Wednesday 28 September 2011

Cross Country

I lean back in my seat and the music swells up around me.  It's the soundtrack to Tomorrow Never Dies, David Arnold's brilliant score that I once saw described as "a dustbin clattering down an elevator shaft".  Which was a compliment.  Halfway through I realise I should be listening to Casino Royale, because of its sweeping train music and its Czech location filming, but I hate to stop an iPod playlist before it ends.

Berlin's behind us now.  We've passed out of the Hauptbahnhof and through the tunnels and out of the suburbs and into the flat dull landscape of Northern Germany.  It looks much like England; fields, cows, hedges, trees.  Level crossings in the middle of nowhere with a single car being held back for our passage.  It's all very familiar, very temperate Northern Europe, very Protestant.  The BF nods off.  I realise I'm staring out the window and not taking anything in.

If I'm honest, the train is a disappointment.  We're aboard the Hamburg-Budapest service, via Berlin, Dresden and our ultimate destination, Prague, taking the leisurely railway route instead of a boring aeroplane.  We treated ourselves to first class seats, for only a small extra, but it doesn't feel first class.  There are no complimentary snacks, no free wi-fi, not even a plug socket at our table.  The red and blue seats are comfortable, but not massively so.  It doesn't feel right, comparing Deutsche Bahn to Virgin and Virgin winning.  We've already had a minor contrempts with a Japanese tourist and his wife.  He'd staked out our table for himself by dropping his massive suitcase across the seats; I politely explained that we had reserved them, and showed him our ticket, causing him to shout down the train at his wife.  He spent the rest of the journey being ping-ponged round the carriage as passengers arrived to claim their reservations.  I began to wonder if he even had a ticket.

Tiny country stations glide past, with names full of umlauts.  The architecture is unremarkable.  In fact the main feature at most of them seems to be an astonishing amount of graffiti.  This seems to be the hallmark of Continental rail travel - it's almost as though they can't be bothered scrubbing it off after a while.  There are tags all over even the smallest piece of railway equipment.  Unless it's a massive pan-European version of Art on the Network.

We're seats 95 and 96.  Alongside us, in 93 and 94, are a young Australian couple with Eurorail passes.  She looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar and has had her head buried in a Kindle since Berlin (can you bury your head in a Kindle?  "She has had her nose pressed up against a Kindle since Berlin".  Needs more work).  He looks like Robbie Williams - disturbingly so - but has less patience than her.  To be fair, he's laid a pack of Strepsils out on the table in front of him, so he's clearly suffering.  (I got the early stirrings of a sore throat the next day; it was immediately christened "Antipodean Flu").  He also has a copy of Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar, in the classic orange and white Penguin cover, but when he opens it to start reading it turns out he's only about ten pages in.  He gives up a few pages later.

Dresden station, when it comes, is magnificent.  I press up against the window so I can properly take in its huge glass roof and its ornate stonework.  Robbie Williams suddenly gets up and leaps off the train, leaving his girlfriend behind.  My anxiety levels rise with each minute.  I assume he's just nipped off for a cigarette or something, but what if he doesn't make it back?  What if the train takes off without him?  What do you say to an inconsolable Australian whose boyfriend is rapidly receding into the distance?  The passengers on the platform get thinner, and I see Deutsche Bahn men wandering around.  Surely we're about take off, and still no sign of him.  I find myself looking out for him, even though the girl seems utterly disinterested.  That's trust for you.  He reappears in the corridor, bringing pastries and bottles of Fanta.  She barely looks up.

Someone must have flicked the scenery switch at Dresden.  The ordinariness of the landscape vanishes and is replaced by something magical.  Now we're travelling through thickly forested mountains, rocky outcrops looming threateningly overhead, with the Elbe our constant companion.  The houses in the villages we pass are decorated with intricate carvings and roof ornaments and onion bulb domes.  A tributary empties into the river beneath a perilously thin bridge.  Mist clings to the tops, nature's soft-focus filter.  It's a landscape I've never experienced before, the coldly beautiful Central Europe.

