Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The symphony of trains.


I love trains. I have always loved trains.

My first time riding the railways, I was 11 years old. My father got tickets for my older brother and I to go from Las Vegas to Vermont on the Transcontinental railways. The three day journey took us on rickety tracks that switched back and forth through the Rockies, only to rocket through the Midwest planes. I remember going to sleep with views of corn fields and waking 8 hours later to views of corn fields. It was amazing.

When I got a bit older and came to Europe, I reveled in traveling everywhere on trains. Here it’s the easiest way to travel, unlike in the States.

In Europe trains leave on time. They are timed with such precision that if you are not paying attention you can miss it by seconds. More than once, I have found myself running breathlessly to catch a train as the last whistle blows. Boarding microseconds before the doors slide shut with an air-pressured ‘whhoosh’, I smile in solidarity at all the other passengers sweating and grinning breathlessly, like me.

It’s intoxicating! 

Plus, you get to people-watch! I love people-watching.

Staring at strangers is not impolite in France. My American-ness resisted the urge at first, thinking it was rude, but a year in Paris cured me of that. Now I love it.

I love to stare. I love trains. I love staring on trains.

So this week, as I boarded the train for Zurich, I excitedly found my way to the upper level (Yes! It was a double-decker train!). Wandering around a bit trying to decide where to sit, I stumbled across the dining car.

Each table was neatly set with a bright, linen table cloth with burnt-orange leather chairs. Even though every table was occupied, there were still a few empty chairs. Smiling inwardly, I remembered that in Europe you can share public tables with strangers where seating is limited. Scanning the small car for the best place to sit, I found a large table with an elderly gentleman reading the paper.

-- ‘Do you mind if I sit with you?’ I asked in French.
-- ‘Not at all,’ he said with a smile, and slowly inched his newspaper out of my way.

He had a neatly trimmed beard that was graying in all the right places. His finely tailored suit screamed ‘business-exec’, and his sparkly watch flashed money. I guessed banker. Small thin-rimmed glasses perched on his flawless face, hid the smile tucked in the corner of his eyes.

He ordered tea which was served in a loose-leaf tea bag, on real china! DE-luxe!

Behind him sat two men in their thirties, drinking espressos. One kept glancing over at me with interest, perhaps trying to figure out why this jean-sporting-backpack-carrying woman was in first class. Or perhaps, he was just people-watching, too.

The view from my lofty seat revealed acres of newly-budding grape vines on tightly-wound wire frames, stretching for miles. Behind them, as the hills melted into mounts, the vines were replaced by spots of tan and red with brightly colored shutters.

Even further beyond, sharp, rocky cliffs jutted from seemingly nowhere, pointing to the snow-capped peaks above. The flashes of whites, browns, and greens blurred by as I tried to take it all in.

What world is this?

Pulling my thoughts back to the train-car at hand, I continued to look around. The clink of metal spoons stirring coffee, the whirring of the espresso maker brewing sludge, and the gentle voices of distant lands collided to make me swoon with delight. I had to close my eyes to get a grip.

Coming back into focus, my eyes glanced sideways at the petite woman to my right ordering an espresso with a German accent. The couple behind me read the paper-- one engrossed in the financial times, the other skimming cartoons and looking bored.

Mellow, accented voices floated passed, keeping time with the tickety-tac of the train. It was a symphony of indulgences and sensory delights.

“Un autre espresso, S’il vous plait, M’dam,” I ordered from the server walking passed.

... the second act was just beginning.