When Train Travel means Time Travel: on the Mennonite Express from Winnipeg to Toronto

This is the third part of the crossing-Canada-by-train trilogy, hence my recommendation to read part 1 and part 2 first. Otherwise, the whole story will go haywire and derail like a freight train, setting an innocent town ablaze. And you don’t want that, do you?


As much as Winnipeg had become my favorite city in Canada, one day it was time to leave. The train was scheduled to arrive at 7pm, in reality it steams into the station at 11:45pm and it takes another hour for us to leave. But all passengers are aware of that and have stayed at home for a few more hours, enjoying a long dinner and watching a hockey match, because they use the handy online tool which provides live updates of the position, speed and delay of all trains.

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All passengers? No! One indomitable traveler has no smartphone and deems all this technology to be a silly gimmick. Thus, I show up a few hours early and have the mighty train station with its dome all to myself.

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Maybe I should finally get one of those internet gizmos? But no, a delay of five hours isn’t really that bad. Once, the train had accumulated a delay of more than 30 hours while crossing Canada. Well, even that wouldn’t worry me, as I brought enough books to read.

Soon, more smartphone- and app-resisters show up: about 12 men in black garments and black hats, women in long, uni-colored dresses, bonnets pulled deep over their heads, as well as boys in black pants, dark blue shirts and straw hats. They are carrying large plastic buckets and wooden crates, tied together with rope. They speak in a mix of English, German and something similar to German. They are Mennonites, namely those of the old order.

I can’t believe my luck! Not only am I about to travel in my favorite means of transport from the 19th century, but I am going to share the ride with people from the same. I am too shy and decent to take head-on photos of other people, but I know you are bursting with curiosity. So I pretend to take a selfie, hoping that you can catch a glimpse of the ladies behind me.

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Now I just have to get to know them somehow. I understand snippets of their conversation in German, but when they speak English, I understand more. They like to mix both languages: “Das ist interesting” or “der Zug is a hundred twenty-six kilometers weit weg.” That information is also being shown on a monitor inside the station.

Some of the men are studying a fold-out flyer with the map of the whole route, arousing my unchristian envy. I get up to get one from the information desk, and as I return to the waiting hall, I wave with the map, saying “That was a good idea, gentlemen, thank you very much!” They laugh, and the ice has been broken. Egon Erwin Kisch or Ryszard Kapuściński couldn’t have done this more elegantly or more quickly. Now I just have to stay on the ball!

“How far are you going?”, I ask, still in English. Some to Sudbury Junction, others to Washago, both  in Ontario. “From there, we still have to go by bus for several hours. We live close to Lake Superior.”

The gentlemen want to hear about my journey, too, of course, and thus I tell them, making sure to mention that I am from Germany. No reaction. I have to be more direct, it seems: “I overheard you speaking German too, am I right?”

“Yes, a German dialect,” they say, still in English.

Cheekily, I switch to German: “Dann lassen Sie uns doch Deutsch sprechen.”

“Ja, kenn mer scho mache. Wir sprechen Pennsilwania-Deitsch. Ich hab mal ghert, in Deitschland gibt’s ne Region, die wo heisst Schwoben. Dort spreche die Leit anscheinend so wie wir.” (For the benefit of the English-speaking readers, I will translate the conversation from now on. But it was a very interesting experience to speak German in a dialect, of which I am not sure if it still exists in Europe. I felt that it was easier for me to understand them because I am from southern Germany. In the German version of this article, there are a few more examples of the dialect.)

“But our books are in High German.” By “books”, they mean the New Testament, which each of them has in the pocket. “Our books are not printed in English letters, though, but in German script. I have heard that you don’t use that anymore since World War II.” He refers to the Gothic script, and I shamelessly attempt to ingratiate myself with the  gentlemen from antiquity: “Oh, I can read that. When I was a child, I read Karl May’s books in that script.” One of the young men smiles, whether for knowledge of the author or out of pity because I read something else than the Bible, I don’t know. Now I have to read a few lines from the Gospel of John, a test that I master effortlessly and with distinction.

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Would you have passed the test?

Hopefully they won’t ask for my religion, because as an Atheist, I would probably be an outcast in this group. Due to indoctrination received in early childhood, I can sometimes pass as a Catholic, but it seems the Mennonites aren’t too fond of Catholics either. Because when I ask for their family histories, each of them stresses that their ancestors fled from Switzerland in the 18th century. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the persecutors had been Catholics, because that’s what Catholics do, persecuting anything and anyone (except sexual predators within their own church).

