On the move, quietly, in Germany

The Monitor's Europe bureau chief finds a more muted atmosphere to Europe's intercity travel than on her last assignment, Latin America. There, the idea of a 'quiet car' would be inconceivable.

Bernd von Jutrczenka/AP
A big election poster of the German Christian Democratic Party (CDU) shows Chancellor Angela Merkel's hands, near the main train station in Berlin, Thursday Sept. 19, 2013.

Heading up via train from Berlin to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral district in Stralsund, northern Germany, I found myself in the “quiet” compartment. I didn't quite register this until I pulled out a sandwich – apparently noisily – and noticed the funny stares.

I couldn't help but immediately compare the scene to my many forays between cities on my last beat for the Monitor, Latin America. A quiet bus or train? The possibility itself seems silly.

It's not that Mexicans, for example (and I use them as an example because it was from my home base in Mexico City that I embarked on the most inter-city travel) would be incapable of staying quiet on a bus ride. But it would simply never occur to them. It would seem the most unnatural order, even “triste,” a sad state of affairs.

I momentarily relished the silence, mostly for the sociological musings it allowed. Why, I asked myself, would Germans effortlessly and eagerly stay quiet on a train, while Mexicans wouldn't dream of it? People usually cite “the weather” to these kinds of queries. And of course there is a certain sense to that, especially when explaining the differences between community “street life” in Latin America and the “homebody” individualism in many cities in the US and Europe. But does the cold also make you less inclined to jabber?

Likewise, does the cold make you more punctual? A day after my train ride, I found myself, on a chilly day of course, awaiting one of Chancellor Merkel's last campaign events, which was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. And I almost dropped my notebook in shock when the band that was entertaining the crowd muted their microphones at 1:57 p.m. Merkel had arrived. (My editor noted that that was in fact rather imprecise of her, but in her defense, she actually ended up on stage at 2 p.m. on the dot.) The point is, in Latin America campaign events never started until three hours after they were supposed to start. I usually showed up a good hour or two late. I never once missed an event.

Back on the train, after I tired of my musings, I began to long for my travel in Mexico, recalling bus rides in which young men would bring their own boom boxes, their music drowning out the bad movies playing on the TV, and no one cared. They'd just talk right over the noise – to each other and to perfect strangers nearby (or far). I never got anything productive done on those rides. In Germany I prepared my interviews for the next day and studied two hours of French. That felt great – but I didn't feel part of a larger community.

Suddenly two little girls, about ages 3 and 5, ran through our aisle in a storm of giggles and shrieks. Their mother attempted to quiet them but to no avail. They garnered a few stares, but mostly people smiled at them (they were very cute). It made me feel more at ease knowing that some incidents can transcend oratory norms.

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