Alice Munro writes of trains: “In this cubical of metal and upholstery a human being could without real inconvenience or discomfort pass a life.”
Most people I know enjoy trains and their neutrality. The thumping and whir of the engines is calming; the whistle of an arriving train both romantic and nostalgic. The landscape changes rapidly and time passes quickly. The world rolling by outside has an inevitability about it. There is a certain passivity and convenience embodied both in the physical experience of train riding and in the indifferent machines themselves. Suspended between origin and destination: mandated leisure. It can make anyone feel reflective enough to write a rambling Nassau Weekly article.
I studied abroad in London this semester, and took trains everywhere: from Bath to Brighton, from Cambridge to Oxford. They were a means of cultural immersion in a country, with no added effort on my behalf. On a train to Bristol to visit cousins (the descendants of my great-grandmother’s sister), we sped past the West Middlesex Golf Club, derelict housing developments, factories with empty frosted windows and pipes tattooing the walls, a building reminiscent of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I eavesdropped on the loud group of British mums in jean jackets beside me, Pret a Manger bags at their feet. One of them answered the phone: “If you’re really good, Daddy might take you for tea at the pub with Kitty.” Another opened a pungent tuna-and-ementhal sandwich: “I prefer Waitrose to Morrison’s.” One spoke about the recent delay in trains at Blackfriar Station due to suicide attempts. Later they begin discussing Trump and the business with the FBI with a generous number of confidently expressed fallacies.
Midway to Bristol, we stop at the city of Reading. It is also the name of the suburb next to mine in Ohio. I always liked the idea that cities or people in vastly different locations could share a name, and therefore be connected. The cashier at the Morrison’s where I lived in South London once told me, “The English version of my name is also Rebecca.” After that, she would always wink and forget to charge me the extra five pence for a grocery bag.
Once we leave Reading, I see English countryside farms that could seem natural anywhere: Ohio, Italy, South America. The train manager of the Great Western Railway train gets on the loudspeaker. “This is for the two girls who are hiding in the toilets at Coach F,” says the conductor. “I know you don’t want to show me your tickets—so you can either get off the train now or I’ll have the police waiting for you at Swindon.” People titter uncomfortably. He repeats his threat. When he does finally come through the cabin, it is like the Wizard of Oz: I was not expecting such a small man with such a high voice. He punches my ticket, smiling kindly. “That’s lovely, thank you,” he says, singing up the last word in a way I’ve come to recognize as very British.
This spring, I had ample time to make train transport errors, often lulled into a false sense of security by their regulated efficiency. In Ireland, I woke early one morning to take a commuter train from Dublin bound for Howth, curious to see what small Irish towns along the coast were like. I got off at a seaside village (pop: less than 10,600). The owner of the train café, an elderly woman with a strong accent, served me breakfast tea, biscuits, and a cheese sandwich. She was kind but slightly bewildered to see a tourist. Strolling along the cold, empty beach, I suddenly realized my flight back to London was much sooner than I’d thought. After only making it 100 meters away from the train stop, I rushed back to get to Dublin.
My first experience with trains in Italy was even more of a disaster. It took me half an hour to find my platform and another four hours to make it to Lierna. There were no station names being announced so my first mistake was disembarking at a station that appeared to be correct based on the wildly fickle blue dot on my iPhone maps. I lugged my oversized suitcase up and down stairs to different platforms, all equally deserted except for some smoking teenagers. No one spoke English. There was no place to buy tickets. I got on the next train that came, fortunately the right one.
My second mistake was not realizing you had to press the button or pull up a handle to open the train doors, so I went one town too far. All the trains had stopped running after midnight and I had to call my hostel host, a sixty-year-old Italian man with an exasperated air. “I come to get you in my car,” Gino sighed. The whole way home, he berated me: “Why you not listen to my instructions on how to get here, is very easy.”
The next night, he seemed to forgive me. We went to his favorite restaurant in town and he ordered us fresh mozzarella, marinated lake fish, and four kinds of risotto. “Why is it you travel alone?” he asked me as we finished dessert. I replied, “I’m meeting my friend tomorrow. She had to fly in a few days after me.”
He laughed. “She? Great, now there will be two of you women to miss the train.” Gino also laughed when I asked the waiter for a takeaway bag for the leftovers. “You want to take them back in doggie bag? Are you a dog? This is not Italian thing to do.” (The next morning, rushing to—you guessed it—catch a train, I ended up forgetting the bag of strong-smelling risotto in his fridge anyway.)
In Paris, I witnessed a small train love affair. Two mothers sat behind me, their children in the four-seater in front of me. A French girl, maybe nine or ten, blond and pretty, speaks accented English with two British boys, slightly younger than she is. The older brother speaks frequently, eager to please her. He asks her how long she is on holiday. He tells her about the exchange his school has in Vienna and Japan. They play games with pounds and trade words like coins in French and English. When she drops her water bottle, he swiftly falls to the floor to pick it up for her. She laughs.
I often felt as though I spent more time on trains than in my actual destination. One weekend in England, I rode to meet a friend in Stevenage, an uninspiring London suburb that was planned after WWII. By the time I arrived in town, my friend had canceled. Frustrated, I walked through the one main street (several pubs, a medieval-looking church, local ice cream) and ended up having dinner at a cheap Indian restaurant where, fortunately, the food was so spicy, oily, and breaded its days-old taste was masked. The servers and I eavesdropped quietly while the only other patrons discuss the mother’s recent jail time and wedding. As I headed back to the train station the rush of commuters was heading the opposite direction and I got a bench to myself. My mood lifted as I intermittently stared out the window (a Tesco Extra supermarket gleaming triumphantly against the cloudy gray dusk) and read my book (The Girl on the Train).
When I traveled in Switzerland, the trains had views ten times more beautiful (and ten times more expensive) than England. Sitting on the right side of the carriage from Geneva to Bern, a breathtaking view of Lake Geneva and Lausanne below us, I talked to my Swiss friend about all the similarities between Swiss and Jewish culture. Swiss braided bread looks just like challah. Swiss-German sometimes sounds like Yiddish. The Swiss Alphorn is like a giant Passover shofar.
Today, she told me, sometimes refugees die, electrocuted, on top of Swiss trains. Often they are coming from Italy and trying to get to Germany; it as difficult to get Swiss citizenship as it always has been. In the span of summer 2015 there were ten deaths by electrocution of migrants. In August, 71 refugees were found dead near Vienna. Since autumn, there has been an uptick in the number of refugees hiding on Italian trains bound for Switzerland, Germany, France and Austria. Sometimes they are Syrian migrants, sometimes North African. There are numerous stories like these. When I try to find English-language coverage of these tragedies, it is difficult.
Meanwhile, we watched green grape and yellow rapeseed fields roll down into a glacial blue expanse of lake, sailboats speckled perfectly on the water. Switzerland looked idyllic and untouchable.
I am lucky: I take trains on holiday, for leisure, while my ancestors and refugees today take trains to escape poverty and political oppression. My biggest frustration is missing a train, rather than being forced to take one. During my time in England, I visited different relatives who had escaped the Holocaust. The cousins who I visited in Bristol immigrated to England from Central Europe. During the weekend I spent with them, we spoke about xenophobia, Brexit, Trump, and attempted U.S. immigration laws. I was relieved they didn’t ask me the common question I got throughout my travels on study abroad—how did you guys let Trump get elected?
I had tea one spring afternoon above Portobello Road with my 89-year old great uncle and his wife. They both escaped Germany with their families by train and obtained college degrees in England. My great uncle told me about his job as a philosophy teacher, adding in a throaty British-German accent: “I had one other ambition, and that was to go into the diplomatic service. But that wasn’t really possible for someone who was born in Germany… My close friend John became the director of the British Council, responsible for publicizing British cultural achievements in other countries. There was this Austrian-born Jew who was responsible for spreading British culture in other countries.” Husband and wife both chuckled at the irony.
My mother’s father Henry grew up in Vienna. In the few years before WWII, the environment became more and more hostile. On Kristallnacht, Henry was out of the house; when he came home, there were authorities in the apartment. His mother secretly motioned for him to go, so he left and rode public trains all night and came back in the morning. After that, Henry and his brother unsuccessfully tried to escape Austria several times, including through Switzerland. Finally, Henry left Vienna with the help of two French siblings who guided them across the Alps at night. Henry stayed in Paris for two months, working in a bookstore. When he finally got his visa to the States in 1938, it was because a family in Cleveland with the same last name (Spira) claimed he was related to them. He worked as a chemist until he could sponsor the rest of his family to come over to the U.S. When the family wanted him to marry their daughter, he left Ohio for New York. Henry’s cousin Reinhold Benesch was sent as a child to England. His wife, Ruth, also fled to England by train as part of the Kindertransport program, which relocated 10,000 Jewish children from Central Europe to the United Kingdom, in 1939. They met working in a rubber factory during college.
If England or the United States had built a wall and enforced it, Reinhold and Ruth would not have made their discoveries about hemoglobin. Henry would not have treated hundreds of patients as a psychiatrist in the U.S. My great uncle would not have spent his life educating pupils on Kant and moral philosophy. They were all newcomers from a strange land at one point, and their lives depended on liberal immigration laws.
My great-grandfather wrote a diary while in Dachau. At the end of January 1939 a Christian prisoner of the camp escaped and was found outside of the camp. For punishment, all inhabitants were ordered to have an assembly lasting 24 hours, which was repeated twice. Eating or drinking was not allowed during these two 24-hour periods. One could not leave for a moment the formation – the suffering was beyond all description… He who had faith in G-d, and loved living and non-living nature, sustained himself and even had his little pleasures. In the morning through Venus, and in the evening through Jupiter, not to the Roman deity but to some of the stars in the sky would he send his dear greetings. The morning sky and sunset cheered him up, the whir of a locomotive engine was to him a sign of promise.
I would love to ask him why the train engine sounded like a sign of promise. For many people, it was; it took them far away from death. For others, like him, it was pure hell, transporting them in unlivable conditions to camps. As a (literal and figurative) vessel, trains are adaptable to and informed by our situations. Trains can be read and experienced in a thousand different ways—signifying the future or the past, Bond-esque adventure or monotonous routine. We are the ones responsible for reading into them symbols and emotions. Alice Munro’s description rings true: a human being could without discomfort pass a life on a train… but “could” is a word of conditional possibility. There is nothing idyllic or comforting about trains when you think of the horrifying experiences of hundreds of refugees dying today—riding along the same routes as my ancestors once did. And, sitting in a comfortable seat, staring out onto a tranquil view, wrapped up in one’s own going concerns/study abroad adventures, I find it can be frighteningly easy to forget this.