I fall for it every time: the idea that train travel is grand and romantic, much the same way I always expect New Year’s Eve to be exciting and momentous. With both, I usually end up disappointed and ready for it to be over.
I was recently reminded of this on a three-hour train ride from Newark, NJ, to Washington D.C. on Amtrak. Though it’s more of a commuter train experience than a travel one, I nevertheless initially visualized sitting in the dining car with a book and something pleasant to eat, relaxing all the way to D.C. The reality of the ride was somewhat different: the dining car was full and I had to walk through two train cars before I found an open seat – and the woman sitting in the adjoining seat was none too thrilled when I asked her to remove her two bags and discarded newspaper so that I could sit. Three hours turned into four when a “police action” in Philadelphia stopped our train cold. By the time I got to Washington D.C. I was hungry and irritated.
Looking back on it, I have no idea why I thought it would be different. I’ve trained it around Europe before and never walked away relaxed or feeling like I’d just had a grand adventure.
In fact, I have almost no memories of any of my long-haul train rides. My first “real” train ride, from London to the Holyhead ferry terminal in North Wales as a 21-year-old backpacker, is a complete blur. I slept through almost the entire thing, exhausted after a flight from New York City to London. I have a few bleary memories of opening my eyes to see what looked like a castle whir by and thinking how beautiful it must be and what a waste it was that I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
Another overnight train ride, from Bucharest, Romania to Sofia, Bulgaria, is also mostly a blur, though my strongest sense memory is one of fear. Fear of finding out I would have to share my sleeping compartment with a stranger – this worry popped up at every stop we made, all through the night (I never did have to share, though I didn’t sleep very well either). Fear that if I left to go get food from the dining car, someone would break into the cabin and take my stuff (I stayed in my compartment all night, forgoing food for reassurance).
Yet despite my mostly unromantic and humble train travels, one of my most intriguing travel memories actually did take place on an overnight train from Prague to Zurich in the days before the European Union existed.
When we got to the German border, immigration officers got on the train and passed through every car, looking at each passenger’s identification. The German officer who entered our car wore a dour face and demanded our passports in a tone of voice that invited no argument. There were six of us in the car: my sister and me (U.S. citizens) and four Italians traveling together. The officer took the first Italian’s passport, looked at it, looked at her, looked at the passport again and then handed it back. He did the same with me. Then he took a second Italian’s passport. Looked at it, looked at the guy, looked at the passport again, frowned and held on to it. He then proceeded to check my sister’s passport and those of the two remaining Italians before finally turning back to the young man’s passport he still held.
The officer held up the passport and inspected it, then looked at the man for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly, the officer started laughing, handed the passport back and left. We were all stunned. That entire routine had been the officer’s idea of a joke — something to keep himself amused during the monotony of checking passports, I guess.
That incident is one of my strongest memories of a six-week backpacking trip in Europe, and it happened on the train. Perhaps that’s why the notion of romantic, exotic, grand and, most importantly, memorable train trips has stuck with me. Train trips may be mostly boring, sleep-inducing experiences, but you never know what might happen.
Have you ever had a memorable experience while traveling on a train? Tell us about it in the comment section below.
— written by Dori Saltzman