I used to watch old black and white movies all the time growing up. The world they impressed upon me and the silver screen was one of glamor, romance, laughs, and intrigue. In their unrealism they revealed truths that are hidden in the real world. Like beauty, mystery, and freedom. One of these classic movies I watched was a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock called The Lady Vanishes. This movie involves an utterly adventurous and mysterious locomotion: the tenebrosity and rhythm of a night train!
Oh, wait a minute. I don’t think it’s specifically a night train in that movie actually. Night Train to Munich is similar, so I must be confusing the two. Forgive me, I shall continue.
The night train! why! why is its rocking and rattling through the wee hours a setting so very apt for aesthetics and espionage! I know not. I journeyed on one for the first time a few months ago, sleeping in a middle birth of a six-person sleeper compartment. Though not the charismatic aura of a 1935 spy flick, there was an atmosphere of some sort. It felt like the confines of a ship’s brig combined with textures of a casino dice table, all stuffed behind the airtight doors of an escape space pod. I slept on my dice table well enough though. And in the morning, though somewhat sweaty and unable to charge my dataless and dead phone, I was sufficiently nourished with bread, butter, marmalade, and coffee. Upon seeing me place my extra roll into my bag, two of the other ladies in the compartment gave me their remaining bread, fondly recalling their youthful yet meager days of galivanting across the continent. So far my trip really wasn’t a bad time– not just yet.
It was my intention to get off at Venice and make my connection to arrive in Florence, for a day with friends. But alas! Venice has two stops and I got off at the wrong one! I waited for the new connection. Without any connection to anyone in the whole world. I was “a lady vanished!”
That Venice train station was a very significant experience for me. Sure, I had people-watched many times in the past (me and my dad used to sometimes sit outside 7-Eleven while eating ice cream cones and make guesses as to what people were going inside to buy; a safe guess is usually a 6-pack or cigs). That wasn’t it. The overwhelming new experience– beyond the stress, above any frustration, even more than the sweat– was a new sense of freedom. Sure, yes, I had also experienced freedom before. Like running outside with friends in the pouring rain, splashing down the roaring sidewalk. Like hearing the words of the representative of Christ through a dimly lit confessional screen: “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” There is a hierarchy of freedoms, to be sure.
This new train station freedom was not as joyful as this former one, nor as crucial as the latter. Nevertheless, it was there, because for the first time in my life, at the age of 21, I was dependent upon no creature who knew me. Unlike before, I was without ability to contact my friends and my phone refused to charge. Not only that– I had no significant ties to anyone. Not my mom’s car. Not my dad’s wallet. Not the cell service they buy me. Not a professor’s attendance sheet. Not an employer’s timesheet. Not a boy’s heart. No one knew where I was, nor expected me at a specific time and place. I had inadvertently severed connections with all others. Except One.
I was in a new kind of solitude, and it was so glorious. Because God still knew me. I was not lonely but hidden; I was not elated but enlightened. In many scenarios, such as this one for me, experiencing the freedom of independence can highlight our intrinsic dependence on God, who causes our existence at each moment. When we are distant from the consciousness of others and stripped of our dependency on others, we can become more aware of this unique, secret relationship toward the Creator. In St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he sees this relationship depicted in Genesis: like Adam being created alone, there is an “original solitude” intrinsic to every soul, as only God can gaze into the depths of our hearts. Looking back on my trip, I realize simply standing in a train station can magnify this gaze. This new experience of freedom continued in my journey when I finally arrived in Florence and explored it alone.
I spent a lovely day in Firenze: the streets were beautiful, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore, glorious, the weather crisp. My phone ended up charging and I met my lovely friends in the city center. I also met saints I had not known before by stumbling upon them in impressive churches. I did not know them, but I knew they would rise with Jesus. I painted the Doma over and over while sitting in a piazza down the street, giving my artwork to strangers who complimented it. Me and my friends ate at the oldest Gelato shop in Florence, the first real stuff I ever had. Every “gelato” I’ve eaten since seems pseudo. Anyhow, in the night, we parted ways (to different hotels), and I was again alone in the city. Once again, God was the only one truly conscious of who I was, though I was not conscious of Him; once again, I found myself with no ties to anyone, no expectations, no obligations. No phone data.
It was a busy area, well lit. Within five minutes, a random man was asking me if I had a boyfriend, within ten, a street over, another one was. And he wasn’t the last to approach me. This was very uncomfortable, but even in the discomfort the gaze of God did not turn from me: it was deeper than my emotion, which soon returned to joy. I got back alone and safe and called a friend and showed her the snow globe of the Doma I had bought that day as a movie reference to While You Were Sleeping.
That new sense of freedom I found stranded in Venice had returned to me (movie-reference-pun unintended!) in the streets of Florence– in my solitary arrival, exploration, and retirement there. As has been shared, this sense of freedom wasn’t always accompanied by pleasant circumstances (I have spared the details for my mother). It wasn’t a feeling really but an awareness and change of perspective. It was raw and heart-expanding. It drew something out of me that had been deep in my soul: a desire to be thought of only by God. To be only in His consciousness. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it does make a noise. If a soul falls into sin or isolation– or into forgottenness in Firenze– and there is no one there to recognize her, God still does.
Being with people and meeting people are usually my favorite things about traveling. We are made for community, for sure. But Florence was so special for me because of the hiddenness and independence which were so new to me, young me, who, for the first in my life, had no one anticipating my actions or location; young me, who, for the first time in all my life, had nowhere to be; young me, who perhaps grew up that day.
Do I wish to take another night train or to go back to Firenze? Not really, though I wouldn’t be opposed. But I more wish to retrieve that train station freedom. I wish that I would remember to enter into the mystery and intrigue of the very pure and simple act of existing: it is something which is way more wild and atmospheric than a rushing night train chugging through the alps under a star-studded sky, something more glorious than Florence, something totally dependent upon God and independent from all our works. I wish that I would let my phone die sometimes and remember that I have only one connection that cannot be severed, that there is only One Who is always conscious of me— that no one can fully know and love my innermost essence except God— and that in the reception of this exclusive, personal, hidden Love– in my loving acceptance of this gorgeous dependency– there is an unimaginable freedom, which I but tasted in that train station.
Cover image by Giuseppe Mondì on Unsplash. Other images by the author.