Sunday, May 15, 2016

The unforgettable passenger

Wherever we go, we carry huge expectations and rejoice when reality comes close, or exceeds them. And as we know the rejoicing doesn’t happen often, and consequently quotes on the lines of ‘reality sucks’ and ‘expectations always hurt’ keep coming up.

Hidden in these dark walls of lofty expectations are the crevices of surprise. We don’t encounter them often. But each time we do, every such crevice can defy whatever we think we know about ourselves, and about life. It’s like Mario stumbling onto a bonus round. The nature of this moment appears differently to everyone, and this is what one of mine looked like.

I was heading from Vienna to Zagreb, a two-train journey. The first one was largely uneventful, as I unwisely spent so much time browsing my laptop that my head was swirling by the end of it. Sure, I could’ve looked out the window or spoken to the fellow passengers, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood. The journey was long, and I wanted to kill time. 
A train in Copenhagen
However I changed my mind about that as I boarded the second train from Graz to Zagreb. Enough of the laptop. Enough of all electronics. That means you too, earphones. Yes Kindle, you have books, and I know you hate being called a gadget. But you are one.

This train, like all those that passed through Slovenia, had compartments divided into six-seater-cabin, like the first class coaches in India. I took my seat in a cabin occupied by only one other passenger.

In my experience, it’s rare to be unencumbered by electronics totally during a long journey, at least in 2015. I just wanted to do a factory reset, and see what happens if I just sit, and be.

The passenger in front of me was a girl. She was sitting in an inexplicably odd position. She was leaning onto her seat in an oblong way, with her back on the seat and legs propped up comfortably on the window-table. Now quite a few Europeans are likely to greet you with a warm and polite hello. This girl was indifferent to my entry into the cabin, and stayed crocodile-still, with her earphones plugged in. I was taken a little aback.

So my mind had something to think about: how do I start a conversation with this girl? Should I just say hi loudly? Do I ask her some question about the train? Not very high quality ideas, as you can see. A lot of times the words seem to come to my lips, then scram back into my head out of hear. ‘It’s a girl. Alcohol not found. Abort. I repeat, mission abort! What were you thinking, your Shyness?’

This went on for about half an hour. I was leaning my head on the sliding door to the cabin, and humming. (Wait, humming? This was new. So this is what I do after a factory reset.) The girl had taken out a small colorful notepad, and had started scribbling in it. Probably writing a smart ass diary, just like her cool posture and clothes, I judged.

My newfound hum was interrupted by a knock on the door by the ticket conductor. With a bit of a smirk, I showed my Eurail Pass to him, as if I were the President of Slovenia.
“You have to enter your journey details on the ticket.”, he said, handing be back my pass and moving on to the next cabin. Just then I noticed that the girl was now sitting properly, had taken off her earphones, and was seconds away from putting them back on. This is your chance, fly you fool! 

“Excuse me, do you have a pen?”

It was like Ethan Hunt timing his dive at the very last second through a rapidly closing door. In a world where I’m Ethan Hunt, finding ice-breakers like this is what my impossible missions would probably be like.

As she replied with the affirmative and extended her hand to give me the pen, she broke into a smile, and time just paused for a second. In that moment, every judgement I passed on her in my head went out the window. The conversation that followed was conclusive proof of this.

Fortunately for me, she spoke English. It turned out, she was a student of music. When I asked her about the notepad, she said it was for marking the number of hours she has to practice each instrument, each day of the week, which included both singing and dancing. I secretly wished the word awesome was reserved for worthwhile mentions, like this one.

I enjoyed telling her about my own passion for instrumental music and background scores of movies, and the fondness for occasional singing. And with no further ado she asked me to sing for her. Every cell of my body just stopped whatever it was doing, and stared.

“Come on, I have to rehearse so much every week. I rarely get to listen anyone perform.”

After a few minutes of my asinine reasons why I couldn’t do it, she excused herself and left the cabin. This gave me some time to consider. It would just be me and her in the cabin, so not too much potential embarrassment. I started thinking of songs with the lyrics and pitch I’m comfortable with. In moments of distress, God comes to the minds of those who believe in Him. Coldplay came to mine.

I was preparing myself for the moment she would come back to the cabin, but time kept on ticking. Her luggage was still inside. I opened the door to glance out the window, and saw her standing in the corridor doing the same thing. I wondered distraught whether my hesitation drove her away. Well if it was, it was time for amends. I did not sky dive or scuba dive, ever. That kind of thrill never appealed to me. But this was the metaphorical sky dive. This was my kind of thrill.

“Hey, I’m ready to sing.”

And so I dove into Fix You, my all-time favorite song. 

“That was really good, sing one more”

It was time for Yellow. She was, unsurprisingly, familiar with both songs.

“Can you sing some Avicii?”, she asked, at which I burst out laughing. Enough thrill for the day.

Later on she showed a video of hers, performing an instrument I’d never seen before with delicate excellence. (It was the Zither, the word from which Guitar was derived, culturally part of Slovenia).

When her stop came in Slovenia, it was with mixed feelings I said goodbye. Sure, it was great talking to her, and I couldn’t be happier about my decision to stay away from my gadgets. But it was just that sinking feeling, that I knew I’d never see her again. It’s not like I was in love, but it was just another reminder of the fact how fleeting everything is. 

Today, I look at this differently. It is an example of how life can amaze us out of nowhere, and how we can play a hand in that. I revel in knowing that no matter what we do, the unknown variable shall always be in the equation. You never know when you're going to sing Coldplay to a Slovenian girl on a train.