On the night of 4th May 2016, I was departing on the night train from Athens to Thessaloniki at 11:55PM.
The night train was divided into “cabins” that most likely were originally designed to be sleeper cars, but had been converted to more “bus-like” seating designed to fit six people facing each other.
The seats were in close together, three facing forwards in the train’s direction, three people directly across from them facing backwards. It was a narrow space; an adult man’s knees would be almost touching the knees of the man in front of him in the space.
I was seated facing “backwards” – away from the train’s direction – by the window. Directly across from me was an Athenian student-scientist – doing the Greek equivalent of a Masters degree in chemistry and materials science at Thessaloniki’s main university.
Joining the two of us in the six-person cabin were six Afghan refugees: a mother, a father, their two sons – aged five and three – and two nephew, perhaps 12 and 10 years old.
The eight of us spent the night together on the train from Midnight until our (slightly late) arrival around 7AM.
The Greek scientist was the last to board, and I had gotten a small chance to know the Afghanis and talk a little before the train departed.
The 12-year-old nephew spoke the best English, and was a little pleasantly shocked when I said, “As-salamu alaykum” – “peace be with you,” a traditional Arabic/Islamic greeting. He replied, “Wa’alaykumu salam” – “and with you” and was a little surprised.
The 12-year-old had a really cool haircut; he would have blended in perfectly in Los Angeles; the bottom of his head was shaved and he had this fashionable spiky layered thing happening on the top of his head, looking like a professional soccer player, or perhaps a cyber-punk type character out of the Final Fantasy games.
The mother was serene. She had a blue colored scarf tied loosely around her hair, and went about giving snacks to the children and soothing them when they cried.
The father was a full of anxiety, sometimes pacing, sometimes yelling at one of the children for being fussy, sometimes holding one of his children tight and kissing them on the head – ostensibly to reassure the child, but certainly just as much to reassure himself.
He was, to me, very strong – real strength, not movie-strength. Here he is in Europe with his young family – speaking no Greek, speaking no English, presumably having no job in this region, afraid for his young family, having already gone through god-knows-what trials to get here.
We were getting along well enough, I complimented the father on his children – “you have a beautiful family, very strong – I think your children will grow to be very tall and strong” – I held my hand high in the air to signify “growing very tall”; the 12-year-old and wife both translated some and he nodded a little, a mix of pride and worry about him.
They asked where I was from, and after saying “American” there was a strange sort of reaction. Am I the first American they met? There was a mix of skepticism on the father’s part and – well, hostility is too strong of a word; it wasn’t hostile at all – but it wasn’t friendly.
The young children oscillated between curiosity and general nervousness and fussiness – the 5-year-old stared curiously at me for a while, and the 12-year-old nephew took the opportunity to try to get an impromptu language lesson.
I said, “Hi” and waved to the five-year old boy. The 12-year-old said something in their native language – Pashto? – and instructed the younger one to say, slowly, “Hel-lo.”
The young boy concentrated deeply, trying to form the syllables, then blurted: “Hel-lo!” and giggled a little.
“Hello!” I said, and the 12-year-old, the mother, and the 5-year-old were all pleased.
“How are you?” I asked.
The 12-year-old and I were trying to help the little one get through some basic dialog of, “How are you? – Good, how are you? – Good” and not quite managing successfully when the Greek student joined us in our cabin, and then a cacophony broke out as the train conductor joined us.
Some other Afghanis were in the narrow train hallway now with the conductor, getting a mix of tickets together, the train conductor trying to make sense of it all.
The Greek train conductor was very animated, speaking loudly and gesturing around about something.
I leaned forwards and looked at the newly joined Greek student with a ‘what’s going on here?’ look.
He thinks a moment, says: “One of the men doesn’t have a ticket, the rest do. They’re trying to figure it out, saying they can pay him [the conductor] onboard for the last ticket if there’s enough space.”
“It sounds dramatic.”
“Everything in Greek sounds dramatic.”
The train cabin was poorly sealed, and the night was extremely cold. Noise and clatter broke out among the train repeatedly; there would not be much sleep.
The Afghani mother and father started alternating places, one of them out in the hallway, one of them laying down with one of the young children to sleep across two seats, and leaving another of the two seats open for one of the older children.
The Greek student and I seemed to realize we wouldn’t be sleeping much, and talked deep into the night about science, immigration, Greek history, and the Greek economy.
Eventually, maybe around 2:30AM, the student and I were spent and attempted to sleep, wrapping ourselves in sweatshirts and half-leaning against the window. Periodically, one of the young children would get startled and wake in an alarm, crying or flailing a little and hitting the student or I.
