My experience with trains goes back a long way. My secondary grammar school was a fifteen minute train ride away from the small town in the north of Germany where I lived then. I travelled back and forth for nine years, the train wasn’t just a means of transportation, it was part of my life.
My classmates who got in one station before me were always in the second carriage, last compartment. They used to prepare our homework in so far as they found out where the problems were, and when I got in we would tackle them together. You can do a lot in 15 minutes if you’re well organized! The morning rides were always quiet, everyone scribbling away, composing, copying, reading or memorizing. I mostly copied maths and swapped my German homework for it. The rides back were a bit livelier, the girls were chatting and giggling, the boys using the carriages as gyms swinging from the luggage racks or doing other workout exercises on the wooden (!) benches to release the strain after a hard day at school.
We didn’t come late to school only because we occasionally missed the train, but also because cows loved to wander between the rails every now and then, no hooting made them leave the track. We had to follow them up to the nearest station where they were shooed away by the railway people.
When I was 18 years old, I had bad marks in English and had to go to England for a language course. I decided on a school in Cambridge and went there by train, alone, so as not to have someone with whom I could speak German. I managed well, found the right train in Dover, the right train in London, but then...The conductor said "Change at Ely", and for the life of me I didn’t know what he was talking about. Imagine, I had never heard of the existence of Ely, so what he said, was just a combination of strange sounds and then - oh, the shame of it - I didn’t know the meaning of the verb ‘to change’, not in the context of trains! My English fellow travellers saved me by throwing me out at Ely crying in chorus "You must change here!". Well, when I was standing on the platform with my luggage, it was dawning on me what I had to do.
I made my longest train ride ever as a student when I went to a language course in Moscow. Our professor had told us, no, ordered us, to go by train to get a feeling for the vastness of the country. I’ll be forever grateful for this advice. All in all, the ride lasted 36 hours (nothing compared to what a friend of ours did: Naples - Peking, 11 days!), we had a big compartment in which we could sit, play cards, read, eat and drink endless cups of tea which the attendant of the carriage prepared with a samowar. For the night a folding wall was drawn in the middle so as to divide the women’s from the men’s section!
During the course a friend and I decided to visit Boris Pasternak’s grave (the author of ‘Dr. Shivago’ for which he got the Nobel Prize for Literature) in a small town in the vicinity of Moscow which was strictly off limits for foreigners in those days. I decided to be a deaf mute for a while, my friend did the talking and bought the tickets. He could speak Russian much better than I, at least as well as the hundreds of non-Russian peoples in the Soviet Union. We were poor and badly dressed then and disappeared inconspicuously in the crowd. All went well and we had a great day out.
When I tell you that I travelled by train in Egypt as well, you might expect something adventurous, but it wasn’t, the first class train ride from Cairo to Assuan was part of a group trip, all went smoothly. The only interesting thing were the locomotives and trains we saw in the main station of Cairo, they were all ‘Made in Germany‘. They were quite new, we saw the dates of production, but looked as if they came straight out of a museum. The sand-dust from the nearby desert had rubbed off the gleaming polish of all the metal parts like sandpaper. The way of travelling - passengers sitting in the open windows, one leg in, one out, and standing on the steps on the outside of the doors clinging to the handles - was also different from what we know and do in this country!
When it comes to travelling by train in Italy, I don’t know where to begin and where to end, hardly a trip without something to talk about. Delays are all part and parcel for the Italians. What can cause a delay in Italy? Well, Italy is so long! A minute more in this station, two minutes more in that, they all add up and when the train coming from Sicily arrives in Rome or coming from there, at the Austrian border, it simply can’t be on time any more. Then the strikes! The two main railway lines run along the eastern and the western coast, it’s very easy to cause chaos in the whole country, one small independent union of locomotive drivers can do that by just blocking traffic in one of the cities on these arteries.
Once I came from Florence and was forced to wait in Bologna for seven hours sitting in the waiting room of the station where in 1980 85 people were killed and 300 injured in a fascist bomb attack. That was a weird feeling; when finally a train came at 2 a.m., I had stared at the memorial for such a long time that I nearly knew the names of all the casualties by heart.
But I also think of my Italian fellow travellers. After being together with Southern Italians for some hours, they know more about me than my colleagues with whom I’ve worked for 20 years. How come? They ask! They ask why I’m travelling in Italy, why I can speak Italian, what my marital status is, what I think about the political situation in Italy and in Germany, what I do for a living, how much I earn - an absolute no-no question in Germany.
How do I pass my time in German trains? The Germans are related to the Brits when it comes to communicating with strangers. Germaine Greer: "Even crushed against his brother in the Tube the average Englishman pretends desperately that he is alone." Exceptions prove the rule, but lively conversations with German fellow travellers are indeed so rare that I remember the few I’ve had even years later.
I know what the German landscapes look like from North to South and East to West, so I don’t have to press my nose against the window and look out. I eat. I belong to the tribe of eaters-on-trains who begin eating at once, no matter if the train’s already moving or still standing in the station. Everything tastes better on a train!
I watch people and think "God’s kingdom has indeed many inhabitants, how on earth can anyone look voluntarily like this?" I listen to other people’s conversation pretending not to, I try to find out which foreign language my neighbours speak if I can’t understand it, oh, there are many ways to while away the time.
When it comes to adequate reading matter, the choice is great, I’m sure my list can last you at least up to the border Russia/Mongolia on the Transsib.
Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train
Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express
Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar
Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster
Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery
Andrew Matthews, The Great Gold Train Robbery
Continental Europeans don’t queue. Let’s not discuss this phenomenon, let’s be pragmatic and think about ways how you can enjoy your trip nevertheless. Don’t wait in front of a door in the bulk of people, move near to the carriage and sidle in from the side and always, always occupy the first free seat you see. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush!
Decades, not of train spotting, but traveller watching have convinced me that it is an inherent human trait to think the second chance might be better than the first. What, if there isn’t a second chance at all? Once you’ve got your seat, everybody is settled and the train is moving, you can start looking if there’s a better one somewhere, but not before!