Russian. I can tell that without even realising what language they’re speaking.
The 11:14 is late. Not that the passengers in our carriage seem to care much. There aren’t more than a handful of us and Saturday morning is still in its infancy. I am heading out into the hills behind the nearby town of Haltern. I have promised myself an easy weekend and I am not going to let the trains spoil it.
The ladies sitting across from me appear to be going on a shopping trip. Recklinghausen probably — the next stop. And they are Russian. I know that instantly. It takes me a couple of minutes before my ears tune in but my instinct was one hundred percent correct.
Not that I am trying to eavesdrop on their conversation you understand. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I had it at school and have tried it out in no fewer than five former Soviet republics. They were not impressed. It is easier for 150 million of them to learn English than it is for me to learn Russian.
I can make out a few words. But then you don’t need to know the language. You can tell from the volume.
Russian train etiquette is one of the reasons that no country epitomises the romance of train travel more. Unlike in the west, you are expected to make polite conversation with the stranger opposite. You should bring enough food to share with fellow travellers — they will almost certainly return the favour. And if you must have a private conversation then for heaven’s sake do it quietly.
The ladies across the carriage from me are living proof that this last piece of advice holds true. It is wonderful to watch. The chat rattles back and forth at scarcely more than a whisper.
Their eyes are fixed on each other the whole time. The changes in facial expression are microscopic, each minute twitch or momentary batting of an eyelid betraying a nuanced emotion. Their concentration is total; they are locked in each other’s spell.
I’ve seen this a thousand times but have never really stopped to think about it. Russians are incredibly softly spoken, especially in public. I think it’s wonderful. Surely what a person says should be more important than how they say it. I think so anyhow. I believe that when it comes to trains, silence is golden.
If Russia epitomises the romance of train travel then Germany kills it stone dead. At its best, Germany’s railway system is world class and a joy to use. However, by consistently failing to live up to its best it inevitably sets its passengers up for disappointment.
British railways are scarcely any better but the operators have at least hit upon the idea of separate coaches for mobile phone users and chatterboxes. German regional trains are light years behind in comparison. Many of them do not even have toilets let alone quiet coaches,
Especially in the evenings, the atmosphere can be convivial. Sports fans tend to travel to watch their team by train as the fare is included in the price of the ticket — and they usually pack a plentiful supply of liquid refreshments. As you’re unlikely to beat them, the best strategy is to join them. Most concerts or rock festivals offer similar arrangements.
In the mornings the atmosphere is a lot more subdued but no matter what time of day you travel or how advanced a stage your alcohol consumption is, do not expect even a modicum of courtesy when it comes to mobile phone use.
A few years ago I took a look into my old friend the Knigge, Germany’s definitive etiquette manual, in order to find ammunition to throw at people who use their mobiles on trains. I was to be disappointed. It is there in black and white and it is phrased in simple language: It is completely acceptable to telephone in the carriage.
It does at least qualify that gem of wisdom with another piece of advice which I found rather useful. When sending text messages, the volume should be switched to silent so that the rest of the carriage does not have to suffer the pitter-patter of duck fart noises as you compose. Otherwise, you’ve just got to live with it. Plenty of places near the platform sell beer.
Most Germans have never thought of any of this. Though their public transport is among the best in Europe, the joke is that it is only for people with “triple A” status: Arm, Arbeitslos, Ausländisch — poor, unemployed and foreign. In this respect they are true Thatcherites — the Iron Lady having famously decreed that anyone over that age of thirty seen riding a bus should be classed as a failure in life.
When it comes to transport, Germans find themselves locked in the horns of a dilemma, wrenched between genuine environmental concerns and an equally heartfelt attachment to creature comfort.
A bicycle is an ideal compromise and will attract the praise of friends and workmates — but it is hardly a universal solution. As such, most Germans like to work out how they would travel to work by public transport and then use this as an excuse to take the car.
Thus there is a ring of truth to the “triple A” joke — especially when it comes to foreigners. You can probably hear every language in the world spoken on trains here, Scottish included.
Nigel Farage would love it. Unlike in Germany, in Britain the linguistic diversity of commuters is no laughing matter, especially not for our Nige. He was the one who caused uproar after complaining that he’d taken a train from central London and got our as far as Lewisham before he heard anyone speaking English. As it turns out, one of the reasons for his annoyance was that despite working in Belgium for the past two decades he has great difficulty speaking anything else.
It seems that since the Brexit referendum the Faragites have drawn encouragement from his stand. German newspapers sometimes carry stories about tourists being told to “speak English please” whilst on holiday in London or elsewhere; I recently saw a British documentary about the abuse meted out to two Polish travellers on a bus — the pair having dared to converse in the vernacular during the journey.
I have witnessed such unpleasantness in the UK, admittedly before the referendum and I regret to say that it was in Scotland. The atmosphere on British public transport is broadly similar to that in Germany — minus the conviviality of course. Raw aggression provides a ready substitute.
I saw two French tourists who were misguided enough to believe that Glasgow is at its best by night being told to “speak Scaw-esh fer’ fuck’s sake!” by a suitably refreshed fellow passenger. Doubtless the young lady responsible will only speak French in public should she ever visit France, assuming she is sober enough to board the aeroplane.
I have never seen this happen on a train in Germany, rife with drunken undesirables though they often are. The worst that is likely to happen if you speak English while on a train here is that someone will invite himself to join you in the hope of a free lesson.
Children of immigrants will often be told off by their mothers if they speak any other language but German whilst in public. Two strangers with reason to believe that their opposite number might speak Turkish are more likely to converse in German when first they meet. I often talk to British people in German if I expect that a German member of our party does not grasp the finer points of elementary Glaswegian — although often I forget to do so.
Nastiness does occur. I know of a visiting football club from Finland who were in a bar in near here when they were asked by a waiter to conduct their conversation in German. He didn’t get a tip.
The club president is a man after my own heart. He speaks seldom, whatever language he speaks in, and then only to make people laugh — but on this occasion he had a few choice words to describe the establishment in question. His German host and I taught him a few new ones.
Talking foreign on trains might annoy Nigel Farage — and personally I would argue that this in itself is a good thing — but it’s hardly symptomatic of the death of our way of life and has no place in any sensible debate about immigration.
If anything, it’s symptomatic of our ageing society — because as we get older we also get more fussy. It would be nice to think that we could repopulate our countries with carbon copies of ourselves but a century of the colonial experiment has taught us that that’s just not going to happen.
I’d like to go to Finland I think, and travel the length of it by train. Just rolling by for hours on end, staring out into nothing in the company of people who don’t open their mouths unless they have something sensible to say. It must be heaven. I wonder if they have politicians there.
At Recklinghausen the shoppers pile out and I am alone in the carriage. The concrete jungle gives way to rolling hills and forests. Silence is golden: I too am getting older and fussier. Ten minutes later I get out at Haltern.
As I walk though the station car park I spy a man of about my height and build dressed in green and white football colours. He opens the boot of his car and pulls out a twenty pack of beer.
His wife kisses him on the cheek and waves smilingly as he carries his provisions to the platform. Somehow I doubt that the next time they meet she will be so pleased to see him.
No matter — it’s going to be a good day. Live and let live. We are none of us perfect who travel on trains; of that I am once again reminded.