Thursday, January 31, 2013

Das Leben der Anderen

Have you ever woken up from a vaguely interesting, but otherwise mediocre dream, to an intense feeling of agitation which you couldn't explain?

It certainly happened to me three days ago. For about five seconds, I lay completely still in the dark, trying with all my might to remember where I was, what day it was, and what was going on. I then instinctively tried to move my left arm, which in turn made me realize that my hand was resting on my chest, holding the phone. I don't know about other people, but when this happens to me, it can only mean one thing: I snoozed the alarm and fell back asleep.

I instantly leaped out of bed, mumbling a panicked "Oh s**t, it's late!" and reaching for my clothes. Within ten minutes, I was fully dressed in hiking outfit and running down the streets of Cambridge like a madman. I made it to the station just in time to print my ticket, and stepped on the train no more than three and a half minutes before it left. An irrational sense of pride came over me as I was taking off my jacket to vent the hot steam rising from underneath the layers. I've really outdone myself living on the edge. Again :-).

Three hours later, I was stepping down in a small, picturesque coastal town. The only motion in my line of sight came from a middle-aged man selling cigarettes at a kiosk on the platform, and who was making vivid gestures while arguing with someone on the phone. Everything else seemed completely tranquil. I looked about me, put on my backpack and made my way to the back of the building, where the meeting point was supposed to be.

A village church, along the trail back to Angmering.

I knew nobody on the group of hikers, yet I felt welcome among them from the very first moment. After a long winter slumber, I felt alive again to be walking in the countryside, smelling the freshly thawed soil and the wet tree bark. It had rained the night before, and there was ankle-deep mud along the trail winding through the woods, down to a gravel-covered and wind-swept beach, and then up again towards a plain scattered with hamlets. Everything on that walk was beautiful. The sky was beautiful, the pale January sun was a blessing, the woods were peaceful, and the English Channel... well, the English Channel was the first time I'd set my eyes upon the sea in 2013. Everything felt right.

We trekked, talked and joked for more than 11 miles, and by the time we decided to stop by the local pub in a nearby village, we were covered in so much mud that we got kindly asked to take off our boots at the entrance and roll up our trousers above the knee before going in. The pace of the conversation slowed down a bit after the chicken with mashed potatoes and the accompanying pint of ale went down, and with the warm sunset shining in through the windows to finish off the day, we made our way back to Angmering to catch a train. First to London, then back home.

Later on that evening, I was in St. Pancras, waiting for my next train to Cambridge to leave the station. I was looking out the window, spellbound by the day gone by and completely lost in my thoughts. With the corner of my eye, I noticed a young woman sitting down opposite me. I can't explain what it was, but something about her caught my attention. This uncertainty on my behalf intrigued me, and kept me looking at her every now and then, in an effort to explain why I found her so unsettling. Time went by, and her stare progressed from disengaged to outright desolate. She swelled up with tears, and kept sobbing furtively, as if she were ashamed of being seen like that. She looked miserable.

I felt really bad for her. I wanted to say something, but it would have been completely inappropriate for me to do so. I turned my eyes back to the window, with a million thoughts rushing through my head:

"... It's a shame I can't make her stop thinking about whatever it is that's bringing her down like this. It is not good to dwell on negative things inside your head. I should know. But then, she's a complete stranger. If I were in her shoes, I would find it offensive if a stranger tried to talk to me about my mood. Nobody wants or needs pity, and she IS trying to hide it, after all... And then, what if she does want to start a conversation? I don't want to talk to her, I don't really have anything to say to her. It would just be awkward... "

I looked back at her, and I saw that she had started shaking. Unable to hold back the tears any more, she turned bright red and just let them flow. That was it, I couldn't just pretend I didn't see her any more. She was seriously disturbing me. I froze when we made eye contact. I just said in a calm, emphatic voice:


She startled. And then we stood there, looking at each other for a few minutes. There was no need to say anything else. "Hi" meant that I had seen her cry and didn't ignore it. It also meant that I wished she weren't feeling so bad, and that whatever it was that was bothering her, it certainly wasn't hanging in the space between me and her.

I then resumed my own thoughts. Over the next hour, she slowly lightened up. Her eyes went back from pink to white, and she eventually leaned back in her seat. She got off two stops before me. Before leaving, she touched my shoulder and said:

"Thank you. Have a safe trip."

And smiled. I smiled back.

If I had just gone hiking, it would have been a good day. But having been able to share some of my very ephemeral peace with someone else who truly needed it made it much more than that. It made it a great day.

 My boots at the end of the day, after washing them in a river and letting them dry on the train.
(most of the dirt had dried and fallen off in the meantime)

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