Friday, September 18, 2009

What A Difference A Day Makes

Standing in the Dining Car on the 9:56

I stepped onto the train and into past that may or may not have existed. Maybe it's that we've finally started watching Mad Men, or maybe it's more personal: that I've always wished that trains were more Orient Express and less Metroliner, but this was exciting.

The first car of the train was the dining car. I've been taking this train every day, always in the first car, but this was the first time there had been a dining car in the train, and what a delightfully romantic and retro moment it was to board that first car.

At first, I considered threading my way to the next car where a more traditional seat could be found, but I saw there was clearly room for me in the seated area, and that this might not be an opportunity I wanted to turn down.

Growing up, we took Amtrak quite a bit to Baltimore and Washington to visit our relatives. I remember my mom was often solo with the two of us, and we were not the best behaved of children, nor, in all fairness, was there anything to do on the train.

Seated in the Dining Car on the 9:56

If we were lucky, we cold get the conductor to give us a stack of the multi-colored tickets he used to denote which passengers were going where and then we;d, I have no idea what we did with them, but I remember they were important.

The train took a long time, it stopped at nonsense places like Trenton, and there was no TV, no radio, and no chance to convince a parent that we needed to stop at the next rest area. So I had no strongly fond memories of train travel.

Not to fear, I assured myself as time went on, in Europe they still travel well by train. It doesn't smell like pee in European trains. So, it was with great excitement that I boarded my first European train as a 17-year old on vacation in Italy. The excitement lasted no time at all. The train didn't look like it had just come from the set of a Hercule Poirot mystery, it looked like Amtrak. In theory I enjoyed being pressed up against dozens of Italian men while we all jostled for space in the smoking car and smoking hallway, but in reality, these were Roberto Benigni Italians, not Marcello Mastroianni Italians.

By the time I was paying my own way in Europe, I was oh so over train travel. While our friends bought their Eurail passes, we leased a car - I wasn't going to spend money to have to worry about being drugged and having my luggage stolen and not having enough space to smoke.

There was an allure to train travel that persists long after actual train travel became antithetical to its mythos. While devoted partner claims the TGV from Dijon to Paris was awesome, he means that it got him from point A to point B in comfort and swiftly, not that riding on it was an "experience."

So, it was with a soupcon of joy that I spent 30 minutes yesterday in this train car of time's past. From the horrible orange and yellow accents to the faux wood paneling to the other passengers, for the most part, putting away their phones and reading their papers, there was something different about riding in that dining car, and I almost feel that we, its passengers, were in silent agreement about that.

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