For three straight hours, I have been staring at a barely visible fence and a couple of unattended trees separating a run-down parking lot from a patch of grass. Our train has been halted on the railroad track at Coteau, a mere 52 kilometres from Montreal. The train manager, a middle-aged Quebecois woman, announces that there is a fire ahead of us. The grass around the tracks is on fire, and firefighters are trying to put it out.
I am going back home after spending a lovely weekend in Toronto, but the delay brings back memories of last December, when I was heading in the opposite direction. Ebrahim and Neda, an Iranian couple I’ve known since grad school, had purchased a townhouse in Oakville, Ontario, and had invited me to spend the holidays with them. Or rather, I invited myself and they kindly accepted. I bought my train ticket for Friday the 23rd, leaving Montreal at 5 p.m. and arriving at Toronto’s Union Station at 10 p.m. On the night before my trip, Ebrahim texted me. [All dialogue is translated from Persian.]
- “How is it going? Have you packed?”
- “Packing for what? Oh … it’s tomorrow! I have time for that, mate! Shall I bring something? A bottle of wine, perhaps?”
- “No, just bring yourself. Just wanted to tell you, there will be a storm tomorrow. I can’t pick you up at Union. You need to take the train to Oakville. Get off at Clarkson station. I’ll pick you up from there.”
Ebrahim had invited a few common friends for Saturday lunch, planning to cook Abgoosht. Word by word, Abgoosht means meat-and-water. It’s a traditional Iranian dish, made with lamb, chickpeas, white beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, turmeric, and dried lime. The ingredients are combined and cooked until done, which takes a few hours. It’s common for a group of Iranians gathering at someone’s home to prepare the ingredients, mix them in a pot, let it cook while playing charades or Mafia, and then enjoy the Abgoosht together.
We left Montreal on time, but the train rolled on at a reduced speed because it was snowy and freezing cold. After four hours, we had only arrived at Kingston, which was mid-way. The train manager announced 11:40 p.m. as the updated estimated arrival time, and I realized it would be a long night. I was now hesitating about taking a train to Oakville that late, so I messaged Sepehr, a common friend who had also been invited for the Saturday Abgoosht, and he said I could spend the night at his place in downtown Toronto and we could go to Oakville together next morning.
An hour later, the train stopped completely, at a city called Belleville, almost 200 kilometres from Toronto. The manager said the signals had frozen, and we couldn’t move without signals. When I told Ebrahim, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, he joked, “Electrons move more slowly in cold weather.” At 11:30 p.m., he said he was going to sleep.
Forty-five minutes later, we started moving again. I messaged Sepehr that if we went at full speed, we’d arrive in Toronto at 2 a.m. I sent him the train information, so he could track our location online, and went to sleep. At 2:07 a.m., I messaged him again, half awake.
- “I dozed off, then I woke up again.”
- “Are you stuck again?”
- “I guess so … it’s dark, I can’t tell! It’s a weird feeling. It’s like death. Everywhere is dark!”
- “On the website, it says you’re stuck. 0 km/h.”
- “Okay … apparently we are in Brighton. You go to sleep; I’ll call you when I arrive.”
- “No worries. I’m watching a movie. You go to sleep.”
- “At least they know exactly where we are … if we die, they know where to find our bodies. Oh … the train moved again. Can you check if we’re really moving?”
- “Okay… Not really, actually, the time-until-arrival on the website seems to increase. It was 47 minutes, now it’s 57 minutes.”
- “Oh my God … are we moving backwards?”
- “Oh, actually, it changed again! It says you’ll arrive at 3:10.”
- “Yay! I can feel it now. It’s now moving so fast… so damn fast I’m worried we might crash into something.”
I kept dozing off and waking up while the train continued pulling up and moving on. The passengers remained surprisingly calm. If this had happened in Iran, people would have been swearing at the train manager, the minister of transportation, and the president.
Across the aisle, four chairs were arranged in a square, with a small space in the middle, seating a woman and three girls between the ages of 5 and 10. They were mostly calm, but I sometimes overheard conversations like,
- “This is my seat!”
- “No, this is my seat!”
- “No, that is your seat!”
- “No, that is mom’s seat!”
I didn’t envy their mom.
An hour later, the train manager frightened me so much that I couldn’t resist tweeting, “It’s 3:46 a.m., and we’re stuck on a stationary train. It’s -9 degrees outside, and there is a snowstorm. A tree has fallen on the tracks, and we can’t move forward. Either they have to remove it or we’d have to go back. I am invited to Abgoosht tomorrow (today?), and I don’t know if I can make it.”
Sepehr messaged me that he was going to sleep, but he left his apartment door open so I could enter. I told him, “Aren’t you worried that a burglar would break in? Keep a pistol under your pillow, just in case!”
Another couple of hours passed, the dawn broke and I started to feel better: the blindness of the night was the worst. But now, I had accepted that I am stuck and I can’t do anything about it. The calmness of the other passengers was also reassuring. And surprisingly, I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, even though a Premiere Moisson sandwich was the only thing I had had since 4 p.m. the day before.
Then, when I had lost track of time, we started moving, as fast as a snail, but stopped again at a town called Cobourg. The train manager said that we needed to wait for two cargo trains to pass before we could move. A young woman started sharing cookies she had baked.
Some passengers disembarked, aiming to take a taxi to Toronto. Just as I was considering the same, we started moving again, though very slowly. We finally arrived in Toronto at 2:45 p.m., nearly 22 hours after leaving Montreal.
Then I had to take the Go train to Oakville. When it rains, it pours, I was anticipating. Not this time! The second train was surprisingly fast, taking me to Clarkson station in less than an hour.
Hassan, another friend invited for the Abgoosht, had come to pick me up. As Hassan pulled up at the station exit in his car, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. Inside were familiar faces from grad school: Elnaz, Ershad, and Sepehr. Their presence felt like a comforting return to family. I couldn’t help but express, “I feel as if I’ve travelled back to Iran” upon seeing them.
“I hope you didn’t miss the Abgoosht,” a friend commented on my tweet the next day. “I didn’t,” I replied. “My friends postponed it and we had it as dinner.” The best Abgoosht I have ever had.