A Shunting We Will Go!
(Criss-crossing continents on long-distance trains)
Cocooned in my berth on the Royal Scotsman, I was thinking of Ha’Penny Hangers, those rooming houses in Dublin and Liverpool where men slept suspended by their armpits on ropes attached to the wall. I do this, sometimes. To combat insomnia. I imagine sleeping rough; shivering, alone, uncomfortable. HaPenny Hangers was a ludicrous thought, of course, while lying in Edwardian splendor on a train with marquetry paneled walls, tasseled velvet curtains, Royal Worcester china and peony-pink, silk -shaded lampshades.
I have often wished I lived on a train. Not a train like the Scotsman which was a glorified cruise ship on rails —a 5 day stop, shop and shunt through the Scottish Highlands. In the old days, there was a world of difference between cruising and ocean crossings. Cruising was for the idle, aimless rich: for those who had nowhere to go.The trains I loved were for getting somewhere: L.A., Chicago, Moscow, Vladivostock, Ulan Bataar, Penzance, Istanbul, even Cincinnati.
I’ve memorized their names like poems:The Coast Starlight, the Palmetto ,the Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Cornish Riviera, the Zephyr…Tucked into Frederick Seidel’s “white, crisp sheets as clean as ice,“ tense muscles loosened, relaxed. The rhythm and the click clack of the tracks slowed my pulse.This was when I dreamed not of sleep but of slumber--a word that conjured up a much deeper, more profound kind of oblivion. The kind I remembered from childhood fairy tales.
The trip on the Scotsman was a Christmas gift from my mother. She’d hidden the ticket in the pages of Luxury Trains, a big, bright coffee table book. “Tothe new Nellie Bly, reporter and explorer!” read the affectionate inscription. “Here’s to the Cote d’Azur, the Brighton Belle and the Asian Express!” The gift was bittersweet. For too many years, my mother rarely left her own bedroom.She wasn’t old. Or physically ill. She was depressed. Isolation crept into her life like some poisonous fog and just sort of smothered her.
Like me, she was a fanatic reader: Dickens, Thackeray, Wharton, Balzac, Trollope (who wrote Barchester Towers while riding trains.)For her, there was no better, more amusing, company than her beloved Mr Micawber, the obsequious Uriah Heep, Lily Bart, Lady Glencora and Plantaganet Palliser, Mrs. Spragg and the villainous Seth Pecksniff.
The company I kept on the Scotsman was less amusing: a Polish canine trainer from California, an ancient neurosurgeon anesthetized by endless ‘wee drams’ of free whiskey, a freshly divorced 70-year-old paper magnate from West Virginia with a wildly wandering left eye and three generations of boisterous ladies from the Midwest—one of whom would suffer minor burns after a drunken encounter with an electrified sheep fence.
Onboard, there was a lot of talk about shunting(pushing or pulling a train from the main line to a siding), whiskey, the weather (misty drizzle and foggy sunlight) and the train. Dating from as early as 1891, 1892 and 1912 to as recently as 1930, the nine exquisitely restored carriages included a Dining car, an Observation Car, a Family Saloon Car (which once transported English toffs to their shooting estates) and two Deluxe and State Sleepers. The brainchild of a Mr. Fergus Hobbs,the décor would have thrilled a Russian Empress:plump, over- stuffed armchairs and sofas, the dull gleam of mahogany, exotic, hothouse blooms, heavy-cut crystal, polished silver and two porcelain bathtubs.
Is there any more divine luxury, I wonder, than bathing on a train; than lounging in a bubble bath and sipping chilled champagne while slipping past a panorama of rivers, seaside villages and lonely moors? The agonizingly effete Duke of Windsor was a fan. In 1937, he had a custom-made English tub installed in his private sleeping car. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revolutionary, prodigious drinker and womanizer, preferred black marble. I picture him, up to his neck in hot water, nursing a glass (or two or three) of raki while commuting from his Republic’s new capital in Ankara to Istanbul. In a Pinterest photo of his sumptuously- appointed bedroom, a painting of a naked, large- breasted woman hangs over his satin-quilted berth. Perhaps, the painting reminded him of his one-night stand with Zsa Zsa Gabor. In her 1993 autobiography, One Lifetime is Not Enough, the Hungarian bombshell confessed that the Father of Turkey had taken her virginity at the age of 15.(Tho probably not on a train.)
