Saturday, September 23, 2006


Last week's post didn't really have much to do with what I've been up to, did it? It was self-indulgent tripe, really, wasn't it? Well, this one is going to be more of the same. Sorry, but I don't get up to that much that's interesting. I work 9 hours a day Mon-Fri, and have Dutch classes for two and a half hours on Monday and Wednesday, which means that I'm working 50 hours a week. In consequence, I tend to mostly sleep the rest of the time, although I get to go on a few outings at weekends. Tomorrow, for instance, I'm heading to Maastricht with the others on the Dutch course.

But anyway, this is all getting too relevant to my actual life, so I should probably start writing about the subject of the post: railways. I love railways, and have never really managed to figure out why. OK, my dad's a big fan, but that doesn't really explain it. It might be to do with the fact that I still connect train journeys with family outings and special events. Or there might be some more interesting explanation.

Perhaps it links back to what I was discussing in last week's post, my love of systems. A railway network is the ultimate system. It's always maximally efficient, as far as I can see (referring to the track here, not the trains themselves!), and incredibly uncompromising; a railway line always goes by the most direct route to where it needs to go.

Perhaps it's to do with the scope of them. Standing next to a railway I always feel as if I'm in the presence of something vastly more important and influential than myself, and, as those who know me will know, I consider very little to be more important and influential than me. When a train flashes past, someone in one of the carriages might briefly catch my eye. To that person, all that I am, was or will be is reduced to that single still frame. Meanwhile, that person has his or her own life - a life whose current chapter might have commenced in Fort William, say, and continued in London, from Euston station. And on that train there could well be hundreds of people, all with their own "plotlines", but all I see of any of them is that one brief glimpse. It's an incredibly humbling feeling, but uplifting at the same time.

Sometimes, very occasionally, I feel the same about coins. You can look at a coin and see the date (1977), and see that it's a bit grimy, and see that it's a 20p and thus extremely valuable for Cambridge purposes. But that coin has a story of its own, one that it can't ever tell because it doesn't have a mouth or even a mind. Maybe it was given in change by a London greengrocer who'd got it from a bank in 1977, then used five minutes later to buy a bus ticket to Wood Green. The bus driver then gives it to another customer as change outside Kings Cross, and by the end of the day it's in Newcastle. There the lady who had it drops her purse, and the contents spill out. The coin in question rolls into the road, and the lady decides that it's not worth bending down and picking it up (she's wearing a short skirt). The next morning, at 6 am, an old man who has trouble sleeping spots it on the way back from buying his newspaper and morning pack of cigarettes, and it makes his day. He shows it to his wife, who's not as impressed, so he sticks it in a pot by his bed. There it remains for the next 22 years. At Christmas 1999, the old man, now well into his nineties and unable to go out and pick up his own paper, decides to give a tip to his paper-girl. He scoops it out of the pot and presses it into her hand. The girl isn't impressed; most of her customers have a better grasp of the concept of inflation than this particular old man, and have given her at least a quid. Still, she puts it into her purse, which she loses later that day in a mound of soft toys and finds again in March. Not a big spender, in fact very clever with her money, the girl keeps the coin, along with many others, for a good while, and eventually spends it on a pack of Sainsbury's Basics "Cookies with Chocolate Flavour Chips" in Cambridge, where she's now studying Economics. The week after, it's picked up as change by me, and I use it for the Castle End dryer, totally oblivious to any of this except the last bit.

Incidentally, I feel the same when I'm on trains. I get a kick out of just gazing out of the window, feeling my senses being bombarded with more information than I can ever hope to take in - and that's not even considering that everything out there has a past, and a future. But I can try, and I can just let myself float away on it. It suits my self-appointed role as "observer" of all things. On a train I'm "safe" inside a capsule of metal and weatherproof glass and can watch the world go by. Trains, and railways, are therefore very much a meta-phenomenon for me. (Pseud, yes, I know.) They aren't part of the world itself, just an overarching system for observing it, and for facilitating the observation of different bits of it. A sort of heavenly realm.

This analogy is the only thing that comes clsoe to explaining the feeling I get when I see abandoned railways. I can't really engage with it, not like I can when a person, or an animal, or a rainforest, dies, or even when a building is knocked down, as it isn't really part of the same world. But at the same time it fills me with a strange sadness, like I'd somehow seen the death of an angel. It's something that shouldn't happen, and shouldn't be able to happen.

As I'm someone who gets off on inexplicable feelings, I was pleased that there was a dismantled railway line running through my village in Germany, about 500m away from where I live, and that I could walk along it to work - it's been converted into a footpath/cycleway, and in about 35 minutes I can emerge right outside the front door of the building where my office is situated. It's not the fastest route, but it's definitely the nicest, and the one that makes me think the most.

