There’s a moment when a train starts moving when common sense dictates you should hold on to something bolted down. It’s a really bad time to try to go for that open seat you just noticed a little ways down the car.
There are plenty of clues a train is about to pull away: the words “Zurupt bleiben bitte” or whatever it is they say at every station before the doors close, the red light flashing above the closing doors. If you’re not holding onto something, you will soon find yourself moving too. I know this, but open seats still tempt me.
Sometimes, even though I realize that the train is about to move, it hasn’t quite left yet, and I am sure that I can make it to that next pole, away from the tight knot of people around me, if only I can…
And then the train gathers momentum and I go flying down the aisle, and the words of a rowing friend ring in my ear, “Not a good day to be a lightweight,” as I hurtle like a pinball down the chute. Twice now I have tried to land in a vacant seat on a bench but instead lurched into a stranger’s arms. Reaching the seat would have required a righthand turn in the midst of my lurch, and the laws of physics say something about a body in motion remaining in motion and not making righthand turns, so it never works out as planned.
This happened to me on the way to our second visa appointment, my entire family and German friend watching in disbelief as I went sailing down the aisle and landed in the arms of some surprised young man holding onto the next pole. Once the train reached its full velocity I made my way back to my intended seat and sat down with as much dignity as I could muster. Soon I started giggling and couldn’t stop. Tears streamed down my face and Germans across the aisle stared at me in either boredom or amusement, hard to say, and my body kept shaking in barely suppressed giggles. My kids rolled their eyes and waited for me to come to my senses.
There is potential for such moments of ridiculousness pretty much daily.
Last weekend coming home on the train from a Saturday row, I chose a three-train route, one I’ve taken occasionally but not for at least a month. I begin to take my routes for granted, thinking I have this down now, and I was fairly absorbed in my book, Bird by Bird, which I’m reading for the umpteenth time, when I stood on the platform waiting for the U7 on the side where I thought I belonged. I kept reading my Kindle until I heard the rumble of trains barreling toward the station from both directions.
Suddenly I was gripped with the sense that I had chosen the wrong side. Both trains had stopped and there was no time to think. Convinced I needed the other train, I ran across the platform and hopped onto the train headed for “Rathaus Spandau.” For some reason when I see the end stations of the U7 and the U9 a voice comes into my head, “To the Rathaus!” like some rallying battle cry, but then I can never remember whether I’m supposed to head to the Rathaus on my way to the rowing club or on the way home. Just then an opposing gut feeling hit me and I got off the train I’d just entered and ran back across the platform to jump onto the U7 heading in the other direction as the doors were closing.
My fingers were on the window as we pulled away from the station as if to slow its departure. I was wracking my brain to figure out if this was the right train. Destination “Rudow” sounded right but the direction looked wrong. Of course, underground it’s impossible to get your bearings. Feeling rather panicked I asked the nearest person, a stern-looking man near the door, “Nach Berliner Strasse?” which as soon as it came out I knew did not make any sense at all, because that was the name of the station we’d just pulled away from, but my brain does not function at full capacity in German.
The man said something to that effect, a polite yet bewildered German version of “That was Berliner Strasse, lady,” and I finally produced the hopeful words, “Nach Eisenacher?”
But he either didn’t know or didn’t want to be bothered so he just stared at me, which is something Germans are very good at. I’ve come to not mind so much, because it gives me license to stare at them too. But instead I stared out the window at the dark tunnel as we went hurtling in what turned out to be the direction I’d meant to go all along. I disembarked at Eisenacher without a further glance at my less-than-helpful traveling companion, and walked home.
As I walked I thought about the last passage I’d read on the previous train, in which Anne LaMott describes the way she clears her mind when she’s writing. She imagines that the competing voices in her head of her critics and her mother and her editor are each squeaking mice, and she pictures herself picking them up by their tails one by one and dropping them into a glass jar, and then putting a lid on them and turning their volume down so she can get some work done. At which point a friend of hers asks, Why don’t you just shoot them in the head?, the thought of which set me to giggling again as I made my way down Eisenacher Strasse.
And even though it was culturally inappropriate I smiled at the grocer outside what our family calls the “mom and pop shop,” and I smiled at the unsmiling curmudgeon of an old lady walking towards me, and I smiled at the unleashed dog urinating on the side of the Barbarassoplatz fountain. My smile faded as I passed the stolperstein on Schwäbische Strasse, but my mood of the moment could not be fully squelched. The world struck me as ridiculous, I struck myself as ridiculous, and it all felt about right, and I unlocked our front door with that post-row glow and was happy to see my family again, where English is spoken, where there are no trains requiring split decisions.