He stood on the platform alone wearing a new puffy red winter coat and holding onto a fleece blanket.
The small boy was watching a train coming in to the Salzburg train station and I was watching him.
As I listen to the world speak of building a walls and this and that I am instantly brought back to that morning in the fall of 2015 and small boy on a crowded platform waiting to go to a new life.
There is nothing like travel to take you to more than just a destination. That morning I was forever changed.
I had arrived at the station early to take a train to Munich and I was already missing Austria. Everything about my time in that country had been perfect. As I sat in the crowded bus with my trusted travel companion Helga (or a backpack to others) I watched the city of Salzburg pass by the window. As we neared the station I noticed banners that had written on them in several languages, “All Are Welcome Here.”
Only recently had I really become aware of the mass exodus of hearts and souls from Syria. Being from the United States my closest connection to this had been by news feed carefully tucked into whatever crowd pleaser filled the day. I am ashamed that I had not been paying closer attention. It was the top story in Europe and I could not help but pick up as much as I could. I felt comforted by those banners and wondered how everyone felt about them.
I entered the station walking towards a small market to get some food for my trip. As I walked in I saw that there was a group of people passing out water, small bags of food and blankets. “That’s interesting, ” I said to myself out loud.
Side note: when you solo travel you might end up talking to yourself anywhere, anytime. The key is to make sure you listen.
I bought some fresh fruit and salami and zipped up the stairs to my designated platform. Instantly I was taken aback at the amount of people already waiting for the same train. I looked around and there was no place to sit so I propped Helga onto a rail and leaned back. So many families and men were standing around me.
That is when I saw him small, bright and innocent grasping his new fleece blanket tightly. There were no adults standing with him and it was almost as if he was center stage with a light shining down upon him. I watched him and suddenly I understood. Glancing around I saw bags of food, some new winter coats and water bottles. I am pretty sure a look of surprise must have come over my face as I realized these were the refugees that I had been reading and hearing about. I was here with them as they headed to new lives, sincerely new chances to live.
A group of young men were gathered together and one of them tried to speak to me in english! I was surprised and thrilled to help him with the few words he already knew. As he turned back to his friends I could hear him practicing, “How are you, how are you . . ” I looked back at the boy and watched as he was gathered up by his father (I assume) and taken over to his family. The girls were sitting on the ground wrapped in their blankets and sitting back to back. No one had any luggage, no one had any personal items but what had been given to them by the volunteers. Meanwhile, I had overpacked my backpack to such a point that it weighed almost as much as me. The contrast of brightly colored suitcases of vacation goers to the refugees was stark and very real.
A couple of station agents walked around making sure everyone had tickets but it was very calm and friendly in the our little part of the world as our train entered the station. It was filled to capacity when we left and it did not matter what class of ticket my fellow travelers had they just sat wherever they could fit.
And we were all off to Germany.
The ride was lively with lots of conversations going on around me and young faces pressed up to the window. The undeniable energy of curiosity, nerves and fatigue was present in the air as we pulled into the station in Munich. It was a cold morning and the platform was quickly filling up as we all descended out of our respective cars. I looked to my left towards the exit immediately seeing a line of police blocking our exit. My fellow travelers began to huddle into their respective groups and I headed out. As I approached the officers, all very serious and standing so tightly together there was no space from shoulder to shoulder, I was asked for my passport. I handed it over and was quickly passed through two officers.
I looked back and saw the my intrepid fellow train travelers not here for sightseeing in this wonderful city but to continue on to other cities throughout northern Europe. Outside a fenced corral and tents had been set up to contain and process the refugees. It was cold and uncaring to me but I could understand the need to make sure everyone was taken care of and attended too. The Germans had certainly taken a huge portion of the burden of this wave of humanity looking for safety and a new home. I was no longer a fellow traveler to these brave people but a grateful participant in their journey.
I may never have seen the little red jacketed boy again but he seems to always be in my mind and heart. That is what travel does right? I believe it makes us aware of a world outside our own, encourages empathy, kindness and an open mind.