Train of Thought
The promise of a trip to New York had set the tone in my writing class for weeks before it necessitated a discussion about transportation. The prospect of adventure for the sake of our art evoked animation from all corners of the room, but I sat this one out. I had only traveled by plane and bus to the city; proximity ruled out the former, and I felt thankful that Megabus had yet to enter the conversation. Driving seemed to be the most popular option, that is, until someone mentioned taking the train. The suggestion summoned a near-unanimous, Ooooh, but I was quiet. Our professor noticed the look on my face before I’d realized that I reacted, and he understood it as distaste.
The truth is that, in that moment, my feelings toward train travel were unclear--I hadn’t even been on a train until after my twentieth birthday, when locomotives became semi-permanent fixtures during the nomadic weeks I spent backpacking. Back then, I hadn’t had a choice; each train had been the means to achieving the next end destination. Sometimes I had hated them for their structural imposition on my comfort, and a few times, I loved them for providing a space to relax and relive the long days. After the trip ended, though, I hadn’t thought much about the trains at all.
In class, the conversation diverged away from transportation, but for me, time stopped.
I open my eyes and slowly remember where I am. In a daze, I take inventory of my surroundings: the locomotive hum of wheels on tracks, the splendid vacancy of the car, and Lauren, my devoted friend and travel companion, still asleep with her head bent forward on her chest. Until our brief, claustrophobic plane ride over Western Europe, I could never sleep like that, but exhaustion had taken hold and eased the ever-present tension in my neck.
Still, I’m grateful to have avoided the position this time around. Thanks to the emptiness of the car, and to Lauren’s generosity, I had snagged a window seat and avoided total discomfort. Lauren sits next to me despite an abundance of other available window seats, a selfless decision that I don't understand.
“We’re stronger as a pair,” she’d said, Heaven forbid someone might prey on us. That’s just how she is.
We’re somewhere in Poland and the sun is high, reminding me of how much we have already done in so few hours. I glance at my phone and realize that in less than an hour we will arrive in Krakow. Shit. Only thirty minutes until I leave this cushioned oasis, a departure from the cold airport floor that made our bed last night, and again lift the bag that I know must be doing permanent damage to my back.
We’d better get some pierogies, I think to myself. We have abandoned the original plan to visit Auschwitz, a trek that would have required additional transportation, and emotional stability. That’s all I want, one pierogie.
The voice of the conductor rouses Lauren, and the look on her face immediately stirs my inner adventuress. Oh yeah, we’re in Europe. I nearly bubble over with girlish giggles——how easily experience is taken for granted.
Pierogies, here we come, she says.
Lauren and I sit on the deserted platform, early (as usual) for the train. Too many horror stories of getting stranded, and too few euros to risk it, have influenced our habits. No internet, and we’re sick of playing cards. Instead, we [shamelessly] take selfies with our baguettes, the long ones that don’t last long enough. That’s what France is good for——bread. And cheese, but of course we’re all out. The actual food, that of decent quality, was largely out of our price range, though we probably would have spent our money on bread and cheese anyway——the brie speaks for itself.
Hoping to save the bread for morning, I send Lauren to grab some snacks with our last couple euros. She returns with two bottles of water and——what?!——a chocolate bar. Hysterical, I cannot believe that she has spent our last few coins on candy. Even though we probably won’t survive the night, I can’t be mad because I know it’s something I would do.
Our train finally arrives just as the sun disappears. In typical fashion, I spearhead the search for our sleeper room, and quickly locate it. I stop. Looking back at Lauren, I shake my head. Triple bunk beds line the two walls, triggering my mild claustrophobia and sending me into a panic. We are the first to the room, so we get to choose our fate.
I’m considering the bottom bunk when I imagine the train jerking to a halt and the two above bunks crushing my little body like Giles Corey in The Crucible. Top bunk it is.
Lauren and I are settling into our overnight train ritual, a retelling of events before succumbing to our individual iPods, when four blonde girls enter. With a wave to us, they begin unloading their things. Oscillating between a Scandinavian-sounding language and English, it seems that they, too, memorialize their adventures before bed, but the language barrier prevents me from knowing for sure. Besides, I’m too tired to try, and I’m slowly dozing off when I hear Lauren.
