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My grandmother called me the night before I left.
“Please don’t take the night train,” she said. I told her I might.
Later, she sent me an email: “My love, I know we spoke about the night train. If you do, and I know you will — because you crave adventure, maybe even more than I do — take my advice: Lock your backpack to the overhead, keep your passport in your pants, and, Carly, don’t forget to look out the window.”
Vienna ➤ Rome
I spent the first four hours of the train to Rome alone in my couchette, gazing out the window at the sun setting over the Austrian Alps. I caught up on the last week of my trip, scribbling in a brown leather notebook I had bought from a vendor outside the Naschmarkt. My lock was abandoned somewhere in the hostel off Ringstrasse, so I slept on top of my backpack, with my passport tucked against the cool of my stomach.
Before midnight, I walked with sore, shaky legs to the dining car. Rows of cracked leather booths were all empty, so I ate a cold cheese platter with salted cashews, dried apricots, and a glass of tart red wine in silence.
When I returned to the cabin, a lanky boy in a soccer jersey, with stringy, almond hair, was perched on the cot across from mine, reading. I saw the cover — Kerouac, of course, in Italian.
“Ciao,” I said, with a self-effacing grin. “Io studiato in Fierenze. Inoltre, mi piace Jack Kerouac.” I reddened.
He humored me for a while, ignoring my clumsy grammatical errors and unending vocabulary requests. “Come si dice…?”
Eventually, my limited Italian had run dry, and the wine courage had faded. I feigned tiredness, closed my eyes softly, and lolled my head towards the train wall, let the boy from Bologna return to his book.
I awoke with a lurch to a stopped train, to his calloused hand resting on mine. He was crouched down, so close I could feel his breath on the tip of my nose.
“Ciao, bella,” he smirked, and with that, he left.
Split ➤ Budapest
My shoulders were burnt, my cheeks freckled from weeks in the crisp Croatian sun. I had island hopped from the party of Hvar to quaint Vis, from a music festival on Zrce Beach to windsurfing the ultramarine waters of Bol. My back and midsection, hugged by my 62 L backpack, were soaked with salt from the mile walk to the station. Unstrapping and untangling the various bags and wet swimsuits hanging on my pack, I sat against the cool of the cement wall, waiting for the train to arrive.
I ate a spinach and cheese börek quickly, wiping grease from the filo pastry onto a small travel towel that had proved to be my most valued companion. The train to Budapest finally came, mostly on time. Semi-barefoot and knotted, I quickly found an empty cabin to recline in the cool of the air conditioning. There would be hours to read the books I’d put off, the writing I hadn’t done, so I closed my eyes for a moment as the remaining passengers filed on the train.
Suddenly, the glass door to my compartment flung open to the screams of girls in cutoff shorts and various neon-styled crop tops.
“CARLY!” they squealed in their lilting English accents.
It was obvious I was the only young American girl in the station, nervously set to board the night train.
I had previously met the girls at a hostel in Hvar, where we turned our small dorm room into a den of girl talk and makeup application, rolling on the floor with drunken stories of nights spent out at Carpe Diem, the infamous beach club a five-minute water taxi off the island. I borrowed their hair straightener, and they laughed at tales of the eclectic men I’d met traveling alone across Eastern Europe.
That night on the train, we reclined our seats flat until they joined, creating a massive bed for us to sprawl out on, legs intertwined. We read Cosmo UK magazines, ate chips with odd flavors like shrimp cocktail and curry — apparently very popular in Britain — gorged on Haribo candies and Cadbury chocolates. Passengers walking by peeked past the sandy pink sheet we hung up at the door to our cabin to find an old-fashioned sleepover party underway.
Months later, back at home in New York, I received a package from the girls loaded with odd chips and chocolates: “For your next party on the night train! Xx, your British girls.”
Delhi ➤ Amritsar
The train from Delhi to Amritsar was different; it was the one my grandmother had warned me about. Sticky masses shuffled back and forth on the narrow platform, a chicken frantically crossed the train tracks. I stood in line for my ticket next to a bull lethargically waiting for his owner, and sat inside the station on the floor, next to a young family eating samosas. I received curious glares from mingling groups of Indian men — it was obvious I was the only young American girl in the station, nervously set to board the night train.
I smiled at the mother of the family sitting near me, and she beckoned me towards her. I slid my bags over, said hello. She wobbled her head, smiled. There was no mutual language to be spoken, except her offer of a potato and green pea samosa, still warm. I accepted readily. With no warning, the horns began to sound, with muffled announcements. Chaos as the masses of waiting passengers herded outside towards the arriving train. I spotted the young backpacking Austrian man I’d seen in the ticketing line and filed in behind, following him to the first cabin on the right.
We sat and smiled at each other, slightly relieved to find familiarity in one another. Soon after, the door to the cabin slid open, and three Sikh men in turbans slipped in quietly. As the train left the station, they began to converse with one another, casually, curiously glancing at the two of us on the other end of the cabin. We ate our dinner of daal and chapatti, and the Austrian quickly fell asleep. One of the three men reached into his bag, as I looked for something in mine to keep occupied. From the depths of his side pocket, he gingerly pulled out a fresh deck of cards, and the Indian men began to play.
Looking up, I smiled broadly, and hesitantly asked (unsure if they spoke English, unsure if they wanted to speak with me), “Do you all know how to play gin?”
“Of course!” they laughed at my clear trepidation.
We spent the next several hours playing cards, on that night train to Amritsar. I learned they were Punjab government officials, and that they were better at cards than I was. They spoke to me about the sacred Golden Temple and their families in Delhi. Each was curious about what I was doing backpacking alone in India, asked me questions with skeptical delight. The train ride passed quickly, and soon we were disembarking in the subdued light of the Amritsar station.
The next morning, at sunrise, I visited the Golden Temple. I watched the sun come over the building, reflected in the water below. I listened to the Sikh chants and felt grateful — for my grandfather teaching me gin, for girl talk, for samosas, for love without language, for cool concrete walls and reclining bulls, for the opportunity to see the world and learn its variety, and most of all — for the night train.