I snapped this shot as I traveled from Budapest to Munich last week.
I look at the photo now with some shame.
After days worrying about getting caught up in migrant mayhem—of perhaps getting trapped in Budapest and meeting with violence and missing our flight home—what finally did I discover at the dark heart of my fear?
What am I afraid of?
Last week in Vienna my wife and I found ourselves at a fork in the road.
One road led to a sidewalk café where I was inclined to hang out with schnitzel and strudel between visits to art galleries until it was time to fly home from Munich.
The other road led south to Budapest.
Budapest, Hungary, where thousands of migrants were breaching police barriers to board trains heading north to more welcoming countries in the EU.
We had to ask ourselves—should we risk it? Anything could happen. Look what was happening!
Uncertainty became a full-blown case of insomnia.
Then it occurred to me how much sleep I would lose if I let fear run my life.
O ye of little faith
We arrived in Budapest to peace and quiet at the infamous Kereti Railway Station. The migrants—hundreds of them—were cordoned off in a lower concourse while Hungarian officials wrestled with their own fears, I guess.
For five days my wife and I soaked up history-rich Budapest. We ate goulash, drank beer, bathed in the ancient Roman baths and boated on the Danube, during which we spotted more migrants — above us, on the bridge, on the move.
The fear again.
Let’s title this shot: “O Ye of Little Faith.”
What happens next…
Migrants do charge the train. About that I was right. Our scramble for seats is something I’m trying to forget.
Pressed close beside me is a plump Syrian woman who boasts of her six children. On the refugee road with six kids! Framed within her white hijab, her smile beams megawatts. Her Islamic husband, from where he stands in the aisle outside our compartment, keeps an eye on her. (Or me.)
Another mother breastfeeds her infant. How old is this baby? Days? Weeks at the most. Born on the journey? Born on the run. The mind boggles. When everyone else is passing out with fatigue, this stalwart young woman tends the restless child without complaint. How does she find a moment to tend to herself?
“We lost everything…”
I want to hear their stories but no one speaks sufficient English. A teenager wearing a Bob Marley cap opens the compartment door and shouts into the aisle: “English!”
A young man in a blue Adidas track suit stands in the doorway and describes two family homes destroyed. What’s left of his life in Syria was crammed into two backpacks, one lost in the Aegean Sea. “Seven hours swim,” he says, making breast-strokes with his arms.
What’s harder to believe is that someone can smile through the telling of such a tragic tale.
“I… university… mathematics…”
Evicted from the train, we scramble onto another carriage on an adjacent track. My wife finds a seat but I’ll be standing all the way to Vienna. The clean-cut young man beside me extends his hand in greeting.
“Veen?” he asks me.
“Wien, Vienna, yes. I hope so.”
“University,” Sayid says. “I… mathematics… three years… one more year, finished. My friend, Johnny, he… economics… one year. He no English.”
Both no German. I teach them a few words—Guten tag and Danke and Bitte. They eat it up. The mind continues to boggle. I suggest they come to Canada.
“Is very far,” says Sayid.
I nod my head. “Is your friend’s name really Johnny?” I ask. Apparently, it is.
“You would like? Take, please.”
The train from Vienna to Munich presents another scramble for seats. Two hours into the journey we nibble discretely on schwartzbrot and other week-old picnic scraps. I’ve been communing with a migrant across the aisle, who offers me a bottle of water. “Take, please,” he insists.
“No, really, thank you. But thank you very much.”
These migrants have nothing and yet they’re offering me their water. They want to take care of me. This is what’s happening here in the heart of my fear.
At 250 km/hr this Austrian train is eerily silent. Limp as rag-dolls, people doze off en masse. I want to take photos but it feels inappropriate. The girls in the seats behind us however are irresistible. But who do they belong to? I make a general request of anyone within earshot. The parents of another breastfeeding infant assure me it’s fine to take their picture.
As for me, I can’t sleep for savouring the peace here at the heart of my fear.
Maybe it’s the lulling motion of the train, but these migrants seem to be in a state of surrender. Which in no way resembles any kind of defeat. They strike me as possessing a wholehearted ability to cooperate with the inevitable.
What would we do if we lost everything? Would we react with such patience, friendliness, and equanimity?
I hope I’m never in a position to find out.