Written by Swati
March 2nd 2023
The people we meet on the train are Fate’s hands knitting the cloth of our lives right before our eyes. On the way to Venice, a massage therapist from Thailand settled in Albania, hoping to move to Switzerland to join the rest of his family. A couple on vacation from
Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, on a romantic getaway from the cityscape. Fathers wrangle rows of children together, mothers patiently gather tickets and baggage for disembarkment. The people I meet on the train will be scored on my heart forever.
On the way to Florence, I could feel Fate’s hand pushing me forward into my life. After a gentle morning in Burano, a fishing village off of Venice with rows of colorful houses and small pieces of handmade lace, I took some extra time to write by the water. I decide that Venice must be God’s favorite place on Earth. Manmade creations meant to mimic greatness I’d assume he respects the attempt, and allows it to prosper. It wasn’t a place where I necessarily found happiness, but where I found that happiness could be found. And with that I took a ferry back to Venice, with more than enough time to make it to my train. Or so I thought.
How quickly an hour disappears. Delays in turn to new ferry lines, turn into frantic scrambling down Venetian streets, canvas bag in hand, hair whipping through the wind. By the time I made it back to my hotel to pick up my bag, I had 25 minutes to make the 22 minute journey to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station. I had all but given up, but something about traveling abroad alone has instilled more fight in me. If I am to miss a train, I must first attempt to make it. A big problem I had growing up was giving up too early. As it goes with young children who are identified as talented early on, I always wanted to be a natural. I wanted to be good at everything. I wanted assurance that all attempts are rewarded. But the world doesn’t work that way. And it’s alright. Sometimes Fate reaches out a hand. And that’s all we need.
After clattering my way to the train station, a glass bottle toppled out of one of my bags splattering all over the stoned road. I couldn’t tell you why, but once I decided I’d be spending more than 2 days at Lake Como, I fell into the domesticity of it all, and ran to the nearby Lidl to purchase supplies for a lakeside picnic. The unfortunate thing about going grocery shopping with me is that I’ll always shop as my Indian mother taught me to, looking for deals and purchasing a mix of fruits and snacks. But this meant that I ended up with 2 full bags of groceries that I then needed to take to Venice, and later Florence, with me. I’d managed to pack a backpack crammed full of clothes for 10 days in Italy, but the rest were plastic bags from grocery stores knotted haphazardly around my fingers. I ran to the terminal a mere 3 minutes prior to departure, only to find that my seat was in the last car of the train. In the midst of the chaos, I make the split decision to settle into the second car, and cross my fingers that no one else has reserved the seat that I just claimed. Across from me, I snuggle my backpack, two bags of groceries, and my tote bag. Sigh of relief. I’ve done it. I’m on the train and I will be in Florence in 2 hours. Enter Fate.
Stopping at a nearby station, Padova if I recall correctly, a dozen new passengers enter the train. A woman walks over to the couple next to me, explaining that she had reserved one of their seats, starting a bit of a stir that had me wondering if it was my mistake that would finally be revealed. But Fate would have it otherwise. A man enters as well, gesturing that he has reserved the seat that held my belongings. Eyes widening, I apologize profusely, knocking over my water bottle full of San Benedetto Allegro, a sparkling citrus fruit juice. Lovely. While I’m gathering my bearings, the couple and a nearby train hostess discuss, asking the woman with the original seat reservation if she would be okay taking a different seat nearby, as the train car was close to empty. With an agreement from all four of us in the vicinity, she heads over to a different seat and the man sits across from me, apologizing as well. I detect an English accent and a lack of the normal European distaste towards my clumsy nature. I take the plunge, asking if he was English which led to the most engaging conversation I’ve had in months.
I find that he’s John Armstrong, a Glasgow native and Oxford-educated philosopher, professor, author, and art collector. It’s difficult to read strangers, and with all the stranger danger training I received beginning at age 5, I’ve favored safety in traveling alone. But life in Italy, and maybe in overarching Europe, has an emphasis on most strangers minding their own business, often not starting conversation unless approached first. It gives me a greater feeling of control and ability to walk myself out of unsavory situations or break if conversation tapers off. In fact, the way a conversation begins is quite interesting. It feels too technical to ever engineer perfectly, which is why I’ll always believe Fate led me to that train, that train car, that seat, and that conversation.
John Armstrong has enough stories to last lifetimes, but I find that much of the work that he’s done and continues to do in literature are along the lines of the realizations I’ve had along my European adventure thus far: small joys and finding beauty in the little things, more specifically why we are pulled to beautiful things like the stroke of a brush in a painting, or a curve of a hand in a sculpture. I’m amazed to have found a writer, but also such a mind, passing through at the same time as I did. I’ve never quite been able to look Fate in the eye the way I did that Thursday afternoon.
If by chance you’re reading this now, Mr. John Armstrong, I hope you find that opening line you’re looking for to start your newest book.
The people we meet on the train won’t fix us. But they will teach us, lead us, and guide us into understanding that we are fixing ourselves.