In Germany, a driving license is not comparable to an ID card or a passport. Instead, it is considered something like a birth certificate: once issued, it never expires.
That’s why I can still drive with this old pink slip of crumbling paper.
And while it does raise eyebrows when I use the license to drive abroad, it is by no means extraordinary. Even driving licenses of countries that no longer exist are still valid, like the ones from the German Democratic Republic (ceased existence in 1990) or the Kingdom of Bavaria (ceased existence in 1918).
One advantage of this is obvious: You not only have a memory of what you looked like at age 18, but you also have proof. And if you have nothing to laugh about on a date, you just pull out your old driving licenses and reminisce about the time when everybody wore a beard or huge glasses. (Back then, even photos with sunglasses and hats were allowed.)
The second advantage is less obvious, but the real reason why many Germans are reluctant to exchange their old license papers for the new plastic card: Until 1999, if you passed the driving test on a regular car, you also received a driving permit for trucks weighing less than 7.5 tons. Automatically At no extra cost. Without ever having sat in a truck!
Except for this one time in Canada, many decades later, I only drove a truck once. When I was a teenager, I joined the local fire department. For once, because it’s good to do something for the community. Second, if you didn’t join, you needed to pay a small tax for the upkeep of the fire department. (The tax has since been ruled unconstitutional – because it was only levied on men – and has been scrapped.)
In my two years or so with the fire department, I never saw a fire. It’s a rather peaceful area. But a few times a year, we had to get together for some exercise or training. It was in another village and, to my dismay, all the other firemen got drunk. Back then, as you could have guessed from the photo in my driving license, I was a very innocent boy and did not drink any alcohol. So, when it was time to return home in the fire engine, all heavy eyes were set on me.
“I’ve never driven anything so big,” I exclaimed in horror.
“Don’t worry, I’ll sit next to you,” the fire captain tried to calm me, hardly holding on to the table.
But he seems to have been worried nonetheless, because I remember that he steered me away from the road and through narrow forest paths, far from any other traffic. It was just a few kilometers and I managed not to kill any deer or rabbit. But once we reached our fire department, the captain made the mistake of asking me to reverse park the fire engine.
To his credit, he did repair the neighbor’s fence the next day. That’s how we deal with those things in the village.
At the fire department, they were relieved when I told them that I was going to law school and would have to move away.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. Instead, I wanted to tell you of the professional opportunity I have missed thanks to no longer living in the UK (where I resided for a few years in my 30s, never driving, because they use the wrong side of the road).
A friend of mine with whom I graduated from high school in Germany does however still live in the United Kingdom, although he has become a Scottish nationalist who would rather see the kingdom disunited. And, if it were up to him, probably not even a kingdom at all.
He received a surprising letter these days. Apparently, the British government is so desperate to fill the Brexit-self-induced lack of lorry drivers that they looked in some database of foreign driving licenses registered in the UK and mailed a letter to everyone holding a lorry permit – which includes all Germans with a regular car driving license received before 1999.
“HGV” stands for “heavy goods vehicle” and is apparently supposed to settle the dispute between “lorry” and “truck”. And while “Baroness Vere of Norbiton” sounds like a character from a Harry Potter book, she is indeed the “Minister for roads, buses and places”, which makes one wonder how other countries manage to have places without a designated minister.
Well, if there was a lorry-driving job that does not involve reverse parking, nor parallel parking, maybe no parking at all, come to think of it, I might consider it. Especially if it’s one of those lorries that take large amount of cash from one bank to the other… My high-school friend, however, will probably refuse to support the nation in its darkest hour and carry on in his job as professor of mathematics. If only somebody had asked him to calculate the economic effects of Brexit before.
Sweden is beautiful. Very beautiful. Gorgeous. Lots of forest and water and colorful wooden houses. Like in Bullerby.
Nevertheless, there will be relatively few stories from here. Because my stories thrive on encounters with people. And there aren’t any. Well, there are people, ten million of them. But they don’t talk to you. That’s not because of xenophobia (which is forbidden here). Swedes don’t talk to each other either.
I have a tried and true method for getting to know people: I sit down in the park, read a book or the newspaper, write, smoke a cigar, all of which signals that I am relaxed and communicative, that I have all the time in the world and (because of the book or the newspaper) that I am interesting and intelligent. This works everywhere in the world: Sooner or later someone asks what I am reading, what I am writing or if I have a lighter. Then I move on the bench to make room for the newcomer, people start talking, and soon we are discussing the new James Bond movie, Max Weber’s misinterpretation of Protestant ethics and whether there should be raisins in Kaiserschmarrn or not. Older people talk about the war, the younger ones about problems at home or at work.
In Sweden, though, that doesn’t work. Nobody speaks to me. As soon as they catch sight of me from a distance, people panic and pull an electrical device out of their pocket, playing around with it or speaking urgently and importantly into it. You have to imagine that: People here are such sociophobes that they carry a small TV or whatever it is around with them all the time, just to have an excuse not to talk to anyone.
All right, then I’ll go for a walk instead. After all, it’s green and beautiful. I have already mentioned that, I believe.
Swedes also like to go for walks. When they’re walking, people are relaxed, have time on their hands and look forward to a bit of diversion. It’s easy to strike up a conversation. You ask where you left, where you’re heading, and share your snacks.
That’s what I thought.
But it doesn’t work like that.
Nature in Sweden is apparently not for strolling, but for purposeful running, jogging, mountain biking and rolling around on cross-country skis. Sometimes, people in colorful outfits run across fields as if chased by a mad duck. That’s an orienteering race where participants have to check off certain points and snap off a piece of paper.
People who are not training for the Olympics have dogs. Sometimes one, sometimes two, sometimes eight. The latter are professional dog sitters. In Sweden it is forbidden by law to leave a dog alone at home for more than 6 hours. If you can’t take your dog to work (e.g. train drivers or sailors on submarines) or if you want to go on vacation without your dog, you have to put your dog in a dog hotel or hire a dog sitter. I came to Sweden for similar reasons, but I take care of a cat. And of a sourdough that I have to mix and stir every week. By the way, Sweden does not only have dog hotels, but also sourdough hotels, where you can deposit the dough, which is often in its third generation of family ownership, while you’re on vacation. Seriously. (Because you’re not allowed to divide the sourdough, Sweden still has the fideicommissum, an arcane institute of Roman inheritance law.)
But I’m already digressing again, like in the last great orgy of digression that brought me to Sweden in the first place. So back to the dogs. People with dogs find people without dogs, walking through the woods without an apparent purpose, suspect. Because people in Sweden read a lot of books about crime, murder and manslaughter, they think I’m about to bury a body. Because I have recognizably no corpse with me, they probably fear that they are meant to fill that position, which is why they move on quickly and without uttering a greeting.
Speaking of greetings, I am of course always friendly, smile and say “hej”. That’s Swedish for “hello”. Sometimes another walker also says “hej”, and older people even look friendly. But then they are already gone again.
When Swedish couples go for a walk, they don’t talk to each other either. In fact, no one talks to anyone in the whole country (except to their electrical appliances). Honestly, here you can sit next to someone on a bus or a train for hours and they don’t say a peep. After a bus ride in Bolivia, you know the entire family history of all fellow passengers. After a train ride through Canada, you understand the country much better. On hikes in the Balkans, you are invited everywhere until you can no longer walk in a straight line. In Sweden, you can share a prison cell with someone for two years without learning more than their name.
The ultimate emotion so far was when someone said “hej hej”. “Hello hello”, oh, someone is really talkative, I thought to myself. But he was already gone again. At home, I discovered in the dictionary that “hej” means not only “hello”, but also “bye”.
As I said, Sweden is a beautiful country. Very beautiful. But after my stay here, I need to go somewhere where people are open and warm. Siberia or Minnesota or something.
On a friend’s blog, I came across this photo, depicting Captain Carlos Fortino Sámano, facing a firing squad in 1917, during the Mexican Revolution. Please don’t ask me any details about that revolution/civil war, because it’s even more complicated than the Russian revolution/civil war. Maybe the officer of the Constitutional Army was so confused himself that he preferred to be shot rather than be entangled in the 10-year battle between Federalists, Constitutionalists, Conventionists, Carrancistas, Felicistas, Huertistas, Maderistas, Magonistas, Margaritas, Orozquistas, Porfiristas, Reyistas, Villistas, Zapatitas and the Germans, who, as I have noted repeatedly on this blog, are pretty much responsible for all the mayhem ever caused in human history.
Or that one time at the cemetery in Piura in Peru, where I was caught in the crossfire of a photographer’s rifle, I mean lens.
Because I had never seen the photo from 1917 until now, I am seriously wondering about the coincidence. Have I finally discovered whose reincarnation I am? That would explain how I could suddenly speak Spanish.
Anyway, I think one should always leave home looking as if one was about to be shot. And you wouldn’t want to be captured for posterity in shorts and flip-flops, would you?
Anyone familiar with Hungarian or Yugoslavian cuisine knows that both have a strong aversion to thin strips of land.
I don’t understand either why you would stick a cigar in a pipe. But that’s not the point here. Because the problem for the Baranya-Baja Banana Republic did not come from Yugoslavia, but from Hungary. Its leader, Miklós Horthy, Viktor Orbán’s political mentor, was angry about the Treaty of Trianon, in which Hungary lost a large part of its territories to neighboring states. This is a great trauma for all Hungarians, which is why they erect eerie monuments all over Europe, even on icy, snowy and wind-swept mountaintops in Romania.
Yes, that’s me in the photo. But I forgot the name of the mountain. Whenever my brother visits me, I get some good photos of myself. And of the scenery. Once we discovered a secret submarine base in Montenegro and were arrested by the navy. But it wasn’t that bad. Only our mother, who meanwhile was waiting with a broken foot in the car, which was parked dangerously close to a steadily eroding cliff during a storm, didn’t find it all so funny. Probably also because she had broken the foot after I had gotten us lost in the mountains. Since then, no one visits me anymore. And the brother is now doing wedding photography and stuff like that. I’m against weddings, but if you need someone, give him a call.
In fact, before the Treaty of Trianon, there had been no independent Hungary at all. It had merely been an Austrian province. In this respect, post-Trianon was better for Hungary than pre-Trianon. But nationalism does not go well with historical facts. Neither in Hungary, nor in Yugoslavia.
It was particularly Hungarian socialists who had fled to this border region between Hungary and Yugoslavia after that bully Horthy had destroyed the Hungarian Federative Socialist Republic of Councils and covered the country with his White Terror. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, I had a neighbor from the U.S. who told me that his grandpa had been People’s Commissar of Finances in that short-lived socialist state. So that must have been one of those guys:
I tried to encourage Gary to get to the bottom of the matter and travel to Hungary. But then, I’m the last person who wouldn’t understand that you can’t pursue every idea determinedly. Come to think of it, I need to resume the search for Dimitri.
Later, at the border control from Peru to Ecuador, I met another Hungarian from Transylvania, which is in Romania. That was a funny coincidence, because that day I was wearing a hat from Transylvania.
The young man invited me to visit him in the jungle in Ecuador, where he was working as a reptile researcher. That was nice, but unfortunately I have a panic phobia of reptiles. Some fears I can overcome to provide you with great stories, like when I got lost in the Amazon. But there’s a limit to everything, and my limits are reptiles and skydiving. I haven’t heard from him in a long time, so he probably got eaten by a killer frog.
Back to the Baranya-Baja Republic. It was founded in Pécs on 14 August 1921. Because Hungarians, Serbs and Germans, among others, lived in the area, the workers and peasants thought: “Let’s establish something like a precursor to the European Union!” The government was therefore headed by a Hungarian, a Serb and a German, each with names that could not be more typical of their ethnic group. Magyarovics, Dobrović and Schwarz. Petar Dobrović is the only one who has been preserved for posterity because he dabbled not only in politics but also in art.
The Hungary under Orbán, I mean Horthy did not think much of European values, and so Admiral Horthy, lacking a ship, let alone a navy at the time, rode to Pécs and conquered the peaceful Baranya-Baja Republic. That was on 20 August 1921.
The small state had existed less than a week.
That must be a record, one is tempted to believe. But your favorite history blogger cannot rest until that has been established beyond any doubt.
And indeed: There are countries with an even shorter life expectancy. The Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine declared its independence on 15 March 1939, because the day before, Slovakia had declared its independence from Czechoslovakia in order to ally with Nazi Germany. Carpathian Ukraine, which until then had been an autonomous region in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia, wanted nothing to do with this.
But guess who objected to the independence of Carpathian Ukraine? Exactly: Hungary under Horthy. This time he did not wait six days, but marched into the new neighboring country on the same 15 March 1939, bringing death and terror instead of bread and salt. The Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine had existed less than a day. That one must really be a world record.
We are going to run into this Horthy again in October 1921, by the way.
But let’s stay in August 1921, which was a fertile month for state-founding, because a little further east, another country saw the light of day: the People’s Republic of Tannu-Tuwa.
“No wonder I’ve never heard of it, if that was another one- or two-week state,” you’re thinking to yourself now, reassured. But this time you are wrong. This country existed for 23 years, twice as long as the Third Reich, and you have surely heard of that.
Maybe it’s due to geography, because Tannu-Tuwa is located between Siberia and Mongolia. When people hear Siberia and Mongolia, they think it’s far away. Although there is a train going there. (To Siberia and Mongolia, not to Tannu-Tuwa, but more about that later.) So it’s more environmentally friendly to get there than to the Azores or Easter Island. And you have surely heard of those. Although they are not independent states.
Tannu-Tuwa is not small either. 165,000 square kilometers, that’s larger than Greece, Portugal, Bulgaria or Hungary. Oh, I shouldn’t have mentioned the latter, now that Horthy guy wants to invade right away.
Actually, the only reason he didn’t was because the People’s Republic of Tannu-Tuwa declared its independence on the same day as the Republic of Baranya-Baja, 14 August 1921. As if they had arranged it. Or telepathy.
“Independence from whom?” someone should ask now, and I will happily answer. Or would like to. If only I understood it myself. But the turmoil between Chinese Empire, Russian Empire, Xinhai Revolution, Urjanchai Republic, Russian Protectorate of Urjanchajski Kraj, White Army under Admiral Kolchak (what are all these admirals doing so far from the sea? ) and the Red Army were so confusing even to contemporaries that the People’s Republic of Tannu-Tuwa declared its independence from Russia (both White and Red), China (both Communist and Kuomintang), and Mongolia (both Inner and Outer) to be on the safe side. That’s actually a clever move, which you should keep in mind. If you want to cancel your cell phone contract, for example, but can’t remember your provider, you can write to all the phone companies and terminate the contract. As long as the right one is among them. When I was still working as an attorney, I once had a client who didn’t know who the father of her child was. That made her sad. Especially financially. So I simply sued all the men whose names were listed in the lady’s phone book. That’s why I don’t use WhatsApp myself. The right one wasn’t among them, though, because they hadn’t had time to exchange business cards. It’s a shame that business cards have gone out of fashion. And with descriptions like “He had a big car and used to show up at the club on Fridays” you don’t get very far. For a lawyer, I am even relatively creative. I told her to lie in wait at the club and, if she recognized the man, follow him to his car and write down the license plate number. But she never did. Nowadays, people want their lawyer to do all the legwork. And all of that on legal aid.
By the way, the thing about telepathy above was not some throwaway line. You will rarely encounter a mere throwaway line on this blog, where everything has a deeper meaning. Because one of the early heads of state was Donduk Kuular, an esoteric and therefore certainly telepathic monk. Sadly, he was not a bulletproof monk, which is how Stalin could shoot him in 1932.
The reason was that there was a bit of a dispute about the political direction of Tannu-Tuwa. The country was founded in 1921 as a socialist soviet republic, which was quite modern at the time. In Germany, even Bremen and Bavaria had been soviet republics, albeit only for a short time.
However, there must still have been some confusion about political symbolism, because Tannu-Tuwa’s first flag looked like this:
There is an explanation for this. And no, it has nothing to do with Buddhism. Instead, we find ourselves in the fortunate situation that my article about March 1921 can fully explain the swastika and shed further light on the region at the time. You should definitely read that (again)!
The flag was regularly updated and finally displayed the communist broom and sickle.
That was too much progress for the religious, especially Buddhists, Lamaists and Shamanists. Among them was the above-mentioned Donduk Kuular, who became speaker of parliament in 1924 and prime minister of the Republic of Tannu-Tuwa in 1926. He wanted to take the country in the direction of a theocracy. “Just think how many tourists will come when we have monasteries and Dalai Lamas and yoga,” he tried to dissuade people from socialism.
Unfortunately, a bitter blow was dealt during his term of office. The Swedish author Astrid Lindgren had secured the copyright for “Taka-Tuka-Land” and thought that Tannu-Tuwa-Land sounded confusingly similar. She obtained an injunction from the district court in Vimmerby. Because the Permanent International Court of Justice would not begin its work until 1922, and because no one in Tannu-Tuwa spoke Swedish (now they regretted that they had executed the Baltic baron), the Central Asian republic could not defend itself. Therefore, in 1926, it changed its name to Tuvan People’s Republic.
In 1929, the religious and unsocialist activities of the Tuvan People’s Republic became too much for the Soviet Union. The Politburo pondered until someone came up with the splendid idea: “Let’s do it like we did in Afghanistan!” No sooner said than done, there was a coup d’état. The Tuvan People’s Republic remained formally independent, continued to be ruled by Tuvans, but from then on it was more like a Soviet satellite state. But at least it was on the right side of history, because from June 1941 the Tuvan army helped the Allies against Nazi Germany.
In 1944, after it was clear how World War II would end, the Tuvan People’s Republic applied to join the Soviet Union. The application was generously granted. Two weeks later, the first uranium deposits of the Soviet Union were discovered on the territory of Tannu-Tuwa. Such a coincidence.
By the way, you can learn a lot about the world from collecting stamps. I did so as a child, and I suspect a lot of my geographic, historical, and political knowledge comes from that. Based on my small collection alone, I could write a whole world history.
These stamps were produced for sale to international collectors. Hence the exotic shapes and exoticizing depiction of nomads. (Real stamps in a Soviet satellite state would show engineering achievements like tractors and satellites. That’s why they’re called satellite states, after all.)
And what did Tuva do when the Soviet Union disintegrated? Well, of course, it declared independence again. Tannu-tuwa-ta-ta-ta, a new country enters the world! The only reason no one noticed this at the time was that in November 1991, the world was fully occupied with the war in Yugoslavia, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the independence movements in the Baltic States, the attempted coup against Gorbachev and the war in Kuwait.
