4 min read

Before and after

In this memory, the upholstery of the seats is dirty brown, the colour of sun-kissed leather jackets in packed second-hand stores. This detail gives away the time of the memory. The “before” era. Before the cars smelled nice, before the digital displays, and definitely before the recorded words of a voice actress replaced the train conductor who always mangled station names over the intercom. Some said it was on purpose. The proverbial conductor just liked to mess with those who didn't count the stations they had left using their fingers. You did, but even you were easy to spook.

It's a bit shaky, the memory itself, as you see the scenery behind the window flicker and change. Was it spring, with the patches of burned grass and the hepatica flowers amid bare trees? Or was it winter, with all shades of white – snow mixed with tar, snow mixed with dirt, and pure snow in the distance? There are many memories of train trips just like this buried so deep you would never retrieve them individually. You can only access them through a mental kaleidoscope of sorts, each turn of the tube mixing the images, sounds, and thoughts together. This memory is one of the few you can recall and replay, even if your imagination has to fill some of the gaps.

When you think of it, it was actually summer – you remember the smell of those brown seats in the sun too well. It's a complex odor, with notes of not just leather, but also of metal and the sticky black lubricant that's so easy to get on your hands.

You are sitting in your favorite spot – you always had one even if it's not something you'd admit now. The second bench on the left facing the front of the train. From there, you could see everyone without feeling seen. On any given trip, most passengers would just be minding their business – solving crossword puzzles bought from a lady who walked the aisle five minutes before departure, flipping through rags unironically named SCANDAL and SHOCK, knitting, playing Tetris. This was before smartphones, but even then it took years of commuting to receive a nod of recognition from a fellow passenger.

You see the Italian come in. You hadn’t noticed him enter the train at the main station, so it is safe to assume that he was riding in another car. He wears a mustache, some beads on a string around his wrist, and a color print T-shirt. It's definitely summer or at least early fall. His backpack is small, not even a day trip's worth of stuff. He takes a seat placing his tiny backpack on his lap. Ruffles some papers, consults a map or agenda. Closes his eyes, blending in with the other folk, who have already hidden most of their distractions and are either staring out the window at the yellow fields of rapeseed flowers or just drowsing.

In a train of home-work-home commuters, he's the true explorer, and he assesses the scene for any moments he can take home. He changes his seat a few times, trying to strike up a chat with a few people, who are probably too old to know English. You are closer to the kind of person he could have a successful conversation with. He sees that, right? Maybe it's the angle, or maybe the sun in his eyes.

After a few attempts to crack the local code, he joins a group of Japanese businessmen, dressed in nondescript costumes. They – two younger guys and one older gentleman – smile at the guest politely. You don't remember the exchange bit by bit, but you can see that the Italian is not the kind of jolly exchange student you pegged him for. Maybe he was at first, but the frustration of not getting a conversation fix wiped the enthusiasm off his face. His attempts at conversation are forced, coming out of some weird unfulfilled desire.

The youngest of the three interprets for the older gentleman:

“Mr. Yashimoto would like to chat, but he is too shy.”

“Too shy,” Mr. Yashimoto echoes in English, smiling from ear to ear.

Well, at least I tried. This is what the Italian is probably thinking to himself, as he leaves the group which instantly erupts in chatter after he takes the first step away. Shyness is contextual. Shyness is a shield.

He staggers as the train speeds up on a long, straight segment of the railroad. He then takes a seat by the opposite window from you, puts on his headphones, and closes his eyes. Adventurers need rest, too, even, or maybe especially, if the adventure brought no joy. The memory ends, but you are stuck in a loop, playing out different scenarios of a potential encounter in your mind. In some, you stutter. In others, you make the guy laugh. Both would have been equally possible.

If he had sat next to you, would you have pulled a Mr. Yashimoto? Remember this was before you read Zimbardo's book, before the other self-help books you refused to call self-help. But still, probably not. You would have bored him, speaking from a script, inserting “After the Soviet Union collapsed”, “After we regained independence”, “After this”, “After that” in front of your sentences. If he were to ask you about the country, of course. You had no meaningful experience to talk about. No other country in your collection to compare yours to. No “oh, Milan, yeah I’ve been there twice” story to share. Not yet.

This was the “before” era that is kept alive only by memories like this, memories that are probably there to show that this era existed, for better or worse. Everyone has a “before” era, you think. But what if the moment you are in right now is also a “before” of things to come? The thought fills you with excitement, then dread, then hope, then dread again.