And so the spell is broken. Out into the early morning light of Offenbach. The streets are empty of people and has the quietness and silence where everyone is still asleep. A woman is sitting at a table outside one of the restaurants in the market square smoking a cigarette. She looks lost in thoughts, but what might those thoughts be?
The broken pieces of the spell fall to the floor and are swept away at Frankfurt Hauptbanhof. The 10.26 train to Bruxelles Midi is cancelled. The alternative train will take me to Siegburg Bonn. But this is also running late. The ticking clock that measures out the time to change trains moves faster while the train moves more slowly. A reasonable 18 minutes to change trains becomes 10 minutes and then falls to seven minutes. This might work if I can understand the signage of the platforms but this is not guaranteed. This should all have been factored in but how much ‘spare’ time should one allow when travelling on Deutsche Bahn?
When it works it is really good fun. The countryside goes by in a blur of green colour and big skies and factories and autobahns. But the chaotic character of the system creates a lot of anxiety and stress. And it tests one’s language skills to extinction. I’m not sure what the announcements are saying. Do I need to be in a specific carriage to get off the train? Has the train changed its route? The mystery is solved when I manage to speak to the conductor. The train I’m on will arrive on platform three. The train to Bruxelles is behind this train and will leave from platform three. I can enjoy the view of the countryside a little. And there is an unexpected enjoyment about this. Firstly, I have never travelled on this route before, and secondly I have discovered that it’s only an hour or so by train from Frankfurt to Köln. Something to plan around for a future trip.
I learned a lot on this trip to Offenbach and Frankfurt. More about the history of these places and New Frankfurt and art and design and much else. I learned a bit about myself, an ongoing process involving unstructured seminars and unexpected lessons delivered by all sorts of people, events and physical objects and the interactions between them. You learn that loneliness can involve being in close proximity to other people.
The railway system in Germany is like an enormous jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are of different sizes and when put together in an untidy way do not make a complete picture. It now turns out that the change of trains at Siegburg Bonn will put me on the train I should have originally caught at Frankfurt. It has strangely turned up after having being cancelled. These journeys are not for the feint hearted. I get off the train going to Essen and wait on platform 3 as instructed. The train to Essen departs. Then I notice a train way down the platform. Is that the train? I run down the platform followed by two or three other people who have come to the same conclusion. We only just make it and jump on as and where we can.
I ask someone if the seats are free at the same time as they ask me if these seats are free. And then we start talking and before we know it the train has arrived in Brussels-Midi and we have shared not just a train ride but life’s journey too. The woman I’ve been talking to flew into Frankfurt airport earlier that day and among other things is going to see her knew granddaughter in Mons. ‘One month old and I’m so excited’. She shows me a photo on her phone of a smiling baby who looks so full of the joy of life. The train is late coming into Brussels. There’s less than ten minutes to find platform 10 where she needs to catch her train. The sign posts are fine but there is a huge barricade of builders wire fences preventing the quickest and easiest route. We run through the station following the instructions from a railway worker, up some stairs, and find the train. There is about a minute to spare. But grandma’s must see their grand daughters without delay. We laugh and hug and say our goodbyes.
I walk back to find the Eurostar terminal. There are Red Cross volunteers holding up pieces of cardboard with blue and yellow painted on them, signs for desperate people to look for. What must these look like to refugees from Ukraine; increasingly traumatised as the war widens and deepens. Before we got off the train at Brussels the man and woman sitting in front of us had showed their tickets and asked for Brussels-Midi. We couldn’t find many words in common but their faces said a lot.
By the time one arrives in Brussels-Midi there is usually a pocket full of coins to be spent. The local Carrefour supermarket doesn’t have the greatest range of wines but I reckon that a bottle of plonk for 6.99 will taste delicious. I slowly count out the exact money. Checking the coins; the 20 cents, 50 cents, and then each 1 cent piece. The pocket is lighter, the bag is heavier. Then I realise that the long slow moving queue is that of the Eurostar. Once again, as the queue slows down the clock ticks faster. With impeccable timing an announcement is made that the train boarding has closed. I’m still trying to put my belt back on having been through the security check. Another announcement explains that the train won’t leave until everyone is boarded. Followed shortly by ‘boarding has now closed’. It begins to feel like an unscripted Dada -ist play.
I’m glad I decided to travel back by train. It feels as if I’m properly in Europe. The sights are familiar. The narrow red-brick houses in Liege, the brewery buildings at Leuven, the wind turbines up on that far away hill. North of Lille the roads and lanes and canal paths so often cycled. The pretty villages of Ardres, the canal to St Omer, the industrial infrastructure of Calais, the sense of port-city in the distance. Big box steel warehouses that weren’t there the last time, representation of a new phase of distribution just-in-time home delivery and online shopping. The labour processes involved in the distribution of commodities. Huge container ships, oil tankers and bulk carriers, lorries driving across the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe. The tiny fragments at the end of these processes, people on bicycles carrying goods to their final destination, people pushing carts of boxes around the local streets.
Finally the commodity is sold. Immense profits for those who own Amazon and Walmart, profits for the shipping firms, profits for the railway companies, profits for the owners of warehouses, profits for the lorry companies that move the freight. And ever lower into the process, the individuals who do the lifting and shifting and sell in the supermarkets and street markets, who ride the delivery bikes. Not profits at all, just meagre wages, as low as wages can go without street disturbances and social breakdown. Wages just enough to maintain an existence. To keep the body breathing and the stomach semi-full.
But the soul? There is nothing in this process for the soul at all. There are no calculations as to how this makes people feel. Good or bad, angry or apathetic, discontented or depressed, lost from their own lives. A world organised on the basis of how people feel about production, labour, toil, art, living space, education; would be a very different world to that we have, of organisation around profit. Once the chaos created by the stop at Lille had subsided I found an empty seat and sat back and looked out of the window of the train and listened to music and found I had time to think.
The American woman I met on the train to Brussels told me that she had once been on a bus and it was not so much the destination she wanted to go to but all the places in between. The places over the brow of the hill, the place that can’t quite be seen behind those trees, the town that the bus goes through but doesn’t stop at. That idea can be used for many aspects of life as well as travelling. ‘Get off the bus’, she said. It’s our own liberation. We all understand that; but when will it be realised?
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