Frankly … social The magic of a line closure

You need a reason to talk to a stranger in the street. Dogs are a good choice. Or children. But what are you supposed to do if you have neither?

By Maximilian Buddenbohm

A line closure can help! – People on the platform A line closure can help! – People on the platform | Photo (detail): Maurizio Gambarini; © dpa-Report
It is simply not the done thing to talk to strangers in the street. People will think you crazy if you just start chatting to them. There are only a few exceptions to this rule. For instance, if you have a dog, then it’s fine to engage other dog owners in conversation while the animals sniff around each other. Or if you have a child, it is also okay to chat to all other parents on the playground. In both cases, however, you need accessories – and not everyone wants to acquire a dog, let alone a child, just to be able to talk to other people occasionally.

When a tree falls onto an overhead line 

There is a third option, which requires a railway station and an announcement: “line closure”. A line will be closed if a tree falls onto an overhead line, for example. As this happens almost every time the wind picks up significantly, you won’t have to wait all that long. If you keep a close eye on the storms forecast in the weather report, you can be at the station in time with a bit of luck and will be able to experience the remarkable social consequences of this phenomenon. The line closure is announced through loudspeakers and is hard to understand because the acoustics are always terrible at railway stations. Only gradually does it dawn on those waiting just what is being said: it really is the case that not a single train will be able to use that line – and instantly people start talking to each other. Irrespective of any differences in social class and across all age, education, language and cultural borders. For as long as the line remains closed, everyone becomes brothers. 

Fragments of lives are revealed 

People explain to one another how and when and where exactly they wanted to or could go, they think about possible routes and alternatives, consider sharing taxis and ponder unplanned overnight stays. They start telling each other things about themselves. Where they come from and where they are travelling to, for example; and as we know, these few remarks always contain the start of stories. It is not long before the first frustrated passengers are disclosing more detailed information about themselves. They explain that they are on their way to a funeral or wedding or business meeting. That they have never before been to the place they are headed for, or that they have been there a thousand times, or that they were last there with their father forty years ago. That they always take the train or that they never normally would – all along the platform, fragments of lives are being revealed, and some people will be glancing at the person they are chatting to and thinking “Oh, this person is actually quite nice.” 

“It is all fine!” 

When I last experienced a line closure, a small and very old lady was among the crowd of people engaged in agitated discussion. Bent over a crutch, she seemed amazingly cheerful. She hobbled through the station from one little group to the next and appeared to be thoroughly enjoying all the excitement. I watched her for a while as she listened to people here and there and joined in the chat. Whenever she had the impression that those waiting were too serious or too annoyed, she laughed at them, swung her crutch and proclaimed: “It is all fine! We could also be dead!”

A touch of good humour 

That was of course an argument that made sense immediately. She looked so nice and contagiously cheerful that people were happy to agree: “Yes”, they said, “It’s not really all that bad”. And then, as soon as she was out of earshot, they talked about the old lady. They shook their heads in a gesture that also had a unifying effect. In so doing, the old lady brought a rare touch of good humour to the waiting crowd. Perhaps she was the good fairy of the line closure, a magical being of our times?
I will go to the station whenever there is a storm and will look out for her. If she is there every time, I will know for sure.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Qin Liwen, Dominic Otiang’a and Gerasimos Bekas. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.