The Romantic Melancholy Of Train Travel

An emotion-provoking piece, devoted to Literary Realism; one of my favourite writing-styles. It was written -rather suitably- aboard a train in Germany on 17-07-2020.

Producing a sine wave sound rising in frequency, electricity passes through the engine and the train sets itself into motion. Its destination lies elsewhere. Puffing and squeaking, the noisy machine fares out of the station. The commotion dies down quickly after, and quietness returns.

A big clock on the platform tells that it’s somewhere around eight in the evening. Peak hours are over and passengers are few. The surrounding valley is encircled by hills, topped with plucks of pine-trees. At this point of dawn, the sun had descended enough in order to send some of its last rays through the periwinkle overcast. 

The station’s diner had closed its shutters hours ago. The entrance has been amalgamated into the only notable terminal, which gives quite a dilapidated impression. Its canary yellow wainscoting had begun to exfoliate seemingly years ago. Nonetheless, bits of former glory still remain. One could easily imagine it being bypassed by whistling steam trains in a faraway past. Yet, a large plastic pamphlet hanging down the facade promises that the area will soon be modernized, whatever that might mean.

All in all, it was an intensive day aboard different carriages, leading through lively towns and vast pastures. Safely behind a large window, innumerable settlements and industrial sites could be seen drifting by. Within the intimacy of the train compartment, there were some shy interactions with fellow passengers, but it was too transitory to still recall their precise countenance. In contrary to this lonesome place, they have disembarked earlier on and might now be having dinner with their family or loved one. 

Travel announcements can be heard from a row of rusty loudspeakers, echoing til far beyond the station’s bounds. Talking in an unknown language, a recurring female voice conveys all sorts of travel information. In the warmth of her voice, there is confidence and reassurance. Those present, listen attentively whenever she has something to say. 

On an adjacent marshalling yard, the blood red eyes of a small suburban train seem to hover above a complex structure of tangling railway tracks. The empty vehicle appears to be standing by for the start of its working hours. When the red signal jumps to green, it will glide onto an allocated railway track to begin loading and unloading human beings.

Meanwhile, and with sheer indifference, a lengthy freight train cuts through the station in full speed. The extensive string of chemical containers which it carries, shapes into a giant, otherworldly snake, of which a roaring locomotive forms the head. Little later, its poisonous tail escapes the station with a fierce blow of wind. Once again there is calmness. The snake’s visit was just a fleeting disturbance in the prevailing tranquility. 

Scattered across the platform, a handful of travellers is awaiting their transport. Partly hidden behind a windshield, sits a young woman with blonde hair who appears to be lost in thoughts. And on appropriate distance, a young man is leaning against an information display. Other, more distant platforms are similarly dotted with vague human silhouettes. 

Every now and then, there seems to be a flash of curious eye contact between the passengers. Dreamy eyes glare across the premises almost uninterruptedly. And sometimes, the lines of sight would coincidentally cross paths and affirm each other’s solitude. One might wonder how many fragile romances have bloomed amidst these charming railroads. 

The curious workings of the universe had arranged this brief encounter between strangers, who might never meet again hereafter. As soon as the incoming train will disperse them into opposite directions, their precarious common ground of solitude will perish.

Slow and Hard: An Enrichment

It’s probably one of the most characteristic slogans in contemporary advertisements, smartly used by tech-companies to sell their newest electronics: ‘Quick and easy!’ And the moral it serves is fully embraced by its audience. Devices seem to constantly ‘beat’ their predecessors with another added feature to easify the lives of its customers even more.

Already when you’ve just purchased that brand new smartphone, a newer, faster, and better version is available in stores. Also, you can count on a sneering look when admitting to a computer specialist the prehistoric lifespan of your laptop (which is barely two years).The underlying notion tells that technological progress would make things ‘easier’ and ‘faster’. But this alleged easiness brought along with it the exact opposite; an incredible complexity which increased dependency. So if you allow me, in this writing I would like to promote a more ancient approach; ‘Slow and hard!’ 

