April 20, 2009
A Tribute to European Trains Twenty or Thirty Years Old
by Morgan Meis
A friend put his finger on it exactly. You want the older trains, the trains with the compartments enclosing six or eight seats. You want the trains with the sun-washed drapes and the yellow-tinged headrest, marked by decades of not-so-recently-washed hair. You want the train with the sliding glass door that lets you into a narrow hallway along the left side of the train car. You would prefer the train with a rudimentary toilet that flushes by means of a foot pedal, in which, as a man, you can watch yourself pee straight down through the rusty tube onto the track rushing by in a ruffle of wooden slats below. Clickety-clak, clickety-clak. "Do not use the toilet while the train is in or near the station," says the sign.
Europe is a train. The countries are all so close together, train close. A plane won't do it, the fly by is too fast. You must fly over vast quantities of land or sea to get something out of an airplane ride. You have to stare out the window for hours at the unchanging surface of the ocean or the mesmerizing openness of the American plains. That's when the immensity of it gets to you, that's when you understand something about space. To understand space in Europe you have to be on a train.
You sit near the window in your compartment. There are the forward-sitters and the backward-sitters. Both have their logic. Forward-sitters like to see what is coming, they tend to feel positive about the European Union. Backward-sitters are a more melancholy lot. Benjaminian in temperament, they think of Europe as something you grab glimpses of after the fact, after it has already passed us by. Thus we see that space has something to do with time. Thomas Mann said it like this, "All good things take time; so do all great things. In other words, space will have its time. It is a familiar feeling with me that there is a sort of hubris, and a great superficiality, in those who would take away from space or stint it of the time naturally bound up with it." That's an extremely European thought. I'm not sure it's even true, but I like that fact that he said it. Of course, Thomas Mann was Europe. I suppose then, by logical extension, that Mann was a train.
There's a specific way that European women walk. It can't be described but you know it. Perhaps we could say it is slightly more constrained than, for instance, an American gait. But it is oddly provocative in being so. You wouldn't use words like shake and shimmy. Maybe you would say, "slink."
Try to slink on a moving train, though. Your ass is getting thrown from one wall to the other. The slink becomes a goddamn catastrophe. It really gets ugly when she gets to those doors between trains. Those doors are the enemy of elegance everywhere. You are a brute when you reach those doors, an animal fighting for survival. This is the humanity of trains. Nothing is more extraordinary than an aging European woman with well-tailored slacks sitting alone, by the window, in a compartment, chewing just a bit on the end of her pencil. And nothing is more ridiculous than that same woman stumbling toward the restroom as the train snakes up a pass through the Alps. The give and take of a train. The mystery and the baseness.
Do you remember the opening scene of Lars Von Trier's Europa (Zentropa)? The darkness, the camera moving along the train tracks. "You are in Germany," the narrator says. The train, that European train. The narrator counting down from ten. The European train in 1945. What, oh what have you been doing with your trains, Europe? Why is Europe so fucking evil? No one knows. The bread is excellent, though.
Every so often, as the train winds through the European countryside, the tracks will edge up against a local road. You sit staring out the window, sipping a can of German lager, perfectly bitter. Suddenly there is an old man standing at the side of the road, watching the train go by. It all happens quickly, the train is traveling at its top speed. But the human eye is fast too. You lock eyes with the old man and it is startling as hell. He is standing still by the road, and you are hurtling past in a compartment. But there is an uncanny intimacy. He is watching you, you are watching him. You both know it. The eyes have locked. Both of your mouths open just a little, simultaneously. A tiny gasp of mutual shock. The instant is infinite and then gone forever.
There is no sadder place than the platform of a train station. I don't know why exactly. I'm reminded of a few lines by John Ashbery.
Only the wait in stations is vague and
Dimensionless, like oneself. How do they decide how much
Time to spend in each? One begins to suspect there's no
Rule or that it's applied haphazardly.
Sadness of the faces of children on the platform,
It is that, vague and dimensionless. Then Ashbery adds, "like oneself." That's a mean line, ruthless. But that's what you are at a train station, nothing. Standing alone on the concrete platform. Who am I fricking kidding? And it is true that the children are always looking at you funny. Run away, children, I don't even exist.
Then the train comes grudgingly to a halt from around the bend. That's the other thing of it. Trains don't like the station either. Out on the tracks, flying across the countryside a train is pretty damn cool. At the station, eh. Stations break the rhythm of the experience, bring the train-induced reverie down to earth again. You feel guilty standing at the station, knowing that you're the cause of the interruption. Of course, the train never actually leaves earth, that's its honesty. But it slides across the earth, it skirts across the mountains, it rushes along beside the great rivers in their coursing. This makes the brain slide too, skipping across time, memories, thoughts that jingle jangle in the evening light.
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