Staring out the window was one of the greatest pleasures on the Scotsman. (As it is on most trains.) “This is how the earth must see itself,” Nan Shepherd writes in The Living Mountain, a slim, intensely lyrical meditation about her personal relationship with the landscape of the Highlands.Inspired by a lifetime of close, solitary walking, the book reads like a letter to a lover. In 2015, I also discovered Robert MacFarlane’s extraordinary Landmarks-- a 400- page collection of ‘place words.’As precisely intelligent as it is poetic, the book reminds us of the visceral connection between language and landscape. A connection, a literacy, that McFarlane claims we are rapidly losing. As dismal proof, he cites the new Oxford Junior Dictionary where the powers-that- be recently deleted the words acorn, adder, beech, dandelion, fern, hazel, ivy and kingfisher. This, in favor of new, more relevant words like broadband, block-graph, bullet-point, blog, chat room and celebrity.
The Gaelic word, eit, is one of the most enchanting words that McFarlane unearths in his research. Indigenous to the Hebridean island of Lewis, eit is defined in their Peat Glossary (Peat Glossary??) as Firth and glen, ben and vale,moor and loch. My God! So many lochs:Loch Laiden, Lomond, Lochy, and Oich, Loch Maree, Loch Shiel and yes, Ness--the only one we didn’t rattle past….This is more landscape language that I became familiar with while staring out the train window.
I also grew increasingly familiar with the sight of bunting and local notables. Theygreeted us everywhere we stopped. And we stopped a lot: Ft William, Mallaig, Inverness, Keith, Kyle, Perth and the village of Ladybank. There, accompanied by the wail of bagpipes (which the English aesthete, Sacheverell Sitwell, once described as ”wild, yet pensive like the voice of Scotland’s genius”), a Mr. Alexander Bell tottered aboard for a short, grand tour. Impressed and appalled at the extravagance is how he and others must have secretly felt as they cheered, waved and ogled the train.
In the late 1800’s, when some of these same carriages rolled out of their cathedral-like stations, the whole world reeled in stupefied awe. The maiden voyage of George Nagelmacker’s soon-to-be legendary Orient Expressfrom the Gare de L’Est in Paris to Constantinople made newspaper headlines, everywhere from London to New York.Only royal trains rivaled the lavishness of its interiors.“Silk-lined walls, Turkish carpeted drawing rooms, mosaic-tiled bathrooms with hot showers, and a dining car of Cordoba leather and Gobelins tapestries with 18th century-style waiters in silk breeches and powdered wigs.” (Tourism in History, Maxine Feifer) The 81 hour and 40 minute ride towards the arthritic heart of Ottoman Turkey was so smooth that Opper de Blowitz , a Bohemian- born, London Times correspondent, gleefully, boasted that he had managed to shave without nicking himself.
People claim that the miracle of flight—jetliners, space travel, orbiting the earth, landing on the moon--- revolutionized the world. They forget about the impact of trains. Airline companies didn’t bulldoze their way through cities and countryside, displacing entire populations of the working class and the poor.The railroad built empires. It shuttled kings and queens, Emperors and Czars to battlefields; to summer resorts and castles. It also helped to bury empires—transporting the Russian Czar and his family to their executions in Siberia and the Ottoman Caliph and the Hohenzollerns-Hapsburgs to exile in Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The railroad created slums. It gave birth to suburbs. In transporting locally-made products to wider, faraway markets, it redefined the essence of capitalism. It was the railways that prompted Karl Marx to write about ‘the annihilation of space by time,’ a catch phrase that is still used today. (Most recently, in a New Yorker piece about Elon Musk’s new Hyper Loop.) More than anything else,it was the breath- snatching speed, the velocity of trains, that instilled a sense of wonder and subliminal dread among passengers. Here, via Michael J Freeman’s Railways and The Victorian Imagination, a short poem from the satirical magazine, Punch.
