Strangers on a train: why it’s not always good to talk

Polish Stork

 

With barely a soul in the first class carriage I figured the three hour journey would be a good chance to get some work done. I had just spent two days in the rural backwaters of eastern Poland to research a couple of articles and was returning to Warsaw in time to catch an evening flight back to London. Feeling pleased with my research I’d treated myself to an upgrade (an additional £4).

Just before the train set off from Bialystok an elderly man entered my carriage. I lifted my gaze from my laptop to exchange greetings before returning to my writing, while my fellow passenger contented himself enjoying the view from the window.

For an hour I tapped away at my keyboard, briefly glancing up from time to time to enjoy the slowly changing landscape. Marshlands, wide rivers, storks on telegraph poles, large birds hovering above their prey waiting for the moment to pounce; scenes that haven’t changed much for several generations and which make this area so popular with hikers, bikers, kayakers and birdwatchers.

All the while the man sat silently, staring out of the window and smiling to himself. He was dressed in his suit and carried a briefcase which he kept close to his side throughout the journey. I wondered where he was carrying something valuable or whether it was me, the stranger with the funny accent, who was making him nervous. I put my laptop down eventually, unable to concentrate due to a combination of a lack of sleep and the repeated jolting of the train.

We exchanged the occasional glance, the old man and I, but no words were spoken. I’ve never been good at starting conversations with strangers; by all accounts many people suffer with the same affliction, leading to these long pointless silences where both sides would welcome the distraction of a conversation but none is willing to break the ice.

So it was in this case. As we approached Warsaw East I picked up my bag. It was then that one of us, I don’t remember who, made a quip about the late running of the train. The man snorted, saying that the train is always late and that the Polish railways are an embarrassment to the country. I told him I would get out and walk across the river to visit the recently opened Chopin museum. He laughed dismissively, telling me that I was wasting my time in such a poorly designed place.

He asked what I was doing in Poland and when I told him I was working as a travel writer he instinctively waved his hand in a mocking gesture, bemoaning the fact that so many people write about Poland but none of them are brave enough to get to the root of the country’s problems. He worked out that I was from England and launched into a diatribe about the Poles leaving their home country to work in the UK, wasting the education for which the Polish taxpayer had paid.

Name a subject and he would have found a reason to moan. As I got off the train I breathed a sigh of relief that our conversation had only started 5 minutes before our arrival into Warsaw. Perhaps starting conversations with strangers on a train isn’t always as rewarding as it’s cracked up to be.

 

The two stories I was in the region to research:

Poland’s Stork Village – how one farmer in Poland has created the perfect habitat for nesting storks – for National Geographic Traveller

On the Tatar Trail in Poland (for Travel by Handstand, available only via iPad app) – a tale of two tiny Muslim communities, descendants of the Tatars who blazed through Europe in the middle ages.

 

 

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Freelance travel writer

15 Responses to “Strangers on a train: why it’s not always good to talk”

  1. Well, there was this American I met on the train to Melbourne some time ago … I swear he began every statement with the word ‘You people ought to ….’

    Good think I’m not Australian; I might have tossed him out of the window! 😀

    October 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm
  2. It sounds as though you had a lucky escape! I’m never keen on getting involved in a conversation with strangers on trains or planes for just that reason. I have, in the past, had to ask someone to stop talking to me but it’s hard to do that without feeling rude and guilty, even though they are the ones invading your ears and mental space.

    October 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm
  3. Having said that, I’ve just remembered a holiday romance that began on a train so sometimes these things can pan out ok 🙂

    October 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm
  4. Eric Hoffman #

    So you ran into one grumpy old man. Will you now never speak to any stranger while traveling? One way to avoid this from ever happening again is to stay home.

    October 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm
    • Eric, I suspect I’ll meet far more grumpy people staying at home than on the road. Thankfully this man was a rare exception (as was Keith’s example above) and like Julie I’ve made several lasting friendships (although not romances!) from chance encounters on trains.
      Thanks all for your comments

      October 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm
  5. Aye, a saying I’ve run into recently. “Don’t walk away from negative people. Run.”

    October 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm
  6. Good post! Aside from avoiding unpleasantness, occasionally I’ve found it unsafe to engage people in transit. After exchanging polite conversation with a guy on an airplane, he asked if I wanted a ride to my apartment when we landed in New York. I said no thank you but it still took all my womanly wiles to get him to leave me alone at the airport. I said my (imaginary) boyfriend was coming to pick me up, please excuse me while I use the bathroom (for 20 minutes)… Finally involving a security officer ended things. I’ve had other uncomfortable situations of a similar sort while traveling alone in Indonesia and Ghana as well as on the NYC subway.

    When traveling alone I now know to be much more aware of the environment, and use environmental cues to help me decided whether to open my mouth 🙂

    October 9, 2012 at 9:55 pm
  7. I agree with “Don’t walk from negative people. Run!” Believe me or not, but the same thing happened to me when I was travelling in China by trains. What I did back then, I ran to another compartment :). Great story mate!

    October 10, 2012 at 8:32 am
  8. Seems healthy to me to speak to people as dispassionate about their country as those that are full of positive things to say. But when it starts to become too one-sided I can see why you’d want to avoid it.

    October 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm
  9. Sometimes, lucks really pays off when you’ve come across a stranger who is good and positive to talk. If I were in the situation, I would break the ice while being board in the train. Talking to some locals will really help writers get some valuable information. It’s a kind of outlook that defines the writer perception.

    October 11, 2012 at 8:13 am
  10. Your train journey companion certainly did me one small favor, since he caused you to write this and in doing so mention the Chopin Museum, which I didn’t even know existed until reading your account. I’m a huge fan of anything to do with the romantics but Chopin is also by far my favorite classical composer. Now I know where I’ll be headed first thing when the day arrives that I visit Warsaw.

    October 12, 2012 at 2:37 am
    • And it’s a very good museum too. They use technology to tailor the experience for each visitor, presenting the exhibits in their language. You can also sit in the basement and listen for as long as you want to the music of Chopin.

      October 12, 2012 at 8:41 am
  11. Sometimes these conversations make a trip memorable, but in others they just become a simple anecdote to be forgotten. I once had a great conversation with a family in a train in Romania, which wasn’t as fun later because the father slapped the 6 year old thinking she was bothering me when wanting to play. Ugh.

    October 24, 2012 at 2:30 am
  12. People who find any excuse to complain are pretty annoying. Good thing you only had to deal with his negativity for few minutes.

    October 26, 2012 at 12:52 am
  13. JH #

    The grass is always greener, so they say. It’s easy to hate a place you’ve lived in all your life and seen the bad and good sides of. Sometimes it might just be a cultural thing where cynicism is a norm.

    November 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm