The train car was empty and dark, the vinyl seat cold beneath me. Hunched in the corner formed by the side of the train and the seat back, I stared at the dark windows reflecting blankly back at me. It was a few days before Christmas, and I was on my way home after seven months, but I didn't feel the tiniest bit of joy.
I'd been living in Athens, where signs of the holiday had been few – an occasional carol or sidewalk lot containing tired-looking trees. I'd hoped that detouring through a snow-filled Austrian village on my way home would put me in the holiday spirit.
So I'd plunged into the complex network of travel connections needed to get myself from a Greek city to an Austrian mountain village ... and felt even further away from Christmas. The normal travel frenzy of airports and train stations is worse around holidays. There's little Christmas cheer in eating a dry train-station sandwich at a stand-up table, being jostled by the oversize luggage of passers-by. When I finally arrived in St. Anton, Austria, I dropped into bed, not caring where I was.
Stretching an arm out from beneath my down comforter, I'd awoken in the compact room of my 16th-century hotel. Out my window, I saw gingerbread-village buildings frosted with a touch of white and a street bustling with people. From my breakfast table of hearty breads and creamy cheeses, I looked out at the mountains wrapped around the village. As I crunched through the snow in stiff ski boots, breathing deeply in the crisp air, my mood had lifted a bit despite needing to duck as someone awkwardly swung his skis near my head.
The sky had been a flawless unbroken expanse of blue, and the snow was fluffy under my skis. The ideal vacation, I'd thought, loosening my boots and stretching my legs as I ate my lunchtime sausage and sauerkraut at a mountainside Gastette.
But when my skiing interlude ended, I realized that as Hallmark-perfect as this snow-covered mountain village had been, I still hadn't felt any Christmas spirit. And now it was time to head home.
Making travel arrangements further soured my attitude. The hotel desk clerk had assured me that no one on the staff would be stirring in the predawn gloom when I needed to depart, although he could arrange for a cab to pick me up. And by the way, could I settle up my hotel bill right now?
In the sharp cold of the very early morning, I'd crept through the quiet lobby feeling vaguely criminal sneaking out in the dark. The streets had been empty. Christmas lights had long been turned off for the night.
Hands buried deep in my coat pockets, I'd stood on the train platform craving coffee – for the warmth of the cup.
When the train had pulled in, I'd settled myself in one of the many empty cars – not a lot of travelers at this hour. The train started off swiftly into the night, and I made myself stay awake, huddled inside my ski jacket, hoping the cold vinyl beneath me would warm. Being the only passenger in this car, maybe the whole train, was a little eerie.
As I stared mindlessly at the blank glass panes, the dark shadows outside the train began to form more distinct shapes. The texture of the darkness was changing – sometimes darker, sometimes lighter as we drew closer or farther from the snow-covered trees and boulders. Across the valley floor rose the dark masses of the mountains. In the distance, there were tiny points of light – a house or maybe a village. Farther away, I saw the glow of another village perched high on the mountain slope.
The train swayed gently as it rushed along, seemingly the only thing awake in the world. The distant lights hinted at life in the quiet scene, but were too far away to be anything more than a backdrop. It became a perfect, peaceful moment – unconnected with travel hassles or my life in Greece or Seattle.
"Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright." The words and music written in an Austrian village on another cold December night echoed through my head. Had the author looked out on a similar scene as he penned his lyrics so long ago? When set to music, the whole world would sing them and think of the village of Bethlehem and a small child born and laid in a manger.
"Silent night, holy night."
For just a moment, there was a stillness and magic to my journey – the magic of the true joy and peace of Christmastime. The momentous birth of a child in a small village like the ones clinging to these mountainsides, but so far away.
"Silent night, holy night."
Reality returned at the next station as a group of uniformed schoolchildren stomped onto the train, chunks of snow falling from their boots as they chattered. The lightening sky showed that dawn was coming. But I'd experienced a moment of magic traveling through the Austrian mountain night.
I'd been looking for Christmas in holiday activity and greeting-card scenery and instead found it in an empty train car in the early morning darkness.
Silent night, holy night. All was calm, all was bright.