“Yes, I’m going by the rail, my dear!
Where the engines hiss and spit
And ten to one, something goes amiss.
And in an instant, quick as thought—
Before you can cry “Ah!”
An accident occurs and say Goodbye to Poor Papa!”
(Which sounds like modern Amtrak.)
This fascination and fear of dying in some catastrophic train accident was hardly surprising.Trains were born in an age, a culture, that fetishized death; that glorified the passing of loved ones with photographs of their animated corpses and wearable relics—bracelets, brooches, lockets-- made of their hair. Mary Shelley, the writer and poet’s widow, kept her husband’s calcified heart in a desk drawer. But there was also talk of ‘railway madness’; of men who boarded these ‘iron horses’ and lost their minds: stripping off their clothes, attacking fellow passengers with knives, murdering them. Some in the medical profession theorized that it was the train’s vibrations affecting the nerves; a form of motion sickness.Freud believed it was directly related to traumatic neuroses.
For a society as straight- laced and repressed as the Victorians, the sudden proximity with strangers, not to mention the mixing of genders on trains, was almost as shocking, as disturbing, as murder. “The intimacy ofstrangeness,” Amy Richter calls it in her fascinating book, Home on The Rails. Unlike American trains which were modeled on the generously- sized public rooms ofsteamboats, European trains were designed to resemble the stagecoach. There were no internal corridors that connected passenger compartments. The doors opened and closed from the outside and only when the train stopped. To find oneself, helplessly, trapped in such a small confined space while hurtling through the countryside with people one had never met was as intoxicating a prospect as it was potentially horrifying.
It’s tempting to dismiss those fears as laughable now. But take a moment to Google ‘movies on trains’. You’ll find at least sixty diesel-propelled disaster films that continue to tap into those same primal fears and anxieties: The Cassandra Crossing, The Taking of Pelham 123, Snowpiercer, Death Train, Source Code, Unstoppable, Train to Terror, Snakes on a Train, Runaway Train (based on a screenplay by Akiro Kurosawa, no less.) All of them featuring out-of-control trains with no drivers, no brakes; trains that blow up, crash, derail and fall off bridges…Trains carrying the plague, nuclear bombs, assassins, spies, escaped convicts. On the flip side, trains also offered a fast track to romance in classics like North by Northwest, Shanghai Express and Doctor Zhivago.George Mortimer Pullman, inventor of the American train deluxe, even reserved a car exclusively for honeymooners.
There were no honeymooners, bombs, spies or railway Romeos on the Royal Scotsman. As for ‘breath- snatching speed”? Velocity? If only… For us, it was about maintaining a ‘stately pace’, a pace that seemed to involve a great deal of waiting and disembarking.
13 15/1340: Crianlarich. Loco (as in motive not crazy) runs round train to pull from other side. Passengers may disembark while waiting.
13 52/14 35: Tyndum Upper. Guests may disembark while train waits to cross.
14 49/1545: Bridge of Orchy. Guests may disembark while train waits to cross with up train.
1625/1637: Carrour. Cross with up train.
Waiting in a provincial train station is where German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, launches Part 2 of his dense and frequently tedious, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics. “We find ourselves overwhelmed with boredom. In an attempt to suppress this unpleasant mood… we look around unceasingly, though without success, for some pastime…We have begun to perceive time as dragging, moving too slowly, and we, repeatedly catch ourselves in the act of looking at our watch as if to measure how little time has passed since we last looked.”These days, we’d all be sucked into the infinite voids of our screens: phones, laptops, tablets. But for Heidegger, the experience of waiting, of confronting raw time, eventually led to a new awareness of existence and of being.
