Saturday, April 2, 2011

Travelling by train: An outsider (and maybe very biased) view

I like travelling by train. I would not say that I am terribly fond of this mean of transportation, but I find it more convenient than travelling by bus when you are abroad. You have clear references (the name of the station in all stops in the local language) and it is more difficult to get lost by getting off at the wrong stop, at it has happened to me quite a few times in the local buses. You can ask the driver or any other passenger in the bus, but it is also quite likely that the driver forgets about you or that they simply do not understand which stop you are referring to hearing your accent. So the train is safer, and you feel more independent when it comes to choose the right stop.

There is something common about travelling by train everywhere and something more characteristic to the place. I would say that the feeling that “the trains are not on time in our country” is more often heard than I would have thought. I am tempted here to say universal but obviously I have not been in so many places so as to give the pancultural label to this fact (and probably it is not even completely true). But where things in general tend to delay, trains are not an exception; and where things seem to work as scheduled, the slightest change (from 15:27 to 15:29) becomes annoying for the inhabitants of that country.
But yeah, still you may notice some idiosyncratic features wherever you go. Picking up some (maybe “random”) facts and accommodating them to existing clichés is incorrect because it implies some sort of reductionism of a complex reality. Categorizing makes our life easier but we know that some nuances are lost on that way. In any case, and being aware of my biased/inaccurate perception, I feel the need of making those categorizations/reductionisms as a reaction to what I have suffered myself (this sounds dramatic but it is not so…!). And this may sound politically incorrect, but I have never (and will not ever) intended to be PC, I just want to be truly respectful and honest with my thoughts.

My travelling by train in USA made me think that trains are not especially luxurious, but they have enough features (i.e. tables to work with laptops, which you could plug in) and tickets are a little bit more expensive than of buses so as to make a difference. I would not say that the difference is huge, but for someone who has a limited budget, I admit it might well be. In any case, what I have found most amazing is the terribly old look buses have, as if having more comfortable coaches for a nine-hour trip would be a sin. I wonder how expensive renovating those medium- and long-distance coaches would be, and I get the conclusion that it cannot be that much. But I also get the conclusion that maybe a little bit more fancy and comfortable bus would not serve the purpose, which I think it is not only making them a little bit more low-class mean of transportation, but also to make everyone notices that difference. It is not fun to travel in a mean of transportation that looks (actually is) as belonging to an upper social status if this is not meant to be known by everyone. So the different social classes are safely separated.

Trains in Germany are also fun. I have to confess my admiration and devotion for how organized everything seems to be there (this is again the observation of an outsider; some living there for quite a while may have another perspective). But I like travelling in German trains. What I find a little bit odd (and sometimes feel uneasy probably because of my more chaotic tendencies) is how inflexible some things seem to be. I can think of one example that illustrates it. I was queuing to get a ticket and some information; when my turn came I purchased the ticket and got my questions promptly and efficiently answered. But I forgot one last question (or just reminded it untimely), so two seconds after leaving the counter, I tried to come back to get this question answered but the next person waiting in line had already reached the counter and everyone around indicated me that I had to queue again. I found it impractical, so I left the place. I cannot remember what question was that but should not be enough reason to wait for other 10-15 people getting their tickets or queries answered before me. Then, I learned that it was expected from me that I had a clear idea of the list of questions I needed to be answered and everything that did not fit there would be considered as improvisation (hence, “not good”). Likewise, do not ask questions about possible but improbable facts: you may not get an answer. If you go to the counter of the train station, you would get accurate, quick and efficient answers, all of them according to the neat protocol. But the unexpected… Hmmm, the unexpected... “If I validate this ticket today, but then miss the train, and have to take another train that will depart on the next day, would it be still OK?” Then, you realize that the person in front of you looks puzzled. (—How come if you buy the ticket expecting to take the train today, would you miss it? — seems to be in this guy’s mind). So after three seconds, then s/he would start looking at some papers around him/her, looking for the answer somewhere. Then, you start wondering whether you are the only idiot around who has missed the train lately there. Eventually, the guy would tell: “If you miss the train, come here and we will find a solution”. This sounds promising. Until I said that was what had actually happened. A quick phone call comes, and then it seems that they guy can change the ticket (and without any charge). I am amazed: am I really the first person this guy has met with this problem? Did he start in the job the eve? Is it uncommon to validate a ticket, miss the train, and have to travel on the next day? As someone recently told me, in societies where everything is more subject to tight protocols and fewer things are left to improvisation, things seem to work very efficiently. But if there is something unexpected that someone failed to consider when planning the protocol, things get stuck. And B planning (or even C planning) is not something usual for them, so let us hope that we solve the hole in the system after a redefinition of the protocol. But really, you can see that in people’s face: whenever you confront them with improbable situations (also outside the train station) they stare at you like if you were from another planet (maybe I am for even considering those weird options…).

A last mention goes to the funny first and second cars of Dutch trains. If you talk to the Dutch, they may proudly say that they do not want to make distinctions because they are an egalitarian society. Therefore, you would not expect that in a train some cars were first class and others second class. But there are (somehow…). And I say somehow because, honestly, I still do not get it: why would a person pay more money to go in first class in the train when the car is almost the same as the second class one? Well, in peak hours, there may be free seats in first class cars, and no seats and too many travelers with heavy bags in the other cars. But when it is not the case, watch out! You can see the number when entering the train, but if you walk around cars, you may enter the “other zone” without noticing (look for the tiny numbers inside, somewhere in the car, almost hidden). It has happened to me a couple of times and to some other foreigners I know too. I guess that there is still some obsession for not making class distinctions too evident, so when there is something like that implied, they are not good at that, or they just make it not very noticeable. Whatever the reason is, it becomes really easy to go to the wrong part of the train, but this is not usually a problem (although I may talk about it in another moment).

Take-home message? Well, this post is not meant to convey any hidden meaning or bring unexpected conclusions. I said before that I was aware of being too simplistic by sticking to clichés, and I do not want to perpetuate them. But I wanted to highlight that when you are abroad, even though everything seems to be the same as at home because you also come from a "Western" country, small changes may make a difference. Because after all, there is some implicit way of thinking underlying all decisions and unwritten norms. So if I get some difficulties there, coming from a society more “alike”, I just cannot but try to think how this may be for individuals coming from more different societies. It must be incredibly hard. My admiration to those who still make the effort and survive in the "developed"(???) part of the world with this and the rest of (even harder) difficulties.

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