My first-ever train trip began in 1955 at the station just off Miami Street. The first- and second-graders of Concord School piled out of their bus to board the passenger train heading north. My only clear recollection of that ride occurred when two second-graders sauntered by to remind my seatmate and me that the baby first-graders had to stay seated. The bus met us in Bellefontaine and took us home after our Ohio Caverns picnic. I could not have dreamed on that day of our first-grade class trip that I would repeat, many times, the rail portion of our excursion.
Years later, as a college senior spending four months overseas, I concentrated on my studies and did not travel great distances. I did, however, become acquainted with German trains, part of a network also including streetcars, subways, and buses. It was quite the experience for a Champaign County girl, who traveled in Ohio only by car and school bus, to participate in a transit system with people who seemed to know the train schedule by heart.
Subsequent European itineraries broadened my boundaries to include France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark, and I traveled everywhere by rail. I became adept at reading schedules and decoding subway maps. I learned to thread my way through any train station and became accustomed to the uniformed conductors with their schedule books and ticket punches.
Characters in old movies travel through Europe on trains like the ones I rode in those early years. A typical car contained several compartments, each with seating for six passengers. Sliding doors separated the compartments from an aisle extending the entire length of the car. To cut hotel costs, young travelers closed the compartment curtains, pulled their seats out level, and slumbered through the night – as my college friends and I did enroute to Berlin. Guards, however, rousted us out of our dreams to inspect our passports as we crossed the border into communist East Germany.
Technicalities of European train travel abound, including one that confounded me. One afternoon a friend and I hustled into a train station – Eurail passes in hand – chose Geneva, Switzerland, from the departures schedule, and boarded a train; we planned to sleep in our seats and spend the next day gazing at Mont Blanc and eating fondue. The following morning, our maps did not match our surroundings: most of our train had been Geneva-bound, but the placard on our car listed a different destination. As we slept, it was unhooked and attached to another train. Fortunately, we did not end up somewhere in Siberia.
As train cars became updated, modern ones began to resemble airplane cabins. Train travel with teenagers was always an adventure, and keeping track of a group was much easier without compartments. Just getting twenty carry-ons and twenty suitcases on to a train, stowed, and eventually off-loaded required coordinated group effort. Calming young nerves as our train moved ever nearer to the station where the kids would meet their German families for the first time was also part of my job.
Rail travel with students offered special moments, too. Jennifer Bok, now Dr. Jennifer Leheska, had won several FFA speaking competitions, with the state finals scheduled for a date during our trip; she made the difficult decision to forego the final contest. We were on a train the day of the finals back in America, so I asked Jennifer to step to the center of our car and deliver her speech – which she did spectacularly and flawlessly. The applause from her groupmates and from the Germans also in our car still brings a smile to my face.
The real joy of riding trains for 30 years, however, was in watching the glorious panorama of Europe pass by my window. Traveling south from Munich I saw the Alps literally grow toward the sky. Ancient forts and castles topped the landscape along the Rhine River, and I found fascinating the sloping, terraced vineyards that often came into view. I rode trains that roared through unbelievably-long tunnels and over breathtakingly-structured bridges. And it was exciting to spy a familiar landmark in a famous city: the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the cathedral in Cologne come to mind.
Some historic scenes have faded from the countryside but not from my memory; I cannot forget the series of barricades along the fortified border that divided Germany for almost 30 years or the East German ladies toiling with old-fashioned scythes in small fields. Today abandoned watchtowers dot a more modern landscape.
I most enjoyed, however, rolling through towns and villages where I saw people simply living their lives. They tended their gardens and stopped at the bakery and rode their bikes to work and school. They laid feather ticks on window sills and shopped at open-air markets. They took their children for walks and hiked picturesque trails. Cars waited at crossings for my train to pass, and friends sat at outdoor cafés for conversation over afternoon coffee and cake.
Traveling by train was much more than a quaint European custom or a way to move across the continent. Train travel gave me a window from which to view the history and culture of other countries as well as a means by which to observe how the people there typically lived each day – all for the price of a ticket.