Time itself was a weirdly eccentric , unpredictable construct in the early years of trains. Many local regions in England, for instance, had their own individual time. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch reports inThe Railway Journey, “London time ran four minutes ahead of time in Reading, seven minutes and 30 seconds ahead ofCirencester time and fourteen minutes ahead of Bridewater time etc..” (How bizarre would that be? To speak, sorry, to text , a friend who lived an hour away but fourteen minutes behind you?) Those minutes didn’t matter much, not for as long as the regions remained isolated from one another and traffic between them moved slowly.
The speed of trains obliterated that distance.The minutes began to matter, especially when profits depended on the reliable and punctual delivery of freight. Some form of standardized time had to be established.Which is when time became even more deviously complicated. In the 1840’s, every private railway company in England standardized its own individual times. None of them, however, coordinated those times with one another. It wasn’t until the late 1850’s, as Schivelbusch points out, “ the companies decided to form a national railroad network and Greenwich Time was introduced as the standard time, valid on all lines.” In the United States, it would take another forty years before American robber barons and railroad titans, Gould, Vanderbilt, Harriman, Fisk and Carnegie, agreed to acknowledge four separate time zones. In 1918, these same four zones were officially recognized as regional standard times throughout the country.
Thankfully, time on The Scotsman was less complicated. When my fellow passengers weren’t tipsy and tripping over electrified sheep fences (it’s a very gentle jolt), they were herded aboard fancy, liveried coaches to hunt down bargains in woolen mills and distilleries. Alone and free to roam the train, I would sip tea and gossip with the staff. (Most of whom were as astonished as I by this palace on wheels.) I was particularly intrigued by the chefs, 26 year-old Andrew Radford and his Tasmanian sous-chef,Mark Newell.Confined like convicts in a galley barely big enough to beat an egg, they worked six days a week, fifteen hours a day.
While we lurched over bogs, careened over viaducts and shunted back and forth from sidings, they spun fairy- tale- like turrets of sugar and rolled and unrolled feather- light pastry with the finesse of gilders laying down leaves of gold. They reduced sauces, slivered slices of Achittibuie salmon and pan- fried fillets of Aberdeen Angus beef. Lobsters, hacked into pieces at midnight, reappeared at midday as delicate quenelles in a light coral cream sauce served with tiny hayricks of string beans. I once watched them leapfrog over tracks in search of fresh bitter cress, lovage and wild garlic. Sweating in 130 degree heat, they even made Grand Marnier ice cream and lemon sorbets.
Their only dream was to cook standing-still. I have no idea what became of the Tasmanian. But Mr. Radford was later hailed as one of Scotland’s most acclaimed chefs. In an astounding off- the-rails coincidence, I would dine at his four-star restaurant, Timberyard, when I returned to Scotland to perform in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, thirty years after our chats in the galley.
Reading was another great pleasure on The Scotsman. I read, incessantly. I, always, do on trains. Over a century ago, this new habit, the ritual, of reading on trains nearly doubled the fortunes of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.“In 1848, W.H. Smith got the exclusive rights to sell books and papers on the Birmingham Railway,” notes Schievelbusch, again, in The Railway Journey. ”By 1849, the station library at Paddington had over 1,000 volumes, mostly works of fiction.”For a small fee, passengers could borrow the books and return them at their destinations.
Alas! This was not an option when I travelled on trains. And books hadn’t yet become weightless.You couldn’t download thousands of words onto a Kindle or cell phone. So I lugged pounds of reading material around with me in my bags. (When Itravelled with my husband, I would rip my paperbacks in half. He would read the beginnings while I sped through to the end.) On the Scotsman, it was the novels of William McIlvanney that moved me even more the landscape.
Shunted to yet another siding outside his city of Glasgow and gazing at a wall of graffiti (MAC AND BONGO IN THE VALE. ANKLE AND ROSCO F&*K THE POLIS!) I devoured Laidlaw, the first in his trilogy about a Glaswegian police detective. A man whose brooding faith in doubt, uncommon decency and wit, remain as luminously alive to me now as they were on that wet, grey afternoon when I scribbled down my favorite lines.
“That’s a bastard. When we has wee, he wis showin’ old women HALFway across the road.”
“The weekend stretches ahead of them like a continent.”
