On long train journeys, people either sit in silence and keep themselves amused, or they try to be a bit social. When I was young and shy, I would have done the former, now I tend to the latter, without wanting to be too intrusive. You’ve got to know when you’ve talked enough and it’s time to shut up! But I am a journalist, I find people from all places and walks of life interesting, and I think people welcome little bouts of friendliness in what can be a perfunctory, impersonal world.
Recently, on a train from Warsaw to Bratislava, for part of the journey I sat next to a lovely and very interesting woman who turned out to be a famous pianist and music teacher, Lidia Kozubek. She was very modest and it was only after some prompting from me that I found out her name. She had taught for 50-odd years at the Academy of Music in the Polish capital and performed all over the world, including my part of the world too, having had pupils in Australia and New Zealand.
Thankfully, some of Lidia’s recordings can be found on YouTube. Here are a couple of them. The first piece – by Polish pianist and composer Maria Agata Szymanowska (1789-1831) – I was not familiar with, but it’s really lovely. And of course Polish-born Chopin is her repertoire.
Later on the same train I struck up a conversation with another interesting woman, a doctor originally from Brno (which she said was a lovely place, like “a little Vienna”) but who now lives in Canada but works at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Her observations on life in the three countries were fascinating.
Finally, on a regional train from Cesky Krumlov to Ceske Budjovice, a semi-retired railway engineer by the name of Jan chatted happily away after I helped him shut a window. He had learned English purely from listening to Radio Free Europe and had been working as an 18-year-old at the station in Cesky Krumlov on the day in 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia – tanks drove in but luckily, he said, unlike in Prague, there was no firing there that day. Jan’s dream was to come to Australia but he was scared of the “snakes, spiders, sharks, crocodiles and kangaroos”. I told him not to let fear govern his life and to pursue his dream. Although Jan was past retirement age he still worked a couple of days a week because his language skills – he was also fluent in German and French – were needed by his employer, in customer relations.
All of which goes to show how useful it is for people nowadays to be able to speak more than one language.