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The soup bag May 24, 2007

Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.

Darlings, mustn’t holidays sometimes be more fuss than they’re worth?

Dependent on a lot of factors, of course. On the make-up of the holiday-going party, for one. Whether they like each other, for another. Then means of conveyance. Expense. Destination. All sorts of variables.

I recently observed a nice-enough family setting out on a trip abroad (or perhaps domestically. You never can tell in this day and age. Maybe they were flying to Aberdeen from the south of England. But the oldest daughter was already sporting a wicker hat, so I think they had Spain in mind).

I noticed them on the platform on my train journey to the airport. A handsome mum and dad and their three good-looking children. With so much luggage it looked as if they’d been given just enough notice by some about-to-maraud army that they had to leave home with whatever they could take with them. I could hear the initial panic of them having made it onto the train and settling into that part of the journey happening behind me before they gradually, in drips and drabs, got round to taking up their seats for the final pre-flight section of the journey. Around me.

Oldest daughter was the first to appear. She sat opposite me. Was at a late-childhood/early-adulthood age. What is that? 14? 15? She was sporting early breasts and had very recently decided that she belonged to her parents’ generation and not that of her younger siblings. She looked at and engaged with them with dismissive benevolence. Rather like a particularly job-weary priest looks at the more adoring members of his flock. Oddly, for the train journey to the airport, the family needed to have sustenance. Russians bring meals onto trains, but this is normal seeing as the journey may last three days, but their journey from the station to the airport would last forty-five minutes. Within three seconds of sitting down, oldest daughter asked for something to drink.

Cue activity as complicated as organising a wedding. It involved bags being gone through, drink being sought, other children being berated, parents discussing which bag the drinks were in, wondering whether it has been left on the platform – I had visions of the south of England being closed down in a security alert – and the wife wondering whether this incident had the embryonic makings of divorce proceedings in it and the husband thinking he might have nicely just stayed at home.

The younger daughter, pretty, aged about four, called J_, then loomed into view. She sloppily provided oldest daughter with liquids, all the time hassling her for another drop for herself. Oldest daughter beed dismissively benevolent. “No, J_, you’ve had enough. Take your hair out of my cup. Sit down.” Four-year-old J_ sat down and stared at me in that disarming way that children do. I looked out the window so as not to be accused of paedophilia.

With more bustling and hassling and rustling of bags, the mother, C_, took up her place in the set of four seats across the aisle. She was nice, and smily, and pretty and had worked out how to be a nice mum with the minimum of effort. Quite a lot of switching her ears off as she looked at solar-powered things to buy in the Guardian which she would hold up to her husband, D_, who never appeared from the in-betweeny bit of the carriage, and only hearing her children’s requests for attention on the second or third attempt. She was late 30s/early 40s, spoke middle-class Estuary English, had a look of the first-generation-in-the-family-to-go-to-university about her, was still resisting the temptation to remove the piercing from her nose and was very much the fulcrum of the family around whom all transactions revolved.

“J_, take your feet of the seats,” she’d say, in a nice way, mid mobile-phone-call to someone who had been deputed to take care of their lives when they were away. “Yeah, so if you can be there at about nine, yeah, that would be great. Yeah, he usually comes at about nine…” “…C_, (the son’s initial too, excuse the inelegance of doubling up) leave J_ alone.” “But her feet are touching my trousers.” “Doesn’t matter… D_, we could really do with one of those, couldn’t we?” “…ooh, C_, you like Switzerland. Look at these pictures of Switzerland. Maybe we could go there next year.” (I had a moment of primly ascetic internal disapproval that they were already thinking of their next holiday before they’d reached the airport for this one.) [OD to (brother) C_] “Leave my hat alone.” “But I want to try it on. Mum, tell OD I want to try her hat on. And tell J_ to get her feet off my trousers.” “Hmm, quite a prissy little thing,” I thought to myself and wondered if I should advise his parents to strike while the iron was hot and get him signed up for ballet lessons as soon as possible.

“D_, can I have your mobile again?” Mum needed to phone another life-sitter. D_ sighed. “God, D_, why are you getting so stressed out about me using your mobile?” “Mum, I want soup.” Soup? On a forty-five-minute train journey? More furious wedding-arranging-level activity. “Where’s the soup bag? D_, have you seen the soup bag?” But D_ kept his distance, never came into view, sighed and proffered that that may have been left on the platform too. I had visions of most of the south of England being drenched in Heinz in controlled explosions.

“Oh my god, have we missed our stop?” mum cried, having located the soup-bag. “If we’d stayed at your brother’s, we could have got a lift to the airport,” D_ interjected, having decided he could speak not just when spoken to. “God, D_, why are you getting so stressed about the train? Why do you hate trains? I much prefer trains to cars. God, doesn’t dad get stressed about trains?” she said, in the first case of ganging-up-on-D_ of the holiday. The children concurred that trains were better than cars.

I saw my chance to get involved. “No, you haven’t missed your stop. We’re just approaching this stop, then there’s that stop, then the airport’s the one after that.” OD accepted my interjection with undisguised disgust. C_ and J_ looked at their mother to see if it counted as paedophilia. Mum smiled relievedly and explained, unnecessarily, that in all the fuss, she worried, you see, that they might have missed the stop. And then bollocked D_ for something else.

The check-in queues in the airport made me want to kill myself. Poor holidaymakers.



1. bowleserised - May 24, 2007

Yes, let’s not go on holiday ever again. Glad you’re back!

