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Frankly … social
Young men with roses, unresponsive dogs, and old women waving

Travellers at a railway station
On local transport you meet strangers | Photo (detail): Lennart Preiss; © picture alliance / dpa

Maximilian Buddenbohm rides busses and trains with people from all walks of life – and jots down observations of what goes on around him.

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

Everyone’s talking about the €9 ticket that allows you to use unlimited local and regional transport all over the country for a month. So am I, of course. It’s like a huge experiment devised by sociology departments and urban planning and transport authorities. There’s a lot of talk about destinations and load factors, about the Verkehrswende (transport transition) and necessary or disruptive policy measures. People sure do have opinions on the matter. They rant, praise and make vehement demands, it’s a nationwide local transport debate that’s been going on for weeks now. But one aspect seems to get short shrift, so I’ll go for that one: you come across strangers in public transport, you experience society in motion. You see people you’ve often perceived only theoretically or virtually over the past two years, you see the others. They sit or stand there, and like it or not, you’re inevitably surrounded by them.

Riding around aimlessly

I’ve been riding around aimlessly for a fortnight now, jotting down observations as I go, describing what I see. Or hear. This month’s column has no particular aim, crux or punch line, it’s just some notes taken over the course of several rides on buses, U-Bahn (underground) and S-Bahn (suburban/commuter) trains. Cross-sections of contemporary society, mobile scenes.

A middle-aged couple are sitting opposite me on an outbound S-Bahn. She looks weak, sad, perhaps frail, something’s wrong with her. She doesn’t look well, she’s pale and seems too fragile. The man is taller and broader than she is. She leans her head on his shoulder and lays her hand in his, which closes kindly and gently around it. Outside, industrial estates are passing by. She sighs and he taps her knees gingerly with his free hand, murmuring something as he does so. Must be something reassuring, but I can’t understand it. I’m not supposed to understand it either – it’s none of my business, so it just sounds like a low rumbling to me. It’s a comforting rumbling, and the woman closes her eyes briefly between stops. When you’re not feeling well, it’s certainly nice to have someone with you who can rumble like a bear as reassuringly as this man, who now leans his head a little over hers and lays his beard on her hair. She’s not well, but he’s here for her.

Holding hands

In the U-Bahn. A young couple, likewise holding hands. As they talk, he removes his hand from hers to gesticulate every now and then. Then he glances at his phone and briefly types something on it, for which once again he frees his hand. But she seizes it and holds it again, and then again. The next time he pulls it away again proves too much for her: she clasps his hand firmly in hers and places it on her leg, places her other hand on top and says, “Stay put.” Then they kiss and he laughs. Now their hands are squeezing each other hard and she clamps his between her legs, it’s safer this way.

Another U-Bahn train. A little boy, maybe three years old, sitting on his mother’s lap and waving to the people hurrying back and forth outside on the platform, none of whom notices him. It’s rush hour, everyone’s hell bent on getting home. Then, finally, someone looks: it’s an elderly woman, who waves back amiably, and now the boy is beaming and waving away so much more vigorously that his mother has to hold his arm still for a moment to keep him from accidentally slapping her in the face. The boy laughs and whoops and waves some more – and how he waves! As the train starts back up, he keeps on waving and it takes him a while to realize that there’s nobody to wave back to him in a tunnel, just his own reflection fidgeting in the window now. At the next station he waves again with renewed zest, and again someone waves back, once again an elderly woman. Same scenario at the following station, so this seems to be the rule. You can always count on that one grandmotherly lady to wave back. It’s a good arrangement, because the child is elated every time, as is plain to see: every time someone waves back, it’s like a small salvation.

Unresponsive dog

A woman with a remarkably beautiful golden retriever gets on the S-Bahn, takes a seat, points to the floor in front of her and says, “Sit!” But the dog isn’t interested, it just stands there. She repeats the command, first louder, then softly, because by now all the passengers around her are watching and clearly making her ill at ease. But the dog isn’t interested in her predicament either. She resorts to hissing crossly, “Now sit!” Then bends down and slaps the floor of the train with the flat of her hand, which really raises some eyebrows – I mean come on, who would deliberately slap the floor of a train with the flat of her hand? She hisses and slaps away at the floor, then wipes crumbs off her hand – there are some trampled biscuits all over the floor at her feet – and she’s beginning to look really angry. And all this time the dog just stands there, gazing stoically and intently into the air, with its head tilted up as if to read the names of the upcoming stops on the screen. He pays no attention to the woman, not a whit. Then the two of them get off. I can only guess there will be repercussions...

