Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a train, a bus, a plane or at the next table in a restaurant, have always served as a source of characters and story inspirations. I’m not sure when I started making up stories about my tangential encounters with strangers, but I’ve been doing it since I was a child.

The woman dining with a little girl — indulging her granddaughter’s every whim — becomes the kind of chatty character who provides important, and yet seemingly irrelevant, observations in a mystery. Two puffed up businessmen in pricey suits, become rivals for an important promotion, with deadly consequences. A sullen teenager, shrinks with embarrassment at her parent’s confusion about the menu prices. Are they really very clever spies, drawing attention to themselves as naïve travelers in order to deflect scrutiny?

It’s all fodder for fiction.

One of the great things about traveling to places where I don’t speak the language is that I’m unlikely to uncover the truth about the people I observe. I spun a long and twisted tale about the young, Japanese man in the seat across from me during my train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin. He was just short of completely terrified, taking tiny sips of water and, occasionally, swallowing a pill.

We shared the first class carriage with four adult members of a German family. They were so obviously a family and were enjoying the smoked salmon sandwiches they’d carried with them along with beverages from the dining car. The father in the group, a jovial man with a big smile, helped me figure out the outlet for recharging my Kindle without a word of English. The Japanese kid kept leaving his seat and returning very quickly with a quizzical expression. It wasn’t until I walked through several cars to the dining car to buy a coffee, that he finally ventured far enough away to come back with some apple juice.

He’d been afraid to ask where the Germans had bought their coffees and Cokes. It’s funny, but even when I was in Japan, I could make myself understood about basic needs. For me, it was about getting over my inhibitions and simply trying. You won’t have deep conversations, but you can get yourself a coffee! Anyway, the hum of another language becomes the soundtrack supporting my observations. Not knowing what’s actually being said is freeing. It’s like going to an opera sung in Italian and making up your own libretto. I’ve done that and it’s fun!

Strangers on a train, a bus, a plane — and even on stage — all inspire fiction that travels far from its source.


  1. I have a very high affective filter when it comes to trying to communicate in foreign languages. It’s hard to get comfortable when speaking a foreign tongue makes one feel like a bumbling idiot! Then I just remind myself that all communication is basically a negotiation of sorts anyway. I’m excited about going to Germany because my four years of studying the language make me feel okay about giving actual communication a try. I wonder though how I’ll feel when hearing Danish spoken because it’s a lot like German. In one of the ESL classes I took, the professor had a woman come in and teacher a lesson to us in Dutch. I was the only one who half understood it, so that was interesting to see how it compared to German. At another conference for ESL teaching messages the linguist who was presenting did an entire lesson in to illustrate total physical response by speaking gibberish. That was great fun.

    • Candy Korman

      Wow! I wish I had any facility with foreign languages. My German friends giggle when I try to pronounce anything, but I do manage to handle basic communications.

      Writing for people for whom English is a second language is becoming a good part of my freelance work. I just spent a week with an international group of Tango dancers in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (only two from the U.S.A.) but English was the language of all the workshops and was the default for communicating during the entire week. The Dutch, Germans, Belgians, Danes and French all seemed fluent. Some of the dancers from Spain, Portugal and Poland were less so, but they tried. I had most of my linguistic dust-ups with the Brits! The same language but NOT! LOL… Of course the dancer from Capetown understood Dutch because of Afrikaner and that was interesting for her when the locals spoke among themselves.

  2. Some of the very best conversations I’ve ever had were with people on trains. In fact, I had what felt like an 18 hour conversation with a cute Dutch guy while travelling from France to Hungary by train. I was 21 and incredibly shy, yet the anonymity of the train, and the knowledge that I could walk away once we arrived at our destination, were incredibly liberating. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      On this trip I had quite a few unexpected conversations with strangers. It’s always enlightening. An older lady in one of the best museums made a comment to me in German, I admitted to English-only and she seamlessly switched. We were both thinking the same thing. “Why on earth did they put small black objects (archeological artifacts) in a case on a black shelf?” We wound up chatting about museum displays.

      Of course being asked to dance in English at a German Tango dance disturbed me. “How did you know to speak English?” I asked after the first song in our first set, thinking I’d sent out some kind of ‘speaks English vibe’ but his reply was a winner:
      “I couldn’t ask you in German because I don’t speak German. I’m from Florida.”

      I wasn’t entirely happy about being seated at the bar of a fancy Indonesian restaurant my last night in Amsterdam. I wanted to focus on my Kindle and didn’t want the pressure of being pleasant to strangers BUT I wound up having a fascinating conversation that led to me passing on a contact to one of my not-for-profit clients.

      You never know!


  3. First, the language of opera should never be understood. You lose the messae buried in the music when you can understand the words.

    Next, I love traveling by train. The people on trains are so very different than any other form of travel. Stories infold before you.

    Last, conferring your point without a common language is an interesting way to travel. I have run into fun or at least memorable situations fduring times like this.

    One time in Okinawa, I was in a deep south town away from the military bases. I approached a vender of hot fish like cakes, and neither of us shared the same language. A few minutes of mime and charades between us and I ended up with a sample without.

    I can still picture the scene today, probably 25 years after the fact. Interesting the things that stick with you.

    • Candy Korman

      That is the kind of memory that makes its way into fiction! I hope you integrate it into a story one day.