Meeting People on Trains: 4 Memorable Characters
Traveling by train can be a social experience. Meeting people on trains has a freedom and flexibility to it. Striking up a conversation feels easier and safer than other modes of transport. Unlike a plane, chances are you’re not going to be stuck next to the annoying small talker for 14 straight hours. If you feel the urge to move, you can. But usually it’s the fleeting conversations you have while traveling Europe by train that create lasting memories. Over the course of my various Eurail trips, these four characters have had a profound impact on my trip in very different ways.
Meeting people on trains
1. The old couple on the train between Budapest and Vienna
My first impression of Jerry was that he was too old to be mid-way through a cross-continental railway trip. I’d watched him stash his wheeled walking aid in the back of the Austrian RailJet train and stoically shuffle his way down the aisle towards his seated wife.
The train started its journey before he reached the seat, and he lurched for the high leather backrests for support. He stabilised himself just in time, and stopped to catch his breath. He patted down his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and continued along the aisle. Then he sat down across from me with an audible sigh.
“It’s his back,” his wife Lorna explained with a lilty twang of an American accent. “We were supposed to be on a cruise, but it was canceled. So we decided to take the trains instead.”
I asked if I could assist. “Oh, if you can help us when we arrive in Vienna that would be fantastic,” she said. “We just need to get the walker and our luggage off the train in time. We’re not as young as we used to be,” she said, smiling.
From Budapest to Vienna we exchanged the small talk typical when meeting people on trains – polite and interesting conversation about lives back home, experiences on the tracks, and about what lay ahead in our respective journeys.
“Take Jerry’s email address,” Margaret said. “We’d love to keep in contact.”
Early the next morning I sent them an email to find out if they’d made it to the hotel in one piece. I’d left in the large arrivals terminal. I received an enthusiastic all-caps response an hour later:
“YES WE MADE IT & OTHER THAN THE WEATHER THE HOTEL IS WONDERFUL. WITHOUT YOUR HELP WE PROBABLY NEVER WOULD HAVE MADE IT. JERRY NOT TOO MOBILE. SAFE AND PRODUCTIVE FURTHER TRAVELS FOR YOU.”
A year later I was reflecting on the impact that Lorna and Jerry had had on me – a young, wide-eyed Eurailer on his maiden journey, meeting an adventurous elderly couple on their final holiday abroad. I decided to send Jerry a quick email to enquire about his health, but never did receive a response.
2. Conductor between Interlaken and Lauterbrunnen
The conductor walking the aisle towards me had a cheery smile. He was a paunchy man; his belly only just fit into his pristine uniform. His head was a little small for his body, and on it was a tight-fitting conductor’s cap. He stopped at each occupied seat and made polite conversation, before checking the tickets and continuing on his way.
When he arrived at my seat I reached for my Eurail Pass and handed it over to him with confidence.
“Ah, unfortunately this is a private train,” he said, and a slightly graver expression came across his face. “You needed to buy a ticket at the station.”
I felt the blood train from my face. Across the aisle, an American family had stopped their conversation to listen in. “You see that,” the father said to his young daughter standing on the seat. “This guy is trying to ride the train without a ticket.” And they all turned to look at the stowaway.
“I had no idea,” I explained to the conductor as he handed back my rail pass. “I’m happy to pay for the ticket.”
“You know what?” he said, the smile returning to his face. “It’s an easy mistake to make. Just be sure to buy a ticket the next time you’re on board this train.”
3. The young woman between Bruges and Brussels
“Where are you heading?” As the generic go-to travel small talk, it was hardly an original question. But I’d sat opposite the young woman and her mother for the better part of a few hours, and we’d yet to even acknowledge each other’s presence.
“Brussels,” she said. “How about you?”
“Same,” I replied.
“Hey,” she said as we approached the outskirts of the capital. “This might sound a bit crazy, but my mother and I were wondering if you were interested in joining us at a vegan food market for dinner this evening. We’ll need to get off at the next stop.”
I considered the situation. It was two stops before I was due to get off. But I’d been on the trains for much of the afternoon, and on the tracks for a few months, and I was very ready for a healthy meal. She was intriguing and friendly as well, and no good story ever comes out of turning down a spontaneous invitation.
“Sure,” I replied, and we busied ourselves zipping up bags and getting ready to leave the train.
I followed the two women through the suburban Brussels back roads for more than 30 minutes, and spent most of it carrying the mother’s heavy bag that she was unable to manage. Our destination was always just around the next corner, until eventually the woman stopped outside a large house and rang the bell. The door opened, I stepped inside, and was instantly was greeted by a bald man with a ponytail.
“Please remove your shoes and proceed to the prayer room,” the woman said, motioning towards a small room to the side with a shrine in the corner. She did a double take when she saw the shock on my face. “Oh, you didn’t know? We’re Hare Krishna.”
I slowly backed out of the prayer room, then I slipped my shoes back on and bade them farewell.
“What about the food?” she said.
“I’ll make a plan,” I replied. I thanked them for their time as I walked toward the door.
On the way, the bald man with the ponytail reappeared. “Here,” he said. “Sorry about the misunderstanding. At least take a slice of this cake until you find some dinner.”
4. Woman on train in Zillertal who lent me her phone
In a last-minute rush for the train from Florence to Zillertal, in the Austrian Alps, I’d forgotten to take down the address of my accommodation. Or even confirm that they had availability. Instead, I convinced myself I’d find wifi en-route, and would make contact that way. But the regional trains I was taking not only didn’t have wifi or power sockets, they also stopped in only the quietest and remote villages. Great for experiencing quaint Austrian character and local delicacies, not ideal for making contact to your isolated lodge in the Alps.
It was only when I alighted the last of many trains later that day, sometime around dusk, that I realised I may be in a bit of trouble. I’d stepped onto an all but abandoned platform and looked around for a sign of life. The buildings were shuttered and only a single passenger had stepped off with me.
Her name was Anna, and she was heading up the valley in the same direction.
“Do you want to borrow my phone?” she said when I explained my predicament. I called the lodge and arranged a bed for the night. We then boarded the next train that arrived, spoke for the entire journey like long-lost friends, and when she hopped off one village before me, we promised to stay in contact. Which, as is so often the case when meeting people on trains, we never did.
There are several facets to a successful Eurail trip – the views and the scenery, the cities, towns, and small villages. Even the late night parties and early morning coffees. They’ll all leave you with good stories and a yearning to return. But there’s something particularly memorable about meeting people on trains along the way. Eurail trips expose you to people from around the world in the most unique and engaging manner. And for many years after you return home, you’ll find yourself pausing for just a few seconds to wonder how that person you met on the trains all those years ago is doing.
Meeting people on trains and on your travels:
8 types of travelers you’ll meet on your Eurail trip
Where to meet other travelers on your Europe trip
Solo, group, and partner travel: a comparison