Boy on a Train

December 20, 2017

Cover of “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, by Paul Theroux

Carolyn once remarked that I was the most romantic man she’d ever met. Over the years I’d been described quite differently by people who knew me. It started out with “head in the clouds” (parents), then onto “daydreamer” (teachers), “space cadet” (male friends) and “deaf” (girls who’d been asked for a second date). There’s no doubt Carolyn bore witness to all these former appellations, but in her world they all amounted to the same thing. For the first time in my life I was with someone who not only would not try to change me, but was also not making novenas hoping for a miracle.

With Carolyn’s feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground foundation compared to my firmly-planted-in-midair plinth, our coupling should have made for the oddest of odd couples, especially on the road. Yet, that was where our compatibility was most evident. That’s what makes this journey so unique and necessary. With only her spirit along with me this time, I will have to get as much joy and satisfaction out of traveling as if Carolyn was with me in the flesh as well.

One thing we did not agree on when planning a trip was to make the kind I’m making now. “I don’t want to have to unpack and pack every day,” she explained in what was clearly a practical observation to the plan, which characteristically, I’d hadn’t given any thought to at all. We found an agreeable compromise on a trip through Germany a couple of years back that had us stay two or three days in one city before moving on. It later worked exceptionally well on a two-week trip to Italy where we split that time among three cities. This was particularly satisfying because we traveled exclusively by train, both of us wishing to avoid testing our defensive driving skills against the legendary lunacy of Italian drivers.

Now I’d be taking the method of that Italian trip and pushing it to a madness, which historically is right in my wheelhouse. While it’s certainly not the way Carolyn would have had it, it does reflect how I started out traveling back in 1971. Vagabonding, or as the French might call me, Le Flâneur, loosely translated as an aimless wanderer. That’s right up my blind alley, as well. Except this time, instead of a thumb, I’ll have a Eurail pass, which, ironically, is the way Carolyn started out in 1971 herself.

Maybe some of that feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground practicality has rubbed off on me after all.

I did convince Carolyn way back then to try hitchhiking with me. Once. Only once. I don’t know why she was never keen on the idea again. We caught a ride after only a few minutes near the entrance to the Autobahn. Maybe it was the sight of this beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed California girl hanging by the side of the road next to someone who looked more like a laundry hamper that filled passersby with a sense of imminent peril on Carolyn’s part. I’m not sure. I do think I’d have been able to convince her to try a trip like this one.

Once. Only once. So why do it?

The travel writer Paul Theroux (who’s been the inspiration behind the formulation of this particular trip) described travel as one of the laziest ways on earth to pass the time. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, his memoir of a replicated train trip he’d taken some thirty years earlier, he wrote:

“A lovely feeling warmed me, the true laziness of the long-distance traveler. There was no other place I wished to be than right here in the corner seat, slightly tipsy from the wine and full of bouillabaisse, the rain lashing the window.”

In my own return to a journey I’d made forty years earlier, I’m ghosting Theroux both in objective and temperament. Man, this is going to be on lazy-ass trip, for sure.

And, yes, Carolyn is rolling her eyes big time on this one.

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