Thursday, September 03, 2009

Take Offense

I knew from experience that I would have to run up the 3 flights of stairs separating the U-Bahn (subway) from the S-Bahn (above ground commuter train) at Alexanderplatz. As usual, I had dallied around the apartment too long and so I was taking the U8 four minutes later than I should. I just barely made it through the doors of the S3, but was dismayed when I looked around. I have a particular seat I like to sit in on the S3, which I tend to think of as "my" train. I tend to also think of this particular seat as being "my" seat. I am able to get this seat probably 90% of the time and when it's taken, I become both enraged and disconsolate. Even though my rational mind knows it would be absurd, all I want to do when robbed of my seat is throw a gigantic temper tantrum.

I should explain the location of my seat, as I've put a lot of thought into it. When it is on time, which it generally is, the S3 arrives in Friedrichshagen about 3 minutes before the tram I need to take leaves. The tram stop is not exactly co-located with the S-Bahnhof and requires a dash across a rather busy street. There is a light there with a pedestrian signal, but almost everyone who emerges from the Bahnhof just as the bright yellow tram is arriving makes a mad run for it, fuck the traffic. Because it's imperative to catch this tram (the weather in Berlin is not renowned for its fairness) and there's generally no time to spare, I must sit towards the front of the S3. But I can't sit in the first block of seats, directly behind the driver's partition. I have, on occasion, but it makes me feel trapped. I prefer the block one or two back from there.

I cannot work or read or even really listen to music when I ride the train. When I ride the train, I am busy. I sit and stare out the window and think. The train ride is about 40 minutes long, and the idea of just sitting there and thinking baffles most people. All the time people ask me if maybe I have something to work on or read while I ride the train and it's difficult to explain to them that I do and no, I don't get motion sick, but I just can't. Riding the train is a distinct activity for me, that's all. Because of this, I must sit facing the direction of travel and near the window. I don't want to look at another person, it's distracting. I want to look outside. And if you sit backwards then outside appears to be nothing more than a blur, while it appears as a nice moving tableau while facing forward. However, if you happen to ride a train in Germany with just enough people so that there is one person per seat block, you will notice that this is the preferred seat for roughly 99% of the population. Even though most of them read or work and so they don't have the elaborate rationale behind sitting there as I do. This is why I think of it as being my seat. This is also why it can sometimes be difficult to obtain that seat.

When I first started working in Friedrichshagen, the S3 originated and terminated at Ostbahnhof. This forced me to change trains there, but also allowed me to almost always get my seat, once I learned exactly where on the platform to stand so as to be properly aligned with the appropriate door of the train. But just this week the S3 has been running to Westkreuz, far past Alexanderplatz. It's been nice taking just one train rather than two, but there is a trade-off. Namely, I can't guarantee I'll be able to get my seat. And today was one of those days. I eyed the woman in my seat. Maybe she would get off at Ostbahnhof, but just then she pulled out a thick book. Not a good sign. I looked to the block of seats one group back. The woman in the ideal seat there also looked settled, though there was always a chance... But I decided it was a chance I couldn't take. When we stopped at Ostbahnhof, lots of people would get on, so when a couple got of at Jannowitzbruecke and left a block of seats open, I went for it. Sure, it was farther back than I would have liked, but at least I had my forward-facing window seat.

It's a long wait at Ostbahnhof and I was somewhat disgruntled when a young man who appeared to be Turkish moved over to a seat across from me and asked me a question. He was very quiet, and his German was broken, so it was almost impossible for me to understand what exactly he wanted. I thought I heard something about "Erkner," so I assured him that this was the train to Erkner. But he shook his head no; something about Koepenick maybe? Yes, Koepencik is on the line as well. The block of seats he had moved from was still vacant and normal German protocol would suggest that he now return to that seat, given that I had (presumably?) answered his question. But he stayed. And he sat sprawled out, so that his legs overlapped mine, even though he was mostly sitting kitty-corner to me. This was awkward and I prayed that something would change, but it persisted. When we got to Westkreuz, he started asking me more geography-related questions and again so quietly that I could barely hear him. it was going to be one of those train rides, huh? Marred by the awkward presence of a question-asker who doesn't understand proper German (which just happens to coincide with my) social protocol. Then he started asking my name; if I was a student. I could see where all of this was leading, but my poor command of the German language makes me a better defensive than offensive player. I can comprehend quite a bit, but have little ability to make un-chartered forays into the language. So, when he finally got around to it, I just replied "nay," which I find to sound a little nicer than nein. He persisted. "Nein." He still sat there a while, which made things more awkward than they needed to be. There were plenty of other seats, why didn't he leave already? Finally, he made like he was going to look at the Fahrplan and left me in peace.

Despite sitting farther back than I would have liked, I still made the tram just fine and got to work at the time I have decided is the earliest I will come in. But still, I feel like my trip to work was a marred. Like a small stain on an otherwise clean sheet of paper.