One of the Mennonites, the funniest of the lot, whose hands look as if he had just finished planting a thousand turnips, really speaks like a Swiss. With him, I can speak in German fluently. One of the older gentlemen speaks more Swabian, and the others I can only understand partially. When they speak among themselves, it’s all a riddle to me. We’ll be switching back and forth between languages in the coming days.

“Days?” you are wondering. Well, Canada is large, and the train from Winnipeg to Toronto takes 38 hours, inconveniently including two nights, which, as always, I have to spend in the cheapest class without a bed. I don’t even need to ask the Mennonites in which class they travel, because I can already tell that they are penny pinchers.

When the train finally arrives just short of midnight, a noisy group of around 50 hyperactive teenagers leaves the train. They have reached their destination, and both the Mennonites and I thank God that we don’t have to share a train with them. That would have been a horror.

During the whole time, I can’t get my notebook out, let alone take any photos. That would destroy the trust that I am trying to build up. As we enter the train, I therefore walk on to the next carriage, so I can finally write everything down. My seat is the only one where the light will be on for a few more hours. (And you always thought I have an easy life!)

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In the coming days, we will bump into each other again and again. That’s the nice thing about train travel. If you want to change your conversation partner, you walk through the train, sit down elsewhere, go to the restaurant car or to the car with a glass ceiling, where one is almost never alone. This story will therefore be jumping back and forth between different conversations, but I also want to convey what it’s like to walk through the train, from interesting to boring, from amusing to annoying conversations. Don’t worry if you will get lost in between! In the end, we will safely arrive in Toronto, guaranteed.

At some point after 3am, I must have fallen asleep, because at 5:30am, I wake up as the train stops in the middle of nowhere. The headlights of a pick-up truck have brought the train to a stop. Two men get out of the car and onto the train. A robbery? No, just an extra stop.

Speaking of pick-up trucks, now I remember a story that the Mennonites told me: a bear came into one of their settlements. Tommy, who was just working on the Fendt tractor, wanted to catch it with the forklift, but the bear was of course quicker and more agile. Gary joined the scene with his pick-up truck, ramming the bear again and again. The bear wasn’t bothered by this either, so Tommy shouted to his wife: “Bring the rifle, but the 308!” The wife was ice-cold and killed the bear. They took it to school the next day, so the children could see a bear.

The Wild West, it still exists.

After the short night, I walk up to the panorama deck. It’s rather cold there, but at least that will help me wake up more quickly, even before consuming the first breakfast coke.

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The other early risers are my Mennonite friends. The children are already busy reading books, and at 8:30am, one of the Mennonite ladies shows up to distribute school material. The work begins.

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But the education seems to be limited to Bible study and simple arithmetic. Because again and again, someone asks me questions like “How did you come to Canada from Europe?”

“By plane,” I answer carelessly.

“Is that as fast as the railway?”

I don’t think so, but how am I supposed to explain this to someone for whom the (relatively slow) train is the maximum of diabolical modernity? “It’s a bit faster. But it’s not that much fun, you don’t have that much space and you are tied to your seat. Taking the train is really much better,” I try to reassure him.

From his eyes, I notice that he can’t imagine any of that. And I realize that I am not only dealing with people who refuse technology, but who also refuse information about technology. People who don’t have a TV and never leaf through a magazine, how are they supposed to know what the interior of a plane looks like?

A completely different problem with technology has befallen two middle-aged Canadian women, who arrive in the dome car: “I am freaking out, there is no signal up here either!” “And no internet since yesterday, I don’t even know how my dogs are doing.” “When is the next stop where we can use the phone?” “This was the most stupid idea ever. I will never get on a train again!”

Once more, we are dealing with the kind of people who criticize the railway for everything that has nothing to do with the railway. If you take the car to uninhabited parts of Canada, you won’t have a phone signal either. A friend from Winnipeg told me that she could never take the train because she was claustrophobic. I asked her how big her car was or whether she would have a freight jumbo to herself when flying, but she didn’t get it. And then there are of course those complaining about delays of the train, as if cars never get stuck in traffic.

Of similar absurdity are the arguments of those who want to justify why the train is less popular in Canada than elsewhere in the world. “Canada is huge,” is the standard explanation/excuse for anything. Russia is huge too, and not only the famous Trans-Siberian Railway is a common means of transport. In Canada, the population is even more concentrated in a few metropolitan areas, all of them within a corridor along the border with the USA, which should make train travel more efficient and economically viable. Just because a country is big doesn’t mean that every passenger wants to go to the North Pole.