Across the border, and we enter the Czech Republic at Děčín. The Deutsche Bahn train crew dismount and chatter on the platform while a portly guard in calf-length shorts waves us off. The Bf and I are clutching our passports, completely unfamiliar with the process of international rail travel.  The whole process seems so bizarre to our island minds - that a tiny little town like this can have Budapest on its destination board.  There's no frontier, no border guard, no immigration control.  My fantasy of recreating the end of Cabaret is sadly dashed.  The EU and the Schengen Agreement may have made travel much easier in Europe, but it's stripped it of some of the romance.  I've been abroad half a dozen times on my current passport and there isn't a single stamp in it.

Our third guard comes on the tannoy and welcomes us on behalf of Czech Railways.  The first was a neat woman with thin-framed glasses who made her announcements in German only.  The second, who boarded at Dresden, was a burly man with a sing-song voice that made him sound - and I realise this sounds unlikely - like a Teutonic Rastafarian.  He spoke English, German and Czech, and threw some freeloaders out of first class and into standard with undisguised glee.  I guessed that he was specifically here for the international portion, spending his days criss-crossing the border, because he gets off at Děčín and the Czech gets on.  He wouldn't look out of place on Merseyrail, with his yellow tie and belly poking out beneath his waistcoat.

The Australian man has taken out an expensive looking leather bound journal and is struggling to find something to write in it.  I imagine the pressure he must be under: crossing the globe, a once in a lifetime trip across Europe, and trying to boil it down into words.  Something for the grandkids to read in fifty years time.  I notice that the last entry is for Thursday and today is Sunday.  He rolls the pen round in his hand a few times, looks at his girlfriend for some kind of inspiration (she doesn't notice), then writes: Friday 16th September.  I realise it's not a journal, but a diary, and he's backdating his entries.  I'm quietly outraged - that's cheating!  Of course, I don't say anything.

In fact, we haven't said a word to each other the whole journey.  I'd been afraid, when I heard them talk as they sat down, that we'd have been in for a detailed run down of their international voyages the whole trip.  By the time we pulled into Prague station I pictured us swapping Facebook details and Christmas card details and hating them with an intense passion for ruining my trip.  Perhaps the iPod headphones have been a powerful deterrent.  If I was a proper travel writer, we'd have been swigging from a hip flask and sharing hilarious anecdotes before we'd left the Hauptbahnhof.  As it was, my shy/antisocial instincts were satisfied.  This is why I'm not a proper travel writer, just an idiot with a blog.

We're flowing into a U-shaped valley with the river at its base.  Through here, somehow, the Czechs have managed to squeeze railways, roads and narrow towns, a few streets wide.  The mist has developed into a thin drizzle, and the towns are all so spectacularly ugly, it feels like we're travelling through a black and white film.  Something with subtitles and a back street abortion.  Between the factories, though, you get more of that inspiring landscape, more of those green mountainsides and endless forests, so you can forgive it.  At Nelahozeves, the car fills with the smell of gas from the refineries.  I have to admit, it makes a nice change from the smell of dope I got a little while ago.  I get the feeling that down in Standard class there may be a bit of a party going on amongst the backpackers.

Robbie Williams decides to have another crack at Paul Theroux.  He lasts two pages this time, and folds down the corner of the page to mark his place.  I resist the urge to scream "use a bloody bookmark!" in his ear.

The tendrils of Prague itself start to wrap themselves around our train; the green starts to recede, replaced by concrete, and the stupidly ugly Communist blocks get even stupider and even uglier.  Of course, now that market forces are in charge, they're starting to fall apart as well, which makes them look worse.  We pass under and over highways, and the carriage slowly comes to life: the sleepers are roused, they stretch and yawn.  The tourists scramble at their suitcases in the overhead racks.  Creased coats are battered back into shape.  The Australian girl finally turns her Kindle off; I wonder what she was reading that carried her all the way through the six hour trip.

Into Prague railway station, and we leave the train, passing up the opportunity to take our complimentary DB Magazines with us.  The journey's over; it's time to explore another country.

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