I’m reading Flights, the strange and beautiful cabinet of wonders by Olga Tokarczuk, and on every page, in every cabinet, there’s something so deeply resonant. In fact, the book is put together the way I dream of putting a book together—a series of anecdotes, cameos, meditations, travel guides, observations, entrances into deeply mysterious rooms where, if you’re lucky, you might find yourself.
Whenever I set off on any sort of journey I fall off the radar. No one knows where I am. At the point I departed from? Or at the point I’m headed to? Can there be an in-between? Am I like that lost day when you fly eat, and that regained night that comes from going west? Am I subject to that much-lauded law of quantum physics that states that a particle may exist in two places at once? Or to a different law that hasn’t been demonstrated and that we haven’t even thought of yet that says that you can doubly not exist in the same place?
In 2010, we took an overnight train from Prague to Amsterdam. It was the beginning of a journey in a way, though it was leading to the conclusion of a month of travel that included Amsterdam, Vienna, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The previous year, a month of travel had taken us by train from Paris to Venice, and back. The last train of that particular trip had been so awful I said I’d never step on another train. (I have a tendency for drama at times.) John had booked a sleeping compartment and assumed we would be private. But no. A group of young men going to Paris for a religious event shared our couchette. They were pleasant enough, if sick. Sneezing, coughing, sweating. And they prayed, fervently, with rosaries. The nearest toilets had flooded. There was no paper. And then the train broke down somewhere in central France and no one could tell us when or how it would be repaired. There was no heat and the train windows quickly steamed up, then glazed over with ice. It was late-November.
But in Prague on that later trip, I was the one who’d been sick, and I was treating myself as gently as I could. When John made the train bookings months earlier from Canada, we weren’t to know that I’d feel so frail. It was the last day of my antibiotics when we boarded the train and were led down the corridor to our little chamber. The steward arranged our cases on a special rack and then left, returning a few minutes later with glasses of champagne. He kept peeking in to make sure we were comfortable. And oh yes, we were. We sat on the long seat and watched the lights of Prague as the train raced into the night. The steward made up our beds with snowy sheets and wool blankets and lovely pillows and then we took turns having hot showers in the bathroom with its ingenious fittings. The towels were thick and soft. I’d been sick and not sleeping well but that night I had a deep sleep, only waking as the train stopped at stations all over Germany. I’d hear the sound of the wheels slowing and stopping and I’d lift the little blind at the foot of my bed (I had the bottom bunk) and see KÖLN or BERLIN and then sink back into sleep. In the morning we were in the Netherlands, passing rivers and children walking to school. The steward quickly returned our beds to the seat arrangement and brought us trays of dark coffee, croissants, slices of cheese and ham, and little bunches of grapes. And then we were in Amsterdam, with our friends there, and then flying home, via Toronto and Ottawa (to visit our sons). A couple of weeks after we returned, my mother died and I was another person, but one who carried the calm peace of that ride across Europe intact.
This book knows about trains, about their appeal, and why not, because the continent is latticed with rail tracks. They’ve brought people together, apart, have taken whole communities to unspeakable places and horrors, have carried families to new lives (my own grandmother travelled from Moravia to Antwerp in 1913 with five small children and all her worldly belongings to start a new life in Canada), and they continue, though so many people are now devoted to the quick cheap flights that have proliferated in recent years. I’ve taken those too and know the unsettling dissonance of leaving a cold country and arriving in a warm one within an hour or two, of walking off the plane in a parka to the scent of oranges.
Last night, the final paragraph I read before putting aside Flights ended like this:
The train stops in fields and stands in their nocturnal fogs, a quiet hotel on wheels. There’s no sense in trying to race the night.
When I woke this morning, not knowing for a moment where I was (we’re on the Island, in a motel overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca), I remembered that train journey from Prague to Amsterdam, the crisp white sheets enfolding my body, and the rhythmic music of the wheels crossing Europe in the night. A wonder that a book that can do this, and more.