A young man sitting by himself, carrying a long-stemmed rose, it’s deep red and looks expensive. He’s also balancing a large gift box on his knees; it’s in pink wrapping paper, tied with a red bow, and it glitters, too. The box looks awfully tacky and the young man peers at it anxiously from time to time, wondering: Can this really be right? Then he looks out the window and thinks hard for a while, perhaps imagining how he’ll hand over the gift, what he’ll say, what the other person will say, what happens then. Then he peers at the box again with a sceptical look on his face. Getting off the train, he’s careful not to let the long-stemmed rose get crumpled by the crush. Then he walks down the platform towards a new or ongoing romance – we’ll never know the rest. All we have to go on is the pink box, the red rose, his sceptical gaze and our own past experience.

Trench coats and buttons

There’s a woman wearing a trench coat, which is back in fashion these days. You can tell because no fewer than six passengers in this section of the train are wearing them. Six absolutely identical trench coats among – hang on, let me count – eighteen passengers. Fashion can become strangely obtrusive when it’s new and the seasons change. The woman is looking down at her coat, repeatedly smoothing its wrinkles and palpating its buttons. Must be a new coat if she’s so very engrossed. Maybe this is the very first time she’s ever worn it. “Is it still called a trench coat?” asks her male companion. The woman mulls the matter for a while, then asks a bit indignantly, “What else are you supposed to call it?” And the man answers, “I don’t know. They’re always coming up with new names for everything.” The woman looks out the window for a few minutes and then – she must have really thought this through – she says, “It’s called a trench coat. That’s what it’s called, that’s all there is to it.” She runs her fingers down the rows of buttons, one of which seems a little loose. She turns it and scrutinizes it. She touches the other buttons, turning each of them in turn, and, in the end, shakes her head: “I’ll have them all resewn. All of them!” It sounds like a serious threat, as if the buttons really had better pull themselves together now. Her fingers keep wandering from one button to the next, over the course of ten stations till we reach the end of the line. Feeling, turning and pulling again and again. Every time she finishes working her way down the whole row of buttons, she immediately starts again from the top. She doesn’t go about it quickly or nervously, but calmly and intently. This goes on and on, and the man looks at her fingers, looks at the buttons, and finally says, “Nothing’s any good these days.”

Then he asks, probably because he can’t quite tell from looking at it, whether the coat is single- or double-breasted. She looks down at herself: “Single-breasted,” she says. “Then it has fewer buttons at any rate,” he says and nods, quite pleased with his critique. She sighs and rolls her eyes in exasperation. She’ll have them all re-sewn, she’s decided: she’ll show these buttons who’s boss.

“If I had money...”

Half a dozen teenagers, probably high schoolers. As the train heads out into the countryside, the group gradually thins out as one after another of them gets off. One of the boys points to a high-rise as the train passes: “If I had money, I mean if I were really loaded, I’d buy up the whole building. Imagine that. Each flat for something different. One just for working out. Another just for gaming. And so on.” The others consider the prospect, but can’t think of much to say: “For what else?” “All right then, maybe one floor’s enough,” the first boy finally concedes, “but then the penthouse, that’s a no-brainer.” “If you can buy anything you like,” says one of his friends, “life gets dull.” The train rolls past an out-of-the-way villa, and the boys wonder what it would be like to own such a villa. Then they see something resembling a factory, then a farm, and keep asking the same question: “How about that? What if you could buy it? What would you do with it?” The youngsters go on buying up the world and moving in all over the place till one of them says, “Guys, you don’t seriously want to live in the country.” That’s true, they immediately agree. So then they start thinking about big cities and it occurs to them that they could go to Berlin on this €9 ticket, that’s possible now. “And what do we do there?” “Yeah, I don’t know. First we have kebab.” “Yeah right, let’s go to Berlin for a kebab.” And they laugh.

A little boy is spelling out the names of the stations. It’s hard work, but he manages to do it. He must have just learned how to spell, he’s still so slow at it. Then he sees a sign on the side of the carriage – what does it say? It says “emergency call”. “Mama, why does it say ‘emergency call’?” His mother looks too and opens her mouth to say something, then immediately closes it to think it through first. Why does it say “emergency call” – how does one explain that one? “Well...,” she says, but I can’t hear the rest.

