May 2019, Somewhere in Europe
So here’s the facts in their entirety.
My wife and I are on our honeymoon. 11 months late, but who’s counting?
Specifically, we’re on a train from Germany to Amsterdam.
There’s a raucous group of elder ladies near our seats–about 15 in number. When the singing begins in what I imagine is Dutch we move down near a group of Indian men.
Not an improvement.
One videochats his wife and baby on the highest speakerphone volume his tinny iPhone could muster.
And I know he’s a product of the 1980s because he was doing that thing where …
As LOUDLY as you can–
BECAUSE YOU THINK YOU HAVE TO
FOR YOUR VOICE!!!
TO TRAVEL TO INDIA!!!
So my wife and I put on our headphones, queue a sleep track to block out all the annoying sounds of this train. And, by the time we reached Utrecht Station, we were passed out.
“Ya?! Und is…HAHAHAHAHHAA!”
I wake up, startled, to hysterical laughter. One of the elder Dutch ladies, clearly “the funny one,” was killing it. I fish out my phone and try to re-queue up a soothing song when I notice my battery is low.
So that’s when I grab my charger from above my seat.
And if you’ve mentally checked out for most of this, I wouldn’t blame you.
But, as I boringly go up to get my charger, I notice my bag is not up there. Melissa’s purse is also missing.
I begin to look around.
Inside those bags were our laptops and passports.
The Indian group says something about a tall white man they saw taking bags from above us while we were asleep.
I run to the conductor and explain everything to him in a panic. He stares at me blankly and says we can go to the police at the next station, Amsterdam, 25 minutes away. No empathy. No further assistance. Nothing. There’s something deeply unsettling in looking hopelessly at someone hoping they recognize what you’re going through and seeing nothing but dead eyes.
The train arrives in Amsterdam.
We push out of the train and rush to the police. The police station door didn’t open. Police came in and out, but no one let us in. The intercom lady finally gave us her dead-eyed approval.
I explain what’s happened, armed with details. The description of the man. Tall, white, male. The train car we were in.
The station and platform we know the theft occurred in.
Utrecht. Platform 11.
We know where. Mostly who. When. and obviously what was stolen.
I assume this will be treated like a kidnapping, the first 48 hours being critical.
It is not.
More waiting. Forms.
An African walks in. He wants a free train ticket. The cops begin interrogating him. They take his phone and start scrolling through his personal photos. He doesn’t look well.
It’s 230pm and we find out that the US embassy will close in just over an hour. Today is the Friday before Memorial Day, which would mean being without a passport for 4 days. I stay to complete the police report alongside a potential refugee. Melissa takes a taxi to the embassy.
And so we are separated.
In a foreign country.
On our honeymoon.
I say, quite sternly, “Whatever happens, if we can’t contact each other, stay at the embassy. No matter what, I will find you.”
The words felt heroic at the time.
But the rest of the process ended up being quite mechanical.
Smile. Pay money. Receive passport photos.
Set up an appointment at the embassy. Pay money. Wait in a line.
Then another line. Pay money. Receive emergency passports.
Walk out with tails between legs.
It’s this process that I’ve found myself discussing the most with friends and family that ask “what happened.”
But then some of them ask, “Are you going to write a story about it?”
I have to admit, I did think about doing so.
But the more I investigate what happened that day, the more I realize there’s no story there. Or at least there’s no story there that’s mine. Only some stuff that belonged to me and my wife that now is owned by someone else.
Don’t get me wrong. I could say something about how the experience brought Melissa and I closer together. About how powerless I felt when I saw her face first realize her handwritten Hindi notes from a year of classes were gone.
But we’re already pretty damn close and I think we can speak for the both of us in saying we’d prefer getting closer through something less traumatic.
The more I dig into these events, the more I realize the other stories that were happening around us that day. And they become crystal clear when you don’t put yourself at the center.
Was that African a refugee? What’s happening in his life where he would need to draw the ire of police officers just to score a free train ticket?
I thought he was just a delay.
And the Indian man.
What brought him to Amsterdam, away from his newborn? How long has he been away from them? How desperate must he have been where FaceTiming on a loud train was still worth getting a few more minutes with them, virtually?
I thought he was loud and cumbersome. I tuned out the very person who saw the suspect! And he helped me anyway.
And the conductor who stared at me blankly. The one who did nothing when we were robbed. The one who chose complete inaction at arguably the most important window of time.
Maybe he’s really just…
actually, fuck that guy.
I have nothing else to say about that guy except for fuck that guy.
And I don’t say all this to minimize what happened to us or to simply say “well, people have it worse than us.” But rather, perhaps, we’re better off spending every second we have to get to know each other.
I say this because, after thorough investigation, the most interesting story on that train was not that we were robbed.
It was the fact that 15 Dutch women, all in their 70s or above, were riding the train together and having the time of their lives.
Is this something they do annually? Had their lovers passed? How did they keep these friendships alive and strong for so long?
With me at the center, they were just white noise. Pun intended.
And so I wish I’d paid more attention. Knowing what I know now, I want to end this story with what could have happened if I wasn’t at the center.
Let’s retell it.
Here are the facts in their entirety.
A tall white man walks into a train car where we’re seated. He sees me and my wife surrounded by a fleet of old Dutch ladies. We’re all sharing stories together and one of the women is hilarious. I tell her this. She calls me fat. She reminds me of my late grandmother.
Soon, the Indian group comes closer and they are obsessed with Melissa’s Hindi. As usual, no one seems to appreciate that I’m speaking English.
Everyone is wide awake. The tall white man passes us without consequence.
There’s no story there.
But isn’t it a life well-lived?
Or at least a better way to travel?