For a lover of trains and train rides, one of the most beautiful things in the world is the arrivals and departures board at large European train stations. The possibilities, if not endless, seem endless, and perception being reality, it is sublime to walk into the station, have a seat in front of the board, and think about where to go, even if you already have a ticket somewhere. Do it ticketless and you’re likely to miss all trains and spend an entire day there, lost in the paradox of choice. The huge variety of places to choose from is one advantage of continental Europe as opposed to Ireland or the U.K., but even in those latter two countries there is so much to see the experience retains its splendour. And really, if you’re in Europe, since you assume everywhere is bound to be spectacular, it’s less about where you’re going than it is about how you’re getting there.
The same kind of feeling exists at airports, and in theory it should be stronger, since there are even more remote locations. Jakarta, Tokyo, Sydney, et al. You won’t see those at the Gar du Nord In Paris. But that is just it: they are remote locations, accessible only by plane from Paris, and very, very, very expensive, even if the ticket is booked in advance. When I was living in Los Angeles, I liked to go to LAX, find a bench overlooking the runways, and watch the planes come and go, dreaming about where the various planes were headed, and if I would rather be in the air, drifting, than here, watching.
A hub like Los Angeles offered many pleasures to the casual plane observer. Long fascinated by the impossible physics of getting a gigantic tube of metal into the sky, I had grown to love the majesty of airplanes, especially the Boeing 747—a jumbo jet made when Boeing cared more about safety and the quality of its name and product than about profit. When I went to Europe for the first time, I flew from San Francisco to Amsterdam on a KLM 747. It could have been the flight would have been smooth no matter the size of the plane, but I don’t think we bounced or even vibrated once during the whole 10-hour flight. I liked to think of the massive jet devouring the air pockets and turbulence as we blasted ahead at 600 MPH.
LAX, it turns out, attracted a lot of 747s: Air New Zealand, Qantas, United, China Airlines, JAL, British Airways, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic—I saw them all, and more. It was especially amusing to see one of these beasts taxi near a twin jet of any size, especially if they were headed in opposite directions. I wanted to warn the smaller jet. “Look out! You’re about to be eaten!” for it really did seem the larger jet wanted to consume its smaller brother. Though I longed for solitude as I watched the 747s eat their snacks, satisfaction eluded me. The planes had cast their spells on me and it was easy to forget I was not only earth-bound but also in Los Angeles, where one is never alone. So there were other people present, sometimes a great many other people. These were “professional amateur” plane spotters, I came to learn, equipped with binoculars, notebooks, airline schedules, and their own snacks. They knew what was coming in, what was taking off, and what kinds of planes, right down to the age of the plane and the number of miles it had flown. (I still have no idea how they knew the last one. Maybe they didn’t and were just having fun with me.)
“Yep. That’s Delta 563 from Newark. On time as usual. But it’s a 777 this time, the 757 must be in the shop.”
“I wonder where American’s 849 from Chicago is? Going on 15 minutes late now.”
“Here comes Lufthansa’s daily from Frankfurt. What a beauty. She’s aging well.”
Those numbers aren’t the real flight numbers, of course. And while I can’t remember them, my companions did. This was very useful the last time I was at LAX, as they knew when a Qantas A380, made by Europe’s Airbus and the largest passenger airliner in service, was scheduled to land, so I knew if I waited around another hour or so I would get lucky. It’s almost impossible to imagine something more massive than a 747, but here it was, crossing the 405 freeway, dwarfing the modest four- and five-story buildings near the airport, and rendering almost invisible the smaller jets and myriad vehicles that totter here and there on the runways. What a sight. As much as I prefer travelling by trains, they can’t compete with the majesty of modern jets. Seeing a 747 rise into the sky, its bulging second level and four massive engines slowly ascending due to a full cabin and luggage hold and some obscene amount of fuel, has to be one of the seven wonders of the modern mechanical world.
Still, watching planes and being on them are two different things, and travelling via train is superior to flying in almost every respect. The flexibility and affordability offered is tough to match, especially last-minute train travel. It really is possible to show up at a station without a ticket and within 30 minutes be on your way to Florence. If I tried that at an airport, decided that hey, now would be a great time to fly from Seattle to New York, it would be years before I paid off the ticket—assuming the flight wasn’t sold out. It is cheaper to ride the rails no matter what, however, and, given the climate emergency, it is also better for the environment. A train ride is almost always quieter than one by airplane, and while trains jostle and bounce their fair share, you are not likely to descend 1000 meters in five seconds to escape a ferocious pocket of turbulence. Assuming you’re not on a commuter train and stuck on your feet, there is generally more room to stretch out on a train. For those afraid to fly, there is something soothing to being on the ground. And finally, there is the ease of boarding a train compared to a plane. Security lines? What are those? If it makes you nervous not to have your bags inspected as you board a train, then perhaps flying is the better choice for you.
The first train ride I ever took in Europe was from Paris to Geneva; I had pre-booked the ticket and was delighted to find out I would be aboard the TGV, France’s ultra-modern high-speed rail. In retrospect I would have taken a different train, because, as nice as some of Europe’s train systems are, nothing I rode then or since compared to the TGV. It’s not unlike being introduced to wine with a 1976 Chateau Latour or a (insert incredible year of your choice here) Lafite Rothschild. After a glass of one of those, how does one go back to a 2018 merlot? (Answer: you drink the entire bottle of merlot to take away the memory of the Latour.)
What I remember more than the train ride itself, though, was the train station—and that enormous board at the center of it. The romance of seeing all those cities’ names, all within reach, pulls me in like little else in this magnificent world. The board and its flickering platform numbers that change like one of those old alarm clocks, with destinations like Madrid, Paris, Munich, Amsterdam, Geneva, Florence, Rome, Lisbon—it is heaven. What was most interesting about a European train station, that first time, was that I had an immediate flashback to a book I had just read a few years back, an underrated novel titled Already Dead, by Denis Johnson—a kind of modern Gothic published in 1997. The book is set, though, not in Europe but in Northern California, and has one of the best opening paragraphs I have ever read.
Van Ness felt a gladness and wonder as he drove past the small isolated towns along U.S. 101 in Northern California, a certain interest, a yearning, because he sensed they were places a person could disappear into. They felt like naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church. But such a thing a small detour into deep and permanent changes, at the time, anyway, that he was travelling down the coast from Seattle into Mendocino County, wasn’t even to be dreamt of in Van Ness’s world.
Save for the years spent in Los Angeles as an undergraduate (and my wife’s graduate school), I had lived most of my life in Northern California. I knew and could picture some of the towns the narrator in Already Dead alludes to. And he was right, up to a point: you certainly could disappear into them, except the narrator and I don’t necessarily mean the same thing. There are certain towns along the U.S. 101 where it is best not to explore too closely. It’s not quite people playing banjos on their porch or even a west coast variant of it, but you don’t want to mess with, for example, the “Hill People” of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties and their annual grass harvest. Just to be clear, this isn’t fescue we’re talking about, and while the legalisation of everyone’s favourite weed is bound to take a drag on their business, that will only make them madder.
So perhaps it was for that reason—my familiarity with Highway 101 and its denizens and the lack of appeal such places held—that, when I stood in the Gar du Nord, trying to figure out what platform my train was on, I thought of the passage from Already Dead. For what better place for a disgruntled American who spoke only English to disappear into than one of those foreign destinations on the board? Stumbling unexpectedly onto the rest of my life in Verona or Barcelona or Bruges? Way better than a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church in, say, Garberville, California.