Wenn Ihr Deutsch könnt, lest diesen Bericht lieber auf Deutsch. Das ist das Original. Ungekürzt. Und um Längen besser.
I slept very bad. Got 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.
There’s another reason I couldn’t fall asleep. I made a mistake. 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 you are 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 am standing 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, like those cushy computer jobs that can be done from anywhere. No, he has a real job. 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 once more, 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. 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. Apparently, the strike has 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 seat 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 seat that is closest to you. 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: “If you’re into IT, you can surely help with my Covid app?”
Salad helps 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 coming or going.
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. He has come to Hamburg by Flixtrain from Munich. That’s a private train company. 24 euros to go across the whole country, 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 is going all the way 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 Panamakanalrandsandstrandananassaftbar. 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.
Harry Martinson wrote: “Kiel Canal is the name of a boring, old-fashioned canal that always somehow reminds one of Uncle Bräsig. […] The Suez Canal, which runs in a straight line through the barren desert, has more to offer than this military farm ditch in Holstein. A few high, imposing bridges are the only interesting thing. But they’re really something.” I have his book, Resor utan mål (it hasn’t been traslated into English, as far as I can see), with me, because in Sweden I like to read Swedish authors. Martinson was quite a vagabond, but won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974. Which nobody remembers anymore. Well, that shows how unimportant those prizes really are.
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 last gasps. 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 this 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 in the north perhaps more than elsewhere, because of the proximity to Denmark.
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. All in the name of protecting 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 as a replacement for the actual school bus driver, who 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 dude from 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 stand 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?
Speaking of terrorists, that’s also the name of the tenth volume of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s highly recommended Swedish crime series, in which defense attorney Hedobald Braxen delivers closing arguments that are as wonderfully incoherent as this article. I always wonder how two people write a book together. Let alone ten books. One of the funniest books I know is also the product of two authors: “Twelve Chairs” by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov.
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 movie 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 made redundant, 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 it has to be true.
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 that very 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, because I would like to cross the Öresund at sunrise. Sunrise photos are always well received, especially by the sleepy readers, who usually miss the opportunity themselves. I also hope that the airport will finally provide toilets and a place to sleep. 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 walk 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, all of which make 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 between Denmark and Sweden, there is a sea. Which is 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 a.m., 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 a.m., 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 that creature 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.
These are the kind of photos that should decorate a book cover with railroad stories. By the way, there is a book with one of my photos on the cover: “The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism” by Steven Shaviro.
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 be rich and sit at the computer all day.
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!