Sunday, October 17, 2004

Train of thought

I could travel on intercity trains forever – the rapidly shifting foreground scenery framed by the languidly moving horizon, staccato clicks of wheels on tracks regulating my breathing and soothing my usually too-rapid thoughts down to the perfect pace for reflection.

The first time I fell in love with long train journeys was years ago when I lived in Warsaw. The actual process of traveling had never held any pleasure for me until then – long car journeys were nauseating, buses doubly so. Short train rides in cities merely the daily-bustle way of shuttling oneself to new coordinates and airplane rides sickeningly frightening to someone who used to get vertigo just standing on a chair.*

(* No, not anymore, not by a long shot. Cured myself in the only way I know how – ‘head butting’ it as M likes to call it. Just kept clenching my teeth and doing all the things that a normal person does (climb ladders, change light bulbs, climb trees, get on planes without squeezing the arm rests to a soft pulp). It got easier and easier – to the point where the only thing that makes me uncomfortable about airplane travel is the fact that I’m not in control of the vehicle and I don’t know the ability of the person who is, which is an entirely different issue. )

I would deal with all these things for the stimulus of a new location; I considered it the price that one paid for travel. For the most part, I still do.

My first European intercity train journey, then, was a revelation. I was to travel across Poland on an overnight train and had splurged on an entire first class cabin all to myself for the night. At that time in Poland, of course, the expense was as much for security as it was for luxury – ‘luxury’ being a relative term in each country and at each period in time.

The money bought me a little cabin with two beds, a bathroom, a table by the window and the most wonderful array of miniaturized amenities that I immediately pushed, prodded, twisted, turned, unlocked, broke, fixed and generally played with until I felt the train lurch away from the platform to begin it’s journey north.

I sat down by the window to look out at the suburbs of Warsaw streaming past and had the most extraordinary sensation. Looking back into the cabin, I surveyed it with a newly proprietorial air. It was the first time in my life that I had hired living quarters to myself in my name, with money I had earned. Sure, I had lived in a dorm room at Warsaw University for a while – but that had been arranged by my parents. I was currently living with an old widow in the centre of the city and I felt very much an intruder in her home – a shrine of sorts to the time when she lost her husband, some 30 years earlier. Back in Australia, I had always lived with my parents.

This, then, this little place 2 meters by 3 streaking through space on two silver tracks was to be mine and mine alone for the next 7 hours. I sat up a little straighter and studied the changing landscape outside, mistress of the warmth and seeming splendor of my own small domain.

As the night descended, the window changed from a chameleon of colour and shape to become a pane of inky blackness holding only my trembling reflection. My thoughts followed suit – seemingly without when scenery could distract them from their pondering, they turned within and at once solidified into startling clarity. Mesmerised by occasional strings of light signifying yet another small village and station, I began to allow my mind free reign to ponder the things I had been experiencing in my first few months as a teenage expatriate. I didn’t sleep that night at all for thinking and disembarked with a strangely light feeling in my chest amid the leaden feeling of tiredness in my body.

Perhaps something changed in me right then, or I take a small piece of that night with me every time I board for a long journey, but rarely are my thoughts as lucid, enjoyable and beautifully reflective as when on a train. This is, funnily enough, only true when I am traveling alone.

This afternoon, we traveled back from Stratford-upon-Avon by train and I snuck away from the raucousness of our group to another, empty, carriage carrying paper and pen with me but secretly knowing that I wouldn’t write all that much.

I sat down alone, in a berth of four seats, right by the window. Facing backward, the scenery unfolded quickly but lingered for a long time, surrounding me in gently rolling hills of the most perfect green imaginable. Hedgerows that divided the green carpet into fields shot past the pane and sheep seemed to be scattered with mathematical precision to cover enclosures evenly and consistently.

The landscape was beautiful, small villages raised the flags of roofs and spires, whitewashed walls and tended gardens to signal their existence before disappearing from view almost as rapidly as they had appeared.

I hastily began to scratch out this post before the regular clicking of the wheels had its usual effect on me. The rhythm became part of my breathing and my pulse, then moved to slow and discipline my mind to a steady pace. I became aware of the fact that my pen was resting on the page and that I had no more desire to write – only to look out the window and to think.

So I thought of the performance of Hamlet the night before and silently recited some of my favorite lines, I recalled that every time I see or read Hamlet I take something else away – last night was no exception, I thought of our time in Poland and how easy it was to be with M in almost any circumstance, I thought of discovering Berlin and being so moved by the impassioned speeches made by a guide in a walking tour that M and I were silent for an hour after it finished – just walking around the city, comfortable in each-other’s silence, I thought of the tasks I have set for myself in the next month and wondered what I would think of my own performance at the tasks a month hence, I started framing the essence of another post. I went through so much so easily that it felt like a meditation and a relaxation of the mind through rapid, easy thought.

I don’t know how long I was in that state – it could have been minutes or an hour – I didn’t ask when I walked back into the other carriage. Frankly, I didn’t care. My holiday was over, the train ride cementing the memories and clearing my mind to face another week, another month or year before I next have the opportunity to gaze out of a grubby train window and slip into this intoxicated state.

I think I’d like to take the Trans Siberian one day, across the country where I was born and where so much of my ancestor’s history lies buried. I imagine myself alone in a small cabin, light outside slowly dying as the train’s sleek body streaks across endless plains. A dark window will reflect my older but no less prone to mischief visage back to me, triggering untold thoughts, introspections and memories of a life that I, here in the present day, am yet to make.


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