Anno 2020, most ordinary households own a five-hundred channel multifunctional 50 inch smart-TV with wifi connection and voice recognition. Limitless smartphone possibilities allow us to order a pizza, make a business call, scroll through the latest news updates while messaging acquaintances in New York and Amsterdam all at the same time. To a varying extent, many of us have become volatile multitaskers. The outdated -and emotionally vulnerable- processors that are our minds, need to run a tremendous array of tasks simultaneously. 

Considering the multitude of options nowadays to supervise all aspects of life, it might feel like a defeat when only one activity is undertaken. Yet, this might just be the key to finding an orderly state in the mad world of social media and technology.

Removing easiness and comfort from life might sound a bit silly at first. Deliberately withdrawing ourselves from modernity’s practical comforts can feel even counterintuitive. Because it would cost valuable time (which we don’t possess), it would require effort and patience (which we don’t have). Altogether, why would people even try to deprive themselves of the very technology they’d initially invented to ease up life?

There’s a good reason to do so. For every new gadget, app or device, with all its advantages, makes its users instantly dependent, and setbacks might lead to fargoing, often shameful behaviour. This helpless dependency reduces painfully the parameters by which we measure contentment throughout a day, because expecting everything to be quick and easy, means it also needs to be always quick and easy. But what if it isn’t? What if modern technology doesn’t keep its promise?

Well, then frustrations flourish; When a smartphone doesn’t work, an entire day is ruined. When Netflix is unavailable, the evening is wasted. When the online food order is late, we’re angry and might shout at the poor delivery guy. 

The slogan Slow and Hard on the other hand, does exactly what is expected of it, and likewise evokes no unpleasant surprises. I’ve therefore listed a few analog items considered to be ancient by now, but which nevertheless might make life a little slower and harder, in a gracious sense.

The items described underneath are terribly slow, very unwieldy and excruciatingly hard when compared to the fluidity of modern gadgets. But precisely therefore, they also stand a little closer to the true, sorrowful and tragic nature of life. No miracles are expected of them. Yet, their variety is rich and its dependency negligible.

Items to make life slower and harder:

Newspaper – Structure and Eye Health 

Days primarily consist of staring at screens. Sometimes even at multiple screens simultaneously, for instance, when looking at the smartphone while watching TV. The impossibility of such activities is well demonstrated when towards the end of the evening, neither the netflix movie was finished, nor is remembered what we were actually doing on the smartphone meanwhile. Yet, the real damage it does, is to our eyes.

Staring straight into bright light almost uninterruptedly for a day, is an unhealthy business for sure. It is unnatural and tiring, and influences the quality of sleep. Looking at multiple screens in a literal sense might, if you manage to even do so, leave you with crossed eyes. The old-school newspaper offers solace to this problem. Finding it waiting for you on your doorstep in the morning might interlude a more orderly and less tiresome day. And despite its old fashioned image, the newspaper still satisfies our insatiable hunger for information, yet in a somewhat healthier way. 

Book – Discipline and Creativity.

Firstly and most importantly; it runs without a battery. No need to cry and yell about specific cables or chargers that are missing. Secondly, one might reinvent an unmissable virtue; inasmuch as starting to read a good –physical– novel is easy, it requires discipline to finish it. In modern multitasking, there are plenty of examples wherein an activity remains unfinished, which can be quite frustrating after having started it enthusiastically.

Discipline is the ability to persistently sustain a single activity in favour of a greater goal. In this case it’s understanding the novel’s plot, with the side effect of escaping our beeping and buzzing devices. Overcoming many pages might enable the ability to extrapolate this forlorn habit (discipline) towards daily life. Also, flipping through the pages of a talented writer can provoke one’s own creativity, hence interesting ideas. 

Postcard – Nostalgia And A Touch of Melancholy.

