I was on a train from Prague
. The carriage I was in was divided up into separate compartments of 6 seats each, as with many European trains
. It was early morning, cold, overcast. The breathtakingly beautiful scenery glided past my window - snow covering a countryside made up of small forested hills and clustered townships.
I was not alone in my carriage. At our first stop, merely another station just outside of Prague, a man who looked in his late forties got on. He wasn't well dressed, but he wasn't scruffy either. He carried a brown leather satchel bag that was stuffed full, along with a cylindrical white plastic tub. The extremities of his face were flushed.
When he entered the carriage I acknowledged him with a nod, and returned to my novel. (Neuromancer, by William Gibson, that I had bought in an english-speaking bookshop the day before.) It was not long before he asked me if I spoke English. Seeing that I did, he told me that he was Czech and asked if he could perhaps talk to me to practice his English skills.
First, at his request, I told him a bit about myself. An Australian student travelling on my own, etc. He asked if I had a girlfriend, and wistfully lamented that he'd been in love a couple of times - no longer. He then told me that we were soon to pass a hill from which three princesses had simultaneously jumped to their deaths because of soured romances. The hill had three crosses at its peak. We were both silent until it was out of sight.
He told me he loved music. The Beatles, were among his favourites. I asked him if he liked any Czech music, to which he replied he liked English lyrics more, and especially those sung by women.
It wasn't until about half an hour into conversation with the man that I realised he was quite drunk. He sporadically would pull out a bottle of some spirit and take a swig. He would also disappear every now and then to 'borrow' cigarettes from other passengers. About half an hour after this, learning more and more about him and his life, I realised that he was poor. Really, really poor. He even asked me if I had any spare change - I gave him what remained of my Czech currency, some AU$10 or so.
Towards the end of our time together (he would alight just near the Czech/German border) he confided that he'd been just released from prison. He'd spent three months in jail for stealing a woman's handbag.
After he'd left, I was filled by a horrible depression. Here was this man, halfway through his life, with nothing. He had no family, no friends, no money, and no skills. In the middle of Europe, touted as the centre of civilisation, was this sincere, interesting, intelligent, man who had nothing. No future, hopes, or dreams. And he is just one of thousands upon thousands. Just one of the millions of disillusioned, depressed, hopeless individuals disowned by society.