Will flygskam have any lasting effect on commercial enterprise? The signs are (or were, before the advent of COVID-19) distinctly promising. A new Nightjet train from Vienna to Brussels, established by Austrian Federal Railways, or Ö.B.B., and lauded by its C.E.O., Andreas Matthä, as “an eco-friendly travel option to the E.U. capital,” had its inaugural run on January 19th. A serious journey, at just over fourteen hours. Ö.B.B. estimates that the rest of its night network has already saved the world twelve thousand short-haul flights a year: a delicious irony, given how greedily the budget airlines have eaten into train travel in recent decades. Further resurrections lie ahead, not least new sleeper services from Vienna and Munich to Amsterdam, slated for December of this year. One can but hope that such enviable schemes, intended to address the climate crisis, will not be stopped in their tracks by the rival plight through which we currently sweat.
The third reason to choose a sleeper train—and the most compelling—is no more practical than the taste of a peach. At stake, you might say, is a sense of latent adventure. Although it is unlikely, as you clatter through the night, that anything of note will befall you, the prospect that it could feels ever present, just out of sight beyond the next curve of the track. To remain awake to that possibility, even as we’re meant to be sleeping, is the privilege that beckons some of us back, year after year, to this awkward and beguiling locomotion.
No wonder trains and movies make such cozy bedfellows—so cozy that a train zipping through the darkness, with windows illuminated, actually looks like a strip of film. Plots, laid down on rails, dash ever onward; anticipation rises like steam. Consider Claudette Colbert, in “The Palm Beach Story,” who falls in with the rowdy millionaires of the Ale and Quail Club. Sweeping her up as a mascot, and boarding the 11:58 from Penn Station with a pack of hounds, they think nothing of firing their shotguns at crackers, tossed up by a bar steward like clay pigeons. As for Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” the lady in question is a grandmotherly secret agent, who, before she disappears, daubs her name on the misted window of the dining car. A ridiculous method, in any other time and place, of leaving your mark; on a night train, though, it seems only right and proper.
If you don’t believe me, you have to believe Cary Grant. In “North by Northwest” (more Hitchcock), he boards the Twentieth Century, from New York to Chicago, without a ticket. By chance—or so he thinks—he meets Eva Marie Saint, first in the corridor and then in the dining car, where he orders a Gibson and, on her recommendation, the brook trout. The two of them return to her compartment, where, during a police inspection, she conceals Grant in the foldaway top bunk. Later, as daylight fails, they lean against the wall of the compartment and kiss, over and over, her hands caressing the back of his neck. “Beats flying, doesn’t it?” he says to her. Sure does.
Sleeping on a sleeper is easier said than done. In “I Know Where I’m Going!,” a magical film from 1945, the heroine, played by Wendy Hiller, caught the night train from Manchester to Glasgow, heading for her wedding in the Western Isles. And she definitely slept—lying in her compartment and dreaming of tartan-shrouded hills, as her bridal dress, hung on a rack, swayed with the motion of the train. But those dreams were bustling affairs, intercut with shots of pistons and wheels, and she arrived more panicked than refreshed. Thirty years later, in “Murder on the Orient Express,” the same actress became a veiled and tremulous grande dame, plunging a blade into the murderee before the train was halted by snow. It’s as if night trains, explicitly designed to aid slumber, implied too many other activities, beginning with love and death, to be truly soporific.
The ideal state, I would argue, is a delirious doze, peppered with fits and starts—the doze, for instance, of Anna Karenina, who gets a seat but no bed on her journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The snow outside is in tumult, but the compartment is heated by a stove: “She passed the paper-knife over the window pane, then laid its smooth, cool surface to her cheek.” You can almost hear it hiss. Anna falls into a fevered reverie, from which she emerges only as the train pulls into a station. Such is the paradox that awaits the night-train novice: you sleep on the go, and you wake when you stop. (Anyone who has rocked a cradle will second this observation.) In the early pages of “Stamboul Train,” whose narrative puffs from Ostend to Constantinople, Graham Greene points out this peculiar hiccup in the laws of physics: “In the rushing reverberating express, noise was so regular that it was the equivalent of silence, movement was so continuous that after a while the mind accepted it as stillness.” Do the minds of sailors accommodate themselves, with equal ease, to a raging sea?
I first had a chance to test Greene’s thesis on a pre-university pilgrimage from London to Athens, by rail, with a halfway break at Salzburg. Thereafter lay terra incognita, for the Communist bloc was still intact. I was travelling solo, in a couchette of six; my fellow-coucheurs were smugglers, brazenly lugging bags of Western luxuries—lipstick, nylons, and coffee—across the frontier into what was then Yugoslavia. I assumed that they had bribed the conductor, who padded up and down the car in socks, and left us largely alone. The date must have been mid-May, 1981, for an assassin had just tried to kill the Pope: an event of such weight that the smugglers and I, who shared no common language, reënacted the crime en route. (Surprisingly, they had no gun among them, so I was shot by a lit cigarette.) Having commandeered the upper berth, I lay there, reading “Wuthering Heights,” drifting off, and lurching awake, bereft of my bearings, whenever the train paused. I recall tugging the edge of the blind, peering out into first light, and seeing an old woman, quite still, with a bundle of sticks on her back. It was as if we had taken a branch line into the world of Brueghel.
How long it was before the weary train crawled into Larissa station, in Athens, I don’t know. But the minutiae of those days and nights (insofar as I can tell them apart) are filed away forever in my brain. A journey by sleeper demands to be remembered, whereas an overnight flight is something you want to forget. Though the former may deposit you, benumbed, on a strange platform at a wretched hour, you somehow feel emboldened and ready to roll, whereas the latter leaves you curdled with misanthropy, watching everyone’s luggage but yours go round and round on a joyless carrousel. Red-eye is so much worse than gray-face.
Last month, I found myself in Lisbon. It was Monday, March 9th. The coronavirus, busy with northern Italy, had yet to turn its attention to Portugal, and the capital was still well peopled. On the Praça do Comércio, a handsome square that flanks the north shore of the Tagus River, cafés were doing a brisk trade, though the clamor dipped as I walked northeast, into the small streets that wind and climb through the Alfama district. With the descent of dusk, my senses woke up. This would be my last chance to meander before the borders closed, and everything was heightened and charged. I smelled the orange trees beside the cathedral before I saw them, and the vinho tinto I drank at dinner had a potency greater than anything recorded on its label. Besides, I had a train to catch, to Madrid, and the inevitable broken night ahead, so the urge to fill up was not to be resisted. Roasted blood sausage in green wine? Bring it on.