Genuine cheerfulness

I’m waiting on a platform for the next S-Bahn. A boy next to me is wearing a sweatshirt that says “BLESSED WITH PATIENCE” on the back. He’s waiting too, leaning against a candy machine.

A woman in expensive-looking clothes takes an expensive-looking notebook out of her handbag, opens it and reads what’s written there in a fine hand, then laughs softly to herself. She sits facing me on the bus for four stops, laughing the whole time. Softly and discreetly, but laughing all the same. You don’t see many people on buses laughing to themselves in a way that sounds like genuine cheerfulness.

A mother with three children, one in a pram, one in her arms, and one riding on her lap. She’s reading aloud to them from a very well-known children’s book, most of which I still know by heart myself because I’ve often read it to my kids too. So have many of the other passengers around us, in all likelihood. Some of them turn round to look at the mother and smile as she reads: “‘I love you right up to the moon,’ said Little Nutbrown Hare, and closed his eyes.” I’m probably not the only one mentally reciting Big Nutbrown Hare’s response, which I know almost by heart: “‘Oh, that’s far,’ said Big Nutbrown Hare. ‘That is very, very far.’” The kid on her lap recites the lines too, though very loudly, beaming with pleasure because the child already knows these lines and can recite them so well. Children take pleasure in already knowing the words and pictures, knowing what’s about to happen. It takes some time before people actually want to be surprised, but that sorts itself out later on in life.

This works just fine

A group of four women pensioners far along in years. They’re enumerating which of their friends and family members have a €9 ticket. The conversation could easily be cut short, seeing as everyone seems to have one by now, but each of them painstakingly runs through the names all the same. There are lots of names, after each of which they always add, “… has one too.” And all the people they’re going to visit now! Then they sit quietly for a moment until one of them says, “This works just fine.” The others nod: yes, it works just fine. You get on the train and have a seat, the train takes off, it’s cheap. As the train makes it way to the next two stations, they continue affirming and reaffirming how well this is all working. Very well, actually. Really well, there’s no end to it, they just keep reaffirming in the same manner, nodding their heads, all four sporting the same silver bobbed hairdo. And that works for them just fine.

Four young men sit there looking downright sinister – there’s no other way to put it. They’re all wearing black T-shirts that show off their huge bared biceps. And the T-shirts are printed with grim faces and sinister symbols, though I can’t tell what they’re about, what frame of reference to apply. The foursome sit there glowering in resolute silence, scowling at the passing landscape with cows and horses standing around here and there. The train stops at some far-flung station at the back of beyond, where an old lady with crutches has a hard time getting on. So they all rise as one man to give her a helping hand, reaching out to her with their massive arms, then lead her to a seat, wait till she’s comfortably seated, and modestly wave off her thanks: aw, shucks, it was nothing, don’t mention it, really. Then they return to their seats. And continue staring balefully out the window.

Everything’s just so great!

A young workman – a roofer, judging from the imprint on his overalls – curls up on his bench seat on the early evening train and immediately falls asleep in an outlandish posture, at least it sure looks that way. His legs are oddly folded, his head dangling precariously, his upper body contorted – I couldn’t do that, I don’t think. Then again, maybe I could at his age? I guess so, come to think of it. Eight stations later he wakes up, glances at the sign on the platform that says the name of the station, jumps up and out the door. A single smooth movement from waking to stepping off the train. No trouble waking up, no moaning and groaning, no stretching, no hesitation. I can’t recall whether I was ever capable of that either, I mean lying down and leaping up that way, like a cat, it’s just too far back in time. Sure, I could do that once, back in the day. But it takes a train ride to remind me of all that.

A group of young people – in their mid-twenties, I’d say – get on the train, talking loudly in English. They may not all speak good English, but they’re all in great spirits and they find everything “very exciting”, “so nice”. The city rolling by out there is “just great”. The whole day was great, and so is the fact that they finally got to meet! The project they’re all working on is great too, of course, everything today was so great. And that they’re going out together now, to the port down there, which is so beautiful in the sunset – that’s great too. They say their names again and how “really nice” it is to meet at long last. And they all look like they really mean it.

As I said, I have to take the train to be reminded of all this. And it’s amazing how many others do too, I think.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Susi Bumms, Sineb El Masrar and Marie Leão. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.