Far Flung: Strangers on a Train
Rome —> Vienna. A route that promised many things—our first night train, some sacher tort on the other end, and a chance to stand outside the State Opera House for some standing-room tickets in the worst rains Austria had suffered in ten years. But Vienna harked an end of a legacy—the wine. Zac and I would drink a bottle of wine with each Italian train ride that summer. And hence the two bottles we bought for the final trip. We wanted to end our silly tradition in style. The alcoholic headiness, the cheapness, the Italian label. Wine was our release on the trains. And now it was in jeopardy.
It was a four-person sleeper car, but we knew that there would be only one other passenger joining us. The third traveler would board in Florence. Imagining a fellow journeyman, we left the wine bottles unopened in anticipation of his arrival.
But Florence brought disappointment. Our companion looked much older than us: gray hair fringed the edges of his balding dome. We watched as this stranger sat down on the other side of our sleeper compartment. He appraised us with a less scandalized, but equally weary, eye. A hand shot out—mine. I’m David, what’s your name? L——, he said. Where are you from? Iran. L—— was from Iran.
I stupidly began to sweat as my mind raced to the wine bottles. Iran—he’s probably Muslim, prohibited from drinking alcohol, I thought. The man sat on his side of the car facing me and Zac, party to a stalemate unbeknownst to him. Zac and I had gone to a religious high school and we knew better than to insult sacrament—there would be no wine for us and no closing of tradition. Next to my knees, the bag carrying the two bottles scratched insistently against my legs. The train lurched ahead and we still faced each other.
It was the summer of 2009. After a tremendous popular revolt, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was busy cracking down, quashing the Green Movement behind the unrest. Zac and I knew a little about Iran and the movement. I had just finished a year in Israel, so the region felt particularly close to home. And yet wine first dominated my thoughts when L—— told us that he was from Iran.
Self-induced paralysis soon faded, though, and mine and Zac’s preoccupations moved onto matters of a bit more substance. Do you live there or in Italy? There. Have you heard much news from back home since the elections? Only what media outlets reported. Is your family okay? Yes. Why are you in Italy?
He paused on that last one. Zac and I exchanged glances. After a bit, he began to tell us a story.
He had been a prominent professor at the University of Tehran during the Shah’s rule. When the revolution came, he was expelled from the university and barred from teaching in Iran. He comes to Europe every year to teach once a month in a Western European country.
So you teach in Italy? No.
Then why are you here? For vacation? Yes. And…I also buy cases of wine to smuggle back into Iran.
He turned out to be a wine fan bigger than either mine and Zac’s fleeting pretensions could ever aspire to become. L—— nurtures an outlaw winery in his basement. Though he told us that his wine passes for palatable, he enjoys nothing like a good glass of the Italian stuff.
At that, I looked to Zac, pulled out our two bottles, and then poured us all full glasses. For the first time since he stepped aboard that night, a large smile crept onto L——’s face. He and Zac took their cups from me and we drank to his country’s freedom as the Tuscan landscape passed by, cloaked in darkness.
\\DAVID FINE is a junior in Columbia College, and he is Editor in Chief of The Current. He can be reached at [email protected] Photo by Flickr user Sam Howzit.