Somewhat disappointed by this lack of attention, Tuva changed its mind and concluded a federation treaty with Russia in March 1992. Quite voluntarily, I’m sure. I mean, we know how Russia works. But at least a Tuvan became Russian defense minister. In any case, since then the Republic of Tuva has been an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. And the geographical center of Asia. And probably still sad about the lack of attention.
But don’t despair, dear Tuvans! When the railroad, which was already steaming on your stamps 85 years ago, will finally be built, I’ll come to visit personally.
Wenn Ihr Deutsch könnt, lest diesen Bericht lieber auf Deutsch. Das ist das Original. Ungekürzt. Und um Längen besser.
I have slept very poorly. Almost no sleep at all. Although I am constantly traveling and have been to five continents in 64 countries – or the other way round -, I still sleep poorly the night before hitting the road. Even more so when I am off to new frontiers. I am about to travel to Scandinavia for the first time.
Another reason I couldn’t fall asleep was a mistake I made. A big mistake. I checked Facebook and Twitter late at night. The former informed me that a friend in Bolivia had died, the latter of the Taliban’s blitzkrieg-like advance in Afghanistan. Those guys really demonstrate how much you can get done in a week when not distracted by social media.
My advice not to consume any e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, news, in fact anything with screens for two hours before going to sleep, but to indulge the brain only with literature at the end of the day, remains valid despite my own occasional non-compliance. Good advice does not depend on the person giving the advice. If a smoker says smoking is unhealthy and a non-smoker says smoking is healthy, the smoker is still right. But you’re not allowed to smoke on trains anymore, I think.
These are my confused thoughts as I stand at the train station in Sulzbach-Rosenberg at 4:17 a.m., not having slept nearly enough.
The air is surprisingly mild on this very early August morning, and I am not even the only passenger waiting for the first train to go to Nuremberg. It’s a very special train. It’s the first train after the railway strike, which ended at 2 a.m., an Asian-looking man informs me. He was forced to stay at home for the last two days because of the strike. Not working remotely, because he has a real job. Not one of those cushy computer jobs that can be done from anywhere. It always amazes me how many of those armchair workers don’t move to a country or a region with lower costs of living. It makes no sense to pay rent in Munich or London when you can send your e-mails from Cochabamba or Dnepropetrovsk.
“Because of the children,” people say, and I wonder, “What do the children gain from you working your ass off to make the landlord richer?” Besides, if you want to ruin your lives, you can do so without putting such CO2 emitters into the world. And in order for all of us to comply with the Paris climate agreement, I end up having to take the train. Well, at the moment I would be too tired to drive anyway. When I still owned a car and drove a lot and long distances, I sometimes had to stop and sleep for an hour. Once I almost froze to death. But that was probably not in August. And it used to be colder, back in the days. Again, because of climate change. And thus, everything is connected to everything else.
He works in a supermarket selling drinks, says the man on the platform.
“And you have to start so early?” I ask him, horrified.
“No, but from the station in Hersbruck, I still have to walk a few kilometers to get to work.”
I look into the dark night sky, thinking that such an early morning walk is not even a bad way to start the day. And that guy surely won’t have trouble falling asleep at night.
As a roving reporter, I should be awake at all times, constantly making conversation or eavesdropping on telephone calls, observing the landscape passing by, combining and describing what I see, hear and think. But all the people on the regional train to Nuremberg are on the way to their daily grind and are sound asleep. It’s still pitch black outside.
And anyway: I can’t stay awake for two and a half days. Better to sleep now than when crossing the Öresund Bridge or when reindeer will be galloping past the train, if they haven’t been beaten to death by the German pentathlon coach. Now, that was an all-too-topical remark and, what’s more, one that won’t even elicit a weary smile from those who, and nobody should feel bad about that, haven’t been following the sports coverage from the Tokyo Pandemic Games.
Speaking of weary smiles, I am still weary myself, which is why the thoughts are becoming more disjointed and the sentences are growing longer. If you want to read the edited version, you’ll have to wait for the book. But there won’t be any about this trip, it’s too unspectacular for that. Samarkand instead of Stockholm, Silk Road instead of Sweden, yes that would be something! It’s a pity that you can’t go to Afghanistan right now. A long cherished dream that I have cherished too long instead of acting upon it.
After Nuremberg, fog is rising from the meadows before the sun peeks over the horizon. Babies start babbling. It’s about time that the climate discussion focused on those little CO2 emitters critters.
In Erlangen, the train is already packed. The strike has apparently not cost the railroad any sympathies. The ICE train through Germany doesn’t provide any stories as interesting as the ones on the railroad through Canada. In Germany, no one tells you the story of their life. Here, people either pretend to be important or they look grumpy.
The worst are the squares who reserve a certain seat and then wake up other passengers, bark at them and scare them away. I don’t know why they would do that. There are seats for everyone. Even on the plane, I’ve never seen anyone left standing. Besides, it’s much more fun to walk around the train carriage and sit next to the most likeable or interesting passenger. For example, I like to sit with people who read books. The reservation fetishists are so dumb, they’ll even sit right behind a baby just because the number is on their ticket. And in search of that number, they are lugging their luggage through the whole train instead of occupying the seat closest to them.
Luggage is annoying, too. Trains used to have an extra car for it, so it didn’t fill up the aisles and seats. Between Sucre and Potosí, in Bolivia, there is a train where the luggage is sent ahead with a Dodge pick-up converted into a draisine. The suitcases are then taken to the hotels and houses according to the labels. When the passengers arrive in Potosí, their luggage is already in the bedroom.
Admittedly, that was a long time ago and the draisine is now in the unofficial railroad museum in Sucre, to which the stationmaster Miguel gives you access with a large bundle of keys if he has nothing to do that day, which, fortunately or unfortunately, was the case when I was in Sucre, because the bridge between Sucre and Potosí had collapsed. Sucre, by the way, is where the zebra crossing was invented. And Potosí used to be the richest city in the world. But there’s not much left of it, I checked.
When I’m tired but can’t fall asleep, I easily get into incessant but incoherent storytelling. The first time I realized this was at the scout camp at Luminy, outside Marseille. The whole group was in the same tent, because tent pitching required resources which we preferred to devote to fighting forest fires, for which, after all, we had been invited by our fellow French scouts. Many years later, this experience provided me with the skills to help Brazilian firefighters combat forest fires in Chapada Diamantina National Park. After a Brazilian firefighter was lost, I was even allowed to take his place in the helicopter on the flight back to Lençois. Just like “Black Hawk Down”. Fittingly, because Bahia, the Brazilian state, does look like Somalia.
Anyway, I can’t easily fall asleep when I’m in a room, in a cell, in a tent or in a train compartment with other people. I don’t know what the problem is, because I’m not afraid that someone will rob or murder me. In the tent in the cedar and cypress forest in the south of France, insomnia made me all hyper, and I started talking. Quite entertaining apparently, maybe even funny, because soon the whole troop of intoxicated scouts was awake with excitement. Or with surprise, because until then I had always been quiet and shy and had shown no talent whatsoever for late-night entertainment. That must have been exactly 30 years ago, because at that time we were listening intently to the short wave radio, providing news from Moscow, from Mr Gorbachev, whom we knew, from Mr Yeltsin, who was still unknown to us, from the tanks in front of the parliament, and eventually from the citizens on top of the tanks. In the meantime, Mr Putin, who was vodka-absolutely unknown to us, was in Dresden pulling off his first criminal acts. By the way, Absolut vodka isn’t even Russian, it’s Swedish.
But that has nothing to do with the railroad anymore. Although, it does, because we went to Marseille by train. At that time, people still thought that travel abroad was dangerous. Somehow, the story had spread that in France, bandits would come into the compartment at night and sprinkle the sleeping passengers with knockout drops and then rob them. Instead of wondering who would be so stupid as to steal from scouts, we took turns keeping watch. By the way, I took the train to Marseille again many years later, for a job interview. But that didn’t work out.
North of Coburg, a hot air balloon is floating through the morning sky. The rail strike has made people creative. I am too tired to take a photo. Writing, on the other hand, I can always do. Well, you see what kind of gonzo crap you are getting. At least my crap is consistently turning to the left. Or does only yogurt turn left and right? Honestly, I could never taste a difference between clockwise and counter-clockwise lactic acids. And when you turn the cup upside down, it suddenly turns the other way, or what? And what if you take the yogurt to the southern hemisphere? Allegedly, on the southern hemisphere, the water flows down the drain the other way. Counter-clockwise versus clockwise. Or vice versa. I lived in the southern hemisphere for a few years, but I never bothered to check. Why would anybody care, as long as the drain works at all? In Bolivia, the problem was more with incoming than with outgoing water. Sometimes, there was no water at all for a few days. Maybe you’ve seen this in “Quantum of Solace”. It’s a true story, though. The train station in the movie looks like the one in Sucre, which I mentioned above. Pretty amazing if you consider that Sucre is, after all, the capital of Bolivia. No, that ain’t La Paz. Look it up, if you don’t believe me: Article 6 paragraph 1 of the Bolivian Constitution. Reading the constitution should be part of getting to know a country. But good-natured as I am, I’ll make the effort, so you don’t have to.
