Monday, January 28, 2013

Riding the Rails

Vintage train in Bad Doberan, Germany
Photo by Felix O.

By Heidi Noroozy

As a child, I had fantasies about living the life of a hobo, hopping on and off trains, traveling to wherever the rails led. As an adult, I realize I hadn’t considered the practicalities well enough to appreciate the downside of such a life: the lack of creature comforts and regular meals—the danger. But back then, it wasn’t the lifestyle that beckoned to me or even the sense of freedom and boundless horizons. I just loved trains.

One memorable rail-riding experience came when I was 11. That summer, my family and I spent some weeks in a small town called Tabarz in Thuringia, a forested region of gently rolling hills in East Germany. A network of hiking trails crisscrossed the landscape and led through the woods from one red-roofed village to the next. We’d spend long afternoons wandering those loamy trails, and when dusk fell, we’d return home by way of the Bimmelbahn, a narrow-gauge train that stopped at every tiny hamlet along its route. The train got its name from the little bell the engineer would ring on approaching a station. (Bimmeln means to ring a bell.) I could have ridden that little train all day long and never tired of listening to its cheerful chimes as it pulled into the next town. To this day, decades later, I can still conjure up the rich, piney scent of those woodsy trails and the ting-a-ling of the Bimmelbahn’s bell.

When I embark on a trip and need to choose a mode of transport, plane travel usually wins out for the sake of expediency. But if I had my druthers, I’d pick the rails every time. Most modern trains give a smooth and silent ride, but sometimes on a regional route, you can still find the old rattle-traps that are more like a historic steam engine than the high-tech, computerized machines of today. I love the way they go clickety clack down the line, slowly at first then faster and faster as they gather speed, until the world whizzes by to a staccato rhythm.

Hiking in the Thuringian Forest
Once, years ago, I had a bit of extra time and rode the rails straight across the United States, a journey that took three days. By the end of that trip, my mind was filled with images of wind rippling through golden wheat fields, green-flanked mountains reaching up to stroke the clouds, and the dramatic landscapes of the California’s Pacific coast, where waterfalls tumble down rocky cliffs and the sea carves blue coves out of the rugged shoreline. I gained a new appreciation for the varied landscapes of the country where I live.

I’ve had some fun times on trains. Once, on an overnight trip from Madrid to Algeciras at the southern tip of Spain, my two friends and I shared a compartment with three Spanish teenagers. The six of us played hand after hand of Crazy Eights throughout the long night. I understood no more than five or six words of Spanish at the beginning of the card game, which we took to calling “Ochos Locos,” but by dawn I could count to ten and rattle off the names of suits as though I’d been playing cards in Spanish for years.

Not every rail-riding experience has been quite so much fun. On a 1980 trip from Oslo to East Berlin, the train was late and I missed an evening connection somewhere in the middle of Denmark. The next train heading my way didn’t leave until six the next morning, so I settled in for a long night of strong coffee and a good book in the station’s tiny café. By the time we made it to the East German border, I discovered that, somewhere along the way, I’d lost the visa, stamped on a separate piece of paper, that I needed to enter the GDR. Possibly it had fallen out of my bag at that little café in Denmark.

GDR border crossing
Photo by Felix O.
Certain that I’d be unceremoniously tossed off the train and left behind in the no man’s land that existed between the two German states, I explained my situation to the East German border guard—hoping I didn’t look as nervous as I felt. But he just shrugged, told me to get a new visa as soon as I could, and moved on to the next passenger.

The shops, and therefore the travel agencies, were closed for the day when we reached Berlin, and the next day was Sunday. So I spent two nights as an illegal alien in the German Democratic Republic before getting my visa sorted out. No one seemed to care except me.

These days, I may have abandoned my over-romanticized image of the hobo’s life, but I still feel a thrill of excitement when I climb aboard a train. Sometimes it’s not the destination that matters but the thrill of the journey that gets you there.


  1. Heidi, I always love reading your poetic posts. And I agree, finding your way about by train is about one of the most romantic modes of transport there is. Do you still remember how to say the names of the suits in Spanish?

    1. Thanks, Supriya. Trains go through some of the best landscapes in any country. I don't remember the names of the all the suits in Spanish. I think corazones was hearts and espadas spades, but I might be just assuming that. I forgot the other two entirely. Alli? Help me out here? :)(And I won't admit to how long ago that trip was either.)

  2. I, too, love trains. On Italian long hauls, I love smelling the lunches that Neapolitan mammas pack--salame and crusty bread and olives. I love looking out at olive groves and vineyards, swooshing unexpectedly through tunnels, and spying hill towns with towers and walls. While the high-speed trains can get you from point A to point B in record time, the sleepy little local trains are fun too.

    In Rome we have the trenino (little train)--which isn't all that little. There are several lines, and they cross Rome from outside the city. The one I use most frequently goes from the airport at Fiumicino to about 50 K beyond. It runs every 15 minutes, except Sundays and holidays, and the fare is miniscule.

    1. I would love to ride the rails in Italy. Such lovely landscapes. Someday I will.