights in the north of Norway. Every woman I came across was another person showing society that it was okay to discover the world on her own. Sometimes I felt bad when they didn’t invite me to travel with them, but I was also quick to realize that some journeys have to be taken alone.
12. Generous Slovaks carrying too much booze
We passed around the bottle of Slivovice, taking long shots or short sips. The drinking game was something I didn’t understand — involving animal sounds and shapes — but it didn’t really matter, as the point was to get as drunk as you could and take things from there. We were traveling down to Vienna for a rock concert. I suppose this was their way of pre-gaming to save their Euros for something to eat later on, or drugs.
I took trains a lot throughout Slovakia and the Czech Republic, from Prague to Bratislava, up to Žilina and as far as Trebišov and the Ukrainian border. Every cabin I sat in, every corridor I walked through, had a local who was more than willing to share their flask with me to pass the time. I’d purchase cheap cigarettes to keep on hand so I could make new friends easily, or just not feel so alone when I traveled. My Slovak was never as good compared to my Czech, but I suppose it didn’t matter because a smile and a drink were two forms of language that always translated easily enough.
Feature photo: Andrew Smith