One thing that I think a lot of Americans (and visitors to the U.S.) are missing out on, due mostly to the terrible infrastructure, is train travel. When I first moved to Berlin in 2000, I lived near Ostbahnhof where I’d sometimes get one of the local S-bahn trains. But on other platforms at Ostbahnhof would be trains heading to Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, and Moscow. For someone who’d lived his whole life on an island, it was incredibly romantic to see such destinations at my local train station. No offense to Lincoln Central, but destinations like Grantham and Newark just don’t cut it compared to Paris and Moscow.
I’m writing these words on Saturday evening on a train from Frankfurt to Karlsruhe. This is the third and final train of my journey. And it’s a beauty. This train began its travels in Budapest. It looks knackered and old on the outside compared to the fancy ICE trains I used earlier on my trip.
The first, from Berlin to Hannover was a nice beginning. Window seat at a table. A pleasant old lady in the aisle seat on the other side of the table. I thought she might be a bit of a battleaxe, but when a young fella behind her knocked her arm with his suitcase when he tried to put it on the overhead thingy, she looked at me, and I gave her a conspiratorial “kids these days, eh?” look, and she smiled. Table, power point, empty seat next to me, bit of leg room: beautiful. I got stuck into some work editing some text that needs sending to a man in New York. (I’m being deliberately vague in case the text’s intended outcome doesn’t, err, come out.) Two hours flew by.
A quick smoke outside Hannover train station then up to the platform for my next train. I find it a bit disconcerting when people seem to be looking at me. When I know it is happening, I find it difficult to even stand in a natural way. There was this girl. She must’ve been seventeen at most. She’d been on the train from Berlin. I noticed her because, in one of those looking-into-space moments that one tends to do when trying to think of how to construct a sentence, she walked down the aisle and stared at me. She had nice spectacles. So on the platform waiting for the Frankfurt train, I feel her eyes boring into me as I walked to the notice board to check something. She was still looking, I could feel it. I’ve just realised that I’ve begun telling you a story that doesn’t have a very good end. The train pulled in and I got on a different car from stare-y girl. Teenagers make me paranoid, I think is all.
The train to Frankfurt wasn’t so good. I walked through the car looking for seat 91. I already had a bad feeling as there were a lot of children in the car. I counted down the seat numbers, saw 91, looked beneath it, and sat opposite some grandparents, there was a pre-teen lad sat in my seat. Being a cunt, I asked him to move. Sorry, but I refuse to feel guilty for reserving a seat in advance. You wanna sit with grandpa and grandma, get them to prepare their journey properly, sunshine. It’s a tough world. On the opposite table, I think, were the kid’s parents and two more kids. Dad kept trying to catch my eye. He did so early on and gave me a “you bad man, you very very bad man” look, so after that I tried not to look in his direction. Still, the amount of kids in car made it less enjoyable. Children like to make noise, and no matter how loud I turned up my headphones, I could still hear them. And they took forever to get off at Frankfurt.
I had three minutes to hobble from platform 6 to platform 19 to get onto the train I’m on right now. No point in writing some cliffhanger did-I-make-it text here is there? Smoking’s not allowed on the platforms here, apart from inside an small area defined by a yellow line of paint on the ground. I could see I was heading towards one of those areas, so sparked up to chug some nicotine before getting on board. The train had a nice typeface on the outside. Sadly, before I could get my camera out, I was busted by the train dude who told me not to smoke. I gave myself an extra couple of drags by saying, in deliberately slow and bad German, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.” He told me not to smoke again in English. Oh sorry. I stubbed out the cig, heard a whistle and got on the train. This train is fantastic. It’s only got seating compartments and sleeping compartments. And I’ve got a six-seater compartment all to myself. It’s great. I like being alone in a vaguely public place. I like standing up, shaking my ass to the song on my headphones, taking photos out of the window, that kinda crap.
I settled in and soon enough the ticket inspectress came along. She was pretty. Quite steely-eyed, but very attractive. And totally fits in with the rest of the train. It’s so much like being on a murder mystery train. After checking my ticket, she went away, and a couple of minutes later I went to the restaurant car to get a coffee. I passed her as she stood in a doorway to some sort of train employees’ office. She looked at me as if to say to whoever was inside the office, “Shhhh, we can’t talk now.” As I got closer, a handsome East European man in a blue t-shirt poked his head so he could see me. In the restaurant car, one family dined, and a fat man made me a coffee. Later in the journey, I thought, he will be passed a weapon to dispose of.
Walking back with my coffee, after spilling some all over my fingers (they still smell of coffee), blue t-shirt man was outside the door of the office this time. He moved to one side to let me by. Back in my compartment, I put on music I only ever listen to when I’m sure nobody else is listening. I’m quite sure I over-think things way too much, cos I will rarely listen to things like Nirvana or Pixies if I think someone nearby can hear me listening to them, and they think, “Jeez, how lame… listening to “Nevermind”… what a loser!” Why do I care? I don’t know. I wish I didn’t. But for some dumb reason I do. So I listened to Nirvana and wondered where the heck the light switch in the compartment was. It’s dark outside, and it’s dark inside. And there’s, more likely than not, a murderer on board…
I didn’t find the light switch, but so I turned off my computer, listened to the Miniature Tigers album, did a little dance in my seat, and sang along. Passing judgement, the compartment door slid shut of its own accord. And a few songs later, I was pulling into Karlsruhe, where friends and beer was waiting me.