Words by Amy Gerrish
Huge backpacks and sleeping bags in tow, while travelling across Europe, we (myself and now-husband, Tristan) made the decision to take the night train from Paris to Berlin.
The idea was to leave one beautiful city behind, but to awake in another. A seamless transition. We wanted to arrive well-rested, and ready to be engulfed in yet more culture, more history.
The reality was not nearly as romantic as that sounds.
The reality involved six people, a very confined space and a long, long 12 hours.
We were the first to arrive out of the six that could fit in our cabin, and we found the train just fine - we only really had to follow the steady trail of backpacks like a colourful, nylon snail’s trail across the busy Parisian station.
The train carriage itself was clean (a luxury compared to the post-rush hour metro we’d just been herded around the city on), if narrow. A small corridor ran the length of the carriage with a series of cabins sitting parallel, joined by a marginally larger communal space at the entrance. This part eventually filled with bicycles and the young, gorgeous Paris youth that were oh-so coolly smoking cigarettes out of the window.
The resounding memory I have of the cabin itself is metal. Imagine the Hogwarts Express, but with an industrial aesthetic. Brown patterned cushion fabric, metal casing around everything. Practical and functional. Not, I will add, comfortable.
We weren’t alone in the cabin long. Our bags were (precariously) placed on the luggage rack about our heads for roughly three minutes before Yaro came in.
Yaro was a lovely, lovely chap. He proudly told us of the English café he was going to open in his Nigerian hometown. He probed us on the specifics of a Full English Breakfast. We told him how the egg yolks should always be runny, that the bacon should be crispy, and to always serve up two sausages. We talked about where he’d been (everywhere) and where he was still hoping to go (London).
Chatting away, we almost missed the arrival of our next travelling companion. I don’t remember her name, but I remember wanting to live her life. She studied in Paris, and was able to stay with her father in a nice part of the city when she wanted to escape her student apartment. During university breaks, she would go home to Berlin and stay with her mother. She had uncontrollably curly hair, and perfectly round glasses.
How nice, I remember thinking. How nice this trip could be – comfortable, almost – if we manage to keep this cabin of four to ourselves. Yaro could keep chatting away, I could probe my new girl crush and make plans for an imaginary future where I'd live in both Berlin and Paris, flitting between the two when one felt a bit samey. It would have been great.
The train pulled away! YES. We’d managed the impossible, we thought. We sped across the French countryside, stopping here and there, but never for long, never collecting many passengers. The sun began to set, and I stood, carefully stretched my legs and stepped outside of the cabin. I opened the carriage window (a testament to how old this train was) and felt the wind from the speed of the train blow across my face. The warm glow of the sun lit the surrounding fields, the tops of the various grasses billowed as we sped past towards Germany.
Tristan came and stood beside me, gave me a squeeze, and it was in that moment that we spotted them. Wildly overgrown train tracks, rusty with age, and definitely no longer used. We watched them curve off to the south, and we moved back to our seats.
Soon it was dark. It got late, and we our thoughts turned to the practical – how were we going to sleep in here? Before that all-important question was answered, the train made yet another stop. The last two seats in our cabin were filled, and any notion of stretching out was swiftly lost. The four of us, chatty together now, welcomed the new passengers on board, to be greeted with scowls. A language barrier suddenly appeared, and it was one that we couldn’t cross. More so, it was one they didn’t seem to want to - even our trilingual companions didn't have much luck.
We sat as comfortably as we could, tried to embrace the motion of the train as a gentle rocking. Shifted, shuffled. Several hours later, it became abundantly clear that neither of us were sleeping any time soon. I took matters into my own sleep-deprived hands.
I unclipped the sleeping bag from the front of my bag (to tutting and teeth-sucking, as it involved me standing on my own seat to reach), and crawled – carefully – beneath the seats on our side of the carriage. I led, curled up on my side, and it was the first time in around six hours that I’d been remotely comfortable. I've not underestimated comfort since.
Roughly one hour later, I woke with a start. The cause? A podgy and perfectly manicured forefinger of an angry French woman. I still don't know why she felt the need to wake me. Maybe she was jealous of my mad sleeping skills - but I've come to terms with the fact I'll never know. She poked once, and then again when I'd woken but not mustered the energy to move. Her abrupt French broke the stagnant silence of the cabin, and didn't cease until I'd sat back in my seat.
The remaining five hours were long, but they had their moments. When the sun rose, Tris and I left the cabin to stand for a while in the open area. Soon, more built up areas were passing by, and our thoughts turned to where we were about to arrive, the importance of it all.
I can't say I really remember the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We left the train in a sleep-deprived daze, mainly concerned that we had our bags, shoes and maps over paying attention to where we were going. Stumbling, we found ourselves on the U-Bahn, and exited on a whim when we caught sight of the Brandenburger Tor station.
At this point, we'd set our minds plainly on getting to Tiergarten, on finding a warm patch of grass on which we could sit for a moment and catch our bearings. So we did.
Leaning on our rucksacks not much later, the warm breeze almost rocked us to sleep. We took a moment to ourselves, a moment away from the city and the hubbub and the resounding buzz that the city is rightly so proud of now. We found ourselves napping in the centre of one of Europe's most influential capitals.
It was brilliant.
And, when we did wake, we really were somewhere new, somewhere that despite stumbling across an hour to two before, we were only really seeing for the first time now. Out the map came. Our journey at its end, but the adventure beginning anew.