In Leipzig, even the captain gets fed up with the reservation frenzy. Very friendly, he makes an announcement: “Please use the nearest available seat. Every seat is just as comfortable as the other ones.” And then he races through the countryside at 200 km/h, but it remains comfortable indeed. A train like that is a fabulous thing. In a car, you would panic at 200 km/h. Recently, I was hitchhiking back from Italy to Germany. On the A6, I was picked up by a young man who was driving so fast, carelessly and aggressively that I got out at the next rest stop, even though he was continuing in the direction I needed to go.
Train stations in Germany have weird names: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe or Berlin-Gesundbrunnen (Luther’s City Wittenberg, William’s Hill in Kassel, Wellspring of Health in Berlin). You probably can’t name stations North and South no more, because those stupid smartphones have robbed everybody of any sense of direction. At every station, more people get on than get off. This kind of growth cannot go on forever, neither linearly nor exponentially. The ratio will only reverse at the main station of Berlin. Seems to be a popular city. But an ugly station. In the basement, like a bomb shelter. Even the stations in Nuremberg and Leipzig, which were really bombed, were rebuilt beautifully and grandiosely, as befits the railroad as the best means of transportation.
One of the laptop guys, who made sure in his telephone calls that the whole carriage knows that he is an IT guy and that his presence is required in Hamburg most urgently and importantly to calibrate, install, reconfigure or disinfect something, meets his just punishment when the grandma sitting across from him pulls out her cell phone and asks him: “If you’re into IT, you can surely help with my Corona app?”
Salad helps even better against fatigue than Coca-Cola. The problem with my fatigue is that the brain is working even faster. As if the tired body can no longer keep it in check. I can hardly keep up with writing. Good that nobody will ever have to read this. Heinrich Schliemann, by the way, always took his notes in the language of the country he was in. But back then, trains were slower. Besides, he spoke thirty languages, while I speak only three. Although I think he was a Karl May kind of guy. Karl May, not Karl Marx. Not well known outside of Germany, but a fascinating fella.
Couples seem to find it perfectly normal to sit next to each other, each staring into a separate screen. Or they’re on their way back from the honeymoon, and the relationship is already ruined anyway.
North of Berlin, Germany is completely flat, perfect for tank battles. (The more boring the terrain, the more important are technology and tactics.) It’s a pity that the reenactment groups don’t dare to do something like that, sticking to their silly wooden swords. Which is mostly just an hour-long excuse to fill their stomachs with ribs and beer for the rest of the day. These guys must not have heard of the famines in the Middle Ages.
Even here, where there is not much to see, the train is going too fast for my taste. The small stations, the dilapidated collective farms, the windmills, I’d like to get off everywhere to explore. When the train stops for a moment, an apologetic announcement is heard. As if there was anything bad about watching the sheep graze. Instead of sheep farming, though, people here are investing in wind energy now, it seems. That’s fine with me, I don’t really like lamb meat. Not my cup of tea, as the English say, but what good is that saying to those who don’t care for tea at all? Am I digressing? Not more than usual? Okay.
To make the story more interesting, I am changing trains now. Hamburg main station. Much too small for all the people. Can’t say what that means for the city, though, because I don’t know if people are arriving or leaving.
The train to Flensburg is packed like a box of sardines. Makes sense, as it’s going to the sea. I only get a seat next to the toilet. For two hours, door opening, door closing, pee, piss, rinse, flush, door opening, door closing. Even a stone would have to pee now, after listening to this all the time. Can’t you make the toilet soundproof, German Rail? But it’s probably not Deutsche Bahn that’s responsible, but some subsidiary. DB Rail Passenger Sanitary Services GmbH & Co Ltd or something. Convoluted like the Panama Papers. By the way, there is a train going through Panama. From the Pacific to the Atlantic. Or vice versa. Depending on the time of day. I haven’t been there. Should go, though. Maybe, the thought already crossed my mind when I wrote about the Bolivian railroad above, for a book about railroads in South and Central, i.e. Latin America. Not such a boring railroad book about locomotives and gauges, but something like my trilogy about crossing Canada. Conversations with people on the train. Thoughts about railroads connecting people. Interesting stops along the way. Bandit raids. Well, the problem is, the things that interest me usually don’t interest anybody else. That’s why the newspapers are full of football and bitcoin, and nobody wants to print my stories. Depressing.
A visually impaired man is tottering around. I help him to the toilet.
“That was very nice of you,” says a visually astute man sitting across from me, who took the Flixtrain from Munich to Hamburg. That’s a private train company. 24 euros, it doesn’t get any cheaper than that. Except for hitchhiking, but that’s tough if you have as much luggage as he does or I do. He only goes as far as Rendsburg, where he will pick up a camper van. On the way back home, he’ll drive the camper van, he says, instead of taking the train. Which makes sense, I suppose. And then he wants to go to Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and everywhere else on our beautiful continent. He has time, because he is in early retirement. Until recently he was a civil engineer, project manager for airports, later head of the construction department at Siemens. In Cuxhaven, he built a giant factory where masts for wind turbines are assembled. Not the big ones I photographed above, but the mega-super-sized ones that are placed in the sea. There’s less protest from residents there, he says. Probably because there are fewer residents, I think to myself. But what do I know.
In Rendsburg, there is a mosque next to the railroad tracks. Probably waiting for the Orient Express, ha ha.
The spry pensioner gets off and is replaced by a spry cyclist. She also goes to Flensburg and wants to cycle from there down the Baltic Sea coast. Hopefully with reliable westerly winds, but without hurricanes. On the regional train, people are much more talkative. They talk about their lives, their travels, their plans. But she seems to be in a hurry. Because as the delays due to malfunctioning signaling systems and blocked tracks add up, she becomes increasingly restless: “Already a 46-minute delay!”
“I like that,” I reply cheerfully, “the slower we travel, the more I get to see of the countryside.”
All the passengers around us are laughing, half of them out of amusement, half of them out of bitterness. The latter are those who take the same route every day. But that’s not a promising way of life to begin with.
“After all, this is the first time I am traveling through this beautiful region,” I explain, trying to calm the local tempers. I’ve never been this far north in Germany. In other countries, yes – Scotland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Like so many, I explored the world before getting to know my own country. A great-uncle or great-great-uncle was even in Norway once. With the Wehrmacht. That generation really got around quite a bit.
Shortly thereafter, the train drives onto a humongous iron structure. A bridge, but on very thin stilts, and describing a complete circle. Like a roller coaster. Fascinating.
The daring bridge is designed to span a canal.
“What is this?” the cyclist wonders.
“That’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal,” I venture a cheeky guess.
“I thought this is your first time in this region?”
“Yes, but what else could it be?”
She doesn’t believe me, looks it up on Google Maps, and it turns out that the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal is now called the Kiel Canal. Political correctness gone mad. The canal was once built for the Vikings, so they could sail faster from the Baltic to the North Sea and rob and plunder on a global scale, setting a precedent to be followed by most European nations. This engineering feat was probably also the model for the Panama Canal. Oh, a word with five identical vowels. Now I feel challenged: Panama Canal sandbar. Panama Canal banana plant. Panama Canal banana snack bar. People who share the train with me wonder why I am laughing while writing. (And it’s even more fun in German, where I end up with Panamakanalrandsandstrandananasmahl. Languages without compound nouns are a sad affair.)
Kaiser Wilhelm II. was probably also the one who built the mosque in Rendsburg, because in his opinion, Islam was an integral part of German culture. Or at least of the German strategy to conquer the world. Which is pretty much what German culture consists of.
And here we are in Flensburg, already. Only ten hours to cross the whole country, from Bavaria to Germany’s northernmost city. The city from which the German Reich was ruled in its last days and breaths. By Admiral Dönitz, who was appointed by Hitler as his successor and carried out the unthankful job for another three weeks until British soldiers led him away to a nursing home.
There are those who claim that Dönitz never surrendered or abdicated, that therefore the German Reich continues to exist and the Federal Republic of Germany is an illegitimate state, and so on. If you know someone like that, send them this article. In that fabulous piece of research and reasoning, I dispel all the misrepresentations and misinterpretations.
Now, a dark-haired female Bundeswehr soldier in uniform steps out of the Flensburg train station and intimately kisses her blonde girlfriend, then both of them walk into town, holding hands. Things have really changed in Germany since Dönitz. Here, because of the proximity to Denmark, perhaps more than elsewhere.
Bilingual monuments mourn Danish and German soldiers who fought against each other in 1864. Now, election posters of the Southern Schleswig Voters’ Association, a Danish party competing in the German parliamentary elections, are displayed in the city. The Danes have minority rights in Schleswig-Holstein, their own schools, their own libraries, their own churches. People would speak of a parallel society and deem it highly dangerous, if it weren’t an Aryan race, but Turks, Kurds or Arabs.
The Flensburg train station must date from the time of those wars, too, or at the very most from the time of the Kaiser. Without anything having been modified or modernized since. In the lavatory there is no soap, no hand dryer, no toilet paper.
The town itself, well, I don’t know.
A bus passes by, line 21, destination: Glücksburg (German for “Happy Castle”). Spontaneously, I put my hand out. Spontaneously, the bus stops.
“One ticket to Glücksburg, please.” I like the name, no matter what’s there. And the train to Denmark doesn’t leave until the evening, so I have time for a spontaneous field trip. At the station, there are lockers so big that even a duffel bag fits, so I can roam around carefree and take a whiff of sea air.
“Do you want to go to the castle?” asks the bus driver.
So, there really is a castle. I thought it was just a town name. “Oh, yes,” I reply, realizing what a fortune cookie I am. An arbitrary bus, and it will take me straight to a castle! This must be Tucholsky’s castle, I vaguely recall an episode from the master’s life.
On the side of the road, there is a speed camera, and that is probably what Flensburg is known for to most Germans. Because in this city, there is the federal agency where you add up, and only very rarely subtract, the points you accumulate through speeding and other traffic violations.
When the loyalty card is full, you win one month of cycling or taking the train instead of driving. Everything to protect the climate!
The happy castle is a municipal library. At least that’s what I think at first. Because for me, libraries really are a haven of happiness. Knowledge, information, diversion, comfortable armchairs, all free of charge and a refuge from the consumer society. What’s more, you usually meet other smart people there.
But when the bus driver referred to the castle, he meant the water castle of the Prince of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, who apparently had a soft spot for descriptive castle names (Sonderburg means “Special Castle” in German). The German state of Schleswig-Holstein would still be called Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg today if the Danes had not conquered the last two castles because the Danish king wanted to live in them. Denmark apparently had no castles of its own. That’s what happens when you only build windmills, Atlantic Walls, Öresund bridges and other such practical things.
Next to the castle, there is a lake, which is pleasant to walk around. And with all the more atheistic joy when you learn that at the bottom of the lake lies Rüde Monastery, which was secularized by flooding.
Paraphrasing a lawyer joke: What are a thousand dead monks at the bottom of a lake? – A good start.
It’s as windy by the lake as it is by the sea, and it’s getting chilly. So back to the train station. In front of the castle, there is a hitchhiking bench. That’s a neat invention. If you don’t know it, check out my article about East Belgium or about the Nazi castle. (Yes, Germany is full of all kinds of castles.)
But there comes the bus already. Line 22, but the same driver as before on the 21. He’s not wearing a Flensburg public transport uniform, but an open plaid shirt over a black T-shirt. Like some dad who drives the school bus temporarily while the actual school bus driver was pulled out of service by that government agency in Flensburg.
He recognizes me and says: “Oh, you already purchased a ticket from me once today. Just hop on!” Very nice.
A family from Bavaria with two children and four bicycles doesn’t want to pedal the 9 km back to Flensburg and asks if they can take the bikes on the bus.
“Technically not,” the driver says, but then gets out and helps them stow the bikes between the seats. Very nice.
A girl gets on and asks: “Do you stop at the post office too, or just the train station?”
“Only at the train station, but if you need to go to the post office, I can drop you off there.” Very nice.
As I get off, he wishes me a nice day, without suspecting how much he has contributed to making it one. Flensburg doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. The people in Schleswig-Holstein are really nice. It’s a shame that the Green Party dudefrom here isn’t running for chancellor. But Olaf Scholz is from the north, too. Hopefully my absentee ballot form will make it to Stockholm in time.
Because the above mentioned German-Danish war is forgotten by now (or did you know anything about it?), a fluffy train runs from Flensburg to Fredericia. I say “fluffy” not only to form an alliteration. The Danish train is cozier than the German one. Much more space for baggage, bones and buttocks. You sink into the wide chairs like into a TV armchair. And that’s in second class. But maybe there are no different classes here, because I have crossed the border to Scandinavian socialism.
In Padborg, which seems to be in Denmark already, Danish policemen storm the train, shouting “Passport! Covid test!” but in a voice of “This is a robbery!” Martially, they march through the train as if they would love to kick someone off. I have my passport, Covid test and a fully completed vaccination booklet, and suddenly the policeman turns rather friendly. Maybe he has to deal with lots of Corona refugees who try to convince him that the virus doesn’t exist. Why don’t those folks try smuggling? Then, they can explain to the authorities that alcohol isn’t actually harmful and that national borders are just as arbitrary as artificial infection rates.
At the next stop, there are indeed two customs women boarding the train, but they don’t throw anyone off the train either. It’s strange to experience such controls again within the EU. One has already become accustomed to free travel. Younger people have never experienced border controls before and sometimes even forget their passports at home when they take the train from Tallinn to Tuscany or hitchhike from the Hook of Holland to Hunedoara.
Denmark even put up a fence to stop the advance of swine flu. Maybe the customs officers were just looking for wild boar and domestic pigs among the passengers. The environmental swines prefer to fly anyway.
Denmark is, if I remember correctly, country no. 65 on my list of countries visited. But it’s silly to count something like that when you’re just passing through. Even more so at night, when you can’t see anything. Except the train stations. Small towns, it seems, Hjordkær, Rødekro, Lunderskov. Not much going on. Mainly young people getting on and off. A student across from me, flaunting his student status very ostentatiously, is reading an essay on social educational inequality illustrated by the example of highly gifted children in preschools. Or something like that. I don’t really know any Danish, after all.
Soon we reach Fredericia, whose main justification is that the trains can turn east here, i.e. to Copenhagen. The station is pure Scandinavian cliché, as if the Danish Royal Railway had ordered it from IKEA. The extreme opposite of the Wilhelminian station in Flensburg. No wonder that these differences in design taste have repeatedly sparked conflicts, which, with the Schleswig-Holstein question, raised one of the most complicated political-territorial disputes in a Europe not lacking in complicated political-territorial disputes.
Economists divide Europe into the euro zone and the rest. Much more relevant for travelers is the division into cash and electric money. Denmark belongs to the latter group in both cases. Some people think that card payment is fashionable and easy and fast and efficient. In reality, it’s bullshit. Literally, because the two toilets in Fredericia station can only be opened by credit card and payment of 10 kroner (about one euro). Because the card terminal reader gadget or whatever is not working right now, you can’t wash your hands – at the most important train station in Denmark!
Any hole in the floor would be smarter and make more sense than a toilet that requires an IT consultant from Copenhagen to come in and reopen it, requesting a code from the headquarters in Singapore, which will require him to do a fingerprint scan for authorization to get a PIN, which he then has to enter into a terminal in the washroom, which is locked, however, so the whole station has to be blown up and rebuilt. Now I know why the station looks brand new. I don’t know which fucking technology geek had the fucking idea to lock a shithouse with a fucking card, but that person should be locked in a restroom for a week. Without a cell phone. But what do you expect from a country that was ruled by King Bluetooth in the 10th century already?
Or take the luggage storage. A service that has unfortunately fallen out of fashion, but is extremely practical if you are traveling with a backpack filled to the brim with books, thus weighing 25 kg. In Flensburg, there were old steel boxes, you inserted some coins, turned the key and were relieved of the burden of ownership. Freedom!
In Fredericia, by contrast, the lockers look super chic, like bright red, freshly cleaned Olivetti coffee machines, but – you guessed it – they’re useless if you don’t have a credit card. These designer boxes don’t accept coins and bills. They are too smug for that.
To all the designers, planners, architects and creators of anything, be it coffee vending machines, highway toll systems or pandemic response plans: If you think you’re modern and everything is based on card payments or mobile phone apps, you’re excluding 10 or 20 percent of the population from the get-go. That would be like planning homes or mass transit systems that no one over 65 could use. Or no one with physical limitations. Or no poor people. That’s short-sighted, simple-minded, stupid and classist. Not modern.
Another problem that those designers of supposedly smart, but in reality very dumb technology overlook: Not everyone wants a bunch of companies, the people who work there, and all the hackers in the world to know where they bought or used what and when. Some of us travel incognito. Or are on the run. Or don’t want the spending on their credit card to be aggregated with the spending on the credit card of someone who happens to be behind you in line, who also uses the restroom after you, and who later turns out to be a terrorist. Because of stuff like that, people end up in Guantanamo for eight years. There, they finally have peace from all the internet surveillance terror. What kind of world is this, where you have to go to prison to be free?
Moreover, lockers operated by credit cards make the work of Danish detectives very boring. This is probably why there are so many Swedish crime novels, but hardly any Danish ones. Because if a plutonium smuggler forgets a suitcase in a locker, e.g. because other plutonium smugglers (or anti-nuclear activists) put him in a state where it was impossible for him to remember (but also to forget, admittedly) anything, nowadays nobody would notice, as long as the daily fees are charged to the credit card. No suspicion. No case. No investigation. No detective story. Neither as a book nor as a movie, which is usually quite a disappointment compared with the book. By the way, even more disappointing than film versions of books are remakes of old movies. Recently I saw the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, which for some inexplicable reason, i.e. probably greed, remade the Magnificent Seven from 1960, which were already a remake of the Seven Samurai from 1954. This new film is so utterly awful, that all the plutonium smugglers of the world should get together to poison everyone in charge at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures. And if they’re going to band together anyway, they might as well lobby for better working conditions. Maybe I’m confusing plutonium with polonium, because I’m not an alchemist. Or chemist, as they call it today. The alchemists are now homeopaths. I only watched the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven because there are hardly any western movies released anymore. The last good one was the series “Godless” on Netflix. Although I didn’t understand how Jeff Daniels could play a one-armed bandit but go back to having two arms in later movies. Hopefully no one will ever commission a script for a western from me, because I manage to digress around two corners with each new sentence.
