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from the November 2015 issue

Found on the Tracks: European Writing on Train Travel

In America, the idea of traveling by train is something of a touchstone. Mention it to some people and their eyes light up; an instant bond is formed and stories of memorable journeys tumble out. To others, train travel is impractical: slower than a plane, more expensive than a bus and lacking the independence and sense of freedom that comes with driving a car. Amtrak itself, admittedly, is a somewhat schizophrenic institution: some routes woefully underfunded and plagued by delays of almost surreal magnitude, others designed for leisure-class vista-seekers, many of them European.

In Europe, however, train travel occupies a very different cultural space. There it is one of many modes of living that elsewhere have long since grown antiquated—like listening to the radio, Sunday shop closures, folk costumes such as dirndls and lederhosen—which in Europe have been carried on and remain vital parts of everyday life. Though cheaper options like buses and rideshares have grown in popularity in the last decade or so, for many Europeans, train travel is still the default—without, somehow, quite losing its romantic aura. Where it should have become banal, it can still elicit excitement and mutual recognition; nearly every time I’ve expressed what I assumed to be an outsider’s love of train travel to Europeans, I’ve been met with smiles and Me toos —sometimes even the vague suggestion that riding trains is necessary for emotional health. Which, of course, I believe wholeheartedly. 

The prevalence, ease, and efficiency of train travel in Europe, matched with the continent’s small size relative to our own, has a profound effect on culture. When distances are shorter and no advance booking is required (not to mention no security lines), one can wake up feeling restless in Berlin and arrive in Paris or Copenhagen in time for dinner—having read an entire novel, gazed at some scenery, and snacked on coffee and cake on the way. The spontaneity and comfort is thrilling, but it can also cause travel to be somewhat circumscribed by distance: why fly to another continent when a train will carry you to the Baltic Sea or Prague or Zürich in a few hours? Trains also shape more than pleasure trips: whereas in the States people typically commute between suburbs and cities, it’s not unusual for Europeans to commute by train between two different cities or from a large city to a smaller city as a result of spousal compromise or simple preference. 

It is therefore not surprising that much European literature shows the influence of train travel. Our literary rail journey begins in an era when excitement about trains was at a fever pitch—when avant-garde art movements embraced technology as a revolutionary and progressive force, often finding in it a source of aesthetic inspiration. Karl Schultz’s “Travel by Train” was first published in Pásmo, a Brno-based Czech magazine, in 1924. Pásmo’s editor, Artuš Černík, was in fact himself a graduate of the State Railroad Academy, and worked for a time as a clerk for Czech Railways. Both the publication and author were part of Devětsil, a Czechoslovakian avant-garde group of the 1920s. Schultz’s visual poem, like much work from this period, not only takes technology (in this case, train travel) as its subject, but also seeks to convey the experience of the encounter with technology through visual and aural means. Typically, the piece exploits modern printing methods and experimental typography, which is here beautifully echoed in translator Meghan Forbes’ typewriter and stencil rendering.

The incorporation of sensual elements continues in “Fish Television,” an excerpt from Swiss author Peter Weber’s 2002 book Bahnhofsprosa (Train Station Prose), a series of linked stories that take place in or around train stations. Weber’s book, which often reads more like prose poetry than fiction, is dramatically synesthetic and surreal: objects are constantly evolving or being identified with other objects based on formal similarity or, as in this section, wordplay. Though stylistically worlds apart, both Bahnhofsprosa and German and Swiss author Ulrike Ulrich’s 2010 novel fern bleiben (Staying Gone) are perfect embodiments of the European attitude toward train travel in that they rely on familiarity—in both books the expectations and conventions of train travel are a common language, an easy way for the reader to identify with and enter the text—while both celebrating and dismantling train travel’s romantic allure. The latter book is the story of Lo, a computer programmer who uses her unexpected winnings from a TV quiz show to crisscross Europe by train. Incurably restless and unsure of her own motives, she leaves each place almost as soon as she arrives. We meet Lo fairly early in her journey—after Munich, Rome, Dresden, Berlin, Paris and en route to Nice—just as the lingering exhilaration of her freedom begins to evolve into a growing discomfort with her aimlessness. 

Trains are, by definition, liminal. Literally, of course, they facilitate transition from one locality to another. They also, however, unite many dichotomies: the exotic and the banal, freedom and luxury, nostalgia and modernity, the possible and the real. I hope the pieces presented here give a taste of some of these paradoxes. Enjoy the ride!   

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