I had a ticket – three tickets – for a daring train journey back from Switzerland. Daring to a Brit that is: you wouldn’t contemplate such a journey in this country. It went like this:
dep. Pontresina 8.02
arr. Samedan 8.08
dep. Samedan 8.16
arr. Chur 10.03
dep. Chur 10.09
arr. Zurich 11.23
dep. Zurich 11.36
arr. Basel 12.47
arr. Strasbourg 14.39
arr. Lille 17.58
arr. London St P 19.03
The first part of the journey is on the UNESCO World Heritage Rhaetische Bahn. Once I saw as we came out of a tunnel a small lake deep in the valley below which looked just like the lake I’d seen in another valley before we went into the tunnel, only bigger. Later I realised with the help of a map that some of the tunnels are circular. In the darkness you have no sense of turning but you have turned through 360 degrees and come out lower.
Near stations all through the lowlands cars were drawn up into squares, waiting. Bikes were boxed in and roofed.
People got off trains and into buses. Off buses and into trains. In the valleys cars ran along beside the train. The route was stitched together by tunnels. On every platform people lined up with their personal possessions. The meadows were cut and empty. Every train arrived on time and left on time.
And the rivers journey from Switzerland. At the top of the Bernina pass a big old board points at the train: Wasserscheide, watershed. The obedient waters are divided. To the south the Po, Italy, the Adriatic. To the north the Inn, Austria, the Danube, the Black Sea. Near Brig another divide: to the Rhone and the Mediterranean, or to the Rhine and the North Sea, to wash against England. Everything in motion, for the waters are taking the rocks with them.
At Goppenstein station and at Diavolezza station there are memorials to the Italian migrant workers who died tunnelling and stitching everything together in the years before the First World War. In those happy years from America and Russia and everywhere in between, with the British taking a leading role, the well-to-do came roaring through the tunnels to practise new forms of icy motion, skiing, skating, bob-sledding.
This summer I saw a new thing: on the lake near St Moritz as a favourable wind blew up the Engadine valley people with wings skimmed the water and took off into the air and splashed down again.
Into France without proof of passport. Just an empty customs lobby you walk through feeling watched.
Silent miles of maize, sunflowers, maize, wheat, sunflowers, wheat, sunflowers, wheat and maize. Where has everybody gone? Everybody’s on the train or the distant motorway. Until Charles de Gaulle airport where tickets and timetables again kick off departures and arrivals.
At Lille I became anxious. Surely I haven’t enough time? How long would Eurostar security take? Thinking it was enough to show my passport once I then tried to walk straight past the little booth of our own Border Force and was stopped by an indulgent and patronising official who said, ‘just one thing on your mind now isn’t there! you just want to get home!’
I hadn’t got that far. I just wanted to get on the next train. It was a while since I’d seen any homes or thought about home.
After a lot more wheat, mostly late afternoon golden stubble, the elaborately configured silver fences of Calais appeared quite suddenly and shone in the evening sun. These were the temple precincts of the priests of the gods of obstructions. The phrase is the poet Vahni Capildeo’s. It is easier for refugees, for those without the right tickets, passports and visas, to pass through the eye of a needle. Quite a shock after travelling through a continent which seemed dedicated to movement: to skimming over the lake, to biking down the mountain, to changing trains and watching the world pass by, to driving and swimming and running and walking, hopping in and out of cars and buses, cutting through the mountains in tunnels, speeding past the empty fields at over 200 kilometres an hour. And I remembered the gliders and the paragliders in the Alps. You hear a murmuring and look up to see them rise, hover and swoop.