“A street that died like progress.”
“I house trained my dreams.”
And this, which for me, has become a sort of mantra: “Those who love life take risks. Those who don’t take insurance. “
The Hobbit was the first book I read on a long-distance train. I was 10. My mother had splurged on a two- bedroom suite on the 20th Century Ltd. Most of the amenities that had once made The 20th Century America’s most glamorous, all- bed express between New York and Chicago were history: the barber shop,beauty salon,train stenographers, library and radio telephones. But conductors still blew their whistles and shouted “All Aboard!”Porters still made up our Pullman berths, turning down the starched white sheets while Mom sipped a cocktail in the bar car and I circled our dinner orders with a stubby yellow pencil.There was dover sole on the menu, steak with mashed potatoes, apple pie and ice cream—all prepared by chefs in stiff, white toques.
My mother, a woman approaching a ‘certain age’, a woman for whom nothing had ever been certain, was happier and more serene than I could remember on that train. She reveled in the conspiracy of details that created such a perfectly silent, safe space:the rubber rings around the drinking glasses, the bumpers in the closet, the pristine stainless steel sink with its tiny bars of crinkly papered soaps.(We both loved how the sink snapped so succinctly back into place on the wall.) Curled up on the edge of my berth, she read a chapter from The Hobbit out loud as I marveled at the motion and the glamour of a sky full of moon and stars.Before tiptoeing into her room, she switched off my reading light and cracked the window open. I was lulled to sleep by the mournful whistle of the locomotive (which a German writer once likened to the sound of yearning).
I’m not quite sure what a 10-year-old yearns for.Other than love. Like most kids, I wanted things. But wanting isn’t the same as yearning.By then, I knew that my parents were quietly but savagely unsuited.And I blamed my mother for it. I blamed my mother for everything I didn’t understand. Following my father’s lead, I dismissed her. I pretended she wasn’t there. But not that night on the train. The train was neutral territory. I wish now that I had been kinder to my mother. If I had, I might have learned to be kinder to myself.
Perhaps, it was my memory of that truce with my mother and my glimpse of moonlight and stars, that seduced me into my passion for trains.For the eleven years I worked at an ad agency, my partners would fly off to Ohio or Texas or California for meetings and commercial shoots and I would book The Cardinal to Cincinnati, the Lonestar to Dallas and my favorite, the Broadway Limited, to Chicago. Here in the Windy City, I would hop off to get my hair done at the department store, Marshall Field’s, before jumping back on the old Superchief to Los Angeles. Renamed the Southwest Chief in the 1990’s, this five-day trip over the Rockies, across the plains and through the desert was one of the most magnificent journeys on the planet.
“Oh my God! Please don’t tell me! She’s joy riding, AGAIN?” This was my boss shouting over the pay phone (yes, the pay phone) to my partner who was patiently awaiting my arrival at L.A.’s Union Station
My boss was right, of course. I was joy riding. Blissfully aimless and free of ambition, these were years when I lived with total abandon, looking forward only as far as the train’s final destinations.Just the names of the cities that lay ahead thrilled me. Ulan Ude, Novosibirsk, Budapest, Sofia, Chita, Hohhot, Santa Fe, Leningrad, Omsk… Many of these journeys, these joy rides, took me deep behind the Iron Curtain. It seems almost prehistoric now—that era of rigidly guarded borders in the Eastern Bloc:
It was the opulence, the decadence and the politics of the Byzantines and the Sultans that captivated me. On the train, I had read and underlined passages from Robert Grave’s Count Belisarius, Noel Barber’s The Sultans and the magical Illustrated Constantinople “Described by Alexander Van Millingen”, published in 1906.This was the vanished world I longed to explore.
