Once inSpain, air travel was of little interest to the mortal like me who, as a student, rarely had a budget to even take a taxi, let alone hop on a Boeing jet toBarcelona. And since I didn’t have access to a car, or to anyone who did, bus and train travel took priority.
This meant a departure from what was seen as common wisdom among Americans for whom the thought of taking a train was often considered a crappy, and even creepy, way of moving long distances. It was surpassed only by bus travel, mule riding and, perhaps, late-night hitchhiking near border towns, as the least sensible form of getting around. Going by bus, in particular, spoke of dire situations. It symbolized the last hope for American civilization. In fact, it was what you took when you had no hope left at all. The next step was crawling.
But Europe was a different game altogether. Public transport had long been praised for its efficiency and high quality. This was especially true of the railroad. It is said that, like any good dictator, Franco made a point of it that the trains ran on time, and my goodness, it would seem that his policy still held true well beyond the time of his timely death. But there was more to this means of travel than just keeping to the timetable. Train travel was something intrinsicallyOld World, something that rang of tradition, mystery, World Wars, revolutions, romance. All wrapped up on a wagon and rail.
America had taken but a couple of decades to push aside the usefulness of its long-distance railroad system. Oh, everyone knows it still worked, and made crossing theRockiesa treat. But if you were going from, say New York to Philadelphia, there wasn’t much sentimental value in munching on some Planter’s Peanuts and watching the marshy Meadowlands go by.
Plus it was every Europe-bound university student’s dream to get hold of a InterRail pass and get lost, robbed and swindled all over the continent, for the sake of saving a few bucks.
I was among the aspirants, but never lived out my dream. It is a pending matter in my life.
In any event, I did get a chance to do a little train travelling. The first trip I ever took was a short one to nearby Toledo. My friend John and I left from the Atocha Train Station, the same one that would suffer the horrific bombings by Al Qaeda in 2004. Back in 1988, the trains still came into the old part of the terminal, though this is now an indoor tropical garden, haven for weary and hungry travelers and unwanted turtles. We took on the ticket window with reasonable success, made our way to the track, found an empty pair of seats and pulled out on time, if I recall correctly, screeching into our destination about an hour later. It was an old seemingly dusty depot, reminiscent of some Hemingway novel, I write for want of a less clichéd description. The return was handled with the same uneventful batch of minutes. We stumbled back into Madrid happy with what we had seen, content with the journey, but otherwise,
One of my first true encounter occurred when John and I decided to visit our friend Aleko who was studying French in Avignon, or so he said. You never knew. It was our spring break, and through a miscalculation of funds, meaning I had spent to much, I had four days to try and make it on about 5000 pesetas, which was about $50. We were covered but room, but board was going to be decidedly tougher.
In any event, I managed to purchase a ticket via my credit card, it was an American Express that my parents had given me in case of emergencies. American Express was about as useful as Monopoly money in most European establishments, but the railroads accepted them. They tend to accept anything, even person property and family members.
This time we were planning on taking a night train, which is really short for “Nightmare” train, but they want to withhold this bit of information for obvious marketing issues.
At that time, there were two types of coaches: the ones with compartments with benchlike seats and the ones with sleepers, a name which only suggested its purpose without fully complying with its promise. The former, though, was what we had. This was all right at first because it reminded us of those old mystery and spy movies. I might say Harry Potter, but the little wizard hadn’t even been conceived in the mind of the J.K. Rowling yet, so we will have to go back further in time. With my only real reference being the Metro North commuter train inNew York, these quaint apartments were everything a savage and unrefined American could want. At least for the first fifteen minutes. Then you start to ask certain questions. “John, what do you think of these seats?”
“Stiff? I’d say they’re orthopedic.” I felt I had been impaled.
“How long did you say the trip was?”
“About twelve hours.”
“I guess we should start drinking soon, don’t you think?”
“By all means.”
We had bought two six-packs in the station before leaving figuring we had to bring something along to keep us entertained.
Luckily for us, there was only a third visitor in our cabin and he was young. He was German and was going to stop off in Barcelona for just one day on his way home. He was not a very sizeable specimen of the Teutonic race and wore round intellectual glasses. He looked like he enjoyed writing incendiary political pamphlets to be distributed outside factories. But he liked beer too, which was only natural, and with that hobby in common, we spent a few hours getting to know each other and having a few laughs. I don’t really remember anything about the man’s life. In fact, all I can say is that the sliver of his personal timeline that he shared with us was devoted to becoming intoxicated. So much so, in fact, that he ending up slurring his words so badly I thought he was speaking to us in German. Then he retired to the toilet for the rest of the evening.
At dawn, I went to the tiny bathroom to fetch him. He was lying facedown and his feet were sticking out the door. I grabbed the right shoe, lifted it and let it drop with a thump. “Hey Fred,” or whatever his name was. “We’re coming into Barcelona. You’re going to miss you stop.”
He was half-covered in vomit, but surprisingly polite about my wake-up call. He wobbled onto his feet. I went for his gear, stuffed it in his arms and saw to it he got off in one piece. I still wonder whatever became of him on that day in Barcelona. Perhaps, and this would not be a first, he is still there.