Long before blogs were ever dreamt of, a Chinese gent called Cai Lun managed to invent, or atleast to get the credit for inventing, a rather neat thing called Paper. Since the promise of Wi-fi on German trains turned out to be a dastardly lie, I decided to invoke Mr Cai instead and spend the train ride from Munich to Berlin writing things down the old-fashioned way. People looked at me as though I was a lunatic, but it was worth it.
Random and oft-interrupted notes follow, roughly in sequence…
Munich to Berlin is on paper (heehee) about 7 hours, but when I started writing we had already ground to an unscheduled stop in a giant cabbage field outside Augsburg. (I mean a giant field of cabbages, not a field of giant cabbages). After about ten minutes the train gathered speed and I turned my gaze onto the flat countryside that was speeding past us. It was a very clear day for autumn. The usual green and brown fields carpeted the land for miles around until far in the distance they merged into gentle blue hills.
“Hello ! It’s a day !” the whole place seemed to be saying.
Perhaps it was just because I am no expert on the European countryside, but it appeared to me that autumn had touched the country less than the city of Munich, where, on the previous evening, the setting sun on golden trees had turned the English Garden into some kind of Lothlorien. (Albeit, a Lothlorien with a group of skinny young surfers performing their surfing stunts on a stream that rushed and tumbled through the middle of it, if you can picture the scene, while an appreciative crowd gawked and yelled and urged each dare-devil on. While walking away from the appreciative crowd we nearly strolled right into the middle of their changing room, which we couldn’t have helped because they were changing literally in the middle of the pavement like a bunch of Nixies, unconcerned about the effect of their Teutonic pulchritude on passers-by. But I digress.)
Munich might be my second most favourite city in the world based on nothing but the love its town councillors evidently bore for enormous lion statuettes and horrifying gargoyles. The latter stared down at us from the Old Rathaus (not a rat-house, that’s the town hall), eyes and mouths distorted by terror, until I began to idly think that back in the Middle Ages there would have been no shortage of models for the artist. For all that 19th century European romanticism tried to put a gloss on the High Middle Ages it was a time of cruelty, incurable sickness and poverty. For some reason the medieval citizenry of a certain large Asian economic power continues to have the unsavoury reputation of being the Most Terrible Medieval Torturers, but Europe was no less advanced in those arts.
A group of people were playing Pachelbel’s canon on the square (which square ? Some square). I wonder if all nations go through military wars and economic warfare until they are utterly exhausted. Until the savagery is so much, and so immediate, that even the most belligerent citizens decide that it is quite enough. They then enter a stage where most people have enough to eat, and young men can afford to devote themselves to Shostakovich for a living.
In this season, ivy is a deep, frightening red. A number of pretty little houses appear to have their pretty little walls dashed with blood, until you go close enough and discover an inoffensive little creeper gazing back at you.
“Saale” is not a German abuse, but a rather neat little river that “comes from haunts of coot and hern and makes a sudden sally” through Bavaria and on to Thuringia. We met it at Saalfeld, where it was hardly a river. Besides, at that point, the mountains were closer — and more eye-catching. Yellow-leaved trees, the hardiest of the deciduous plants, were set on the lower slopes, contrasting sharply against the gloomy deep green of the conifers that marched glumly on towards the sky on either side of the train. It was little better than being in a tunnel. A tame version, this, of the wild and haunted pagan woods that Heimdalls’ Wacht sing of in their eldritch voices – by moonlight it would be hard to tell the difference.
Germany is a country where one senses prosperity –and orderliness. A sort of pride seems to hover around the place, a pride that whispers We built this all mostly by ourselves, while you were busy patting yourselves on the back. We came through when everyone thought we were finished.
The fervent musician sitting on the seat across me had finally finished tying endless sheets of paper into neat little booklets. He’s been working like a machine, with a sort of frenzied concentration, for the past three hours ever since he got onto the train. After having completed enough booklets to last three orchestras – good grief, is he a musician or a bookbinder’s apprentice ? – he has decided to chat with his plump friend who was sleeping with his mouth open throughout his friends magnum opus (but with his immaculate investment banker level clothing as immaculate as ever. Though I wonder about the investment banker bit. I know of no investment bankers who are BFFs with musicians. Or bookbinder’s assistants.). A lady with two small children – a girl of 5 and a boy of 8 or 9 – requests G and A to create some space for her. You see, we three were the first to climb into the compartment and thus are, of course, spread out like liana across multiple rows and multiple seats in an effort to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.(Editors note: The seat next to me remained empty throughout the voyage. I suppose kohl-rimmed eyes, unruly loose hair and a forbidding “look” do not a welcoming countenance make. I had a bad moment when a man with a huge Rottweiler entered our compartment and started looking around for space but he thankfully decided to go elsewhere)
The lady decides to talk to us and soon we are chatting with her about what we’re going to see in Berlin. It seems there’s a Museum Island with some pretty insane stuff, so must check that out. (Between G’s desire to do the touristy things, A’s desire to do the dark, Cold-War-era and Nazi-era things and my desire to do all the medieval monuments and ancient history museums, we seem to be straining at the leash in three different directions. However, since we are all female and hyperrational, we shall work something out, I am sure). Turns out the lady is a teacher of English and French. She’s been teaching her kids English and French at home.
“What is your name?” the little girl asks me.
I grin and answer her. The boy is shyer than the girl. He is evidently at the awkward age when little boys hate all females in their vicinity and wish they were back at school playing football with their friends instead of being forced to take part in social interactions.
We get up and say good-bye to the little family. The station is just a minute away.