But of course there's a yin to every yang, a coffee to every cream, a Jarvis Cocker to every Michael Jackson, and so it is that this particular railway also goes in the opposite direction, into the countryside. On one of my first weekends here (the very first, or maybe the second), I headed out that way, as the map showed the path continuing on for another five miles or so, a nice evening's worth of walking. In fact, as I think I mentioned, it didn't stop where the map said it would, but continued on, so so did I. It's a lovely line, passing through rolling countryside with a few really quite dramatic viaducts. The best part of it is that afer a while it joins up with another line, one which hasn't been dismantled but clearly hasn't been used for a few years (despite the map (published 2004) saying that it was used for summer passenger traffic), and the path continues alongside it. This is a Good Thing. Abandoned railways are the absolute best kind, and the most heart-rending. It's as if the angel's corpse hasn't disintegrated and dissipated into the aether like they're supposed to, but remained there, decaying and being defaced like the average mortal's remains. I followed the line along to a place called Walheim, and as it was starting to get dark I got the bus back.

Today I headed out there again, determined to walk further down the path. Unfortunately, halfway through Walheim the path proper comes to an end. I didn't want to walk along the still-intact trackbed (well, would you trudge along an angel's body?), but this didn't stop me, and I followed the course of the line as closely as I could, along paths, tracks and main roads. Eventually I entered the northernmost reaches of the North Eifel Forest, an enormous area of mixed woodland stretching across western Germany and eastern Belgium and containing few settlements of any size. It was a sunny day, and the course of the railway track, about a hundred yards away, appeared simply as a line of sunlight. Eventually I came out of the woodland, passed a sign telling me I was in Belgium, and emerged in a small town/large village called Raeren. Raeren had a station, so I went to visit it. It was a sorry site. Carriages had just been left to rot, and locomotives too, although they were all holding up heroically.

Bah, that's enough about railways. Suffice it to say that Raeren was quite nice. It was very quiet, except in the middle, where a wedding had just taken place and everyone was celebrating noisily. I felt very out of place there, pressing through the crowd to get to the bus stop, wearing my "This is my happy face" T-shirt.

Let's talk about Pink. I must confess, I never gave her much thought for a long while. That was until she started bringing out tracks that were "different", like Don't Let Me Get Me and Just Like A Pill, which I immediately classified as caterwauly power-pop of the worst kind. I always appreciate artists who try to defy genres, but as well as rebelling they also have to produce good art, and Pink seemed to be doing the absolute opposite.

Since then I'm ashamed (sort of) to say that I've lost touch with the charts, so I haven't had much of an opportunity to give her a second chance. I started thinking that I probably should when J. K. Rowling mentioned her on her website (something about "Thin Girls"?), but didn't do anything about it. However, here in Germany I have 30 cable TV channels, including music channels, and I've seen the video to her new charting single, "Who Knew", a few times now. I have to say that it really is very good. It's still melodramatic, and just a little bit rebellious (the line about "I'd stand up and punch them out" makes me snigger), but it's also a very well-crafted, nicely sung song. It has guitars and strings, a Good Combination in my book. I'd really suggest giving it a listen. The video is also good - quirky, and emotional, and the girl herself doesn't look half bad, in a quirky way.

Ritter Sport Ratings

A high scoring week this week, probably because I've been eating some more tried-and-tested flavours.

Crunchy Biscuit (Knusperkeks): 9/10
Epic. This one looked like a milk Choco Leibniz, only with chocolate on both sides, and that's what it was - with the addition of a thin layer of delicious creamy stuff in the middle, serving as a tasty and welcome lubrication to an otherwise dry combo. Not as interesting as Rhubarb & Yoghurt (and Strawberry, I found out recently), so has to settle for second place, but a firm favourite for me.

Fine Dark Chocolate (Edel-Bitter): 8/10
What it says on the tin. All just solid, quality chocolate, so unfaultable - except that my palate has become a little jaded by so many exotic flavours, and so this one was just a little bit dull for me, I'm ashamed to say. It's also very dry, as dark chocolate tends to be. All in all, a very good product, but I eat Ritter for the interesting varieties and this one isn't quite so engaging.

Nougat: 8/10
Much the same as the above applies to this one: it's not fascinating. However, it is very, very tasty, and nougat goes well with the creamy Ritter milk chocolate whose virtues I've already extolled many times. The problem with this one is storing it: if you put it in the fridge it gets too hard and crunchy, and it tends to be a bit gooey if you just leave it in the cupboard. Still one of the most satisfying varieties overall, though.

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