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“Canada doesn’t have enough people,” is the next weak argument. Well, there are 37 million and thus no fewer than in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Romania or Montenegro, where the train comes more often than twice a week.

No, it must be the ideology of individualism that disallows collaborative solutions. The First Nations with their communitarian view of society, on the other hand, would most certainly have built railroads.

Two guys, traveling in the same carriage as me, introduce themselves: Chance and Curtis. They only met on the train, but both of them are going the whole way from Vancouver to Toronto without a break. “Hats off,” I want to say in light of such a long trip, but none of them will take off his baseball cap during the whole journey, not even for a second.

Curtis is a nuclear physicist and works in a research center, doing things that I don’t understand. The rather bulky metal boxes above his seat are worrying me slightly. Maybe he is a plutonium courier?

Chance is an actor (he played Phil in the series The Switch), social worker and script writer. “Oh no, not another script writer,” comes to mind after the experience with Beniamin from part 2 of this train journey. Does the whole train only exist for authors to talk to passengers for the purpose of writing stories and screenplays, without noticing that the other person took the train for exactly the same purpose? It seems we are not really as creative as we all believe.

Climbing back up to the panorama deck, I notice that the one of the two Canadian ladies who is slightly less obsessed with mobile phones has a different obsession, no less worrying. She asked the staff for cleaning spray and paper towels and is cleaning the windows. “Those teenagers on their school trip pressed their unwashed hair against the windows,” she explains her activity.

And the cleaning does indeed seem to improve the view, because one of the Mennonites calls over: “Do you see the bald eagle up there?” I have to admit, I wouldn’t have recognized the eagle, but I do spot a dot at the far end of the firmament. So it’s true, the eyes remain in better condition if you are not staring at screens all the time. “It has to be a young one, because once they turn three years old, they change the color,” he adds, zoologically versed.

It’s generally impressive how much the Mennonites know about nature. But tree huggers they are not. Their relation to the environment is more one of utilization, following the instructions in Genesis 1:28 to subdue the earth. The following story will illustrate this quite well:

“The beaver is a clever animal. We once had a beaver on the farm. He needed a large tree for the construction of his dam, at which he had gnawed just enough for the tree not to fall. ‘Why doesn’t he gnaw more to topple it?’ we asked, until we noticed that he needed wind from the north, so the tree would fall in the right direction. Where we live, the wind doesn’t blow from the north very often. So the beaver waited for six weeks until the wind was right. And on that day, he felled the tree.”

“Wow!”, I exclaim, both in admiration for the beaver and for the gift to observe something like that. We people who grew up in modern civilization wouldn’t even understand the beaver’s plans.

“The dam is built so well, all the trees and twigs are so intertwined, you cannot destroy it by hand,” the farmer continues, “so we had to use dynamite to blow it up.”

“All the fish got killed, too,” his colleague remembers.

I wouldn’t entrust the Mennonites with our national parks, let’s put it that way. In the end, they too are disciples of growth, following the aforementioned section of Genesis that calls for fertility and reproduction. One of the Mennonites tells me that he now lives in a village with 40 people, but that he came from a village with 100 people. When the community becomes too big, they have to split up because the land doesn’t support them anymore.

In my view, that’s the wrong response to economic and environmental problems of growth, but today I want to listen, not lecture. I am curious how the decision is made who gets to stay and who has to leave. “It’s a bit of coincidence,” he replies vaguely, “but the new settlement has to include old and young people.” The Mennonites benefit from the trend to urbanization. That way, many farms and sometimes whole villages are left behind, and they buy them. When Canadians want to move to the city and give up their village, the Mennonites ride into town with 8 million dollars in cash in the saddle bags. They could easily save that much money because they never bought an Apple product in their lives. (Which is, coincidentally, also how I finance my life.)

On this trip, there is a clash of extremes and I am right in the middle. “Where on earth are we?”, one of the ladies screams, as if the train was trying to kidnap her. The Mennonite men leaf through a very torn street atlas and inform her that we will soon reach Sioux Lookout. Long-term readers know that I am quite the super-scout, but even I don’t understand how they figured this out in the flat prairies, where everything looks the same. Maybe they recognized the abandoned sawmill that we just passed. “Let’s hope that the phone will work there,” is the only thought of the cell-phone lady.

After Sioux Lookout, the landscape is becoming more interesting than in the prairies. It is still relatively flat, but now with forest and lakes. The train no longer follows a boring straight line, but meanders through birch, spruce and fir forest.

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“It looks like there were forest fires,” one of the Mennonites points to the burnt ground, from which cute little green trees are sprouting, beginning nature’s cycle yet again.

It is no coincidence that the forest right next to the railway line had burnt down. Flying sparks from the steam engine and the brake discs, cigar butts thrown out of the window, small cause, big effect. Smoking is prohibited, by the way. The conductor seems to have a fine nose, because every few hours, she calls through the bathroom door and reminds people of the tobacco ban. Those caught only leave the washroom after 15 minutes because they need to clean the cubbyhole of ash and smell, only to steadfastly deny that they have ever smoked. Sometimes, she has kicked people off the train for that, the conductor tells me. From my reaction, it seems to be obvious that I find that quite tough, because she continues to explain: “Hey, the smoking ban is not some railway company rule, it’s federal law.” Ok, but in most of the places where we stop, there is not even a hotel. If you get kicked out there, you’ll be beaten by a bear.

Later, when we are so close to a town that the phone fetishist has a signal, she proudly shows her cell phone to one of the Mennonites: “Look, the dot shows where the train is. That way, the I-phone always knows where we are,” although “always” is a wild claim, as we have seen. And when the fellow luddite asks: “So can you let me know when we pass the Wiebe farm?”, she is as gobsmacked as a goblin who got smacked in the gob.

“I just had two bars, now I got only one,” the telephone lady, let’s call her Tiffany, screams out aghast. It is her first long trip. She can ride the train for free because her late husband was employed by the railway. She could have done so for 30 years already, but she never had time before because she was working her entire life (a typical Canadian syndrome, and insofar, the Mennonites fit right in). Her husband actually never took the train himself, she adds, because he was afraid that it would derail. “I know in what a bad state the tracks are, I won’t risk that,” he kept saying until he died, probably in a car accident.

The cleaning lady, let’s call her Pamela, is very keen on telling the story of her life. She only got married when she was 45, two days after the wedding the husband moved from Ontario to Alberta, she quit her job as a microbiologist, only found work at the golf course, had to take out a mortgage. After five years of marriage, it turned out that her husband is gay. Oddly enough, she is less angry about the lost five years than about the jointly accumulated debts which she believes she has to pay off. “I could be on the Jerry Springer Show,” she says of herself, relieving me of having to come up with a fitting description.

During that sermon, she shows me endless photos of dogs and cats on her mobile phone (that also works without a connection, sadly). As she wants to show me a photo of the amputated leg of her diabetic father, I get up and can only rescue myself by cheekily asking the Mennonites what they have in the large plastic container that is wandering around between their seats. They have home-made potato chips, showing that these immigrants from Germanic countries have North-Americanized a bit, after all.

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One of the elder Mennonites now addresses the lady with the dramatic life: “You are from Alberta and you have dogs? Do you know Miss Victoria Bond, then?“

“Ehm, no.”

“She also lives in Alberta.”

“Where in Alberta?”

“I don’t know. But she has two dogs, and I thought that you might have met her.”

At this point, I should explain that the Province of Alberta measures more than 660,000 km2. That’s the size of Germany and Italy combined.

It is still early morning, but I already have to jot down some secret notes, otherwise I will forget many of the oddities occurring on this train. So I withdraw to the restaurant car, where the Mennonites most definitely won’t venture. They are self-sufficient. Maybe the chicken in the wooden box has even laid fresh eggs.

Over breakfast, I get to know Richard, who brought his bicycle onto the train, so he can ride around the rain in Toronto in an environmentally friendly manner. The transport of the bike only costs another 20 $, that’s not bad for a distance of almost 2,000 km.

Richard himself also rides for free, because he used to work as a conductor, having acquired a lifelong right to use the train. He tells me that the route used to run by the shore of Lake Superior and was much more scenic. But now it’s apparently more important to bring all the plastic stuff from China to Toronto as quickly as possible, hence the priority for the freight trains.

Richard has another interesting piece of information. He knows why the train was delayed by five hours when it reached Winnipeg. “Last night, I had a conversation with an elderly gentleman. Well, maybe conversation is the wrong word, it was very one-sided. He might have suffered from dementia, in any case, he hardly spoke. The next morning, he was dead. The coroner and the sheriff came aboard in Saskatoon, hence the delay.” I just hope they took the body with them, instead of storing it in the freezer, whence my breakfast bacon came.

An elderly couple sits down at our table, maybe attracted by the morbid topic. They are from Winnipeg too. When I tell them that I have just spent ten days there, they can hardly believe it. “Ten days in Winnipeg, is there even that much to see?” I keep observing this phenomenon on my trips: the most interesting and likable cities are completely underrated, even by the people living in them. I could have spent months in Winnipeg without getting bored. But this shall be the subject of a separate article, in case anyone is interested.

Before Hornepayne we have to wait in the wilderness for 90 minutes, because “there are too many trains in the station”. Those are the long freight trains, which are carrying crude oil through the country, which is first exported, then refined abroad, and then re-imported as fuel to run all the vehicles of the people who don’t want to travel by train. Very efficient indeed, such a market economy.

The conductors are nice enough to open the doors, so we can stretch and walk around a bit. We can’t get very far though, because a creek runs parallel to the tracks and the ice isn’t thick enough to walk on it.

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Ultimately, we do reach Hornepayne. A place with a population of 1,000, but those who urgently need to make trivial phone calls are on cloud nine. During the stop, which is just long enough for people to run to the supermarket and back, there seems to be an incident in which somebody tries to climb onto the engine. But the conductor spots him and chases him away. I don’t see anything myself, but the news spreads as quickly through the train as wildfire through the prairie.

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By now, Chance, Curtis, Tiffany and Pamela have become acquainted and are mired in a vehement discussion, quagmired even. Unfortunately, they have chosen the panorama car as their debating venue. The ladies are complaining that nobody is working anymore (which is not true) because everyone is receiving welfare and free housing (which is not true), that native Americans/Canadians have to be treated better although they personally did not kill any of them (of which I hope that at least the latter statement is true, but it overlooks the continuing effects of discrimination and mistreatment), that nobody thinks of the oil industry and farming (which is really not true in Canada), and that they want better public services and lower taxes (which is illogical). In one sentence, they are typical Albertans.

The young guys dispute each point, quite substantiated, but somewhat overzealously, becoming personal far too easily. They believe that protecting the environment is more important than oil, that taxes aren’t a bad thing, that in particular companies could pay a bit more (for which they are denounced as socialists), and that postcolonial societies have an obligation towards the formerly colonized people (I find their argument puts too much emphasis on the ethnic-cultural side and not enough on the socio-economic side). In once sentence, they are typical Canadians who are not from Alberta.

It is as if exaggerated stereotypes are reenacting a political dispute on Twitter. It doesn’t make any sense, but this is compensated by an ever increasing volume and ferocity, while the Mennonites and I want nothing more from life than adoring the beautiful landscape of Ontario. “White people can say what they want, they are always branded as racists,” Tiffany rants. That is really bollocks and a sure sign that racist remarks are about to ensue.

I prefer to get up and go to lunch, where I meet Richard once again. He seems to be living in the restaurant car. (Maybe he has a lifelong free ticket for food and drinks, too). “Did you hear about the guy who climbed onto the engine?” he welcomes me back.

“Yeah, what happened there?” I ask, hoping for details.

“I have no idea what he wanted. The conductor tore him down, and then he ran off. Good that she discovered him before the train got moving. That could have become really dangerous!”

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Even the oldest among the Mennonites has never been further west than Winnipeg. In his whole life. And now he is worried if he can still work, because he got some metal in his knee and is walking around the train with two sticks. “I probably won’t be able to work with the horses anymore, because I couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough. Maybe I can still build beehives.” So, this is where Max Weber got the theory of the protestant work ethic from.

Someone like me, with the career aspiration of being a vagabond, would be ostracized in such a community. When they inevitably ask me about my profession, I therefore don’t tell them the truth, which is that I am studying history and traveling around the world, caring for cats, but I refer to the profession that I last exercised ten years ago, that of a lawyer.

“With what specialization?” the Swiss-speaking Mennonite asks.

“Family law, divorces and disputes about children.”

“That is simple,” he replies, “it’s always the fault of the other person!“ He really is the funniest guy of the group. On the issue of divorce, he just says: “We don’t do that. That is a strong point about the Mennonites.” I would see that differently, but I have the impression that he himself notices that this approach only ignores problems, instead of solving them.

Probably, Mennonites don’t need lawyers for anything. Because they are such die-hard pacifists that they wouldn’t even file a lawsuit, instead hoping for the Day of Judgment. Tragically, the combination of German descent and pacifism meant that the Mennonites in Canada were seen as traitors during World Wars I and II. Of the men, many were put in internment camps or condemned to forced labor. (More about this in my article about German immigrants in North America.)

Even late in the evening, the young leftists and the old rightists are still arguing bitterly. Now they are deep into the discussion of racism. While four white people are vehemently arguing about racism, two rows further on, there sits a young black man, probably thinking “What the heck do you know?” or praying fervently not to be drawn into this muddled debate.

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During the night, the train is racing as if it believes it can catch up the enormous delay. I am dreaming that I am visiting friends in their house by the sea, which is shaking and squeaking like the train. “That’s the wind,” they say, and in the dream I am so scared that I can’t sleep.

The next morning, I wake up too late for the sunrise. The landscape has changed. Now, there are little lakes and bogs everywhere, somehow connected to Georgian Bay.

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In disbelief, I ask the Mennonite gentlemen if they could even sleep on the rumbling train. “Yes, of course,” they reply, as if that is a silly question.

Chance and Curtis are now talking about the mysterious stowaway: “The guy wanted to catch the train for free and hide between the wagons.” “How crazy is that? It’s freezing cold out there, especially at night.” “Maybe he just needed to get to the next town.” “Well, the next train is in three days, he can try it again then.”

That sounds as if another hobo career, probably inspired by this blog, was stopped in its tracks. Sad.

Now, the enigma of Curtis’ nuclear suitcase is revealed: he is simply as old-fashioned as me and is carrying a huge stack of books still printed on paper. We people riding the train are really stuck in a different century.

I should have known that the question is pointless, but I do ask the Mennonites if they ever want to come to Europe. All of them answer in the negative, and I have the impression they never thought about it, because it simply isn’t an option. In this context, they yet again mention that they were persecuted in Switzerland and had to flee. Don’t they know how much has changed since? Maybe they really don’t have any idea of contemporary Europe, because as one of them hears that I am from Germany, he asks: “Do you know Erwin from Braunschweig?”

But I can pose stupid questions too: “Do you have your own radio station in German?”

“We have no radio or television in our houses.” Oh, then I don’t even need to ask about internet or telephone.

But I do inquire about cars.

“No, we don’t have cars.”

“But yesterday, your colleague mentioned a tractor,” I interject.

“Yes, in their community they do things differently,” he says sadly. “We only have horses and buggies.” The word of God is so ambiguous that every village interprets it differently.

In my hand, I am holding one of the books that I brought for the journey: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Harari. It deals with biotechnology, algorithms, control over data. And suddenly, I envy the bearded man with his dirty fingers sitting next to me, because for many issues, he has already found the solution. And he doesn’t seem to be stressed. Now I understand how he can sleep so well at night.

In the unheated glasshouse, where people are now throwing stones at each other’s heads, it is as cold as in a fridge, but the discussion is too heated and too fruitless for me. Most people only take this train once in a lifetime, damn it, do other passengers really have to poison the experience with the same old discussions that one has already heard elsewhere a hundred times?

What I like about the Mennonites is that they can have a conversation without entertaining the whole train; a talent which they should pass on to their fellow Canadian passengers, who seem to believe that everyone is interested in their crap.

I am sorry that I have no more photos from Ontario, but I really can’t stand it upstairs any longer and withdraw to my seat. I need to catch up on sleep anyway.

But less than an hour later, I can’t believe my bad luck, the two guys come downstairs and take a seat opposite from me, continuing the discussion which seems to have escalated upstairs. I am not surprised, because particularly Chance is far too aggressive to get anywhere. And both of them over-emphasize the generational divide. They regard the two ladies as representatives of a parental generation, with which they had bad experiences. And the women think they understand more about life because they are divorced or widowed.

They come from completely different schools of thought and if they attack each other full throttle, nothing useful can come out of it. Yesterday, Chance told me about his upbringing in a foster family, about drugs, homelessness and his sex change. He would actually have a lot in common with the lady from the Jerry Springer Show; enough to build some understanding and empathy.

It’s true, the ladies have some weird views, and they have never thought about structural racism. But one can explain that in a calmer and more gentle way. Or pose questions to make people reflect. After all, I can also have a respectful conversation with the Mennonites, although I am an Atheist and against work. But on a train ride, I prefer listening over lecturing.

Those people who scream at and insult each other, they return home from a journey of several days and thousands of kilometers with exactly the same opinion. With me, each time something changes. After each journey, I am different than before.

When I bump into the conductor again, I ask her about the guy who tried to jump onto the train. “Oh, he only wanted to take a selfie next to the engine. But when these stories wander through the train, they always change.” Good that you dispatched me on this trip, the one who verifies everything, who asks three times, and who researches diligently.

But this work is tiresome, and so I fall asleep and miss the departure of our Mennonite friends. Too bad. But then, the hope that they would invite me to join them in their village and to live an internet-free life probably wasn’t realistic. If someone can spot an eagle three kilometers in the air, he can also spot in a second that I have no useful skills for agriculture or carpentry.

Mennonitenjunge

And, despite the personal friendliness, they are probably not really that much interested in contact. You will have noticed that I did not learn the name of any of the Mennonites (except those of Tommy and Gary of the bear chase; maybe because they assumed that I would know these gentlemen). This is particularly astounding in North America, where usually every stranger gives you his hand right away and introduces himself within 30 seconds: “Hi, my name is Tim. Let me tell you about my life and invite you over for barbecue.” The Mennonites are rather shy and reserved, another point in which I am closer to their mentality.

Mennonitenmädchen.JPG

And something else is striking: in the whole two days, I did not speak with any of the Mennonite women. Sometimes, I greeted them, and they smiled back shyly. The women did not always sit separately from the men, but none of them ever said anything in my presence, although it was apparent that the young ladies were curious about the mysterious stranger, who looks like an actor whom they have never seen on the TV which they don’t have, but who speaks their language. The First Epistle to the Corinthians 14:34-35 seems to be strictly adhered to. If I were to get to know the men more closely, I might find out that they are not likable oddballs, but religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalists, whom we, if their holy book had a different name, would regard as a danger for society and in particular for the children thus raised. In that case, there would also be more of an outcry when adult women can’t read or write.

In the end, we even get to Toronto two hours earlier than planned. Arriving two hours earlier despite departing with a delay of five hours, that’s a net gain of seven hours added to my life expectancy.

I had chosen the train because I wanted to see mountains and lakes, rivers and towns, snow and rocks, because I wanted to gain a geographical overview of this unwieldy country. But in the end, it was the people and their stories that remain in my memory, who have brightened up the journey, and who would make me choose the train any time again.

Andreas Moser on The Canadian before Toronto.JPG

After 4,466 km, I feel remarkably fresh and relaxed. Now I am ready for a trip around the world by train!

Practical advice:

  • Via Rail has all the information, schedules and booking options.
  • In summer, the train runs three times a week, in winter twice per week.
  • If you are flexible, try out different dates because the prices vary greatly. In summer, the train is quite booked out, and a conductor has told me that from 1 June, the prices will double. In the off-season, the complete ride from Vancouver to Toronto is available from 466 Canadian dollars (= 300 €).
  • I couldn’t book the ticket online with my European credit card and thus had to go to a travel agency. In the off-season, it is however possible to simply buy the tickets at the train station before you depart. I saw some of my fellow passengers do that.
  • What you should take with you: a book, a blanket for the night, slippers.
  • Internet is only available at the train stations. (The lack of internet was one of the factors I liked the most. It made people much more communicative.) But every seat has a power outlet.
  • A tip for cost-conscious travelers: The tap in the washroom is high enough to allow bottles to be filled up with water. That way, you don’t need to spend anything for drinks on the train. And if you want to be a supersaver, you will most likely find an empty plastic bottle in the rubbish bin of the train station where you embark. – As I always say, traveling doesn’t need to be expensive.
  • The food on the train is actually not expensive (take a look at the menu), but if you really want to save, you can bring everything with you. There is boiling water next to the kitchen, so you can prepare tea and soup.
  • Calculate a few hours of delay. In no case should you book a flight directly after the planned arrival.

Links:

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Canada, Religion, Technology, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to When Train Travel means Time Travel: on the Mennonite Express from Winnipeg to Toronto

  1. Pingback: Eine Zug- und Zeitreise: Im Mennoniten-Express von Winnipeg nach Toronto | Der reisende Reporter

  2. timburford says:

    Brilliant piece (never mind the typos).

    • Thank you very much, Sir!

      Some of the typos should have been removed by now because one very attentive reader e-mailed me about them. I finished the piece at midnight, and I was so eager for it to be shared with the world, so a few of them slipped through.

  3. Snart says:

    Reading your travel story I saw beyond the horizon Andreas. Great!

  4. Cada vez mejor, al leer fue como estar ahí!! creo que después puedes vivir de la venta de tu libro si te animas a escribirlo e imprimirlo ya!! saludos buen viaje!!

  5. David Wiebe says:

    This is amazing! Thank you!

    • Muchas gracias!
      I just wish there was a connected rail network in South America instead of the bits here and there. Traveling all around the continent on train and the random encounters on board might make for great stories.

  6. Drewery Dyke says:

    Really fab Andreas. Made me homesick. My very first ‘girlfriend’ was a Winnipeg Mennonite. Family from Russia. But as the kids grew into young adults, the parents moved south to Steinbach. Other German speakers included Catholics from what is now the Ukraine and most other eastern European states, not to speak of Yiddish, which – as you know – was huge. I could go on and on…ah, my Winnipeg…

    • It’s a fabulous city, really! I loved the North End most, where in some streets I felt like in a small town in Romania/Poland/Ukraine. As I walked past the Ukrainian Labor Temple, somebody who looked like a hobo explained the history of the great strike to me.

      I wanted to go to Steinbach, too, but then there was so much to see in Winnipeg.

      As promised, there will be an article only about Winnipeg, but it may still take a while. So much to write, so little time.

    • Drewery Dyke says:

      I look forward to it. As a middle class anglo-scotto-irisho, I grew up in Crescentwood, southwest of the Forks and far from the North End. But I loved just walking around. You’re right, it is from somewhere in the vaguely Germano-Hapsburg Empire, circa mid 1800s.

  7. It was like being in another time, but the bear joke was a cruel one, it couldn’t be true :-

  8. Do you know anything about the Jacobite in Scotland? Does the plain scot-rail route compare to their route?

  9. Yikes!… guess I need to do some introspection…..🤔

    • Hey, it was a real pleasure to meet you and make your acquaintance! I really cherished the private conversations we had.

      It was just when you, Curtis and the two ladies were arguing with each other so loud that the whole panorama car had to listen, it became a bit too much. But I also fault myself for not having said something at the moment.
      And as to the content of that discussion, I am sure you have already had that a hundred times (or you would if you met more people from Alberta ;-) ). I just don’t think it’s going anywhere, and in the end, everybody goes home angry and unchanged. But then, you are still young and full of energy, so you can do it. :-)

    • Oh I’m sure you’re correct. I think I just haven’t gotten over the initial shock of how unorganized and uneducated society is. How cold, divided… it’s all still quite dumbfounding to be reminded that not everyone has a basic knowledge or desire to learn. It’s kinda still very scary.

      In the end, this argument is how you chose to immortalize me in your story….and it’s simply because you have never suffered under the violence these ideas and thoughts cause. You haven’t been torn down and suffered under the system trying to kill you. So you dont understand the pain, anger, fear and struggle to maintain emotional composure. Cause for you… it’s not personal. That’s called white privilege… and in the end… your silence spoke much louder than my aggression.. cause at least I said something. At least I tried. I spoke up. I fought for those whose suffering I share. For people like you… it’s a topic to discuss… not a life and death matter.

    • Or I thought I can reach more than three people by writing an article, that’s why I was busy taking notes.

  10. David Wiebe says:

    Full disclosure – I am a Mennonite. I don’t share their religion, but I can never get rid of the ethnicity. And they are considered an ethnic group in most countries. My last name targets me as one. But with regard to languages, my grandfather said, “We use English in town, Hoch for church, and Platt for the bed, the barn, and the kitchen.”

    • After we had been switching between English and German, I asked one of them which he prefers me to speak. “If you speak English, it’s easier for me,” he said, with German directness though. He explained that he needed to focus more when I was speaking German, although I speak close to Hochdeutsch with only a slight Bavarian accent.

    • David Wiebe says:

      The dialect here in Amish and Mennonite country is very weird. It is not written down, and a complete mixture of German/Platt/Dutch/English and even some Russian. Somehow it works for them. A relative of mine wrote this. http://www.mennolink.org/doc/lg/index.html

    • David Wiebe says:

      I love your writing. It is brilliant and observant. This is a relative of mine. Maybe we can get you published in Canada? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Wiebe

    • One thing that people hate is when they get hit up by distant relatives, let alone friends of distant relatives, for a favor. Trust me, I am a lawyer, I know that. ;-)

      But if you ever come across a magazine or a newspaper of which you think that one of my stories might be of interest to them, I should give it a try. I really should make something out of my writing! After all, there is so much crap that gets published.

      Your uncle, to use the term loosely, sounds extremely interesting. In the Canadian Encyclopedia, there is more about his books and many of them cover exactly what I am interested in: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rudy-wiebe

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