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Published: Monday, 4/16/2012

Once and future strangers share stories on a train

BY S. AMJAD HUSSAIN
BLADE COLUMNIST

I had to go to Chicago recently to attend a wedding. I could have flown, driven, or taken the bus. Instead, I took the train, and I’m glad I did.

Rail travel connects me to my childhood and adolescence in Pakistan, when trains were the only mode of transportation for long-distance travel. The clickety-click rhythm of the trains provided a musical backdrop to home-cooked food — carried in a metal lunchbox called a tiffin carrier — and stimulating conversation. Only the occasional scream of the train’s whistle interrupted this rhythm to announce the approach of a railway station.

American — and most European — train stations are devoid of the sounds and smells that one finds in India and Pakistan. But the changing vistas, the rhythm and music of steel wheels on steel rails, and interaction with fellow travelers are just the same.

From Toledo, I traveled with a lady from Lyons, Ohio. She was traveling to Bryan, Ohio, where her son and his family live. She preferred the train to driving because it was convenient and affordable. She was not very happy about having to catch the train at 4 a.m.

She was in her early 70s and enjoyed talking to strangers. She never finished high school, she told me, because she fell in love with a young man whom she married and spent 50 years with, until his death a few years ago.

She is a gardener and a baker, and enjoys making cross-stitched quilts. She showed me a piece of her intricate and exquisite handiwork. It was marvelous to see her making the best of her life.

A college student of Jamaican parentage was traveling from New York City to Fort Wayne, Ind., where she was going to spend spring break with her roommate’s family. She said she wants to be a physician, but she was not very clear about the preparation it takes to apply to medical schools.

For more than an hour, we talked about what she had to do to prepare for the highly competitive admission process. Although her grades were adequate, she had no guidance to help her plan for and meet her career goals.

I met Betsy, a handsome woman in her early 70s, at breakfast in the dining car. She was traveling from Connecticut to Chicago to visit her family for two days.

She makes the trip rather frequently to visit her grandchildren. It’s her way of getting to know them and for them to remember her, even if such interactions are short and fleeting.

She was an art teacher and a calligrapher, and had taught high school and college. Currently she is a volunteer art teacher in a primary school. Her career as an artist was a casualty of the bad economy, so she’s concentrating on making and selling silk scarves.

She said she wanted to move, but did not know where. She was selling her possessions in case she did move. She showed me a picture of a beautiful Kirman Persian rug and wondered whether I would be interested in buying it.

Two young German men, one a high school math teacher and the other a transportation worker, joined us. They were touring America and were on their way to Chicago to visit friends.

It was their first trip on an American train. Though they did not say it, they seemed disappointed at its relative lack of punctuality. Of course, they were used to the clockwork precision of European trains.

The teacher had attended an elite secondary school called a gymnasium, and then a university. He explained that in Germany, children are stratified into trade or professional tracks early in their education, based on aptitude and grades. Study in a gymnasium is not a right, but an earned privilege.

For more than an hour, we had a stimulating conversation that ranged from art to rail travel in America to higher education to the characteristics of old Persian carpets.

Where else but on a train can you interact with strangers, have an enjoyable conversation, touch each other’s lives, however briefly and superficially, and then part company for good?

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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