I look over at her and she’s frantically pointing down at the girls, one of which is speaking animatedly in the Scandinavian language. I take out my headphones and listen. It’s not until I recognize “a-wimba-wep, a-wimba-wep,” that I realize she’s reciting a scene The Lion King. Verbatim.
Lauren and I succumb to fits of laughter, struggling to conceal ourselves until Lauren breaks the barrier. Sorry, is that The Lion King? Affirmative. YOU’RE AMAZING!
And, just like that, Lauren’s enthusiasm has cultivated another friendship.
As I lift myself into the train, I’m confronted by a wall of humidity. The August heat has lingered well after dark amongst the languid bodies overcrowding the interior and, even in minimal clothing, my limbs stick together. Lauren and I navigate the sea of passengers only to find our assigned seats filled by teenage boys. We decide not to argue about train etiquette and search for new seats that would serve as beds en route to Vienna.
After fifteen minutes of coming up short, we snag two middle seats in a room of six (just like the Hogwarts Express, I note) and, facing each other, allow the stale heat to lull us to sleep.
I wake to a jolt, and notice that the train has stopped. Groggy, I hear concerned voices say that someone tried to jump in front of the train. Or maybe someone jumped out of the train. I can’t be sure. I look at my phone - it’s been two hours.
Lauren looks at me, weariness seeping into her typically bright disposition. She opens her mouth to say something when someone knocks on the window to our room. An obnoxious-looking boy motions for us to slide the door open. He’s wearing a graphic designer tee, his hair is too perfect given the conditions, and the look on his face reveals that he’s far too proud to have disturbed us—but, of course, Lauren humors him.
I’m too tired to deal with this nonsense, but the interaction proves amusing. Almost immediately, he asks her if she is Turkish. I chortle, knowing she gets this kind of thing all the time. She’s 100% Italian, but her ruthless dark curls and light skin prove ambiguous to strangers. Their conversation winds down once he realizes that, no, we aren’t going to shotgun some beers with him and his friends; so I make another attempt at sleep.
And I work hard for it. I utilize every inch of the space, contorting my body until, at one point, I am upside down in the chair, careful not to disturb my neighbor. Lauren, on the other hand, greets me at sunrise with red-rimmed eyes. It appears that her endeavors were less successful, leaving me to provide the cheer that reconciles our exhaustion with the prospect of a new city.
Vienna waits for us, I say. This makes Lauren laugh, she always goes for the cheesy jokes.
Should we do it? Lauren asks.
The cashier stares blankly at us, waiting for our decision. At this point, I’ll sacrifice tomorrow’s dinner for an actual bed, I rationalize. And it’s decided. We book a triple sleeper room on the next train to Venice, a luxury purchase by our standards. Even after my contortionist performance, I ended up falling asleep on the floor of the ticket station in Vienna.
Under normal circumstances, I can fall asleep anywhere, but would probably fight fatigue before taking up residence on the floor in a public area. Traveling is funny like that, it brings out even the simplest of truths about people. Like how I couldn’t have cared less about where or how I slept.
Lauren cared, though. She chastised me for my lack of sanitary concern, and, in a departure from her frugality, suggested the fancy sleeping arrangement for our next trip.
We board the train giddy, and find that our roommate is mysteriously absent, leaving us with the 4x6ft palace to ourselves. We take stock of the room, discovering a private sink and, the most unexpected, miniature champagne bottles. Next to the bottles lie breakfast cards, with unlimited options, including (and I squeal) Nutella with toast.
Lauren and I primp for bed like Princesses of Monaco, listlessly sipping champagne and speaking in ridiculous accents - nearly forgetting that its been days since our last shower. We ignore this fact, throwing ourselves dramatically onto the beds, like soft white clouds beneath our wasted limbs. For the first time during our travels, my body stops aching long enough for me to linger in the space between restlessness and sleep. Long enough for me to forget about the inevitable damage to my back and to just listen. The train hums on, carrying us like a magic carpet to our next destination and, like magic, our newest frontier will be awaiting us when we wake. But for now, I just listen.