The dining car is the heart of the romance of train travel. Airplanes don’t have one, which is why movies love trains. The chance encounter, the invitation to dine, the quick change of plans. . .think of From Russia with Love, North by Northwest, White Christmas, The Tourist. Angelina Jolie could never have casually decided to sit across from Johnny Depp at 30,000 feet, much less asked him to have dinner with her. I have no problem flying when the distance is great, but I get excited about a train ride.
What do you think about when you see a train? I see a giant black engine pouring out steam. We saw an engine like that one evening just before Christmas when our train from Göttingen to Wolfenbüttel was cancelled. The platform was filled with disgruntled people milling about in the cold after hearing that they would have to wait an hour for the next train. An old-fashioned, but well-maintained engine stopped a little way down on the next track over and suddenly attention shifted. People walked over to get a closer look through the dusk. They took out cameras and pointed it out to their children.
It reminded me of my brother’s Lionel set many Christmases ago. It came with plastic capsules you could put in the engine to make real smoke. We used those up by New Year’s, but we spent weeks perfecting the track layout and putting up Lincoln Log houses at the train stops. It was a freight train with a tanker, a boxcar, a flatcar, a car carrier, and a cattle car. My brother loaded logs on the flatcar and cars on the car carrier and I put the cows from my farm set in the cattle car and the farmer in a boxcar (lying down, of course). I don’t remember thinking much about why cattle rode trains. Mine were headed for a pasture near the next town down the line where the grass was no doubt greener.
I have ridden trains many times, but never so frequently as in this past year in Wolfenbüttel. And still, the train is my magic carpet. I’ve taken trains to Schwerin, Gösslar, Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Leipzig, Augsburg, Munich, Speyer, Strasbourg, and Paris. I’ve experienced late trains, cancelled trains, missed trains and missed connections. I’ve also experienced spontaneous kindness and unforgettable beauty.
Last January in northern Germany I got lost in the streets of Schwerin after a heavy snowfall and missed my Intercity Express train, a direct route on which I had reserved seats. The Deutsch Bahn office gave me a new route involving 4 regional trains. I changed trains 3 times jumping out of one and on to the next within minutes in remote stations after dark with a suitcase. In the last train, the one to Braunschweig, I sat across from an Asian woman. We were both reading. She asked me if I could watch her bags while she used the restroom. Then she did the same for me. Then she took out a bag of tangerines and offered me one. I was going to say nein, danke, but at that point I was genuinely hungry and very grateful. It tasted so good and there in the train speeding through the darkness we struck up a conversation that took us all the way to Braunschweig. The last step is always catching the 420 bus back to Wolfenbüttel, but I arrived home at last feeling pretty good after all.
About two weeks later, I took the train to Frankfurt to meet my husband at the airport. First of all, I was unbelievably happy that I would no longer be alone. I caught the 420 bus at 6 AM to go to the Braunschweig station and catch the morning train. Once safely settled in my seat, I decided to have some coffee and Kuchen in the dining car. I sat alone at the table at the first break of dawn. A soft blush of pink light set the snow-covered fields aglow as I sipped my coffee and gazed out the window at the sunrise. It was breathtaking.