The family had already disbursed at the second-to-last station before Thessaloniki and were gone when we arrived at the station. I said goodbye to the student and stepped into the cold morning air of Macedonia.
I had a small piece of bread and a Greek spinach pastry as I walked, and settled down to my work at with a bowl of yogurt and a glass of water at the cost of 2 euro.
I opened up my translation of Longinus and Wittgenstein’s war diaries, eating slowly and attempting to get into a rhythm despite the high fatigue from a sleepless night, trying to complete the last issue for the Uncommon Virtues series on TSR.
Grappling with lions of thought is always something humbling for a writer. You become aware not just of the sentiment of what you’re trying to express, but also the mechanics and technique. From a distance, a painting is a marvelous scene – up very close, it is brushstrokes of paint on canvas. I'm in the cafe, wrestling with these past titans of thought, and my time on the night train keeps coming back to me.
Calling him “a student” doesn’t really do the young Athenian justice. He was very centered, very composed – very intellectual, but also very masculine. If forced to guess, I would have guessed him older than me.
I thought about the long conversations about the state of Greece and his uncertainty – no money here, scratching to get by. Planning and musing over what country he’ll depart to after his masters to get a PhD and go into industry. He says, there’s no work in Greece – it’s a mix of frowning and resigned acceptance when he says it.
“Greece is a mess.”
I’m in Thessaloniki. In front of me on the wooden table are my computer with its translations and historical documents, my notebooks where I sketch out potential paths through the writing, four colors of pens, nicotine gum, and a bowl of yogurt.
The long conversations with the Greek scientist-student and the short time with the Afghani family, they stayed with me – they’re still with me – I think about them.
I don’t really have any problems.
Another powerful post, reminds me EXACTLY OF
A bit of a late reply, but whenever possible, I prefer to travel by train, ship, or ferry instead of flying/buses/cars.
I don't know exactly what it is, but I always get a sort of romantic awe and inspiration from these types of transit.
If you look hard, there's actually good train and ferry routes all over the world. Saigon -> Hanoi is a beautiful two day journey, likewise going from Beijing or Shanghai -> Xiamen -> ferry to Taipei is wonderful. Amsterdam -> London is great via Hoek van Holland on ferry+rail is great.
Long-haul Amtrak in the USA is amazing. I particularly like San Francisco to Chicago via Denver. It's so incredibly beautiful, and I do good work in the dining cars.
Likewise, I almost always take rail Beijing<->Shanghai, and whenever possible take rail or ferries in other countries.
Excellent post, Sebastian and very accurate about what the situation in Greece is now. As you would find out, though, Sebastian, one of the things are in such a shortage now in Greece is hope, something that shadows everything else. For most people there is a real "no way out" situation no film can accurately depict. Thank for the review Sebastian, and when you return to Athens and have the time I would like to meet for a cup of coffee and small talk. Have a wonderful day and journey, Sebastian!
What a fascinating trip. I just did this route -
Beijing -> Erlianhaote -> Zamyn Uud -> Ulan Bator
Why do I choose such circuitous, crazy routes? Well, lots of reasons.
I want to understand as much as I can about the world, and taking out of the way routes - especially through important border towns - teaches a lot.
Often, you can manage a route like this in a way that's much less expensive than direct flights. Yes, time is money, but money is also money.
Molly had flipped on the lights, which were quickly gaining their glow and illuminating the empty hallway before them. “I miss the old gas lamps. They had character, and they warmed the room for you!” Professor Ellery lamented. Indeed, it was only marginally warmer inside than out, and they removed their muddy footwear out of polite deference rather than their own preferences. Molly looked around the now lit hallway. It seemed unfamiliar somehow.
“Guys, this isn’t the dining hall,” she called out, just as Jim opened one of the side doors. “No, really? But it does have food. Free food, the very best kind of food,” Jim replied, moving over to a table at the back of the lecture hall he had just entered. The chalkboard at the front was covered in partially erased scribblings, but he was much more focused on the snacks at the back of the room. When guest lecturers came to visit, the school provided an assortment of snacks - usually sweet pastries, sometimes cured meats and other savory foods. Jim recalled fondly one time an Archaeology lecture about south-sea idols carved from green soapstone recovered during a Miskatonic expedition that had captured his interest, but not nearly as much as the deviled eggs in the back had. This time there were just a handful of pastries left, enough for everyone to have two and Jim to have three, plus half a pot of cold coffee which the four of them split from three mugs. Adam and Molly shared, which Professor Elery took note of. He was surprised to find in himself a pang of what he at first thought was jealousy. He hadn’t thought of himself as being attracted to the young woman, though attractive she clearly was. He had prided himself on having a jovial yet completely professional relationship with her and all his students. And besides, his heart still belonged to his beloved Marcia, though she was dead and long since buried. Still, the pangs of loneliness and heartache can make one think and occasionally even do terrible things, as he knew all too well, and Molly and the others would discover soon enough… he determined to think of his feelings as a fatherly protectiveness. Molly was one of his best students, and perhaps the one most in need of his guidance and protection, being in a uniquely vulnerable position as the only female Chemistry major at Miskatonic University. May in the administration still resented being “forced” by public opinion to allow women to enter, and his position as head of a department carried a good deal of weight, even if Miskatonic was focused more on the Humanities than the Sciences.
