A Bizarre Train Ride
by Michal Reibenbach
Earl grey tea
My husband and I are on our way by train to visit Leipzig. We relax into our, shabby, thread worn, brown padded seats. The train rocks back and forth as it rattles along. It’s an old train with little separate compartments with sliding doors. There’s a smell of cigarettes in the air. For a while, I am mesmerized by the scenery, the fields and rolling hills flitting by outside my window. The sky is a soft light blue with gentle clouds. At length, I turn my attention to my husband and we discuss our plans for the coming day. Aside from us and a couple of old ladies sitting opposite, the compartment is empty. Periodically I glance at the two old ladies before me. One of the ladies looks rather haughty. She is dressed respectably in a cream-colored suit and a neck scarf with a floral pattern. Her grey hair is scooped up in a bun. She constantly stares out of the window and pretends not to notice us. Her small, scrawny companion is shrouded in a shapeless print dress, grey with small red roses. Her face is covered with web-like wrinkles. She reminds me of a little bird the way she is twitching restlessly about in her seat. She continuously watches us with her small, sharp eyes and is obviously dying to ask us a question but can’t pluck up the courage. Finally, I smile at her which prompts her to do so.
‘Excuses me for asking, but what language are you speaking?’
‘We’re speaking Hebrew,’ I answer in my broken German.
‘Ah yes, yes, I see, I see,’ she says and I can see that she is swilling this information around in her mind.
‘And which country do you come from?’ she then asks.
‘We’re from Israel,’ I answer.
‘Ah Israel, ah Israel,’ she says and I can see that once again she is busily endeavoring to absorb this information.
‘And do you have Arabs in Israel?’ is her next question.
‘Yes we have Arabs in Israel and we also have Jews. We are Jews,’ I clarify.
‘Ah, ah, Jews, Jews!’ she cries out in animation.‘And do you have towns in Israel?’ she asks.
‘Yes, we have towns,’ I answer.
‘and do you have apartments?’ she then asks.
‘Yes, we have apartments, we live in an apartment,’ I explain patiently.
‘She obviously thinks we live in mud houses or tents?’ my husband hisses at me in Hebrew.
‘and do your apartments have doors which can be shut and opened?’ is her next question.
‘Yes our apartments have doors which we can shut and open,’ I answer and I can’t help but smile at her bizarre interrogation.
Undeterred she continues, ‘and do you have windows with window panes in them?’
‘Yes we have windows with window panes in them,’ I answer.
Throughout this strange dialogue, the other old lady continues to staunchly stare out of the window as if it is beneath her or maybe she thinks it’s ‘bad manners’ to listen in onto other people’s conversation.
‘and do you have curtains on your windows?’ she asks.
‘Yes, we have curtains on our windows,’ I answer.
This answer finally seems to satisfy her, if we have curtains on our windows we are clearly a civilized country. Contented she sits back in her seat and is silent for a while. All of a sudden she chirps up once again, ‘May I ask you a big favor?’
‘Yes, of course,’ I reply.
‘My grandson is meeting me at the railway station. He’s never met a Jew before. May I introduce you to him?’ she inquires.
For a few moments, my husband and I sit in utter astonishment in reaction to the old lady’s request. Our eyes lock in an amused glance. There is nothing especially Jewish about our looks. We both have pale complexions, my husband has light grey eyes, mine are bright blue. Maybe our noses are sort of Jewish? But to make the old lady happy we are willing to oblige.
‘Yes, of course, we’ll be delighted to meet your grandson,’ I say congenially.
As the train pulls into Leipzig station, the rattling of the train is drowned out by the screeching of the breaks and we tilt forward in our seats as the train shudders to a stop.
We accompany the two ladies off the train to the crowded platform, noise is everywhere. The bird-like lady spots her grandson and she shuffles quickly through the throng up to him, ‘Hans, mein Liebling,’ she exclaims loudly and raises her withered hands up to him. He wraps his arms around her shoulders. Pulling away from him she declares, ‘Look who I met on the train, this pleasant couple, they are Jews, isn’t it exciting? I want you to meet them.’
Her grandson turns bright red with embarrassment. We shake hands and exchange pleasantries after which he says, ‘I apologize for my grandmother. She lives in a tiny village and she isn’t very worldly.’
‘No need to be upset we really enjoyed her company. She kept us amused,’ I assure him. We bid our farewells and hurry away.