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Thursday, 25 March 2010

My Love Affair with European Trains

By Ernest Leichter

Even though I haven’t taken a train ride in more than 30 years, I think back to trips I took on trains in Europe with nostalgia. Trains are my favorite means of transportation. I know that planes are faster and ships are more relaxing (unless a person gets seasick), but trains are more fun. The changing topography of the landscape of a train cannot be duplicated with a plane or boat.

European trains in the 1960s and 1970s were very inexpensive. It only cost $24 to travel from northern Italy to London. This included the ferry boat from Calais to Dover. Since the entire trip took about 24 hours, the cost came to about $1.00 an hour.

If I know that a movie has a train scene in it, I will go out of my way to see that movie. That’s how mesmerizing train travel was for me in my youth. Movies such as The Great Train Robbery (Sean Connery), The French Connection (Gene Hackman), Bridge on the River Kwai (Alex Guinness), Some Like It Hot (Jack Lemmon) and Polar Express (Tom Hanks) were five of my all-time favorites.

Just the sound of the train going clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety- clack sent shivers down my spine. It was like the train was playing beautiful music on its instrument, the tracks. I loved the feel of the wind on my face when I peered carefully out the window of a speeding train. I enjoyed getting my passport stamped at border crossings. Though I never set foot in countries like Monaco or San Marino, I could tell my friends I had been there.

Traveling by train through Italy and France always brought back fond memories of northern California. Lake Garda reminded me of Lake Tahoe. The Appenini Mountains brought back memories of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The vineyards of the Loire Valley brought to mind grapes growing in Sonoma and Napa.

The best part about traveling on a train was meeting people. Passengers on trains always seemed to be in a good mood. The reason they were happy was because they were allowed to bring their own food on the train. I was often offered a slice of bologna or salami by my compartment mates. This usually led to a dialogue between us which might last for 500 miles.

I remember starting a conversation with an Indiana couple after being offered an apple. They explained they were on their honeymoon but this was the only day for the next two weeks that they would spend together. The honeymooners met and married after they had put down nonrefundable deposits for European vacations. That day was the only day they had the same itinerary.

Imagine, separate honeymoons!

The worst trip that I ever took on a train was a weekend trip to the Octobre Fest in Munich, Germany in 1962. That is where dark or Bock beer is served in banquet halls only during the month of October. Tables are set up in train stations to accommodate tourists. The tables are so long waitresses have to use roller skates to get from one end of the table to the other.

A friend of mine and I decided to take the train to this gala event. We took a local train from Vicenza to Verona and ate dinner before getting on the Midnight Express. I made the mistake of ordering fish. We were scheduled to arrive in Munich at nine in the morning. The train was crowded with soldiers going to drink beer. We had to stand in the aisle the whole trip.

About an hour into the trip, I started feeling nauseous. I left parts of me in Italy and Switzerland as I hung out the open window. By the time we arrived at the station in Munich, I was feeling better. Just a waft of the smell of beer at the train station was enough to make me deadly sick again. I apologized to my friend and bought a return ticket to Vicenza.

I’ve heard that Amtrak is very comfortable and efficient. The food served in the dining car is considered excellent. In spite of this, I have no desire to take a trip on Amtrak. The excitement of traveling on trains in Europe from one country to another can’t be duplicated in America.

On European trains, unexpected surprises were always happening. Besides, on Amtrak, the conductor doesn’t wake you up in the middle of the night at the border and say, “Passaporto, per favore.”


[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

Great piece.Two European train rides for me were magic too..love the reference to Polar Express,which I could read to every child in the land and still want to share it again..In l986 got great deal of 8 days in Paris with a train ride to Geneva for the day..thru the Alps, like the wind..it was winter too..and you could walk from bar car with hot chocolate & not a worry about spilling..Middle of the night train ride from Moscow to then St Petersburg or viceversa..little compartments like every movie we saw in the l940s & tea in the most ornate glass mug with silver holder..black as could be out the windows, hardly a light out there, even going thru stations..that was 87/88 March, whole trip was fascinating, $ll00 for ll day tour, it was the March before Pres Reagan went to Russia..and I nearly forgot l985..London to ?where we got boat to Scotland during 9 day tour of England, Ireland, Scotland and fastest train ride thru Wales ever..Every time I move my Ralph Lauren (free) suitcase that went on all these trips...I am so glad I had the nerve..love to attempt going across this country on train..we will see, she said wistfully...Mary Follett

Ahhh memories! A Eurorail pass in the 1970's started my adventures. Now I'm thinking of a cross Canada trip. Any comments on the Great North?

My husband and I love trains,too and often ride Amtrak, but one of our nicer trips was from Jasper,Alberta to Toronto,Ontario on VIA, the Canadian Railroad.

We crossed that beautiful country for two days and the scenery was spectacular and the service excellent.

Now there is always one fly in the ointment,as they say. And our biggest disappointment was that they accidently -they claimed- placed the Club Car at the very back of the train and we had to walk through 17 cars to get to it.

It wasn't all bad,though. The drinks were frequent and generous and the walk wasn't so bad on the way back!

Ernest, I love train riding also. Have met many interesting people, also do a lot of writing on trains and have written several poems about trips. There is a wonderful book that you might enjoy. It's called
"Writing the Rails, Train adventures
by the World's Best-Loved Writers." There's around 80 short pieces, most only two to four pages long.

Flo, Before there was Via, I rode Canadian National one way and Canadian Pacific the other way from
Toronto to Vancouver. It's a wonderful trip, especially if you stop a few days in Banff or Lake Louise. Go for it.

My love affair with trains started when I was a child and traveled from Colorado to New York and from there to Florida on the train. I can still feel the excitement.

My lsat trip to Europe I got a Eurail pass and had both the best and the worst train rides of my life. I had a 1st class ticket, but the conductor placed me in a car with no door between the smoking section and the car, plastic seats so hard and poorly shaped that it was not possible to get comfortable, and the lights were on all night. I was going from Budepest to Vienna and it was a miserable ride for a woman in her 70's. But the Swiss trains were fabulous.

My love affair with trains started when I was a child and traveled from Colorado to New York and from there to Florida on the train. I can still feel the excitement.

My last trip to Europe I got a Eurorail pass and had both the best and the worst train rides of my life. I had a 1st class ticket, but the conductor placed me in a car with no door between the smoking section and the car, plastic seats so hard and poorly shaped that it was not possible to get comfortable, and the lights were on all night. I was going from Budepest to Vienna and it was a miserable ride for a woman in her 70's. But the Swiss trains were fabulous.

We love Amtrack...tho he won't climb into an upper berth again. Any train travel is magic, but San Diego to Seattle is glorious as is San Francisco to Chicago.

That separate honeymoon story is ridiculous! That poor couple - hope there was a 2nd honeymoon in the cards for them...

Thanks Ernest, for sharing your wonderful memories of train travel. And do consider revisiting the romance of the rails - I can vouch that a cross-Canada voyage has that je ne sais quoi!


Vivian is Virtual
VIA Rail's tour guide

Oh Oh....now I want to train travel Europe and Asia! It never occurred to me before that I could do that! I wanted to hike the Pyrenees but I waited too long to do that. I am thinking a 60th birthday present to myself, perhaps....? One can never start too early planning one's birthdays..Thanks for the inspiration, Ernest! Lovely story.

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