Ever since I can remember I’ve been drawn to train stations. As a child my favorite amusement park ride was always the train. The train did not appeal to me because it was one of those wimpy rides that one always sees the elderly on, but because of the station that always held the promise of departures and arrivals. Taking the train at an amusement park meant that we were going somewhere, leaving on some kind of adventure. As a child I longed to get away from everything familiar about my world, and since train travel was not possible in the small upstate New York City I grew up in, despite the fact that we had a magnificent train station that was used for offices in our downtown area. No, amusement parks provided me with an imaginary outlet for my yearning to travel by train, to escape.
Many years later, as I was traveling through Spain by train, I found that I had lost none of my early enthusiasm for train travel. Although the train was not a sleeper, and it held none of the comforts of a line like the Orient Express, I was still excited to be moving across the Spanish countryside by rail. The seats were comfortable and my fellow passengers, most of them around my age, seemed to be from all over the world. When traveling by plane one often gets the chance to exchange only a polite hello with the person sitting in the next seat. Traveling by plane is boring and hazardous to one’s imaginative health when compared to train travel. My fellow travelers in Spain brought the world to me, and as we were moving through the landscape I felt much more at ease than I felt when at home.
Nearly ten years after my Spanish trip I found myself once again traveling by train, but this time in Italy. The trains in Italy are inevitably late and intolerably slow. One of my most interesting travel moments happened on the train between Milan and Bergamo. I was seated with my luggage minding my own business when the conductor came into my car and asked to see my ticket. I handed it to him and he asked me to step outside the car. I left my luggage and all my belongings, including my passport, which was in the pocket of my coat, in my seat and followed him to the space between cars. He informed me that my ticket had not been stamped and that I could be arrested on the spot. My mind started to reel in all of those scenes I had read about in books or saw in movies where the traveler is arrested and never heard from again. It was at this point that my Italian started to fail me and I began speaking rapidly in English. Thankfully, the conductor also spoke English, so we were able to communicate. After looking at my ticket again for some time, and while I realized that I had left all of my belongings in the other car, he finally said that I had two choices. I could come with him or pay a slight fine of 50 Euros now. I paid the guy and went back to my seat.
It was a short time after this that I began to think that I was one of those foolish Americans who had been taken advantage of while traveling. The entire episode left me unhinged and agitated. I was not the seasoned traveler that I thought I was. When I finally pulled into my hotel I asked the man at reception about this. He said that I was indeed lucky and that it could have been much worse. He also cautioned me to make sure that I had my train ticket stamped the next time. I went up to my room and fell onto the bed, exhausted by what I had just been through.
The episode in Italy has not changed my appreciation and love of train travel. In fact, I now think of this as one of the great learning opportunities of my life. I’ve had other adventures in cars and on planes, but this was the closest I have ever come to being arrested in a foreign country. I can look back and smile about it now, but at the time I am not ashamed to admit that I was scared shitless. I drank heavily that night and slept rather late the next day.
For me, traveling by train is a distinctly European experience. It’s a shame that train travel is not made use of more in the United States. I have only traveled by train in my own country a few times. (I do not count the subway.) Each time the trip was wildly successful and much cheaper (if longer) than air travel. I suspect that AAA has something to do with our lack of train travel here. We are, after all, living within the culture of the automobile. Be that as it may. Traveling by train and visiting train stations can tell us a lot about who we are, as well as the people and the environment we find ourselves in from time to time.