Once upon a time we traveled by train. In compartments seating maybe eight people, four facing another four. Sometimes there would be conversation, even intimate confessions, as if the speaker were talking to her therapist, convinced none of the other would ever see each other again. It was persons interacting with persons. Going even further back there might not even be compartments, but rows of wooden seats. Third class.
Now, well, now communication all takes place virtually with each individual immersed in talking to an invisible someone on an iPhone. The person across from you no longer exists. And the landscape outside the window? The world has shrunk yet somehow also become unlimited in size and scope.
Reflections on reflections in a moving train
Back in 1990 perhaps.
The journey is about to begin. We find a seat next to a window. There’s a girl across the way, filing her nails, and she could be pretty if she used a bit of makeup. She might be Russian, surely not Italian. She laughs, hands the girl across from her a printed paper. We glance outside at the usual view of tracks, other trains. Not all that interesting unless one thinks of how Sheeler might have drawn it, with a ruler and a T-square. The train begins to move. Slowly. The station is left behind, giving way in the bright sunlight to low buildings then to fields and green grass. The girl gets up, opens the window at the top (one could still open the windows then) and takes a picture. Even though there doesn’t seem to be much to take a picture of. The train moves faster, we catch fleeting glimpses of countryside. If only we could reach out and pick some of those red poppies, or the roses turning the shell of a half-ruined station along the tracks into a romantic subject. It is all out of reach, untouchable. There’s the glass between us and the world out there. What we see is an elsewhere, a continuously changing elsewhere.
Then suddenly the train enters a tunnel. The outer world disappears and the world we see is somehow thrown back at us. Real reflections in the window, reflections of the touchable reality, which is still untouchable. Moving, we now are the ones moving, changing the way we see ourselves and others. Till suddenly the train emerges from the tunnel and we disappear, swallowed up by the brilliant world outside. Those fleeting scenes outside are constantly changing, defined by the window frame, inside we have the reality of what we can see and touch, the reflection is the world thrown back at us in that interface of glass.
6 thoughts on “Reflections on a Train”
I only travelled a few times by train in the US before moving to Europe, where it became a regular feature of my life. I have taken everything from the toonerville trolley versions of regional rail links, to the overnight Brenner Express to Vienna. Back in the US train travel is a novelty. I look forward to my next trip from the little station behind Termini to Orvieto! James II
Was Derrida on that train?
Maybe. Anyway Jenni Diski and her Sranger on a Train would have been very appropriate. Trains are trains.
It’s still exciting I think, a proper train journey through an unknown landscape – I don’t mean the commuter trains rattling into the city centre day after day. Air travel used to be exciting too, when you could look down on the clouds or the landscape, but sadly nowadays the blinds are closed so everyone may enjoy their screens. But as you remind us, Erika, train travel can still offer romance – and reflection!
By coincidence I am reading this piece in a train en route to a rendezvous with Donatello. But this piece is evoking a lifetime of train memories: our family trips back to the Midwest via Pullman compartment, the last lap of which featured the Vista Dome; the Trans-Europa Express where in 1972 with the help of the Sicilian workers in our compartment, I studied my “Let’s Learn Italian” flash cards that they found hilarious. Those sentences which proved useful when we arrived in Rome with no reservations and promptly got ourselves adopted by an Italian family have stayed with me and made for good stories. And then there are the train stories of trips that you and I took together. Grazie for this train trip down Memory Lane!
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