You meet some funny people on the train. Not Russell Brand, laugh-out-loud comedy funny, you understand, but more the Forrest Gump, what-on-earth-are-you-doing-with-that-bratwurst kind. The sorts of people who make you wonder if we’re all from the same species. And nowhere is this more pronounced than on long distance rail journeys across Europe, where the carriages of Eurostar, ICE and Thalys play host to all manner of creatures previously unknown to even the most well-travelled of anthropologists.
We start with the coloniser. Usually a middle-aged teacher, the coloniser turns his or her seat into a little piece of home by bringing everything short of hair curlers and a lawn mower. No matter how long or short the journey, the coloniser is unable to relax without a plastic water bottle, a week’s supply of home made egg sandwiches wrapped in tin foil, half a dozen essays to mark and a supply of educational reading materials that would put the British Library to shame – all of which are stowed fastidiously on or around the coloniser’s person, in the seat pockets, under the armrests and anywhere else not otherwise occupied. And all of which have to be hastily removed and painstakingly reassembled every time the poor bloke in the next seat needs to nip to the gents.
But that’s only a mild annoyance when compared with the euro-brat. In her late teens, the precocious euro-brat is just completing her international baccalaureate at an oh-so-wonderful school for girls in a little town in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. She’s going to visit friends in Stockholm but is stopping off on the way to visit Thorsten in Hanover. And to pick up some chocolate from that lovely little shop in Copenhagen. Do you know it? You don’t? Oh, you must go – it’s simply divine. In case it’s not already apparent, the euro-brat is a spoiled and overindulged halfwit, who’s been sent to Switzerland because even her parents didn’t want anything more to do with her. She likes to hear herself talk. She’s her own favourite topic of conversation. And she’s going to be sat next to you for the next six hours.
At the other end of the chatterbox spectrum is the old woman with the suitcase. Looking for all the world like she’d really rather be somewhere else, this beleaguered traveller is accompanied onto the train by a rampaging horde of gesticulating relatives, who stampede madly around the carriage before dumping the departing visitor into her allocated seat, cramming her outsized suitcase precariously into the overhead luggage rack and fleeing the train so that they can continue to gesticulate on the platform. The old woman with the suitcase sits perfectly motionless for the entire journey, lost in her own thoughts. Possibly thanking her lucky stars that she’s survived another visit to those tortuous relatives, she’s more likely wondering how on earth she’s going to get her suitcase down.
Somewhat more belligerent is the crumpled businessman. In a permanent state of weary grumpiness, presumably because his boss won’t let him travel first class, this itinerant executive is a most unwilling traveller. He spends the entire journey shouting brutishly down his mobile phone, berating his hapless assistant for some foul up on a building site in Dresden or lamenting the flaws in the company’s latest expansion strategy. And if you have the temerity to ask him to keep the noise down, he gives you that look – you know, that look – and stomps off into the next carriage, only to return five minutes later with an even louder conversation and a Cornish pasty / croque monsieur / bratwurst (insert your favourite greasy European food here). Rarely has one man been so miserable – and how nice of him to share his misery with everyone else.
But most intriguing of all is the freaky family. Anybody with more than a few journeys under their belt will know that the natural state for a family with children on the train is complete, unashamed, almost blissful chaos. Sure, the kids all have seats, but why should they sit in them when it’s much more exciting to swing from the luggage racks and harass the buffet staff. For the freaky family, however, order and decorum are paramount. Dressed smartly and never raising their voices above a whisper, the immaculately groomed children while away the hours with colouring pens and story books, while their parents glance casually (and a little bit smugly) through the Sunday papers. The silence is broken only for a game of i-spy. And by all the other parents remonstrating furiously with their own offspring and demanding to know why they can’t be a little bit more like the children at that table over there. And people wonder why it’s always the quiet, well-dressed kids who get bullied.
So whether you’re travelling from Manchester to Madrid or Marseille to Malmo, it’s clear that there are two windows on every train. There’s the window outward onto a beautiful and ever changing continent. And there’s the window inward onto the daily lives of some pretty unusual individuals. You meet some funny people on the train.