Ukraine on the train – from a military to a cultural conflict

24 April 2022

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On a recent trip to Berlin, I was taken aback to see the images from TV suddenly come alive. Here were real people with laminated Ukrainian flags around their necks to be identifiable to refugees arriving at the Berlin main train station. Some were bent over their cell phones surrounded by a small crowd of people, jointly looking up train connections, trying to find lodging or maybe just getting information about where these particular refugees were coming from.

It reminded me of my own first experience in a German train station many years ago, arriving by bus to Cologne from Madrid after studying a year in Spain. Of course, the situation was wildly different; I wasn’t fleeing a war, I was on vacation. But our minds only have our own experiences to go on, so that is what I felt my thoughts drifting towards.

I was on my way to visit my sister, stationed in the army in Karlsruhe. From Cologne, I needed to take a train but didn’t know exactly how to go about it. I had spent the previous year perfecting my Spanish, a wholly useless skill in Germany. And 18-year-old me from the American suburbs had little train experience (or rather train-ing, heh-heh).

Why were there multiple counters, why so many different lines? Were there various types of tickets or was there perhaps a separate line for each destination?  

Dazed from my 30-hour trip, I took the easy way out: I simply asked someone what I had to do to buy a train ticket. My interlocutor spoke fluent English and his tone was equally clear. It said: “This stupid American girl can’t even figure out how to buy a ticket!”

I couldn’t have cared less; I just wanted to get on a train as quickly as possible. I boarded a train to Karlsruhe and proceeded to gaze out the window, agog at the greenness of this country after the parched Spanish landscapes of the previous year. The train was unbelievably clean. And it left on time! In Spain it was a standard joke when naming a departure time to quickly add the tag “Spanish time.” The conductor also seemed to have a crisper uniform on, too, but maybe I was just imagining things.

The Berlin train station has an entire section cordoned off for the Ukrainian refugees who continue pouring into the country. Poland is only an hour’s train ride away, something easily forgotten when reveling in the trendy atmosphere of Berlin, so urbane next to Munich’s staid conservative mood. The end of the war is nowhere in sight, but the current, young generation of Berlin partyers and club-goers knows of the horrors of WWII only from history books, even though the nearby Polish border played a major role in this war.

On my train back home, three Ukrainian women boarded and took seats across the aisle from me. They gestured to me to ask if the seats are available, making no pretense of speaking German. They appeared to be a mother and her two teenage daughters. The mother looks harried, eventually closing her eyes to doze off.

I sneak a look across the aisle. She has bright, red-dyed hair. I muse about this, wondering how she will manage to keep coloring her hair now that she’s in Germany when the roots grow in. Will she find the right shade? And her favorite brand? I suppose Ukraine has its own brands of hair color, or do they just import it from the U.S. or Germany? I imagine her future hair conundrum on her first trip to the drugstore to buy that shade of red.

This is just one of thousands of details of daily life that they will have to work out in their new life in Germany, without being able to speak the language.

The daughters lean towards the window of the train to watch the landscape pass by. Right now we are in the so-called Mittelgebirge, named for their height – literally “medium-sized mountains” – with scattered forests and quarries in between. I wonder what they saw from their window on their last trip out of Ukraine. Did they pass bombed out cities, burning cars, or worse?

Just now the conductor comes and asks to see their tickets. They shake their heads. No tickets. They were probably told that they could travel anywhere by train in Germany for free, which is true. What they didn’t realize is that they should have obtained a free pass from a special counter set up for Ukrainians so that the Deutsche Bahn can keep track of how many free tickets they have issued.

Now the conductor keeps repeating her demand for tickets.

“You should have gotten the free passes!” she says. For the third time.

Then she records something on her smartphone and lets it translate the message into Ukrainian for the three women and plays it for them.

“But what should we do now?” asks one woman very politely, in English.

“You should have gotten the free passes!” repeats the conductor. For the fourth time.

This instantly reminded me of how I got reamed out years ago for throwing my glass recycling into the bin on a Sunday, which is strictly verboten. Oh horrors! But this rule makes sense, considering how loud the CLINK is when the bottles hit the bottom, something that is undoubtedly irritating for the neighbors.

When a man told me it wasn’t allowed, I immediately nodded and thought, “No problem. I hereby vow never to clink on a Sunday again.” And then I thought that “clinking on a Sunday” sounded more like a clandestine post-church cocktail party, which made the thought that much funnier.

After I apologized, I expected the man to smile and say something like “No problem! Now you know.” But instead, he just kept on yelling.

“No bottles on Sunday!”

“I got it!”

“Sunday – no recycling. Zu laut!”

“Yup! Understood – won’t do it again.”

“What do you think you’re doing, throwing away recycling on a Sunday?”

“JA! Schon GUT!”

Then he shut up. It seems he was waiting for that response.

Now my Ukrainian train neighbors are learning this lesson, too. I wonder what the Ukrainian cultural convention would be in this situation. Would they smile and tread lightly? Or would they snap back, even though they were in the wrong?

The conductor finally relents, with one final reprimand – in German – not to do it again. She seems very satisfied and continues on down the row, checking tickets.

The Ukrainians get off the train in Erfurt. I hope they will be staying with a relative or close friend. I hope their friend will help them navigate this new, foreign culture without too much difficulty. I hope people will be kind to them and realize that maybe Ukrainians don’t recycle at all or do it differently – maybe even on Sundays. Maybe they form lines standing behind people as we do in the U.S., not next to them as they do here. Perhaps they also wait to be seated in restaurants, rather than letting themselves be seated by the maître d’ as in the U.S.

And countless other little details.

But mostly, I hope that Putin stops the war so they can go back home, where I’m sure they would much rather be. Just because I have decided to make my home in a new country doesn’t mean they should have to.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio by pexels

See also:
The ladies, the rest home and the bombs
The distant agony of past wars is suddenly revived by the attack on Ukraine
The two dots that will make or break you