In the 80’s, Istanbul was a forgotten city. There were no touts pushing tours of the Bosphorus, no bombs, nightclub jihadis or busloads of burka’ed Iranians and Saudis.The corkscrew streets were missing cobblestones. Bunches of shoddily insulated electrical wire dangled overhead and the dim, dark squares were empty. They were empty but alive with the noise and whispers of other centuries: with conspiracies and gossip among jealous eunuchs, ambitious viziers and concubines. For two weeks, we climbed up and down the steep hills, in and out of mosques and medieval hammans, seeking out those shadows where I listened for the footsteps of the Sultan’s assassins and the cries of royal siblings, strangled to death by deaf mutes with silken bowstrings. At Topkapi, I would sit for hours on a three-legged stool gazing at the display of precious everyday objects: solid gold forks, sewing needles and thimbles, bed curtains encrusted with swathes of diamonds and pearls, a 17th century, rock -crystal canteen, pen boxes, jewel -drenched turbans and robes…
“Pym loved luxury as only those who have love taken from do.” That’s John LeCarre in The Perfect Spy.I suspect that my attraction to luxury and to these long extinct “trappings of wealth’ (has anyone ever considered the irony of that phrase?) might also explain my obsession with Imperial Russia and the Czars.For years, when I thought of Russia, I imagined the dispossessed, its former people, fleeingtheir palaces; fugitives hiding jewels in flowerpots , in talcum and cocoa power tins and in the bellies of shabby teddy bears. In 1978, I travelled solo, in the dead of winter, on the Trans Siberian Express from Khabarovsk to Moscow. Thanks to yet another tolerant and hugely amused boss, I had taken a ‘sabbatical’ from advertising, vowing to travel overland and by sea all the way from Hong Kong to New York.It took three months.
In Hong Kong, I hitched a ride on the QE2, with my friend, an engineer, up the coast of China to Kagoshima, Japan. I then bulleted to Tokyo and onto a city in the north.My Madison Avenue travel agent, a marvelously efficient Russian named Lena,had informed me that were no ferries or fishing boats across the Sea of Japan to the Soviet Union. I would be forced to break my vow, just this once, and board an Aeroflot flight to the Russian coastal town, Nahotka.
After a bumpy landing and a nerve- shattering search through my knapsacks and every page of my passport, an Intourist ‘nanny” escorted me from the airport to the station. And there she was: a real Soviet Snowpiercer, flexing weary, steel muscles, belching diesel fumes. (It’s funny how many things that move us, in every sense of the word—ships, trains, cities, countries, the Church—are still referred to as “she”. I like how that “she” remains stoically fixed; how it defies the anarchy of gender.)
With over 45 stops, the Trans Sib was more like a local milk train—a six- day slumber party.But this was the joy:staying put and sitting still while being slowly, very slowly, swept forward.I’d booked a hard-class compartment and wasted no time setting up house. I love this form of homesteading on trains—arranging one’s belongings, dop kits, flashlight, books, good luck candles.All in those fishnet pockets, overhead storage racks and invisible spaces beneath the lower berths. My roommates, a trio of hulking Georgians, barely stirred from their drunken stupors.
I don’t remember much of that first twenty-four hours.Justa state of delicious drowsiness and the roof-raising snores of the Georgians. On the second morning, the men were ousted in a bloodless coup, engineered by the conductors, Tanya and Elena. For the next week, Tanya, a gigantic, gold- toothed cleaning machine and mother of two from Vladivostock, would tend to me and to our car with the same solicitous care and attention of an OCD housewife.
Like many on the train, she regarded me with a mixture of bewilderment and disapproval. Maybe it was because I was American—an unmarried woman, alone. Maybe it was my wardrobe: strands of Woolworth pearls, fire-engine red, button-up, long johns, a black wool midi skirt, and silver socks. Or maybe it was the fact I washed my hair, an act of foolishness that appalled the entire car. This paralytic fear of the common cold in Russia has never made much sense to me. How perilous is it, shampooing in an overheated train compared to cavorting around, naked and wet, in the snow in sub zero temperatures. This, after hours sweating in a banya?Much of life in Russia seems to be a near-death experience.
Tanya’s campaign to fatten me up was like a chapter out of Hansel and Gretel.At midnight, she’d wrench open a trapdoor at the end of the corridor and haul out a sack of potatoes.
“Buried treasure,” Yuri, a guitar-playing geologist, would giggle.
