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Working it out in the world, and sometimes writing about it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Train Rides? I'll Take 25, Please.

This post was from late March and after some tweaking, it's here! 

Trains have a certain romance to them, don’t they? There’s the physical ticket, strong cardstock in your hands, not a flimsy sheet of paper you printed off at home. There’s the noises of the station—lovers kissing goodbye loudly, business women snapping shut their phones as they climb the two steps into the cabins, the “all aboard!” whistle of the conductor. Once aboard, there are the plush seats, the gentle sway of the train like a cradle, and incredible scenery that flashes by. It all feels very 1920s, and I want to don a tweed suit number and matte red lipstick. Instead, I am a frumpy young American wearing the same pants from three days ago with a technical backpack hugging her shoulders.

Blam-o! There's my ticket, from Bergen to Oslo.

As an American, I never fully appreciated train travel until I went abroad. Our train system in the States is pretty deplorable, expensive, and not nearly as well constructed as the rail lines in Europe (though, admittedly, I’ve never been on it…I know, I know). Surely, the grass is always greener, but in this case, it truly is. Mostly, the grass actually exists in Europe. And I can afford it.

I bought a RailPass which granted me 10 days within two months of unlimited rail travel. I thought back to my study abroad days and how much I had enjoyed the train rides and the scenery that breezed by us. On those train rides, my mind wandered through memories and feelings and what to make for dinner. For me, the train allowed me a safe freedom for a few hours to simply ponder.

So I started hopping on trains and flashing my pass. To Lugano, Switzerland; to Paris, France; to Copenhagen, Denmark. I started looking forward to my travel days. They allowed me to take a break from constantly planning, calculating, and figuring out how to get from one place to the next. I was able to let that part of me sleep and recharge, while the thinking part of me took over.

My train rides look like this: I hop on board. I navigate my way to an open seat (or my specific seat if I’ve been forced to make a reservation), and heave my bag into the rung above me. I leave my jacket on because it’s too complicated to take off and hang it. I place my journal on the table in front of me, put my feet on the foot rest below me, and I look out the window. People stream past with large suitcases in tow, some enter my compartment and sit around me. Then there is a whistle, the train hums, and we creep away from the platform. We are on our way, and my mind and I are off to another place.

I learn a surprising amount on my train trips. I ask myself questions, let my mind float to what it thinks is important at the moment, and let my heart lead. Sometimes, the realization is as banal as the fact that I don’t actually like mayonnaise at all, and sometimes it’s as deep as I'm scared to move away from home and my family. Usually, these train rides are very easy on my legs but harder on my emotional heart.

The hardest train ride I’ve had was from Coimbra, Portugal to Hendaye, France. I was tickled to finally be taking an overnight train. It was to be unlike my train from Florence to Austria, in which I had a bed in a berth with two other students. This train to Hendaye I had just a chair that reclined a few inches. The train wasn’t packed, but there were loud people whose voices carried. The heater was on over-kill, and I was sweating out of my long underwear and pants. I woke up every hour or so as the train stopped, bumped and hiccupped along the weaving railway. When we arrived, I felt so fuzzy with lack of sleep and sticky with sweat that I didn’t care I had to make a 27-Euo reservation for the fast Thalys train to Paris. I handed over my Euro in the hopes that I would get some sleep on this comfort train. The romanticized ideas of matte lipstick and kitten heels of the ‘20s slowly began to fray like a flag in the wind.

The best train ride was easily my most recent, from personality-lacking Oslo to beautiful Bergen. The sun ruled the blue sky, and clouds were only a rumor over the tops of mountains. We glided through the mountains and over them, passing by stretches of blue-white snow that curved over the tops of houses like cake fondant. Cross-country skiers flecked the brilliant white expanse, and I felt a sudden desire to ask the conductor to stop the train so I could grab a pair of skis and join the strangers outside. We continued on and curved the hips of ridges and ducked through the throats of the peaks. We’d pass into darkness as we entered a tunnel and then a shocking pop of white would leave me squinting, desperately wanting to see what was out there in the expanse. Small houses cropped up now and then, but the overwhelming feeling was white, white, white.  

Surely, there are times where I abhor train travel. That high-speed, snooty French Thalys train was 30 minutes late, and caused me a bit of a ruckus when I had to meet my couchsurfing host. There are the accordion players and Portuguese rappers that perform for you and you must sit trapped, watching them, and then struggle with what to do when they walk around, their cup in hand for tips. There are the Italian trains that seem to start and stop when they feel like it, and the creepy people sitting around you. I remember when I caught a train from a small town whose name I can’t remember to Porto. The train was quite full, and there was a 35ish man sitting across from me. He had the face of every pedophile, Hannibal Lecter, mass-murderer and cranky civil servant I’ve ever seen. Our knees touched and our eyes met, and I have never felt a colder stare. It still tightens my spine to think about him and what I imagine he’s done. And so, there are the people on the train, too. They come as all sorts, and there is an equally opposite kind person for each bad one,  and I met many of the latter on the trains.

But here’s what I love about trains: I am whisked from where I am and what I have done and am en route to where I will be, who I will become, and what I will do. It’s hard to find fault in that.

So I look forward to my next train ride tomorrow. I am taking a bus to Voss, the train to Drammen, and a final train to the out-of-the-way RyanAir airport in Oslo. I am looking forward to who I will become in Scotland, and I am thankful, endlessly, to the trains for getting me there.

*Update: Turns out that the Voss to Drammen train ride was the most nerve-wracking. It was significantly late to the point where an NSB Railway ticket agent gave me a taxi voucher to get to the airport so I could make my flight. I still love trains. 

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