Adam had opened the door on the opposite side of the entrance hall. It led into a smaller room, a simple classroom instead of a large auditorium. There was nothing there besides the desks and chairs one would expect, small bits of litter, and the chalk board at the back, scribbled over with symbols he had no idea the meaning of. Adam was also a student of the histories, focusing more on Archaeology than Anthropology-he didn’t like having to think about the personal aspects of other cultures, especially ones still existing in the present day, but there was something about physical artifacts from the past that intrigued him, and therefore he had chosen to major in that. While his true passion was sport, he did feel a visceral thrill whenever he held something that was known to be ancient. He felt it even stronger when he was able to identify that for himself. While Adam was not particularly bright in terms of raw intelligence, he had incredible willpower, honed from years of daily exercise and practice, and was an excellent team player. When there was a project he was focused on, he was focused like a laser beam, and could continue working on it for long stretches, often overnight, and function well with minimal sleep (especially during the off season). When he was assigned to group projects, even if he did not feel particularly passionate about the specific project, he felt intensely loyal to his partners, and would go to extraordinary efforts to make sure that he pulled at least his fair share. More than one person had been assigned to a group project with him, inwardly groaned at having to work with “the jock”, and then been astonished and a bit ashamed at the effort and sincerity he displayed. The results were rarely astonishing, never genius, but often impressive.
Adam hoped that he would be able to focus his studies on deducing and verifying the ages of artefacts. He could easily picture himself as being on a team (he always pictured himself on a team) of experts hired by museums, universities, and private collectors, to verify the authenticity of the items in their collection. He hated cheats and frauds - unlike many of his teammates, past and present, he had never done anything unethical to improve his grades to stay on the team, he had just buckled down, worked hard, and been sure to only choose classes he was confident he could do well enough on - and the thought of being able to find out and expose people who made a living by tricking others filled him with a righteous warmth. He, like Jim, was a year ahead of Molly - Adam and Jim were sophomores, while Molly was only a freshman (“First Year,” as she insisted on being called), and he hoped he would be able to focus and specialize more on the verification of antiquities in the rest of his college career. Already he was developing instincts, and so when he slid his fingers across one of the desks and they came up dusty, he was surprised, and noticed this fact. He wasn’t sure what to make of it, save to be confused. How could dust have accumulated this quickly? This was the first true day of Winter Break, after the initial weekend, and surely this classroom had seen use the week before. Adam had never been inside it before, but surely it was used by other classes. Pondering it for a moment, he thought of the possibility that perhaps only some of the classrooms were needed during final exams, and so this one could have been out of use for a week or two more. That might be enough to explain the dust. Yes, that must be it.
He looked up at the blackboard again. He had assumed that the symbols were mathematical or greek, but looking closer he thought they were a mixture of something - hieroglyphs too blurred to be legible even if he could read hieroglyphs in the first place, and a series of triangles or blurred dots that may have been Sanskrit? But that was odd, because this definitely wasn’t the Historical Studies building. Maybe there had been a guest lecture here? But he would have heard about it. Oh, that must be it: some students were having a study session in here on their own for the finals. That also explained why the room was so messy - if the janitor hadn’t known people were going to be using the room, he wouldn’t have thought it necessary to clean again before the Christmas Break. Yes, that explained everything. He still couldn’t shake a feeling that something was off, that he wasn’t noticing something. It was like examining a vase for the chips and the different, visible layers of lacquer to try to determine its age, only looking at the minute details, never pulling back and seeing the big picture, only to miss that it was covered in a painting depicting the 1915 World’s Fair. He noticed this sensation and tried to pull his consciousness back and see what he was missing, but he could not quite manage it, and when his efforts led him nowhere fast, and he heard Molly call out that there were pastries in the other room, he went back and rejoined them.