Tenderly placing a few potatoes on a bed of smoldering coals beneath the samovar, she’d stand guard as they baked, poking and prodding them with the broom handle.In retrospect, the smell of that humble potato wafting through the car was as tantalizing as the fancy fillets of Aberdeen beef on The Scotsman. After delivering them to my door, hot and slathered in fresh smetana (a Russian sour cream), Luda and her friend, the daughter of a powerful, highly placed apparatchik in Moscow, would nibble at a bit of the skins and leave the rest for me. I would then slip, stuffed and stupid into my berth, lost in what the great, doomed poet, Osip Mandelstam, called “an envelope of snow-white railway sleep. ” (The poet was one of over a million Russians who rode these rails to their deaths in the gulag).
Mendalstam, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Pushkin, Pasternak, Nabokov, Bulgakov. They were all were college favorites of mine.But the Marquis de Custine’s Empire of the Czar is the book that I return to most often. This epistolary glimpse into the sprawling, inscrutable contradiction and calamity known as Russia is as readable now as it was when it was published in 1839.The Marquis was a French
“A cunning apathy is the secret of existence.”
“Every Russian is born an imitator. He is, by consequence, a great observer
“In Russia, to converse is to conspire, to think is to revolt. Thought is not merely a crime, it is a misfortune.”
At dusk, my newfound friends overturned suitcases in the middle of the corridor. Covered with a sheet, borrowed from Tanya, they piled this make-shift table with sausages, pickles, borscht, red caviar, mushrooms, loaves of dark bread and zakuski—those delicious ‘little bites’ served before a meal that help absorb the vodka. Most of the food was purchased from railway babuschkas, an army of wrinkled oldwomen in aprons and scarves who popped up at every station to flog their wares.As a guest of the U.S.S.R., my efforts to contribute were brusquely rejected. I returned the generosity with gifts from my knapsack: tee shirts, socks, soaps and blue jeans. The blue jeans were the most prized of all. I gave them to Luda’s friend, Olga, who promised me (and delivered) a fabulous, six-hour private tour of the Kremlin. It was a rude awakening when the track ran out and the train jolted to its last stop.I was light-headed, dizzy, for days afterwards. I missed the motion, the irrelevance of time, the consolation of strangers.
“Take the toughest man”, said Mr. Pullman, “and bring him into a room elegantly carpeted and furnished, and the effect upon his bearing is pronounced and immediate.”
For those who survive an anarchic childhood, there is nothing more reassuring than a sense of order. One year after that overnight train ride on the 20th Century with my Mom, I left the chaos of home for boarding school—a convent in Albany NY known as the “Mother House.”Here, my curtained cubicle, identical to every other cubicle in the dormitory, was furnished with a single chest of metal drawers, a bed, a chair and a window.And oh how it consoled and comforted me-- this religiously neat and tidy cell of mine.“I looked after it,” writes French novelist Marguerite Duras about her first home. “ I cleaned it. I took ‘great care’ of it.”
It is only now that I recognize the stunning similarities between that convent cubicle and the cabins and compartments I would later occupy on ocean liners and trains.It wasn’t just the furnishings. It was the feelings engendered by the space. Feelings of well-being, of peace and safety. There are other uncanny similarities, too. Just as I would rely on the ringing of bells in the convent—bells that called me to chapel, to lunch, to study hall, to recreation and sleep, I would later rely on a ship’s chimes and train whistles, sounds that reinforced a sense of order, of structure and boundaries.
With age, they say one’s vision weakens. One loses sight of possibilities. The intensity of dreams shrinks like the fine print on a Tylenol bottle But the echo of these aural memories?Of emotional space?They remain as vivid as ever. I haven’t done much therapy (which I regret.)But I do know that victims of trauma, compulsively, seek out situations reminiscent of the original trauma. They reenact it, over and over again. Perhaps, my attraction to ships and trains is way of reliving not the trauma but the peace and pleasures I found in that convent.This and the memories of that first and only train ride with my Mom on the 20th Century.