No man is an island?

Bewerkte eiland foto

I dozed off for a moment on the train from Berlin to Amsterdam. Finally, some rest after getting up so early. But then a commotion starts around the seats in front of me. Fully awake again.
“But sir, this is no good ticket. You cannot go to Dutchland with this ticket.”
“But it says whole Niedersaksen, so I can go to the border?”
“No no, no good for IC train. You must buy new ticket now, for two of you.”

My curiosity is strong, so I continue to follow the whole ordeal. The man with the wrong trainticket, and his companion who is in fact still half asleep, have a Middle-Eastern look. The English is good, though not fluent. Still way better than the language skills of the German ticket inspector. The men seem to travel with one large sportsbag each. On their way from Germany to a small city in the Netherlands. Maybe visiting relatives? A new trainticket is bought, but only up until the German border. The ticket inspector is not allowed to give out a ticket for the Netherlands, so tells the men to get off at Bad-Bentheim and buy another ticket at the station, to continue their journey to ‘Dutchland’. The inspector wishes the men a good day, and continues checking tickets. The man with the now valid ticket laughs quietly. I assume he mumbles something about the faires being crazy high, because they are. Suddenly his face appears between the two seats, he is looking me straight into my eyes.

“Hello, you speak English? Can you help me?”
“Yes, I do?” – This comes out quite hesitantly. I was looking forward to some more sleep, to be honest. But ok.

The man jumps up and takes the seat next to me. Fumbling with all the different tickets and brochures he now has. “You understand this? I must buy new ticket? Why?” I explain the situation as best as I can. But the man doesn’t want to get off the train at the border. He must continue to Almelo, to change trains, now, he tells me. There is no other option. Then he will travel without a ticket over the German-Dutch border. I nodd and explain to him that I can speak to the Dutch inspectors who will arrive in the train soon. To ask if he can buy a ticket with them. The man smiles; “Yes thank you, I must go to the Netherlands, now. So I just go, ok?” We nodd at each other, and still smiling, he walks back to his own seat.

All goes according to plan. The men can buy a ticket to their end destination in the Netherlands. Of which I still wonder, why are they travelling to such a remote and small village? Before I can think of any other reason than a family visit, the man flops down in the seat next to me. Can I confirm that he is really on the right train? Can I warn him when they need to get off? Yes but of course.

“We no like Germany, no English in Germany. People no open.” He gestures wildly, closing his arms around his body. “Netherlands better?”
I tell him I’m from the Netherlands, going back home. And ask him where he is from.
“Homs”, he whispers. “Syria…”
“Ahh, oh…”
“Is cold now in the Netherlands?”
“No, it’s ok now. Syria?”
“Ah snow!” His eyes light up and he quickly swipes through folders on his phone. “Look! Now! Beautiful! My friend make this. Is Syria, now.”

It truely does look beautiful. We haven’t seen that much snow in Berlin yet this year, I tell him. He explains he loves winter. That he wants to continue talking, but with a translation tool on his phone. With unsteady fingers I type: why did you go to Europe?

The mans’ open visage darkens. Before he answers I know. Am not sure if I want to, though. He hastily starts typing. Whole paragraphs start to appear on the screen of his phone. About his background. The nice job he used to have. His family being afraid and alone now, he wants them to come to Europe as well. But it is not easy. He opens his bag and fumbles around to show me something. To further illustrate the difficulty. A worn zipper-bag full of simcards appears. He leafs through them: “Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany”, the route he took. Away from home. Away from his family because there was no other option. And no one here can help him, unwelcome. A sad look in his eyes. Grief, insecurity, wonder about the world we live in.

“I cannot go back. Afraid. They torture, maybe my family.”
“No, I can imagine. I hope you can find a way to stay in the Netherlands. Bring your family here.”

A voice roars through the train: approaching Almelo station! Quickly, I tell the men, this is your stop! Already? Yes!
“You can help?” He asks me, with a hopeful voice. “I’m afraid not…”. I feel terribly guilty. Why can’t I help? Me and my easy life. Me and my first world problems. My shit that really doesn’t matter. Is that a real life? Am I even human enough to fully grasp the scope of what these men deal with? Can I really imagine? I don’t think so. Are we all still human enough, or did our comfortable empty, consumerist lifestyle lull us to sleep, blind to see the real deal. But still the man smiles, grabs my hand and shakes it intently. “Thank you so much, and all the best.” They rush to leave the train as I softly mumble a goodbye as well.

“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne

This might be interesting



  1. Wow, heftig. Heb je nog gegevens van hem ofzo? Wie weet hoeveel je hem al helpt met deze post…

  2. Wat een schrijnend verhaal, mooi verwoord Anne! Ik hoop dat deze man een plekje zal vinden waar hij zich thuis kan gaan voelen.

  3. Wauw, deze ervaring heb je mooi op weten te schrijven…
    En ook door te luisteren heb je al geholpen, al was het maar iets.

  4. Ja dan wordt alles ineens gerelativeerd. Eén coupé, twee mensen, levend in twee compleet verschillende werelden. Zo oneerlijk.

  5. This post was so beautiful, and I was really captivated throughout your story telling and found myself near tears at the end. We all need to go into every encounter without conceived notions because every one of us has a story. I too, feel the pangs of anger and guilt for the cushy life afforded to me knowing that other people have to struggle so hard just to keep food on the table, and often have to do so by fragmenting their family in different parts of the world. This man sounds like a very kind soul and I wish him the best of luck.

    Rae | love from berlin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *