Navigating the Rails

As a foreigner, one can feel anxious on trains. But if the journey itself is home, we can´t let train rides pass us by...

A train track in Auschwitz once used for deportation of Jews | Photo: Natalie Lampert

Sitting on a hard plastic seat on a train taking me from Vienna International Airport to the city center, I think about all the trains I’ve been on and the various circumstances that have characterized my rides. Looking around, I notice how everyone seems to know exactly what they’re doing, where they’re going, and how to get there. I think back to the years I lived in Germany, where my relationship with trains and public transportation was born, and suddenly, I am seventeen again, and memories of train rides come rushing back.

It is a routine morning: my sister, Katrina, and I rush out the door with three minutes to catch the city bus to our U-Bahn station, two minutes to buy a cup of coffee at the station kiosk before sliding our way into the first compartment. Katrina chooses to read during the silent fifteen-minute to school, but I prefer to spend these moments enjoying the range of scenery outside the huge glass windows as I visually track our progress through the outskirts of Stuttgart. The train’s yellow body reflects off of the suburb’s shiny buildings, and our bright blue interior-cushioned seats are immaculate.

It’s always quieter here than in the back, though for the most part, the atmosphere at 7:30 a.m. in any given German city train car is often subdued, save for the sporadic invasions of the twenty or so little kindergartners who stampede on with their neon box-shaped backpacks, screaming and laughing and reminding the rest of us that once, going to school was the most exciting event in our lives. The sight of these boisterous German five-year-olds always strikes me; I am still not used to the fact that it is completely normal for them to ride the train to school and back without any parents supervising them. I watch them disembark at Sonnenberg, their neon colors a stark contrast against Stuttgart’s gray background. Pausing at Möhringen, I remember last fall when my boyfriend and I caught the train here and joined the ranks of drunk Oktoberfest-goers, both of us sweating and squeezing against each other before we finally spilled out four stops later, ears buzzing, laughing into the cold night air.

The word ‘train’ derives from the Latin trahere, ‘to pull’ or ‘to draw’, and in the later sense of the noun, it referred to ‘a connected series of things.’ This idea of connectedness as it relates to people is a curious thing, considering most of the time we are taken by surprise when strangers cross our paths, causing us to pause and look up from our own little worlds. More than once, I have waved to strangers waiting on platforms as the train I’m on passes them by; I quickly remember, though, that through the thick tinted windows, they cannot see my half-hearted attempt at a hello. Failed acknowledgments aside, I have come to believe we are pulled and pushed and drawn in certain directions, ever so gently, more often than we realize.

When I first moved to Stuttgart, I refused to use the train system. I was fourteen, ridiculously stubborn, and terrified of living in a foreign city. Even after learning how to buy a ticket and becoming oriented with maps of the rail system – the blue and red and green lines intersecting across long, unpronounceable stop names – I would not travel without a bilingual friend.

Now, years later, I often prefer to take the train alone, enjoying the time to think or write or listen to music. I watch people around me, too, and habitually wonder where our shared ride is taking them. Meditating on my fellow travelers, I am alert and attentive; the thought of missing my stop makes me incredibly anxious, despite the fact that I know my way around this city now. I have memorized Stuttgart’s routes. I know there are seven stops to school, four to my favorite Irish pub downtown, six to the city park where I read on warm days. Yet I have learned only a fragment of what is a global transportation network.

Since the London Underground, the first rapid transit system, was built in 1863, roughly 5,000 miles of track and 7,000 stations have been constructed worldwide. Thousands of transit routes connect countries and travelers, and while I so enjoy jumping countries and encountering hundreds of travelers, I am by no means an expert at slipping in and out of trains in foreign countries. Every time I step on the subway alone, I am acutely aware of being a foreigner. I’ll never really feel at home surrounded by people whose culture says it is normal to stare; I will often keep my ticket tightly in hand, nervous about being checked; and when I’m riding around with a friend and speaking English, I’ll habitually talk very quietly so as to not draw attention to myself.

It is not just foreigners who feel uneasy on trains, however; even the experts suffer. Train drivers have one of the most stressful jobs in the field of transportation – they are responsible for the safety of up to 1,500 people on an eight-car peak-hour service. When they join the service, train drivers are told to expect at least one suicide under their train during their career. In Japan, train drivers themselves have committed suicide for falling just one minute behind schedule.

