A Journey, a Memoir: Staying on Track

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train. I remember going to the city with my mother, catching the train at the local station, sitting on the worn, scratchy leather seats, watching familiar houses, parks and railway crossings swish by us and, despite the movement and occasional gentle jolt of the carriage, always feeling safe. I think buses have a sense of forced intimacy where, despite their proximity, strangers rarely chat; on trains, people tend to smile and seem more relaxed.  I was pleased, therefore, when we decided to include several train journeys while in Europe.

The first, from Glasgow to Bristol, began at 7:10 am, barely 24 hours after we landed in Scotland. We boarded at Glasgow Central for a seven-hour trip to Bristol Temple Meads, passing through Newcastle on Tyne, Durham, York, Derby, Birmingham, Cheltenham, Gloucester and numerous villages and small towns.  It was a wonderful way to see the lush English countryside, to gawk, as most Australians must, at the verdant, lyrical green we read about as children, but never truly imagine as it really is. 

Just over a week later we had a mammoth four train experience travelling from Bath back to Bristol, on to Stafford, then Crewe and finally arriving, late, in Holyhead where we connected with the ferry to Dublin. It was quite a day. We had reserved our seats but nevertheless had to locate the platform for each train, find the correct carriage, stow four pieces of luggage, locate our seats and stay alert so we were aware of the station preceding the one we needed, and retrieve our luggage (by now beneath the bags of those who boarded after us), in time to scramble off the train (minding the gap as were instructed each time a train stopped), and again find the correct platform and make it (barely, on two occasions) to the next train. The train for the final leg of the journey was delayed so we, and two dozen other passengers, arrived late at Holyhead. The ferry waited for us, so the last mad dash of the day was from the train station to where, in the same building but a five minute walk away, our passports were stamped before we could board the MV Ulysses. Imagine our relief as we settled into the ferry’s comfortable seats and relax during the crossing to Dublin.

On the 22nd June, feeling by then like seasoned train travellers and having arrived in London the day before, we braved the Underground. We shared an evening meal with one of my partner’s friends who later showed us around Regent and Carnaby Streets and then escorted us to Piccadilly Circus from where we needed to travel a mere two stops along the Bakerloo Line. We thanked our dinner companion and descended to the platform where a discussion ensued about the correct train. The train arrived and my partner, certain he was right, boarded the train and turned to check I followed him. I hadn’t. The doors closed and the train departed leaving me stranded at Piccadilly. For a moment or two my brain ceased functioning. Rooted to the spot, I stared at the empty space where a train and my partner had once been. Eventually, the thought occurred that I should climb back up the stairs and find a taxi. It was then a voice behind me said, ‘Don’t worry, stay right on this spot, wait for the next train, get on at the same door as your friend got on. He’ll get off at the next stop and be waiting for you. You’ll see each other and you can either join him or he can get on the train and you can continue your trip.’ Only a part of my brain took this in as I was wondering if I could call my partner, unlikely because my phone was not working properly and my international sim card had developed the habit of capriciously refusing to connect me in certain locations. I doubted it would cooperate on the Underground. I turned toward the voice and saw a young woman with a heavy backpack on her back, long honey coloured hair and hazel eyes, standing behind me. ‘Will he?’ I replied, my brain still trying to take in what had just happened. ‘Yes, he’ll get off at the next stop,’ she said. ‘But we’re Australian,’ I said. What I meant to say was we were unfamiliar with the Underground but revealing our nationality was all I could manage. Unfazed she said, ‘It happens all the time. My Mum taught me what to do when I was ten. My mates and I, when we go out in a group, aren’t always quick enough to get on the train together and that’s what we do.’ I could hear the next train approach. When it arrived my rescuer, sensing my uncertainty, gently marshalled me onto it. ‘I’ll stand with you,’ she said, ‘you stay at this door and you’ll see him at the next station.’ The doors shut and off we went. Still anxious – my default position during much of our holiday – I answered my companion’s questions about where we’d been in the last three weeks and managed to calm down. If my partner wasn’t waiting for me, I could catch a taxi and we’d eventually, if separately, arrive at our accommodation. My rescuer continued reassuring me. If the heavy backpack indicated she was a student, I thought she might be studying psychology or social work, she so deftly handled a panicky, aged Australian tourist. The train pulled into Oxford Circus and stopped. Just as my rescuer promised, sitting on a platform bench exactly opposite the door where I stood was an exceptionally glum looking fellow. He looked up from his phone to see me waving furiously and, when the door opened, beckoning him to join me and my new friend. He smiled, joined us on the train and together we profusely thanked our guardian angel. We were never so glad to see each other as on that night, he because he thought I’d be furious with him (I wasn’t) and me because I wasn’t looking forward to a taxi trip back to our accommodation.

In July, we shared the highlight of our several train trips. We left our accommodation in Montmartre, Paris, early and made our way to Gare du Nord to begin our epic journey to Como, in the Italian Alps. The countryside just out from Paris was shrouded in a light fog, and for most of the trip to Zurich, where we changed trains, the sky was overcast. Tired from our short but delightful stay in a wet and occasionally windy Paris and used by now to travelling by train, we relaxed, took photos from the carriage (despite the TGV travelling at around 297 kilometres per hour), and dozed off occasionally while the train climbed the hills towards the Alps. Once out of Zurich, however, we looked forward to crossing the border into Italy. We went through several tunnels, each one taking us closer to Largo di Como and the next stage of our journey. The sky was still overcast when we entered another long tunnel. We emerged minutes later and light flooded our carriage. It felt as if we had stepped onto a movie set: the sky was clear, the sun shone brightly and the colours of the lake and surrounding mountains gleamed. We both gasped, momentarily distracting our fellow passengers who, it appeared, had witnessed this miracle before. It was truly one of the delightful moments of our adventures with trains; a journey, as the Italians might say, that was ‘bonissimo’, and a trip I’d recommend to the most blasé of travellers.