"I think you're in my seat, um… this is 26A. No, I'm definitely in the right carriage." Train travel is blighted by confrontational moments where one person questions another's ability to read their bloody ticket properly. Worse, these moments play out in front of captive audiences, quietly seated and squirming with discomfort at the social awkwardness – a bit like going to see a Mike Leigh play in the 1970s.
While no-one likes being displaced from their well-appointed window seat with a table and handy 240-volt socket for laptops and mobiles only, no one really likes doing the displacing, either. Successfully getting someone to shift their ass without causing bitterness or recrimination requires an easy charm that few possess.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed a Welsh woman furiously berating her partner outside a train toilet because he was showing a reluctance to turf two people out of their seats. "If you were a real man, you'd sort this out," she hissed, knowing deep down that her own spittle-flecked temper made her spectacularly ill-suited to the task.
I sat in someone's seat the other day. Confused and disorientated by the exotic otherworldliness of a German express train, I mis-sat on the 0948 Berlin to Cologne service. At Hanover I was approached by a man who informed me politely but curtly that I was sitting in his seat and waited patiently for me to gather my belongings and shuffle off. I checked my ticket. He was right, and I was wrong. I meekly moved down the train and finally found my seat, but there was someone sitting in it. A kindly looking silver-haired gentleman of about 70, carving a wooden fish.
Hanover to Cologne is a long way. The train was full, and the chap now sitting in my seat was, by virtue of his age and the fact that he was halfway through a woodworking project, not someone who I felt that I could eject. If I'd tried doing the whole easy charm thing, in disjointed German, I'd probably have ended up accidentally buying a half-finished wooden fish. And as I didn't know the German for "Where can I find a Deutsche Bahn customer service representative?", I went and sat on my suitcase, which has no 240-volt socket for laptops and mobiles only, but at least I know it's mine.
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