So, let me continue with my Luddite rant: Twenty years ago, or in coin-based societies, the aforementioned plutonium suitcase in the locker (you still remember, I hope?) would arouse the suspicion of the stationmaster (whose job has since been downsized, of course) after a few days of not being picked up. He would call the local detective and open the locker. Over a curry sausage in the station canteen, which the waitress could serve them under the counter, figuratively speaking, because she would not have to record every meal in a computer, the two would discuss how to proceed. Then they would examine the contents of the suitcase. Based on the clothing and the books, they would draw conclusions about the origin of the owner. They would examine the sand traces on the bottom of the suitcase and investigate in which part of the country this suitcase must have traveled before. They would place a harmless decoy suitcase back in the locker to see if anyone tried to pick it up. Eventually, the detective would forget about the case, but the stationmaster wouldn’t. And early one morning, the night train from Budapest, punctual as always, would spit out an attractive woman in a jaunty hat, who would innocently unlock the almost rusted lock to locker no. 017 and remove the case. The stationmaster gasps. The detective is currently on his way to Egypt, unable to be reached, of course. The unknown woman could be gone by the next train. In 40 minutes, she would cross the border into Belgium, neutral territory. What to do now?
And that’s why books and movies used to be better in the good old times. That is also why plutonium smuggling takes place in Transnistria, where there are still beautiful old trains with a living room look, a conductor for each wagon and the KGB still being called KGB. During the journey, the conductors sell meatballs, pickles and vodka, handing it over the counter adorned with a flowery table cloth. Vodka helps against radiation. I learned that from Svetlana Alexievich’s book. She won the Nobel Prize, so she must know.
Transnistria really exists, by the way. As does Abkhazia, whose capital, Sokhumi, has a train station whose aesthetic symbolizes the importance that should be bestowed on railroads everywhere in the world. A station like a temple. A station more grandiose than many a university. A station like a royal palace. Unfortunately, there is only one train per day.
If you click on the links, you will find more articles from those countries. As far as I have managed to write them, which unfortunately often takes years. So it might indeed happen that a country will have ceased to exist by the time I finally get around to writing about it. But anyway: If you follow all the links listed in this article and the links in the links, you will be traveling virtually as long as the train to Stockholm takes. I’ve calculated it precisely.
Speaking of trains, to stay on topic in an unusually stringent way: The next one is going to Copenhagen Airport.
The ride is short, dark and uneventful. The underground station is long, dark and uneventful. Nevertheless, I plan to take a break of several hours here, so I will cross the Öresund at sunrise. Sunrise photos are always well received, especially by the sleepy readers, who usually miss the sunrise themselves. I also hope that there will be toilets and finally a place to sleep at the airport. The former rightfully so, the latter not. The seats are too uncomfortable to sleep in. The waiting passengers and the non-passengers waiting for passengers are passing the time with loud Babylonian phone calls. An airport employee races up and down with a cleaning machine. This stupid machine, whose purpose is of course to dramatically reduce the need for human labor, makes so much noise that I understand why people don’t want to live next to the airport.
So I go back downstairs to the station catacombs and take the next train to Sweden, which goes to Malmö. No idea why, but on the train from Copenhagen to Malmö at 2 a.m., there are mainly young people.
A girl is on the phone, very dramatic, very desperate, very excited:
“If you had told me that, I wouldn’t have left.”
“So everything was a big misunderstanding.”
“And you really mean that?”
Apparently that’s what he claims, because in Lernacken (Sweden) she jumps up, storms off the train, sprints to the opposite track, where a train will immediately take her back to Copenhagen (Denmark) and into the arms of her lover. A big hug for the European Union, for Schengen, for borderless travel that makes it possible to mend relationships on such short notice. Imagine if this had happened on the India-Pakistan or North-South Korean border. The two would have to spend the night alone, in despair and in tears.
Cheers also to cross-border rail traffic in general and the connection across the Öresund in particular. This is really something special, because there is a sea between Denmark and Sweden. It’s made of water, and trains don’t usually run over water.
An untenable state of affairs, the rail ministers of Denmark and Sweden found. They decided to change that. However, because there were no cell phones at the time, each for himself. So Denmark started building a tunnel to Sweden and Sweden started building a bridge to Denmark. Both great engineering feats, just a little lack of coordination.
The mishap only became apparent when the Danish tunnel reached Swedish territory and the Swedish bridge reached Danish territory. The engineers had forgotten to do what many people often forget and what many should do more often: ask the lawyers. The lawyers could have told the engineers without much research that country A is not allowed to build bridges or bore tunnels in the sea belonging to country B.
Both countries’ lawyers met to resolve the matter amicably. Contrary to prejudice, lawyers are very creative, as readers of this blog may already have become aware of. They came to the agreement that the Danish tunnel would connect to the Swedish bridge and vice versa. Agreed, signed, apostilled. Oh, if only the world would let more conflicts be settled by lawyers. No more wars!
Back at the respective railroad planning authorities, the engineers were raging: “What nonsense! This is impossible! You must be out of your minds! Only lawyers could come up with such a stupid idea.” But the agreement had been signed, there was nothing to be done. “Pacta sunt servanda,” as the lawyers said, although, because they wanted to go away for the weekend, they wisely concealed the possibility of consensus contrarius.
And thus, my tunnel train rises out of the sea in the middle of the Öresund, floating to Sweden on a bridge for the rest of the way.
Transport solution sui generis is what we lawyers call that.
And the train is fast. I am in Malmö at 2:46, unhindered by border, customs or Corona controls. The Swedes don’t care about any of that. A country that has lots of space also has lots of space for cemeteries, the Swedish herd-immunity authority is thinking. Anyway, they have long wanted to conduct another large-scale experiment since the eugenics program was abolished in 1975. Every year, they are hurting when they have to send away the Nobel Cup for Medicine to a foreign country.
I wouldn’t have needed the train to be that fast. Because now I’m stuck in Malmö. The first train to Stockholm will leave at 7:04, leaving me with four hours to kill. In Sweden, the station policy is even more restrictive than in Denmark. Here, the toilets are locked completely. They don’t open until 6 o’clock. And if you need a loo at night, you are asking? Well, then you’re asking better questions than the people who made that decision.
At the train station in Malmö, there’s nothing to keep you entertained for four hours. Okay, I could sleep like the other people waiting. Which is actually overdue. But because nothing, absolutely nothing of interest has happened so far (which, as I realize with a horrified look at the fast-filling pages of the notebook, doesn’t stop me from writing), I decide to take a nighttime walk around the city. I should say that Malmö has a reputation as the most dangerous city in Europe. Gang wars, murders, bomb explosions, terrorists, at least that’s what the headlines say. And certain media like to put this in connection with immigration and especially with Muslims. Allegedly, Malmö is a “no-go area” where not even the police dare to venture.
I am skeptical of such narratives. Naturally, I make use of the unique chance to see the most dangerous city in Europe for myself. At night, when it’s at its most dangerous. Right around the train station, always the most dangerous area. On foot and alone, which is the most dangerous way. And with an oversized backpack on my back, because the luggage storage at Malmö station is not electronic, but has shut-down completely. Probably for fear of suitcase bombs. The way I stumble out of the station, I might just as well (or just as badly) be carrying a banner: “Stupid tourist is lost and unable to defend himself in case of mugging.” When you’re overly tired, you do stupid things.
Malmö at night is relatively mild. I don’t even need a jacket. Malmö at night is relatively quiet. Very few cars. A woman walks home alone. An Arab-looking youth rides his bicycle in large circles, celebrating the absence of car traffic and the balmy summer night. Two very young girls pass by on electric scooters. This is always a crucial test for me, no matter what country: Do young girls go jogging (or riding scooters) at night? If so, then the city is hardly as dangerous as it is made out to be.
As I cross the pedestrian traffic light at red, the only car far and wide stops at least 50 meters before the intersection to signal that the driver has seen me. Although he would have had the right of way.
I really try to get lost, but try as I might, nothing dangerous happens. No gunshots. No drugs. No gangs. No Taliban.
At the Royal Park, not only is the gate open, there is no gate at all. You can just walk in, even in the middle of the night. And there is no crime here, either. Not even potheads or vagabonds (except me) or a discarded cigarette butt. A rabbit hops curiously out of the bushes when it hears me opening a roll of biscuits. But even it doesn’t try to assault me, although rabbits are known for their brutality.
By the way, I’m sorry, Mr. King, but if all the toilets in your country are locked at night, well … What else could I do? But I think it’s good for the royal flowers.
Only on the way back to the station do I finally witness a crime: An electric scooter was not parked properly, but brutally and recklessly knocked over. And, the critical media was right, there is no police far and wide. Total chaos. A failed state.
Do you have any “no-go areas” in your city or country that are supposedly teeming with danger? I’d be happy to visit and take a look. (Harlem wasn’t dangerous, either.)
Sleepy city, sleepy train station. The whole hall is empty, no train is awake yet. All alone, I am enjoying the romantic sunrise. What a delight are these first rays of light and warmth, especially on my tired body, which is frozen by fatigue. This combination of the energy of the distant fireball and the tracks, wires, signaling, rail lines is beautiful in a way. Everything is ready for another day. Another day where people will be transported safely and reliably across the country, across the continent and, if they want, around the world. The railroad is the perfect transportation system. Unlike an airplane, you can get off anywhere, change direction, take a break. Unlike in a car, you don’t have to concentrate, you can switch off, enjoy, chat, read. Even sleep, if you have more talent for it than I do. You have much more space and comfort than in a plane, bus or car. If you get bored or want to change the person you’re talking to, you get up and walk to the next carriage. You arrive in the middle of the city instead of 30 km outside. You have no parking problems, no unexpected extra costs, no points accumulated in Flensburg. And the railroad has style, elegance and romance.
