10. A Sense of Space
Your faithful correspondent is full of joy today
In this edition: some post-lockdown feelings, and then just a whole load of trains I guess
It was a few minutes before midnight, and we were sitting on the lakeshore. Julian and I had just finished playing a song, when a voice came out of the darkness behind us. Betül and Vito had already turned to look.
“Alright, time to pack it up.” A flashlight scraped across our picnic. “Everyone go home, up you get.”
I’d kind of been expecting the voice to be someone telling us they liked the music, but like, FINE, Berlin police, just come in and break up a perfectly nice vibe I guess. Julian and Vito and I started gathering our belongings, fumbling around in the pitch darkness for cups and shoes.
Betül had other ideas though. “I’m just… listen, I’m just going to go and talk to them.”
Around us came the noise of drunken revellers from other groups shouting protests at the officers, hurling accusations and the occasional paper cup. Vito folded his arms.
“Are you going to get yourself arrested?” he asked her.
“No, I’m going to just go and have a conversation.”
The three of us waited behind the trees, clutching our half-packed belongings, as Betül walked up to the path.
“Ah, so you’re coming up of your own accord,” said one officer approvingly.
“… Sure. Yes. But also, I just wanted to enquire – exactly what reason is there to make us leave the lake? I did check the regulations quite thoroughly.” Betül’s voice was light, casual, friendly.
Vito turned to us. “Ohohoho” – softly, so he couldn’t be heard – “She is VERY annoyed.”
“Well, you see, this is a first appeal – there are too many people down here, the neighbours in the area have complained about the noise – ”
“I understand, you’re just doing your job, of course,” Betül continued, sweetly, “But I just would like to know which of the regulations we’re actually breaking? There are only four of us here, and you know, it’s my friend’s – ”
Back down by the edge of the water, Julian moved closer to me, arms outstretched. “Happy birthday,” he whispered wryly, pulling me into a hug. “It’s midnight.”
Vito tiptoed over. “Happy birthday! Do you think she’s going to convince them?”
I smiled. “Yeah, come on, this is Betül in her element.”
“– and we’re just going to sit quietly and celebrate, so I think it should all be in order, right? Because there’s no reason to make us leave?”
The officer sighed. “Are you doing drugs?”
“Alright,” he relented. “The four of you can stay. But only this little birthday party.”
“Oh thanks SO much, really, thank you…” Betül’s smile was fixed rigidly on her face, eyes widening as she turned to look at us and walk back down to the lakeside. “Okay! Caitlin! Please pretend it is 11.59pm for the next two minutes, thank you.”
I waded out into the shallow water under the trees. The police officers had moved on around the lake, scattering more teens in their path as their lights bobbed through the branches, provoking more indignation as speaker after Bluetooth speaker went silent.
“Okay, turn around.”
Compared to all the police lights flashing dimly through the darkness, the candles held a soft, warm, steady glow, illuminating the faces of my friends gathered around the box of donuts. They sang softly as I walked back towards them, filled with a fizzy kind of joy. I blew out the candles, but then we relit them so we had a little light to see by as we pulled apart the donuts to share them, comparing flavours and getting icing all over our fingers.
A little later, I floated in the water out towards the middle of the lake, staring up at the stars. I breathed in the sweet warm air, felt the pleasantly cool water (“I will never understand you Caitlin, it’s absolutely freezing”), marvelled at the quiet euphoria of listening to my friends’ voices drift out over the lake. Suddenly the flashlight beam found me. I shielded my eyes.
“Ah, right. That must be The Birthday Party.”
Yes, thank you Officer, this is THE Birthday Party, move along please. (And that, friends, is why it’s always handy to travel with a lawyer.)
Turning thirty-two felt great. For some reason thirty-one just never felt right; it always took shape in my head as “in my thirties”, without ever pinning down to the number itself. I was in a transitory phase, moving from one space to another, somewhere on the road between. It’s a bit like an unofficial milestone – my first mother was 32 when I was born, and the year my second mother was 32 I was fifteen, which was a hugely transformative year both in my life and in my relationship with her, for better and for worse. I’ve heard a few people say that 32 was their favourite age to be, and I think it’s just stuck in my head that like – this is A Year, but in a good exciting way, and not in a shockingly unsettling way like thirty was.