On a train from Zürich to Vienna; to a foreigner train journeys may cause anxiety | Photo:

Meanwhile, passengers worry about the most trivial of things: dozing off for a moment and going one stop too far; getting caught staring at a stranger; grazing the bare leg of the handsome stranger on your left. It is inevitable, I think, to sometimes feel enclosed on trains, often being uncomfortably close to strangers, having to stand in a crowded compartment during rush-hour when the train suddenly stops, propelling you into the three people on your right and knocking them off their feet as you hastily attempt apologies in a foreign tongue.

It is these types of encounters (and I’ve had many) that assure me that I will probably always be somewhat apprehensive traveling on trains. But that won’t stop me. Stuttgart’s main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, was constructed in 1922 and carries a citation by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, born in Stuttgart in the late eighteenth century. The quote, in the form of a lit-up inscription, reads “…daß diese Furcht zu irren schon der Irrtum selbst ist”  – loosely translated as “…that this fear of making an error is already itself the error.”

How ironic, I recall thinking when I first read this on the rust-colored brick, having now come to welcome the quasi-trepidation I feel when traveling from one place to the next as part of the overall experience.

During my years in Stuttgart, my confidence with trains slowly grew. I traveled around Europe with my classmates for Model United Nations conferences; I taught my visiting American friends all about the rail system; and I quickly learned that the last train on weekend nights left at 12:37 on the dot from downtown Stuttgart, and if you missed it, it was 229 minutes until the next one.

In our senior year, my girlfriends and I took a regional train to Munich for a weekend. We spent the two-hour ride unabashedly speaking English and drinking wine out of red Solo cups, and I had to laugh at how my two cultures, my two worlds, were becoming inextricably linked. And it dawned on me that I was comfortable navigating my way through both.

Sometimes, fear is what enables us to experience what will become the places we have been to and left behind, which, in turn, shape all that we are traveling towards. During one ride or the next, we learn to push fear and foolishness aside because bigger things happen along the way, and at some point, we find comfort. Maybe that’s why we keep going. Maybe the journey itself is home. If that’s the case, we can’t let rides pass us by.

One day, a few summers back, a friend visiting Paris emailed me and half-jokingly wrote, “Come visit! I’m writing this in the lobby of the Marriot near the Arc de Triomphe. Explore Paris with me!”

I decided to take him seriously. I walked down to my town’s little train station, the same one I was at every morning to ride to school, and bought a ticket to Paris at the kiosk.

“You want a ticket to Paris for tomorrow morning?!,” the good-spirited salesman asked me in German.

“I do indeed,” I replied back in confident German. He laughed and stamped the necessary paperwork, and I walked back home with a huge grin on my face.

The three hours on the train the next morning made for a lovely, deep breath of a ride. Why am I the most comfortable when I am moving? I wondered. Traveling on trains, and planes and automobiles for that matter, is easily one of the biggest joys in my life. Most of the time now I’m able to swallow my anxiety and embrace the adventure. In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot said, “You are not the same people who left the station/Or who will arrive at any terminus,/While the narrowing rails slide together behind you.” When I am en route, I have space and time to breathe and to think as scenery – greenery and buildings and lives – fly by. I am the observer, an attentive rider in a much different way that I once was, and I welcome this new sense of liberation. In constant motion through changes in position and space, I’m almost outside of myself; I glide along the rails, both moving and being moved, unusually submissive to my surroundings.

As the train crossed from Kehl, Germany into Strasbourg, France, I noted the now-deserted border control checkpoint; thanks to the European Union, passport-free travel zones allow virtually fluid travel across Europe. I wonder about what forces influence our movements these days. And I realize that on trains, while a moving force is physically controlling me, I also feel powerless to an intangibility that has no intentional influence on me.

I often wish my experiences with trains in Europe translated to the East Coast of the United States (where I live now), but they don’t. No one does public transportation like the Europeans, and though I have loved the rides I’ve had into Chicago, or through Philadelphia and New York City, the trains in the U.S. are older and more scuffed and not half as convenient or reliable. The U.S. is a country of cars, another mode of transportation I am still learning to embrace – I managed to get my license years after all my American friends did, but I rarely drive by myself. In American Technological Sublime, John Stilgoe refers to the colloquial iron horse as ‘a powerful romantic creature’ – indeed, historical, modern, and nostalgic all at once, trains taught me to love traveling and the city I called home for so long, and I stubbornly miss them.

Happily back in Europe for the summer, I’ve spent the last few days buzzing around Vienna on the U-Bahn and contemplating my personal history with trains. And while I may characterize the relationship as one of both love and hate, it’s dawned on me that, in the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it was going.

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