James Walsh ‘15
Massabesic High School, Waterboro, Maine
The lights went out. A momentary lapse into darkness made me come to my senses. A jolt in the floor caused the lights to flicker back to life. Dim bulbs cast a sickly pallor over the metallic seats of the dingy floors. The train wheels screeched on a curve, and a station came into view through the slightly-tinted windows. I momentarily forgot that I was nearly four thousand miles away from home, alone, and on a rickety subway. I had never before been away from my family for more than one night, yet here I was, approaching night seven.
No one around me spoke a word of English; even the station signs and maps were jibberish. The doors slid open. An old woman entered and slid onto the red plastic seat next to me. She was eating french fries out of a grease-stained paper bag. The smell of salt and ketchup made me instantly crave some chicken nuggets, my favorite guilty pleasure. I sat in silence as the train shot into the tunnel at the end of the station and was once again engulfed in darkness.
Light cannot be taken for granted in subway systems; there are places where darkness takes center stage. The bag she was eating out of began to drip with a slow, disgusting regularity. Flies buzzed against the window panes. I wondered how they had decided, or been able to make the journey down the escalator passages all the way underground, into this particular subway car.
I studied the sweat-stained piece of paper I held, reading the station name over and over again. I also reviewed the intricate map that I had been given. The colors of the many different metro lines blurred together, as for a moment I was lost in my own world. The train slowed once again and came to a stop. I stooped awkwardly out of my seat, and edged past the old woman, smiling broadly to avoid any hard feelings about my silence. She simply continued to eat her french fries in an almost robotic manner. I had arrived at Ostbahnhof, the station where I had been instructed to switch from the S4 line to the U2 line, red line to brown line. Walking through the cavernous underpass that the trains rattled through, I was reminded of an auditorium. It was a space filled with the echoes of nothingness, a place where I was, for the first time in my life, a complete foreigner. In the United States, foreigners seemed to come almost from another planet, with their interesting clothes, wide eyes, and flowing words. Now I realized for the first time that I was the one who was dressed “strangely”, was wide eyed, and spoke in a “funny” way. This feeling caught me off guard… James Walsh had just become global.
I grinned as I stepped onto the U2 line, now confident that I would find my way back home to my unfamiliar starting point. I had four more stations to go to reach Nuperlach Zentrum, my destination on that particular evening. There I would disembark to find a stranger waiting to take me home to an even stranger residence, where I would eat things I didn’t recognize and whose names I couldn’t even pronounce, where I would struggle to be comprehended, where my language would be the one that was hard to understand and to learn. Yet, I was having the time of my life; traveling abroad had always been one of my dreams. I embraced every single bump along the ride and committed every flickering of the lights to memory. Even if I appeared to be the only optimistic person on this train, I had no shame in looking strange, seeming to smile at nothing. I was living the dream.