Of course, it also helps that in the week before and after my birthday, everything in Berlin went from very closed to very open, all of a sudden. Life suddenly spilled into and out of bars and restaurants and shops and venues, tables and chairs and people began filling the pavements, and I remembered what it was like to socialise with strangers. In the space of time between the Friday before my birthday, and the Monday a week later, I’d been to five different birthday parties (including my own; six if you count the night at the lake, which I really should), had a huge number of very compelling and joyful and occasionally intense conversations, and met at least twenty brand new people. (I also went to the sauna, finally, and enjoyed every second of it). Those ten or eleven days expanded to fill the space that previously weeks or months had taken up in my mind, like a giant spring pressed under a great weight and then suddenly released; too much happened for it to possibly be confined to the space of just one and a half weeks.
Honestly, the whiplash is nothing to be sneezed at. But I’m currently only swinging between sleepy bewilderment and delight, which is a deeply refreshing turn of events. I imagine that eventually things will even out to a steadier and more familiar pace, but for now the elasticity of time is just a fact of life here. Almost every physical space looks different than it did three months ago, with the jungle-like foliage colliding with the suddenly active human sphere. I just love it, I love everything and everyone at the moment, and so I’m going to tell you some little stories about another thing I really love:
I really fucking love trains. I don’t love them in the way that many people do, where they want to know everything about how they work and what kinds of trains there are and how fast they go and so on, I actually don’t really care at all about those things. I just love that trains exist, and I love being on them. I find them aesthetically compelling, especially really small trains or novelty trains or the like.
During the first lockdown last year, I was consumed by thoughts of the Lorenbahn, a form of tiny trolley-rail that was built as the only form of transportation to a few North Frisian islands. (Happy to report that this weekend I am heading off to my second trip to Hallig Oland by way of the Lorenbahn, with another booked in August; I am a confirmed Lorenbahn addict and I’m not sorry).
I honestly think about tiny trains all the time. The other night I described rollercoasters as “really exciting tiny trains with just the one stop” and Julian found that very funny, but it’s true! They satisfy the same little corners of my brain. Once, near Krakow, I rode through some salt mines on a very tiny rail carriage that was basically a platform on wheels with a long straddle-bench perched on top, and I’ve never forgotten it. There’s also this one exhibit in the Deutsches Technikmuseum called the “Elektrische Eisenbahn” that’s like four benches back-to-back with an engine and it lives rent-free in my brain all year round.
I can actually pinpoint the beginning of my love of trains. I mean, I think I always really enjoyed novelty train-like things – the steep, mountain-scaling Scenic Railway in Katoomba and the Puffing Billy steam train through the Dandenongs in Victoria are both things I remember being very excited about as a kid, and honestly would pay good money for again in a heartbeat as an adult.
But actual trains as a mode of transport – that’s a love I acquired when I was fifteen, in that very transformative year. That’s when I fell in love with a boy who loved trains, and so I learned to love them too.
It’s funny, the things you keep from different loves throughout your life. I feel like music is most often the thing I carry onwards with me, but I’ve also kept cities and jokes and recipes and snippets of different languages. Trains were the first thing I remember keeping.
At the time we met, he had this idea that he was going to become a civil engineer, because his family had just gone on this trip to several European cities and – as is understandable for someone living in regional Australia in the mid-00s – he’d just been kind of blown away by the concept of actually functional public transport. I found the whole thing very endearing: he had maps pinned up in his bedroom of the metropolitan transit systems of Prague and Paris, and trains became a sort of lingering motif of our relationship, like how we’d meet up at Newcastle Station after school, or spend an afternoon sitting on a pedestrian rail bridge watching the trains pass underneath us and switch at the junction.
One day we decided we were just going to take a train out along a line neither of us had travelled before. We wanted to go to the station called “Victoria Street”, because whenever we’d heard it announced at the station (“The train on platform two – goes to – Telarah. First stop Civic – then – Hamilton, Warabrook, Beresfield, Thornton, Victoria Street, then all stations to – Telarah.”) we always imagined some slightly glamorous, cosmopolitan place in Sydney or Melbourne, and wondered what it could actually be given that it didn’t go to either city. Standing on the platform as it pulled in, he breathed in deeply.
“I love that smell,” he said. I thought it smelled kind of strange, smoky and sharp and dusty, but I inhaled too, because I wanted to understand the thing he loved about it.
We played this game while we were on the train, sitting opposite one another. One of us would look out the window, and the other would look at their eyes, trying to tell if they were looking at the landscape outside or at the reflection in the glass. It turned out to be difficult to fake either: if you look out the window, your eyes dart around, catching different objects as they pass, and it’s hard to make them move smoothly. On the other hand, if you’re looking at a reflection, which is moving at the same pace you are, it’s tricky to mimic that quick, sliding-darting movement.
