January Train

2:12 A.M. wake ups are wretched.

It’s the same dread feeling as when you’ve just swallowed what you realize might be some dodgy shellfish, and the next twelve to twenty-four hours will be suspect at best, even if you don’t end up recreating Steven King’s Barf-O-Rama™.

In bed by 11:00 P.M, I planned to up by five. If I could get six hours sleep, it would feel like rolling back the age clock to 53. But it wasn’t to be, I never went back to sleep. I read a bit, thought about things, made the mistake of trying to sleep which means it won’t happen. But I’m learning to roll with it; what choice do I have?

Aging is funny. Long ago I could drink heavily several nights in a row or drive straight cross country or sleep 4 hours over two full days and maybe some combination of these; it didn’t matter: the next day I’d be fine. Physically, anyway. But…if something perturbed my mental/emotional/psychic world—a woman, a friend’s company’s IPO, some other everyday misalignment between my expectations and reality— it might take hours or years to get over it, if ever.

Now, not so much—body and soul have sort of changed places. Physically I’m not so resilient anymore, but if something happens between my ears, I don’t really change course very much, the keel stays even.

I was on the 6:30 A.M. TGV out of Montpellier; I needed to get back to Chur to renew my visa, and check on the apartment: had I remembered to chuck the blue cheese before leaving, or was it playing handball in the ‘fridge with the green curry paste? Annie walked me to the tram stop, carrying the heavy sailor bag of books, while I managed the duffle worn as a backpack and the small knapsack with two laptops. We talked while waiting for the tram: how long I would be gone, my return date, my day’s itinerary: the talk when parting is always casual, hopeful, shadowed.

It was only after boarding the tram that I realized that it was three years ago this month, this week, actually, that I had first left for Switzerland to start working. An unlikely keyword search and the last minute decision to include the .ch domain had landed me a job 850 kilometers from Montpellier. What are the odds? Where does the time go?

Early Saturday morning, late January in the time of a pandemic, there weren’t many people on the train. And yet, even in first class, the seating gods’ algorithm was having fun: in the train car of fifty seats and about fifteen passengers, there was someone placed opposite me: a young, fit looking guy with a thick text book, Alimentations, Nutrition, et Régimes. I moved over into the 2 x 2 seats, and would stay there the rest of the trip. After a few minutes there was a sort of undulation through the car, then the train pulled quietly out of the station.

In the upper left of the corner of the window was a suggestion from the SNCF: Laissez-vous rêve. Let yourself dream.

It was still dark when we pulled into Nîmes, but as we turned north, towards Valance, out the right side of the train was a white-yellow-pale blue gradient of the sunrise, sandwiched from below by the mountains and from above a layer of jagged black-grey clouds.

As it became lighter, the landscape appeared muted, a brownscale of little color, while alien power lines marched across the horizon like metal robot insects. We crossed the Rhone several times; at one crossing there were a few scabs of ice, uneven and brittle; another time there were navigation markers: white-green poles, white-red poles, all red poles.

In time the sun cleared the mountains in the east, it shone a low angled light, what it hit turned brighter with layers of orange, yellow, momentarily incandescent, falling across the pages of James Salter’s All That Is.

Usually this is the stretch where approaches 320/kph, but this time the top speed was a mere 291/kph.

In Lyon many passengers boarded the train, but no one claimed the appropriated seat I was in; I did have to share the 2 x 2 with a young, blond haired woman in a bright red sweater. Past Lyon there were more green fields, some with squares of brown furrowed dirt. Left, off in the west distance, were mountains in snow; a far off pair of egrets flew over a long row of plane trees, inconsistent and unforgiving guardrails for a narrow country road.

At Dijon a young man got off, he was slight and nervous, travelling with a larger, suspect looking older man; he ran to a vending machine on the platform, tried to buy something with a credit card, but it didn’t work. He’d repeat the same drill for all the rest of the train stops. Three security guards passed through, looking closely at everyone. The train direction revered, pulling out of Dijon, in the same direction it had come in

We travelled through some rain, past vineyards: wet black trunks, pruned and sleeping it off until spring. We passed fields that ended in trees, sometime there was a steeple seen further, above the treeline, something you’ll see many times from the train, anywhere in France.

Past Besançon Franche-Comté there was now a thin layer of snow on the ground.

I changed trains in Mulhouse, a dingy sad train station.

Leaving Mulhouse, out the window I saw an orange white plane appear behind us, forty-five degrees or so to our line of travel. We were approaching the Aeroport de Bale-Mulhouse. It came lower and closer, it was an Easy Jet, passed over us, then looking back, I saw it land as we pulled into the Saint-Louis la Chausée train station.

In Basel, now on the Swiss rail, I had the train car to myself. The conductor made no attempt to speak high German, but I knew the drill well enough that after he checked my ticket then said something unintelligible, he was asking for my Swiss Rail pass.

Somewhere along the way we passed a nuclear power plant cooling tower giving off a large steam cloud.

After leaving the main train station in Zurich, the rail paralleled the lake and there were views into apartments and patios: tables, folded chairs, bicycles, wrapped plants, grills. Zurich is situated like the best of cities: on hills overlooking water—Burlington, Barcelona, San Francisco. Around the lake there were seagulls, on the water floated swans, and perched at various lookouts, crows observed and reported.

Later, in a mowed field, was a heron, alone, white, black, grey, a touch of yellow. Further, I saw the kites, with their oddly forked tail and distinctive markings.

The train passed a wall with graffiti: Kein Mensch ist illegal – No person is illegal. True, but sadly that is not obvious to some people.

Elsewhere a field of snow was broken by a circle of green under a tree. A jogging couple is running in circles around the tree. Further was an automotive garage, an American car out front, a black and white police car, ‘Sheriff’ written on the side. That must be some awesome chase story.

Another field: a weathered wooden building, barn like, with a concrete trough out front. Passing an open door, there’s an old style bathtub, stowed for the season.

Passing the Walensee, the water’s grey green, in the shadow of the mountains. A year ago I was supposed to go sailing in the spring with Andras, an engineer at Ems Werk, but since the pandemic everything’s been put on hold.

The light had been flat for most of the trip since Zurich, but now the sun was shining when the train arrived in Chur.

Without Annie to help, the walk back to the apartment was slow. Most people were wearing masks; that had not been the case when I left, and indeed, the Swiss had been extremely lax in their covid-19 counter-measures. That’s changed now.

At my building the elevator was out; replacement construction had started in November, and was supposed to be done by the end of December, but it wasn’t. I’m on the top floor, #503, but like enumerating an array which starts at zero (not one), ground floors in Europe are named, not numbered (rez-de-chaussée, Erdgeschoss), and I had six floors to go. I channeled Brian Chute (played by Frank Jasper), the wrestler, who trained by carrying a section of a telephone pole up bleacher stairs in Vision Quest.

The apartment cold, but otherwise intact. No sign of movement in the ‘fridge.

I looked around. Although much smaller, the apartment here is nicer than our place in France: construction, appliances, the neighborhood, most everything. That doesn’t matter. What matters is not what you’ve got or where you are, it’s who you’re with. I’ll be going back to France real soon.

Laissez-vous rêve.

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