I’m sitting on the 13.08 train from Cologne, travelling back home, earphones in, listening to one of my favourite podcasts.
The train is packed with people. Knees crushed up against suitcases. Feet on seats. Heads awkwardly pressed against windows.
There’s some kind of commotion going on behind me. The people around me are shifting in their seats and craning their necks, looking in that direction.
I take one earphone out and turn my head to see what’s going on.
There’s a woman—she looks all official in her train company uniform—barking orders at another woman, a passenger, for taking up too much room.
There’s plenty of eye rolling and tutting and shaking of heads in disbelief from the other train passengers, mostly at the woman in uniform. She’s being pretty rude and obnoxious. Some people are kind of laughing, uncomfortably, others are arguing with the uniform woman and blaming the lack of carriages on the train. My partner, who is sitting next to me—and who has the strongest moral compass of right and wrong I’ve ever known—starts to declare loudly how the uniform woman is unfair and how she can’t believe a human could treat another human being like that. I nod and agree. People around us do too. We all kind of join together in solidarity for the woman behind us; exchanging knowing glances with her and making it clear through our body language that we’re on her side.
The train trundles on.
The commotion behind me quietens.
People go back to looking out of the window or reading their magazines.
I put my earphone back in, and press play.
10 minutes later, I become aware of someone talking in a loud voice, maybe 10 rows ahead of me.
I look up and see a man standing up and facing everyone at the front of the train carriage. He seems to be making some sort of speech. He has a moustache. It’s the first thing I notice.
The second thing I notice is the blue jumper he’s wearing. It’s grubby and stained.
I take both earphones out and pause my podcast.
He’s begging for money. And empty plastic bottles. Empty plastic bottles are worth cash in Germany, you see. Around 25 cents each. You take them to the supermarket and get money back. It’s a recycling initiative. It’s also a begging initiative. I see this at most train stations and airports. Places where people are on-the-go and thirsty and probably don’t have space in their bags to take their empty bottles home.
The man continues to talk.
He explains that he will soon make his way through the train carriage and will gladly accept any money or bottles.
He talks loudly and confidently.
To absolutely no-one.
Because no-one is listening.
Which is probably not true: People are listening, but they’re pretending not to.
The same very-listening people, who just 10 minutes earlier had craned their necks to watch the unfolding drama behind them and had so much to say about it, were now motionless and blank.
No eye contact. No acknowledgement as the man slowly walks through the carriage, both hands open, palms facing up, smiling hesitantly.
Heads are buried in books. The countryside that has been whizzing past the train window for hours on end suddenly becomes incredibly interesting to look at.
No money or bottles are handed over.
Until he gets to my seat, that is. I don’t have any money. But I have an empty plastic bottle.
As I hand it to him, my hand brushes momentarily against his, and I suddenly remember a quote by Mary Kay Ash, “Everyone has an invisible sign hanging from their neck saying, ‘Make me feel important.’
I smile at him. He smiles back and whispers, “Danke.”
I don’t know if I made him feel important. But I made sure that he knew that I saw him.
It’s the least we can do for each other.
Human to human. I see you. Solidarity.
It’s a shame we’re just so choosy about who we see, isn’t it?
Over and out,