Tomorrow, my career as a detectorist will begin. Tonight, fashionably late and enveloped by the darkness of a painful farewell, I hopped onto the train to Basel. Thanks to the poster with schematics of every long-distance train from that platform, I had waited in the right place and got straight into the restaurant car, the best aspect of railroad travel. Before the train had even left the station, I had ordered dinner and a beer.
Dining on the train is a pleasure from a different age. Sitting on a proper table with a white tablecloth, a meal served on a porcelain plate and eaten with silverware, beer in a glass, and space for arms and legs – this degree of luxury can be achieved in the air only at irresponsible financial expense. On the train it is within the reach of even those not traveling on expenses. I opened the Borges purchased in Mannheim and waited for my order. The train rolled through the night.
The man at the neighboring table wolfed down a bowl of chili con carne in a manner that belied his appearance. He was tall and lean – and, in brown nylon pants and orange sneakers, dressed in the way of those who value their physical shape over the elegance of their appearance. When he was done with his chili, he ordered rolls and Nutella in a curious two-two-three ratio. I leaned back and glanced around, securing the beer against the kicking of the train.
In improv comedy and other jocular banter, there's a rule for the maximization of humor: Never dissent. Whatever the other person says or asks, agree and take it from there, inflating the ridiculousness of the initial proposal if possible. Social interactions follow a similar paradigm; they are fueled by agreement. When my neighbor stated with interrogative inflection that the car was rather hot, my reply that I didn't find it disagreeable at all killed our nascent conversation at once. At this point, my meal arrived.
My neighbor wasn't fazed. He picked up the telephone to speak to what I deduced to be his nutritionist, a late-night call out of the ordinary made necessary by his binging. The conversation was brief and cordial, but not all was good. My neighbor seemed thrown off-balance by words or actions unseen. He pulled a book from his bag, leaned over to show me the cover of it, big and blue, and opened a page for me to inspect. Sections were highlighted in neon yellow, the entire page glowed. Then he stood up and pontificated, for everyone in the restaurant car to hear, about the tribulations of a recovering alcoholic, starting with the fact there is no such thing as a recovering alcoholic.
Alcohol never loosens its grip. Its memory sits in your brain, ready to come back and bit at every opportunity. And even if you're strong, even if you drink water when your neighbor enjoys a cold beer, the obsession within you might get out, making you pig out on carbs as if they were vodka-colas. He wasn't embarrassed in the least about his performance or his confessions. He was used to speaking up from countless AA meetings. I was less experienced and not sure how to react. I nodded and asked a couple of hushed questions but felt a bit out of place. In Freiburg he got off, saying goodbye as if we had just chatted about the weather for five minutes. The train continued south for another half hour.