Herman the Station Master

People. They are the element that ultimately defines our travels. Some that we meet become longtime friends, others remain fleeting acquaintances. I’ve become increasingly interested in the latter group, from the barista I crushed on in Liverpool to the Belgians who opened my beer on a street corner last night (it’s legal here!).

What are their stories? Who are they, where did they come from and where are they going? Everybody has a (probably) interesting story, and these all influence our own.

One man, in particular, sparked this deeper reflection on the people I’ve come across: Herman, the station master in Belgium’s tiny border town of Essen.

Open borders are wonderful

Traveling back a little, I had originally wanted to cycle all the way from Rotterdam to Bruges in one day (about 150km). I ultimately decided that was a terrible idea, and the forecast for a strong headwind solidified that I couldn’t make it. I still wanted to bike over the border, though. So I rode to Essen, the farthest I could get in a (somewhat) reasonable time.

At last, I made it to the train station, and found it deserted, save for a lone ticket machine. Thanks to the chip and pin infrastructure of European finance, my American swipe card didn’t work, so my hopes of getting on a train felt pretty low. But then I noticed the tell-tale neon of a safety vest ambling up the platform.

The man greeted me jovially and paid for my ticket with his own card (I gave him cash after). He then gave me a precise timetable and took it upon himself to carry my bags across the track. Herman stuck next to me until the train showed up and carried on a fascinating conversation the entire time. When I finally got on, he had one of the conductors accompany me through my transfer at Antwerp station.

It was a level of unobliged helpfulness that I had never seen outside of close friends or family members – probably even more than some such relationships. While chatting with the conductor he mentioned that Herman is probably the greatest person he’s met. It looked like plenty of locals might agree, as dozens of commuters arriving in Essen hugged and kissed him like a close family member while we hung out on the platform.

Encountering Herman was far from a life-changing or adventure-defining moment. Meeting him, though, was one of those brilliant moments that one hardly expects to matter. An unassuming man working a normal job in a very quiet town turned out to be truly fascinating. I couldn’t help but reflect on it during the train ride. What is his story?

I’ll probably never meet him again, which is part of what makes our interaction so interesting. This reflects most of our interactions, both in travel and at home. One can’t remain close friends with everyone they meet, but our brief interactions impact us anyway. It’s one of the most beautiful things about life: there is so much to humanity connecting all of us, and all we need is five minutes with a stranger to remember it.


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