There was nothing much at Victoria Street. It’s just a barebones station out in the middle of a suburb, surrounded by houses with yards. I seem to remember there being a bakery somewhere nearby, though I can’t find it now on the map. We got out, walked around a couple of blocks, laughed at the mismatch between our imaginings and the reality of the place, and then just caught the next train back to Newcastle.
The destination was entirely incidental. The place we’d actually wanted to be was on the train itself, in transit, and that’s the part I really remember about that small adventure. The space of the train is not only the carriages themselves, but also the space you can see from the window, the world in motion around you as you sit and watch it pass. I remember sunlight, and a shared sandwich, and the way we were sitting, and the way it feels to talk to someone who you could just talk and talk and talk to, without ever getting tired of it.
The things you carry with you from past loves might begin as things that another person loved, but if they’ve got real staying power then they become things you love for your own reasons. I don’t know whether my ex still loves trains as much, but he didn’t become a civil engineer; now he’s a journalist, and we haven’t spoken since we were about eighteen.
But when I moved away from home, the train became my main mode of transport between Sydney and Newcastle, and I developed a deep love of the stretch of track that winds along the Hawkesbury River, hugging the water’s edge through the valley of Mullet Creek. And when I moved to Europe, trains suddenly became this hugely liberating aspect of my life: damn it all, the kid had been right about effective public transport. Also, planes are terrible. Planes trips make me feel so dehumanised, from start to finish, and airports are always far away and stressful and they require so much time and planning. Train stations are right in the middles of cities, and you just walk right through them and get on your train and off you go.
The main way in which my love of trains became my own thing, and not just a legacy of a teen romance, is when I started meeting people on trains. I have met so many different people on trains, though for the most part our friendship only really lasts for the duration of the journey. There was the Austrian woman I met in August 2014 while travelling between Ljubljana and Munich, who told me about how she’d been visiting friends and reminiscing on a summer they spent together forty years ago, drinking wine on a mountain top and falling in love. On the train before, from Zagreb, I’d shared a compartment with two English cousins, and we discussed politics and education and society and my family. I once shared a sleeper car between Hamburg and Munich with a guy from Vienna in an experience that felt weirdly like we were away on a camp together, and afterwards he gave me his LinkedIn profile instead of, you know, a normal human way of keeping in contact.
Another time I shared a compartment with two Danish journalists who were filming a story about travelling by train from Copenhagen to Paris, and they shot a time lapse video while talking to me, and then did a tiny interview where I talked about why trains are good (which is, as you can see, a classic theme for me). Once, on a train between Hamburg and Kiel, I was in a compartment with a guy and his son, and the guy and I had this great talk about playing and writing music and he turned out to be the guitarist for The Baseballs.
The one huge exception to the idea of a relationship being confined to the train journey is Talieh, who I met on a train from Salzburg (to Munich – I seem to meet a lot of people on journeys to Munich??). My friend Allie and I sat opposite her just by chance, and by about fifteen minutes into the journey we’d aggravated the other passengers by laughing too loudly, and an hour and a half later Talieh had given us her number and extracted promises that we’d meet again, and seven years later we’ve been on a ton of adventures together and she’s one of my most favourite people in the world.
I just have so many good train stories.
There’s also something about trains as spaces, in that you can never quite go back to the same place. They’re not like cafes or parks or wherever, where you can go and be like, ah yes, this is the place where that thing happened. Trains are often too alike to feel distinct as environments, and too ephemeral in their location to have a real geography.
At the same time, they allow you to have a proper sense of the space of your journey – the topography, the terrain, the time of it. I feel located on trains, in a way I very much don’t in a plane, now matter how many hours I stare at that little map on the screen in front of me.
Anyway. I’m off now to get on a train to Flensburg this afternoon, and tomorrow I’ll be on the Lorenbahn again, and there are just a lot of good things in the world.
I hope you’re finding good things in your world too, friends. Come tell me about them in the comments section.
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Finally, a well deserved love letter to trains! I share this love of yours deeply, and I am writing this as I prepare to board the well-climatized ICE to Munich, to then change into a regional train that will slowly snake through the Austrian mountains.
I recently discussed the topic about why S-Bahns are not trains. It seems that the consensus is: the only thing that makes them un-train-like is that they simply stop too often! How cool would a Ringbahnfahrt be if you would get on at Neukölln and get off at Schönhauser Allee without a intermediate stop (of course going the long way)! Make this a Bürgerinitiative NOW! ;)
Hope you'll have a wonderful time in Flensburg and on the Lorenbahn. See you soon!
Wow, indeed there are a lot of good things in the world! And one of them has got to be this wonderful newsletter that just keeps coming at the exact right time :)