The Library Hours
The train from Budapest back to Prague had those compartments with 6 or so seats in them. I rushed into the second economy section to find that most of the compartments had been filled with someone already. This was unacceptable to the Lecia. I found one that had trash heaped over the little table under the window, and no one wanted to sit next to an overturned yogurt dripping over the window seat. I did. Delighted at my fortune I closed the door quickly so no one would come in. Shortly after my sigh of relief at being alone, a train attendant slammed open the door and with a flurry of gruff Hungarian words, practically pushed in a lanky fellow with thick-rimmed glasses and a strawberry-blonde ponytail. Well fudge you up.
I looked up at him and flashed a closed-mouth, one-second, half-ass-polite smile, but he was too busy looking around at the trash in the compartment to see it.
I believe during the several hours we shared that compartment until he got off at Brno, we never made eye contact once. Yet we both stole hurried glances at each other when the other wasn’t looking to try to take in the other person. I believe we were both painfully aware of it. At first this was awkward. I had been unsettled at losing my sense of privacy, and he seemed to be equally socially retarded, judging by his ponytail, fanny-pack, and a book which I noticed had “dragon” somewhere in the title.
He began talking on the phone in French, very softly, and was also writing furiously for a while on graph paper, tearing out sheets and throwing them into a pile next to him. He seemed intensely focused, or anxious. Should I ask him something in French? Should I start a conversation? I thought about it for a while, but came to the conclusion that perhaps I would ruin something that we’d established by not acknowledging one another (I later realized we’d established our compartment to be a haven of some sort for shy travelers). Besides, he didn’t look like the type of person who’d keep a conversation rolling, and I was okay with that.
As the hours began to wear on, he finished writing and I, in turn, pulled out my thick-rimmed glasses and notebook, tied my hair back into a bun, and began to write. During this time he stared out the window, or opened his book for a bit before putting it down again. He still seemed uncomfortable.
Slowly this began to wear off, and for me as well. I wasn’t sure what was in the air, or the passing of hours, that melted both of our anxieties of being in each other’s company. But first he slowly took off his shoes and then propped his feet up, in socks, on the seat across from him, and delved into his fantasy book. I pulled out a bag of Hungarian cookies I’d bought from the deli the other night and began munching, crumbs falling all over my shirt and pants and seat. I too pulled out my book, To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson.
At first I found it hard to focus. I kept glancing out the window, then read a line, then back out the window again. But he’d grown focused in his reading, I could tell. I wanted that concentration. I propped my feet up on the seat across from me, so that our legs were parallel to one another, and we faced each other behind our books. I started reading.
The train was nearly silent — a beautiful aspect of the newer ones — when they stop and start, they do so peacefully, without jolts. Afternoon settled into night as the train soundlessly traversed from Hungary into the spectacular Slovakian countryside.
In the compartment next to ours, we could hear the boisterous chatting between international travelers. We were safe from the talking.
Inside our compartment, it felt like a library.
And I finally got into the book. We spent several hours like that, reading, without a word. And I believe that was our unspoken conversation, a bond created between two people passing each other in the world for a very short time, but able to understand an aspect of one another without speaking or making eye contact even once. So much emphasis and value is placed on talking and the ability to talk well, to talk loud, and to talk a lot — about ourselves, about pop culture, politics, you name it — that we often forget the value in the wordless conversation. In a way it’s like “reading in between the lines.” It’s not the words themselves that are important; words are merely imperfect expressions for ideas. There are other planes of communication and language that aren’t so straightforward.
An old Hungarian man joined us in our compartment at the stop, Nove Zamky. He smelled. For a few stops, the compartment smelled like B.O. and Eastern Europe (Oh God). When the old man got off the train, my companion slid the compartment door shut and our silence was restored; our homeostasis, our balance with one another, was recreated.
When we got to Brno, I watched that beautiful town with its old black church on a hill come to a still stop outside my window. The slender traveler put his shoes back on, took his suitcase from the storage shelf, and left the train without a word, closing the door behind him.
The air changed when he left. Shortly thereafter a gruff, fat, wheezing Czech man burst into my compartment and asked me if the seats were free. Yeah. I mean jo. He had a long greyish-brown ponytail riding down his chubby back. He read the same magazine for the next 3 hours, until we arrived in Prague, and although I finished my bag of cookies, my focus wasn’t as strong as it had been during the Library Hours.