Sitting contentedly in a train, absorbed in some abstruse book, or engrossed in the erratic dance of light-patches…. enveloped in the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours” ….
Yes, certainly, ”I love trains, and they have always loved me back”.
My enduring love-affair with trains probably dates back to childhood, in particular to the yearly family holiday to the South of France. Our train-trip would start in a sooty but still grand Brussels station (quite impressive for the provincial little girl I was) , where we would board a night train from the venerable “Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lit” (2)
Of course, the objects of my travel-contentment were not the same as now: at that time I doted on the comic-books and peaches my parents dealt out to keep us quiet, and even on the cute little plastic cutlery that went with the packaged meals distributed by the train attendant. My elder sisters, while also keen on comics & peaches, did not compete for the cutlery, but rather swooned over the male attendant.
As to the “sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours”, instead of a poetic incantation, it was a most sensuous and sleepy rhythm indeed back then: to my great delight, at night, the seats of our compartment were transformed into 6 sleeping bunks with real sheets & blankets & pillows.
Round about 9PM my parents invariably would start worrying about the train attendant not showing up in time to perform this remarkable transformation . My 2 sisters and I further added to my parent’s stress by quarreling over who would get the top-bunk. But in the end all the family members would join in the merry hunt for the diverse light switches, with my father authoritatively seizing control of the main switch.
In the morning I would excitedly climb down out of my bunk and look out of the window to discover a southern sunlit landscape with beige-colored houses having wooden shutters. My parents would be swapping sleepless stories of all the nightly stops & shouts & murmurs that had kept them awake, but which for me had only been enchanting echoes to my train dreams. And then of course started the big morning rush to the lavatories & washing facilities, with each family egoistically monopolizing a washing facility for all of its members.
After the washing ritual, my sisters would be allowed to wander about the train, taking stock of the other teenagers, peeping into the attendant’s compartment , starting to plan their activities at the holiday resort. I would stand in the narrow passage way just outside our compartment, looking out of the window (with the beloved “e pericoloso sporgersi” admonition and the red sign prohibiting the throwing of bottles). And I would feel, already then, the seductive transience of travelling, with its mixture of great expectations and melancholy.
(1) Tony Judt In love with trains NYRB March 2010 Issue
(2) The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits also operated the Orient Express