Slower than its digital counterpart the email, but surely more meaningful, and far less liable to end up in the spam box. It’s a gift to your future self, as written postcards are the physical evidence of having travelled in faraway lands. Furthermore, finding an old postcard awakens memories of different times and reminds us of the gradual change to which life is subject.

Postcards are connected to the people we’ve met in past journeys, or to the difficulties we overcame before sliding it into the mailbox many years ago. Somehow, the safe arrival of a postcard is quite miraculous, as it went through many hands and exotic lands, ultimately onto your doorstep. It requires more effort to send a good old postcard, but without effort, it would be without meaning. 

Vinyl player – Calmness & Care.

The opposite of quick and easy. A classical vinyl player requires delicate care. Letting the needle land softly on the disc is a movement of profound carefulness. Surely no other activity can be undertaken simultaneously. Then, a pleasant feeling of relief arises when after a short rustle, the selected song starts playing.

Dropping the needle carefully and listening closely to the music is not as easy as turning on a Spotify stream, yet this analog device is certainly less complicated, deprived from irritating song suggestions, commercials and incoming messages (it doesn’t even have a screen!)

Chessboard – Insight and Concentration.

A game of chess must be a true nightmare for the average multitasker. As for a tense game can last half an hour, possibly the entire evening, or even more (the longest ever recorded chess game lasted over 20 hours.) Losing concentration because of checking incoming emails or a dodgy match on Tinder might cost you the victory. Doing so, the vast complexity of chess encourages our concentration to fixate exclusively on one specific endeavour of finally being granted to whisper that famous phrase in a mocking manner: check…mate.

Where most smartphones have a swift and intuition-based interface, the strategy which is involved in chess makes an appeal to our insight. Instead of being led by the smartphone’s suggestive interface, the chessboard demands its players to see three or four steps ahead and take all possible risks into account. At the end of a phone scrolling evening, you might feel tired and psychologically unsatisfied. Chess might leave you even more mentally tired, but it is needless to acclaim that it didn’t satisfy the mind’s hunger to be challenged.

Stove – Patience.

Worryingly, cooking at home is falling out of grace rapidly. Instead, streets are swarming with numerous delivery cars, bikes and scooters, racing through red lights to suffice all the online orders. Why cook if you could watch another episode on Netflix, while a delivery restaurant cooks and also brings your dinner? could be the argument.

Cooking is a time slurping activity. Washing dishes included, it might take an hour at least. This way, one might easily overlook its positive sides. It is less costly and generally tastier. But the advantages of cooking aren’t limited to only saving expenses and having tastier (and healthier) food. No, cooking is a true sanctuary, to which you can escape from the digital madness. Mastering different taste combinations, supervising three pots and pans on the stove demands patience and focus. Being distracted by your phone might leave you hungry, as your dinner has burnt to dust.

Additionally, cooking gives the (sub)conscious a well deserved rest after another day of staring at screens. And that enhances the further processing of whichever bothering thoughts are floating in the mind. 

Pencil – Anything.

A true dinosaur amongst the forgotten artifacts. There might be plenty of them dusting away around the house, already unused for years. Strengthened by imagination, this humble, stick-like mixture of wood and graphite allows you to draw or write anything or anyone, and it expresses hidden feelings or thoughts.

Consequently, converting unpolished ideas into smooth passages, catchy drawings or sketches might enable your occupied brain to classify the important things out of the unstructured jungle that is our psyche. Having a sheet of paper as his companion, this little friend here can mean the very departure from which wondrous works of art and literature arrive. But even more wondrous; the imperfect artistic revelations, uncovering your soul’s deepest depths.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Photo credit:

Newspapers in Metro: Peter Lawrence

Men playing chess: Vlad Sargu

Postcards: Anne Nygard

Man cooking: Aaron Thomas

Novel: Kelly Sikkema

Vinyl player: Luana De Marco

Pencil on paper: Lalaine Macababbat