A train ride through Europe

By Madeleine Kate McGowan and Esther Michelsen Kjeldahl

A text about movement, travel, textures of trains, climate emergency, the blue of desire, the coal industry and accepting friction as a part of our climate activism.

On the quiet side of Christmas we left a dimly lit Copenhagen with an early morning train, carrying only our suitcases, a pair of 1st class Interrail passes, and an improvised breakfast with lukewarm coffee. The destination was not the main point of our trip, the journey was. Its relevance based on which trains could take us there. Because traveling by train across Europe is in itself an adventure; the 21st Century version of a grand tour.

It is a road trip on tracks, determined by complex timetables, by the position and direction of parallel steel formations that cleave through exhausted soil. Its friction-rich nature is of a deeply formative character. It carries a string of realizations about the challenges of our time, of our civilisation, and with these, some insights into how we may navigate them. The content of this formation, which we call the cultural transition on rails, is what we set out to investigate.

Now, it is not because we are obsessed by default with trains that we decided to venture on the rails of Europe, although we do appreciate the slow, romantic quality to these metal machines; these vessels of and for the industrial revolution. Rather, it is our fear of global, brutal carbonized destruction and our frustrations with the de facto impossibility of living climate-friendly in our current world that drove us. It is our need to find out how to challenge the destructive habits of airplane travel. 

Moreover, we do not claim that this way of traveling is mere formation, pleasure and deep reflection. Since, when we travel by train, the only thing of which we are certain is that the original plan will have to change at some point. As new challenges keep surfacing, new chaotic elements and uncertainties arise. Planning a long train ride is tiring and confusing. While airplane travel is streamlined and standardized, tickets are easy to obtain, and communication is transparent, almost every train is managed by a new and different company, which effectively means a new webpage, a new set of interactions, new cultures, new languages, new habits and new logistics. We often spend hours searching for reasonable routes or waiting at the end of unending phone lines to ask simple questions. It is an obvious fact that the infrastructure for traveling by train in Europe has not been prioritized in the same way as airplane transportation. Every small challenge tells a story of a system, a society, a world that favours the pleasant but unconscious travel-dance through hyper-capitalized, luxurious, futuristic airport hallways. When it comes to crossing borders, climate-friendly behavior is far from the easiest choice.

Nevertheless, we must provoke the choice of trains over planes. We want to do this by motivating passengers on the train, by facilitating situations where train passengers can reflect on deeper questions of how we inhabit this world, and inspire each other by sharing and building on these considerations. This is why when we move through Europe by train, we are not seeking to be somewhere other than on that train. This ride itself is what occupies us. And this ride involves sensing and accepting friction as a potentially stimulating and possibly necessary condition of transporting our bodies. Of accepting moving away from the friction-free delusions of the old world. It involves being confronted with the ever-elusive, sometimes pleasant, sometimes dystopian landscapes sweeping by thick, sealed windows. It involves interacting with the shifting languages and the differences and similarities of norms and values. It involves being receptive to the gifts which are to be found in the slower and more friction rich ways of movement. We want to carve some kind of path away from the perception of ease, pleasure and luxury which surrounds plane culture. A legitimate and feasible escape. 

Now, there are certain elements of these marathon-like train trips that airplanes will never be able to provide its passengers; certain reflections tied to the physical engagement with the landscape passing by; certain spontaneous realizations that never manifest themselves whilst up in the air. Moving slowly through forests, ruins and coal trails led us into conversations on the value of unattainable love in Berlin, on the dark side of industrial growth in Poland, on the disruptive character of privatization in the Czech Republic, on how measures of success are revealed through chit-chats in Slovakia, on broken hearts in France, on the friction free life in England and on how to live in the midst of a mass extinction in Ireland. These reflections were fuelled by the privilege of having exceptional amounts of time for deep dialogue, both with each other and our co-passengers. Having to sit in rocking, aesthetically pleasing colorful compartments for hours forced us to be attentive towards each other’s lines of reflection, towards our surroundings and towards asking just how much our thinking was stimulated by the deeply physical sensuous nature of a train ride. 

The long rides moved us continuously towards the distant blue in the horizon. A horizon sometimes hidden by trees, sometimes hidden by the grey of Winter, sometimes hidden by smokestacks; but always there. The blue in the horizon is a color that manifests itself just when the light meets the eye and which can never be captured or possessed. It is forever fleeting, forever pleasing, yet forever unattainable. Somewhere in Poland, surrounded by freight trains carrying mountains of black coal, we started reflecting on the value of living without constantly satisfying our desires. This does not mean living without any desires. It means to live a life accepting that there are desires which, as with that blue in the horizon, can never be obtained, and yet move us. There may be something deeply valuable in learning to live with that desire, experiencing the desire as such, in its own terms, without having to obtain its object.

This line of thought was fuelled by Rebecca Solnit’s A field guide to getting lost, which we brought on our trip. In it, she proposed that the reader : “look across the distance without wanting to close it up, (…) own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed.” Having reflected on this proposal for a while, we realized that trying not to obtain the objects of our desires is to many of us living in industrialized societies a way of getting lost. Since, we have never really tried it. Theories of rationality prescribe the direct opposite: to be rational, one must obtain as many desires as possible with the means to one’s disposal. Those who do not obtain their desires, even though they can, are irrational according to this view. This view may well, however, be a barrier to transforming the mentality of our societies away from its proscribed path towards fire, pain, death; suppression and destruction.

To escape that destiny, we may need to break free from this dominating normative standpoint. Learning to be moved by, but still rest in, our desire without striving to obtain its object may even help us in becoming citizens again, and not merely consumers. Since, acting as citizens is to be moved by an ideal society that may never be obtained and to be moved by the knowledge of being part of a world community that one may never know personally, nor ever obtain. Acting as consumers is to shortsightedly satisfy one’s material desires, as soon as they pop up, without regard for any larger ideals. If we manage to undergo this transition in our common mentality, away from mainstream notions of rationality, we may start resting in the beauty of the world, without wanting to own it. We may even start collaborating across borders and nationalities in a joint effort to carve an escape route from the tragic destiny of the old world.  

Cheap plane tickets quickly take us to foreign destinations where we may desire to be. They may grant us joyful experiences just when we decide we want them. Cheap plane tickets are crystallizations of the good life in the old world. But this world no longer exists. The days of ‘frictionless travel’ are over. Or rather, they never actually existed, we were merely made to believe that they did. We have realized that now. The consequences are clear in today’s world where entire continents are on fire. Airplane tickets might be cheap or carry people far away easily, but the impacts on life are violent and devastating. Trains differ from planes in the sense that their ecological impact are much lighter. Moreover, there is a physical limitation to the destinations that can be reached via train. Do such limitations necessarily lower our quality of life? We do not think so. They are just limitations. Maybe we must find our new expressions through these limitations? Maybe it is our past freedoms that brought us into our current psychological hell? We propose that we out of impossibilities, out of friction, out of limitations, out of unobtained desires grow and cultivate a transformed perception of the world. Just as an artist reaches her expression by choosing her limitations, we shall approach life as artists, exploring which expressions and explorations emerge from our self-imposed limitations. Limitations which meet the needs of our new world. This is how we react to a global state of emergency. This is how we try to live in the midst of a mass extinction. 

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