In the warm, wistful last weeks of summer, I recently spent some time travelling around Eastern Europe with my girlfriend. As many others do, we chose to move throughout the continent via an InterRail pass, allowing us a certain degree of freedom and flexibility that short of taking a car, would be difficult to attain elsewhere. Naturally, during the occasional moments spent buried deep in rattling carriages as they plunged through murky suburbs, or trudging through concrete labyrinths in the pale light of dawn, it perhaps didn’t seem like the most calculated decision.
Yet as the days began to whistle by, I came to realise that riding the trains through the expanse of Europe yielded far more to the passenger than simply a means to get from A to B. It was a notion that could not only held true for those trundling through Bavarian backcountry or valleys of pine, but for any passenger, anywhere. It seemed to me that a train carriage can become, in the midst of our bustling, modern lives, a small oasis amongst the daily grind. A calming deceleration as the mechanics of movement are left to another, leaving our minds to wander and explore as we pass through the landscape around us.
Of course, for many a train journey, ‘calming’ is perhaps one of the more distant concepts in our collective wayfaring vocabulary. Anyone who has spent time on inner-city metro systems, or their high-speed-link counterparts, will understand the hive of verbal and gestural activity that can surround an individual or small congregation that is forever in the workplace. Similarly, the likelihood of a solitary anomaly among this momentary tranquillity is high, and voices are often raised that pierce through any resemblance of a downbeat atmosphere. Arguing and telecommunication are global in their existence, and therefore their combination is also universally inescapable. But I digress.
Often, we spent whole days on the tracks. Usually, back home, the thought of spending nearly all waking hours en route from one point to another would seem like a ‘waste’. Yet when reaching the destination is not urgent, and there are no tasks to be tackled in transit, a space emerges into which the mind can unfold. I acknowledge that not everyone can spend their summer days weaving through the worlds of Old Europe, and that this space may sound like a distant daydream, but I sense it can be experienced, in one way or another, the world over. Location is not of the essence, and neither is time. Frequently, it takes the jolt of the brakes and the tug of the present before you notice that your mind even went wandering, be it for minutes, hours, or more. It is the situation that allows the space to occur, and therefore I do not feel like my own recent travels are an idiosyncrasy. We all inhabit the desert of the daily bustle, and therefore we can all drink from the same oasis – should we be lucky enough to find it.
Flying, in regard to distance covered for price paid and time spent travelling, is on the whole, far more efficient than taking the train. Yet although we save on numbers and coin, we pay dearly by other means. We sacrifice the journey for the destination. I have no qualms with this method of covering ground – or its lack thereof – as on far more common an occasion than I imagine any of us would desire, we are constrained in our exploration by time, or money, or commitments on home turf. But should the elusive opportunity arise, when these factors are more fluid and their application less stringent, riding the train – or any other means of ground transport – throughout the backdrop of a fabled foreign land allows the mind and body to breathe and to intersperse with the world through which it passes. Aviation transports; the locomotive travels.
To feel cool alpine air whistle in through a window left ajar; to hear the thunder of a frothing waterfall spilling down into the valleys below. To glide through glimmering cities by night, as a dozen different aromas waft through the seams - it is to progress, and to explore. To take the train is to journey, not only through the surroundings, but through the country; the culture; through the intricate tapestry that is life itself.
The InterRail ‘Global Pass’ starts from £160.