Friday, May 21, 2010

The Lost Art of Train Travel

Those who know me well are acquainted with my distaste for airplanes. I hate flying, but I want to go places. My mom used to be a travel agent in Winnipeg in the 70s and she has told me the story of a man who once came into her office and wanted to book a trip to Hawaii – by bus. Needless to say, when she explained the deal about the Pacific Ocean, he was a bit consternated. After a bit of inquiry into possible routes to Honolulu via train and boat, he finally settled on a trip to Minneapolis. I can relate.

I mean think about it – have you looked at a plane recently? It’s rather obtrusive. How on earth can something so morbidly obese not only get to 40,000ft, but stay there. I am fascinated by the marvels of modern engineering in the same macabre way that one might be fascinated by looking at a hairless cat or an eel.

Aside from my experience in first class on a return flight from Seoul to Vancouver, I do not actively enjoy flying. There are two moments of exception: the take-off (come on, it is a bit exciting) and the liberal disbursement of wine on France-bound flights. Those aspects aside, there is generally short-shrift given to leg-room and peace from screaming babies. I know it isn’t a very nice character reflection, but come now, we all want to slap it, that howling box with exorbitant projection capabilities that, no matter what seat you have booked, is always two rows behind you. There, I said it. And to top it all off, I am still not entirely convinced that if I do not close the lid prior to flushing those inordinately violent toilets, I will not possibly be sucked down and ejected out a back hatch into the stratosphere.

Flying is a means to an end: it gets you where you want to go relatively quickly. I don’t love it, but compared with a four-month journey across the choppy Atlantic sleeping in bunks doused with vomit from newbie sailors and the very real threat of scurvy, it is a cake-walk. On the other hand, I am continually baffled by how giant this earth is, and – not to be outdone – how vast my own country is. I don’t think I have taken a Toronto-Vancouver flight that didn’t make grinding my teeth on the pavement sound pleasant, resulting with me flinging myself on the ground, crying out “LAAAAAAND!!!” upon arrival.

But on my most recent journey abroad, the clouds parted and the sun shone down on a new method of transportation that makes the plane ride to get to it all the more valuable: Trains – and European ones at that. As with a plane, you arrive at a destination much faster than with a car, bike, shoe, horse-and-buggy, etc, but you get to see it all go by at the same time! And this is an important point. Trains let you get there by exploring from the comfort of a rolling armchair. Castles and vineyards whip by for your viewing pleasure like a toucan to a birdwatcher. You can pick and choose which ones to stop for. And as a bonus, sure, you might fall over from the rocking when trying to use the toilet – but at least you can be safe from an impromptu free-fall to your death.

I think my favourite part though is the dining car. It is reminiscent of the ages of Agatha Christie thrillers and Cary Grant. There is an element of nostalgic class. The door to the dining car is actually a magical threshold, similar to Lewis’s wardrobe or Carroll’s looking glass. It will take you to a new time and place, where women in silk evening gowns smoke cigarettes on long, slim filters and gentlemen puff pungent cigars and somehow, miraculously, we are not all having a coughing fit as a result of the excess carcinogens in the enclosed space. And rest assured that there is plenty of diamond jewellery and brandy to go around.

On my train from Paris to Barcelona, my daddy booked me a first-class sleeper ticket. “If you are going to do it, you may as well do it properly.” That ticket was also apparently good for complimentary champagne in said magical dining car. It was a shame I left my emerald necklace at home. If you still need proof of the beauty of this form of travel, I offer one more: I was served the first meal involving asparagus that I have ever eaten with alacrity. See what I mean?

Now, I will say that despite having a bed all to myself, I, bafflingly, could not sleep for the life of me. But the rest of the experience was so pleasant and exciting that I am more than willing to forgive SCNF for the insomnia.

Even when travelling with the plebeian hordes in regular coaches there is plenty to delight. Take, for example, the return train from Barcelona to Montpellier. Sure, the train itself was a step down from the other ones I had been enjoying. It definitely was a left over from the era of Mary Tyler Moore’s orange tweed-clad 70s and not the roaring 20’s – but let’s say that it too is ”an homage to a bygone era” and let it hold its head high. Sure it is an era that no one had particularly missed, but there is room for welcome, particularly when the large brown armchair seats with a touching napkin spread over the headrest still manage to be stunningly comfortable after more than 40 years of Australian backpackers and Belgian businessmen bumming down on them. And yes, the curtains looked like a tennis skirt that must be dearly missed by the Bitsey Hetherington-Jonses or Muffy St.Clairs of the world who mourn the year of their athletic zenith (1981). But my favourite part had to be, yes again, the dining car. I was informed just half an hour after pulling away from the station that the train featured a celebrity on its staff. The Australian seatmates across from me swore that the car was manned by none other than Manuel from Faulty Towers.

I thought they were joking, but no, it really was him: small grey moustache, pinstripe waistcoat and all. But the resemblance was truly uncanny in his demeanour. His method was the madness. He took orders one at a time from the small crowd that had gathered at his bar and he never doubled up on a task. It didn’t seem strange to him that despite the last three people ordering the exact same thing, he still did each order one at a time, heating each sandwich separately in an spaciously industrial Panini-maker. One by one we all ordered a sandwich or croissant with coffee and one by one, he would put on one cup of coffee in the espresso maker that was not only held together with twist-ties, but that was also teetering precariously on the metal counter, ready to tumble head-first at any moment.

The whole act was truly complicated by the fact that the kitchen was separated from the bar by a wall, with only a small hold a foot and a half tall through which, ostensibly, a chef could pass orders back and forth with the wait staff. Someone obviously had high hopes that there would be a long line of two-man teams to service the train. Alas, they were sorely mistaken. It was our loss (mine and that of the growing crowd now assembled) but also our gain in amusement. We had a front-row seat to watch Manuel, after he received an order, determinedly step out, march around the counter, walk down the full length of the car and enter the galley and step lively to the warming oven which sat mere inches away from his original post on the other side of the porthole, insert sandwich, wait three interminable minutes, take out sandwich, march back, make coffee, accept payment, repeat. It was a high-calibre performance in the very least.

This is the beauty of trains – I can understand why little boys are so fascinated by them even with fighter jets and aircraft carriers with which they must contend. It doesn’t matter how old they are – they still have a mysterious power. They go like stink and rock and roll you into a nice state of humour where everything looks just a little more exotic that it might otherwise be. They aren’t sanitized corporate jets bearing the standard navy blue upholstery and the standard meticulously groomed attendants, who are lovely, to be sure. Instead, train station attendants sit behind a glass window in an arching art deco foyer and hold their hands behind their back and ask you to guess right or left. You never know if the hand you pick will slowly open up to reveal the Orient Express or Thomas the Tank Engine, but you can’t help but win either way.