I took the picture in Lithuania. Simply laid on my back in the forest, photographed towards the sky, put it on the blog, was discovered by University of Minnesota Press and got 150 dollars. Too bad that doesn’t happen more often. You probably have to do some marketing and stuff. But then I’d have less time to travel and write. I’d rather be poor and live an interesting life than rich and sit at the computer all the time.
Time for the last train of this journey. The heavy, black locomotive looks like it could go all the way to the North Pole. But people prefer to fly there now, sadly. The train from Malmö to Stockholm is the most comfortable of all. Upholstered chairs from the 1960s. Wood veneers from the 1950s. A soft carpet. A restaurant on board. And a nice and cheerful conductor, who is especially happy when he can announce that we will arrive in Mjölby two minutes early. And soon after: “If nothing obscene happens, we will arrive in Linköping two minutes ahead of schedule.” Well, let’s stay decent then.
By the way, Tucholsky’s castle was not Glücksburg, but Gripsholm. If a train goes there, I’ll take a look. Because hitchhiking is supposed to be difficult in Sweden. Apparently, no one here can imagine being so poor as not to own a car. Well, that’s the disadvantage of a classless society.
In the comfortable armchair, I could finally fall asleep after two days of delirium, but the landscape and weather are too beautiful for that. Not as dramatically beautiful as a journey across the Alps, across the Andes or through Montenegro. But pretty, cute, lovely, colorful, kind of happiness-inducing. It’s my first time in Sweden, but I already suspect I’m going to like it. Whenever the city will get too busy for me, I will simply take the train for a few stops and walk through these forests, across fields and farms, past wooden houses painted rusty brown with moose blood and around one of the 84,000 lakes. If I didn’t have to get to Stockholm in time for work, I would get off right now and soak up the nature, breathe it in, enjoy it with all my senses. Taking the train through Sweden should be a therapy financed by the health insurance for all kinds of psychological issues. A cure on rails. All it would need is a library car, and the passengers would have to be relieved of their cell phones. And, in an ideal world, it would run without any timetable.
It remains so wonderfully green until shortly before the gates of Stockholm. Final stop. A rather stylish final stop.
That was it. That’s how you get to Sweden by train. Nothing of any literary value, but then, nothing much happened. Nothing at all, to be honest.
Personally, I think that hitchhiking yields more adventures. But from the ranks of the readers, there came the unmistakable calls for more railroad journeys. And the advantage of the railroad is that I can write all the time, because I don’t need to entertain the drivers. And thus, it’s you who have to endure this logorrhea.
But once the pandemic will be over for good, I swear, I’ll go on Interrail. For three months, if not longer. Or taking the train along the Silk Road, all the way to the banana bar in Samarkand. Or to Babylon, on the tracks of the Orient Express and the Berlin-Baghdad Railway. And that will turn into a proper story, not something as half-baked and half-brained as this.
But now, I really need to catch some sleep.
From Berlin or Hamburg, there is also a sleeper train to Malmö and Stockholm. But you can’t write when you sleep.
The ticket from the depths of Bavaria to the utmost north (around 1500 km) cost only 60 € with Deutsche Bahn. They offer these super savings deals for many European countries.
These prices are so cheap that they even make sense if you want to go from the south of Denmark to the north of Sweden, for example. Or from the Netherlands to Spain. Et cetera. You take a local train across the border into Germany, and then avail yourself of the (pre-booked) cheap ticket.
They are also sometimes cheaper than domestic tickets in Germany. So if you want to go from northern Germany to the very far south, it may be cheaper to get such a deal to Austria or Switzerland, for example, and simply get off along the route, depending on where you need to go.
And the money saved thanks to this invaluable advice can be donated to my charitable train travel blog. Thank you!
After only being able to pay for the ice cream by card, I sat by the lake, reading a Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel, when two tall blonde girls came, got completely naked and jumped into the lake, frolicking frivolously.
Sometimes, all the stereotypes are true.
(The photo is from another day at another lake, but highly representative of my life in Sweden.)
I don’t really want to go where all the other tourists go. But at Lake Garda, there are not only hordes of tourists, there is also Salò, the small state governed by Mussolini after he lost power and until he lost his life, and the Vittoriale, which I have already written about. Perfect for a little birthday trip.
But then, just as I am about to leave, I read in the newspaper that two Germans killed an Italian couple at Lake Garda and dumped them in the lake.
Not such a good time to go to Lake Garda as a German, I am thinking.
Fortunately, there are other lakes near Trento. Small, unknown and therefore much more interesting lakes. Waters where hopefully no Germans have murdered Italians, at least not since World War II.
Lago Caldonazzo is the second largest lake in Trentino and thus perfect for me. To avoid the tourist crowds, I always prefer second-tier destinations when traveling: Kotor instead of Dubrovnik, Sukhumi instead of Batumi, Canmore instead of Banff.
For just 2 euros, the Italian railroad gives you a 45-minute panoramic ride through the mountains around Trento and through the Brenta Valley. Over so many ravines and through so many tunnels runs the route, it could almost rival the railroad through Montenegro or the Semmering Railway in terms of scenery.
At Pergine, a castle high above the town beckons. But disciplined as I am only on my birthday, I stick to the plan of hiking around the lake and remain on the train.
When you get off the train in San Cristoforo, you find yourself right on the hiking and biking trail around Lake Caldonazzo. I’m the only walker, though, among dozens of cyclists, all of whom are speeding past me as fast and streamlined and colorfully dressed as if they were trying to catch up with the Tour de France, taking place at the same time. (Don’t bother! This year, the Slovenians have the best doping.)
I don’t understand this speed mania, this dromocracy. People want to cycle faster and faster, but they fail to spot the squirrels, the flowers, all the views along the way. Customers would rather have dinner delivered within 10 minutes instead of it being prepared with love. They take the plane instead of the train or the steamship “to save time”, instead of reading a book on the train or on deck. Hardly anyone travels like Goethe, Seume or Leigh Fermor anymore, slowly, on foot, with breaks. And no one notices that the dogma of speed only serves capitalism, which wants us to work faster, study faster, consume faster, clear the restaurant table faster for the next customer.
In protest, I have my first break in Valcanover. The lake must be higher than Trento, because it is pleasantly fresh, although it was already quite hot when I left in the morning.
At an intersection in Calceranica, a white GLS van and a yellow DHL van almost collide. Tension lies in the rising midday sun, windows are rolled down, insults ready to be hurled.
At the last moment, the two courier drivers realize that, in the big picture, they are sitting in the same delivery van and both are busting their backs for the capitalists. There’s no point in arguing between them. Instead, the exploited laborers fraternize on the spot, get out of their vehicles, roll cigarettes and save their energy for the class struggle.
The plan to circumnavigate Lake Caldonazzo doesn’t quite work out, because on its eastern side there is no hiking or biking trail, only a road.
It’s already noon, the sun is blazing, the plan is ruined.
What do smart hikers do in such a situation?
I don’t know. I am not one of them.
I see a chain of hills in front of me, and spontaneously choose their summit as my next destination. Via Claudia Augusta leads up there, a Roman road that connected northern Italy with southern Germany and has thus facilitated tourism for almost exactly 2000 years.
It’s amazing how narrow these historic highways were. Entire legions needed less space than today’s camper vans. But the urge to make everything bigger, fatter and larger is just as widespread as the urge to hurry. Yet every hiker knows: the smaller the backpack, the faster you are. If you like, you can read this as a metaphor.
Beneath the rampant ivy, the remains of a wall stand out, probably not from the Romans, but from their Austrian successors. As we know, Austria used to be larger, more important and, as you can see here, more warmongering than it is today. The fortress that guards the ridge near the village of Tenna was one of thousands, no, tens of thousands of fortresses with which Austria had been preparing for World War I since the 19th century.
When one thinks of that First World War, muddy battles in the trenches of Flanders or Verdun come to mind. But Austria – on Luis Trenker’s insistence – wanted to take the war to the mountains. So fortresses were built from Montenegro to Merano, from Trieste to Trento, from Slovenia to South Tyrol. Whole mountains were blown up because they were in the way. Tunnels were dug to blow up even more mountains. All in all, such a war in the Alps is quite a tedious affair, with no quick territorial changes. It was not until the final Battle of Saint-German that Italy conquered South Tyrol, Trentino and Istria. (However, without Fiume/Rijeka, which led to a particularly funny story.)
By the way, there is someone else who believes that Trentino still belongs to the Habsburg Empire: Google Maps.
It persistently displays the place names in German: Reiff instead of Riva, Löweneck instead of Levico, Atzenach instead of Tenna. This is not only 102 years behind political developments, but also highly annoying and impractical, because neither the street signs nor the train stations show the German names. And why should they? This has been Italy for 102 years!
I can imagine very well how this happened: In California, there is an overpaid 22-year-old, for whom the one weekend in Las Vegas was the farthest trip of his life, and who, because no one wants to give him any real tasks, is analyzing the illegally collected cell phone data of German and Austrian tourists in Italy. To his monolingual and monodimensional surprise, he realizes that they are more often looking for Venedig instead of Venice, for Rom instead of Rome.
