Arjed caught my eye as we queued to buy dinner at the canteen on a ferry and we smiled at one another. If I was tired from a 6am start in London, it was entirely dwarfed by his weariness. He wore neat clothes, stylish even, but his face was well-worn and heavily scarred. As two solitary travellers we sat with only one empty seat between us, devouring our respective portions of fish and chips and looked out over the monotone blue Baltic in late summer. Around us portly truck drivers tucked into generous portions of sausages.
He was eager to chat, Arjed, He needed information. "In Copenhagen can I buy a ticket to Gothenburg to get there tonight? My cousin is in Gothenburg..." he enquired. I said "I doubt it, seeing as we won't get to Copenhagen ‘til almost 11pm". My initial thought of surprise at his apparent lack of planning - I had booked a ticket almost three months in advance to make it affordable - turned to concern as I realised this guy had no idea of how to get where he was going. After talking over our dinner we arranged that when our train (which was on the ferry deck beneath us) arrived in Copenhagen we would meet on the platform and see if I could help fix him an unlikely ticket to Gothenburg. "Anyway" I said "Lund is on the way to Gothenburg, so if you can't make it all the way tonight, you're welcome to crash at my place."
During the short shared journey together through Denmark and Sweden, he told me in broken English he'd recently been in Italy and for the past two days he'd snaked up through Germany by train. The previous night he’d slept on the floor of a Hannover falafel cafe after the proprietor let him in. He said he was travelling to his meet his wife in Oslo, where she'd lived for two years. He had left his homeland of Iraq four years ago and said he missed home but was unable to go back. Before asking why this was I realised that the most likely answer was literally written all over his face.
Four months later making the same journey in the opposite direction, I met another traveller. This time it was mid-winter and Mohammed approached me on the concourse of Copenhagen central station, which was decked out in christmas decorations. Instinctively wary of his opening line: "Do you know how to buy a ticket? I am travelling to Stuttgart.", without thinking I tried to end the exchange; "You want to go through Hamburg, but I haven't got any Danish money whatsoever, sorry mate". He was quick to get back at me "I have money, but ticket I cannot buy". "You might want to try one of those machines" I suggested, pointing towards the ticket hall, "and good luck!".
I went off in search of my platform, but halfway there stopped mid-stride. I had 20 minutes to spare and (for once) wasn't rushing for a connection, so what was stopping me from helping this guy out? I found myself failing to justify why I mistrusted a stranger with a straightforward enough request.
20 hurried minutes later Mohammed and I were aboard the same train and heading towards Germany. We had gone to the ticket office together and as our number in the queue approached, he'd tried to thrust his wallet into my hand; "If they know where I come from, then I can't buy a ticket. Please you use my money". Fighting my prejudice that this was an elaborate scam and with half an eye on the ticking clock, I awkwardly refused and tried to reassure him; "Don't worry, they won't need any identification, just the money". As I negotiated with the cashier he bought a ticket that was nearly twice the price of mine and together we walked down to the platform.
Train stations in Europe can be a lonely place.
Having chance encounters with fellow travellers, I can't help but compare myself with their situations. Like me, they travelled alone and used their smartphones for entertainment, however, the similarities pretty much stop there. I was travelling from one warm, secure home to another. And in sharp contrast to my 50L backpack, both these guys were travelling light, Arjed with no baggage whatsoever and Mohammed only a small backpack. My choice of route was to avoid aviation emissions and theirs, presumably, to avoid passport controls. Perhaps the biggest difference was that my journey was of my own free and privileged volition; there's was almost certainly not.
Travelling alone with uncertainty over where to go, how to get there and where to sleep tonight. With scant grasp of the transport system, let alone immigration procedure, there's the risk that you'll get picked up by the authorities and be entered in a processing system beyond your control. Despite the expensive fares, it must feel constantly feel as if you’re without a ticket and about to be busted by a ticket inspector. Light luggage aside, that's a heavy load.
I don't know the full story of these two individuals, but through short random exchanges I picked up on their instability and potential destitution. I was curious enough to wonder about them further; beyond pigeonholed national identities. Who were these guys? What had they been through? What and who had they left behind? Would Europe treat these people as ‘outsiders’?
These men had the confidence to ask a stranger for assistance, however, I wonder whether others would have been similarly direct or canny. Less resourced individuals, for whatever reason, might not have completed the same path.
ABOUT THE author
Phil Holtam is a recent graduate in Sustainability Science at Lund University. He is currently based in Copenhagen and travels overland a couple of times a year between Denmark and the UK to avoid aviation emissions.