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.”
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