He goes to his even more overpaid 22-and-a-half-year-old boss, who has been to a wedding in Hawaii once and therefore thinks he knows the world, even though he threw up three times during the flight.
“Awesome, let’s localize that!” they cheer, slapping themselves on the back and feeling mighty smart, which is always a sure sign that you’re not.
And now innocent tourists get lost because no one can guess that Mezzocorona and Kronmetz are the same village. The fact that 180,000 people died on the mountain front doesn’t matter at all to the two guys from Silicon Valley, as long as those shot in the World War didn’t have Facebook accounts where they could be pestered with ads for warming wool socks. But of course these computer jerks know nothing of the Dolomite War, of the Bloody Sunday of Bolzano, and of the fact that terrorism in Tyrol could flare up again at any time as a result of such a stupid name dispute. At some point, an irredentist Austrian will come and argue with an Italian about a place name on the map. Bang, bang, the dead will be lying in the streets again. And everything because some pimply Brian or some bespectacled Ralph interfered in something they don’t have a fucking clue about.
And then there are people who believe in “artificial intelligence” and delegate their own to a device assembled by Chinese children’s hands that sucks all the data, freedom and quality of life out of them. They put more trust in a computer program slapped together by guys in ugly polo shirts than in the signs on the side of the road or the free map available at the tourist office.
Oh, I desperately need a calming cigar right now. Because once I start to get really upset, I might not live to see my next birthday.
Fortunately, a little further on the ridge, there are a chapel and a hermit’s house. The hermit is not at home, so I can sit down and hermit and emit happy, hermity, herbal smoke in his place.
And there I spot what I would never have spotted without climbing the embattled hills of Tenna: another lake. With more trees and shade, smaller and thus more circumnavigable than Lake Caldonazzo. Let’s go!
First, however, I come to Levico Terme, and at a rather inconvenient time, it seems. At 2 p.m. everything here is asleep. Even the stores selling lunch are closed. Everything else anyway.
The only thing open is the park, and its 12 hectares are not the worst place to hide from the midday heat. Anyone who sees me sitting in Habsburg Park reading a book about the Hohenzollerns might get the idea that I’m a monarchist. Nothing could be further from the truth, and my article on the outrageous claims by the Hohenzollerns, as well as my guest appearance on the Déjà Vu History Podcast (both to be published in October), will hopefully guillotine, execute and exile any such suspicions.
Levico Terme was one of the many spa towns founded by the Austrian kings and emperors in their great realm to escape to when they found Vienna too hot (July and August), too cold (December and January), too foggy and wet (November) or too ridden by civil war (1934). Levico Terme is a rather small example. More splendid examples can be found in Marienbad or in Merano, about which I will tell you soon.
Incidentally, the Habsburgs invented tourism that way. Or rather reinvented it, because the Roman tourist routes had in the meantime fallen victim to vandalism. The expansion of European tourism did not come to an end until the summer of 1914, when the Austrian Minister of Tourism, Franz Ferdinand, was shot by a Serb who protested that his country had been passed over in the division of the Adriatic coastline. (World War I managed to interrupt tourism only briefly, but that’s another topic.)
These days, there is not much going on in Levico Terme. Only a few guests in white bathrobes wander around like ghosts from a bygone era. As a visitor here, you are eyed somewhat pityingly, as if you were traveling with a guidebook from 1905.
But the good thing is: if this was once a spa for kings and emperors, then there must be a train station with a train going to Vienna, via Trento. So I don’t have to hike all the way back.
If the station is not one of the many buildings that have long since fallen into disrepair, that is.
But first I walk around Lake Levico. The path lies in the shade of trees. The forest-covered slopes on both sides form a fjord-like landscape. There are canoes and paddleboats in the water. The further I get away from the town, the fewer hikers and cyclists I meet, but here and there I see someone fishing for dinner.
It is perfect. Quiet, shady and beautiful. Just the place to understand why mankind, having migrated from Africa to Europe via Asia Minor, settled here. At the end of the lake, like an inexperienced migrating people, I lose my way in the bushes and end up in someone’s garden. A man with a dog shows me the way back to the path around the lake. The man rather grumpy, the dog delighted about the little excursion.
That would be interesting, but unfortunately this fortress is also on top of a hill. Maybe I shouldn’t have smoked so many of the good Italian Toscano cigars on the way, but I don’t think I can storm another hill today. Besides, with today’s birthday I’ve passed the zenith of life. From now on, it’s going downhill, not uphill.
Just before the sun sets, I get back to Levico – exhausted – and catch the regional train to Trento. Going to bed early and sleeping in after a long and fulfilling day, that’s the plan.
But the whole country has conspired to spoil the quiet conclusion of my birthday.
Young men armed with royal blue T-shirts, horns and megaphones board the train at every station. Tonight Italy will play Spain in the semifinals, and because I am staying across the street from a soccer bar in Trento, I am in for another sleepless night. Why don’t the city folks go to the villages on such occasions? The beer is much cheaper there.
I would love to get off the train right away and spend the night at the lake. But the cats in Trento are already waiting for dinner. Too bad I didn’t catch a fish.
A few days ago, I passed such a glass box during my evening walk around Munich. Even though I’m well aware of the above statistics, not least because I created them out of thin air myself, I can rarely restrain my curiosity.
Without much hope, I rummaged through the usual cheesy love novellas, outdated editions of law books, and volumes of SAT exams from 1995 that would be considered unsolvable today. Probably because a trip to Sweden is imminent, I reached for the off-puttingly thick and long-windedly titled book “The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared” by Swedish-sounding Jonas Jonasson.
Not wanting to remove the book from public access on mere suspicion, I sat down on a nearby park bench and began reading.
At first I smiled. Then I grinned. Then I held my stomach laughing. And all that while on the first few pages.
I spent the next two evenings until late at night with Allan Karlsson, a centenarian explosives expert blasting his way through Sweden and 20th century history. Originally, he just wants to escape his own birthday party (an understandable desire), but an hour later he’s already being hunted by the local mafia, finding refuge with a fellow senior citizen who is also not quite law-abiding, and thus begins their great escape.
The plot and entanglements are ingeniously constructed, but the tone is so light and humorous, even when people are dying to the left and right. The revolutions, world wars and other annoyances that Allan Karlsson has survived in his long life are told in alternation to the crime and escape plot, with only the experience of forced sterilization being truly distressing. Through all other situations, he winds his way with humor, friendly reserve and constant open-mindedness to new things.
Thrilling like a Swedish crime novel, but funny like a Swedish Švejk. And a book that, with its middle-aged to very old protagonists, makes you look forward to that third stage of life.
So for once, here’s a reading recommendation for rather light literature. If anyone has read any of the other books by Jonas Jonasson, I would be curious to hear your opinion. – And did any of you ever find anything worthwhile in these public bookshelves?
“The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared” on Amazon.
In the morning, a friend had said that it would rain in the afternoon. Her not being a meteorologist, I had dismissed it with the necessary politeness of simply ignoring it, just as I refuse to take medical advice from non-doctors, pandemic – or indeed anti-pandemic – advice from non-epidemiologists and legal advice from non-lawyers, which I, being a lawyer myself, usually find more nuisance than guidance. And anyway, I saw that the sun was shining bright and happy and with no sign of weakness.
A few hours later, after a long and aimless walk around the parks of Munich, I found myself on the S7 train, going south towards Pullach, which, I should add for the benefit of any reader who knows what that little town harbors and hides, was an honest and innocent coincidence, for I planned to disembark one or two stops prior to that center of West German espionage.
It was the opposite of rush hour, or maybe it was rush hour, but I was going in the opposite direction of the rush, and there was only one other passenger in the car: A man with hair so white, that it made him look older than he was, but wearing the hair too long and the shirt too unbuttoned, desperately trying to look younger than he was.
He was, as many people nowadays are, on the phone, speaking, either oblivious of me or due to subconscious self-importance, so loud that I could understand every word.
“He has 100,000 masks in stock, and he is selling them as low as 4 cents, because he can’t get rid of them.”
“Of course he could get more, but I don’t know if he wants to.”
“No, to pharmacies, he is selling them for 25 cents.” Poor pharmacies, always being taken advantage of – and not shy about passing this on to their customers.
“You can hardly sell the white ones anymore. The one with colors, yes, but he doesn’t have enough of those.”
“No, he has to pay 25 cents.”
“People are crazy. They pay 50% more, just to get them in packages of 25.”
And more of the same about FFP2 masks and antigenic test kits, apparently trying to profit from the pandemic.
At Siemenswerke station, I got off, wanting to continue on foot. The broker for protective equipment got off there, too.
It was pouring rain like during the deluge, as if the heavens wanted to repeat the disaster which had wreaked so much havoc just a week before. With the news of water destroying towns, roads, bridges and railways and washing people away fresh in our minds, we sought refuge in the little shelter on the platform, hoping for the rain to subside, as, with my little knowledge of meteorology I knew, it must at one point. But it didn’t.
The man was still on the phone.
“The problem is that if you place the order now, you get them in three weeks.”
“Except the ones in stock, of course.”
“Yes, he can also have them produced in Germany, but then they cost more.”
I listened, for it was hard not to, and realized that there is not much money to be made if you are late to the pandemic party. All this, while to me and a few other passengers huddling in the uncomfortably cold shelter, he could have easily sold umbrellas for as much as 5 euros.