2. Sylvia - May 24, 2007

That’s it, you see – that’s me with my children, except that Dad stays at home. If he does come with us, we have to be in our own car at all times.
In fact, I loath family holidays – I find them so stressful and the liuttle fuckers do nothing but moan all the time.
These days, Daddy and I blow the Center Parcs budget on getaways for ourselves.

3. pleite - May 25, 2007

Sylvia, it all sounds like a lot of stress for not much fun. Although I suppose the children were probably thrilled to bollocks, and perhaps mum and dad C_ and D_, once they’d arrived wherever it was, were glad of the break. But SUCH hassle. Mind you, having given up on holidays, I must say the Russian and I greatly enjoyed our trip to Poland a few months ago, though there were no flights involved and, for five days and two people, not much packing. And no soup bags.

B., darling, thank you. Holidays are to be taken with extreme caution. We have friends arriving from Moscow later today. Poor, poor them. I hope it doesn’t make them split up. I suppose there isn’t money to be made in encouraging people to holiday at home?

4. narrowback - May 25, 2007

this weekend is a three day holiday for us here in the states…marks the start of the summer season. (beaches get lifeguards, hotel rates increase, gasoline becomes – for the states – insanely expensive, etc.) I on the otherhand am bunkering in for the weekend and thatks to my inner city domicile can avoid airports, highways, regional trains, suburban transit and even to a degree mass transit – thankfully.

earlier in the month I flew on one of our bargain airlines back to the ancestral estate… now that flights are relatively cheap it was so full of extended families with children that I almost thought i was on a refugee flight from some besieged city…i don’t intend to fly again until my next trip to Berlin

there’s a lot to be said for the autonomy and control afforded by an auto trip…I’m doing an anthropological expedition to Ohio in July by such means and that sure beats dealing with the airports

5. BiB - May 25, 2007

Narrowback, I STILL haven’t learnt to drive. My fantasy is that, when I can, one day (though I doubt it will ever happen, to tell the truth), I will whizz around central Europe in my car. The ex and I did quite a bit of whizzing round Europe by car and I have to say it was lovely. Especially when we didn’t know where we were going and would just take a random place on the map and aim for it. And when that led to even more randomly stumbling across lovely places, like ending up in the Auvergne in France, for example, it was doubly lovely. Pre-Chunnel days too, so there were even boats involved. By ‘eck, them were the days.

6. Beaman - May 25, 2007

I found your worries about paedophilia rather funny, if only for the fact I feel the same as you in those situations. Can one smile at a child nowadays? Can one tell them an off-the-cuff joke? It is a shame but understandable with all the media reports.

There is something about trains and planes, that whisks and mulches the mind of the traveller. It can be a 20 minute journey but it still feels like you need to prepare as though its a 20 hour journey. One must have something to eat!

7. BiB - May 25, 2007

Beaman, I secretly adore journeys on public transport, mostly, perhaps, because, for me, they never involve going to work. I was a 9-5er in London for a while, and then the two rush hours were no fun. But I ADORE the people-watching and contemplation time afforded by relaxed trips on public transport. And I am currently in a thrilled-with-London’s-beauty stage. Trains that wind through the centre and cross the river (overground, I mean) thrill me to total bollocks.

Are there thrilling train journeys to Dover? A train chugging along the coast, perhaps? Or not? (Are you in Canterbury now?)

8. MountPenguin - May 25, 2007

When I first moved to Berlin I took the train (this was pre-Chunnel, pre-Cheap’o’Jet, post-Thatcher). I don’t remember the part to Dover as being particularly stimulating, apart from going past a peculiarly named station called “Bat and Ball”, and I don’t recall it going along the coast much (except for a short bit at the end where it went past the Chunnel building site, which was sort-of-thrilling).

9. leon - May 25, 2007

It’s a strange thing, but anyone getting on an inter-city train (as opposed to the Tube, or an ordinary commuter train or whatever) becomes immediately gripped by ravenous hunger, to judge by the amount of sandwiches, drinks, bags of offensively scented crisps etc. brought out within seconds of the train leaving the station. They’ll usually make a trip to the buffet on route as well.

I once saw a woman do this on a particularly overcrowded London-Carlisle train (they’d messed up the seat reservations, so that there were actually fights breaking out in the aisle) and immediately spill her entire jumbo-sized M&S pasta salad (with tuna) all over the floor, and then flee the carriage in shame and horror. This then resulted in a good two hours’ worth of entertainment as people pounced on the miraculously empty seat to suddenly get up again as they realised their shoes had become covered in mayonnaise.

10. pleite - May 25, 2007

Leon, good story. And I have recourse to praise Russia and its trains once more. In Russia, when you book a ticket, your seat is reserved at the same time. They don’t sell more tickets than there are seats. So straightforwardly simple. I remember thinking I’d been very clever to make reservations on a London-Liverpool train where my co-reservers would join me from Milton Keynes. I practically died of nerves trying to defend the reserved seats from scary Scousers. I gave up pretty quickly. And being stuck with a squaddie in a heavingly crowded carriage on a Preston-London train once had me so scared I had to pretend I wanted to be a train-eater and dash for refuge to the restaurant car. Can’t remember if I spilled anything.

Bat and Ball Station, Penguin. Nice. Gosh, and the UK to Berlin by train. Must have seemed like a proper journey then, rather than taking a demythicising flight. Mind you, on a recent flight of mine, I flew between two layers of cloud, and that was nice, and sort of as I expected heaven to look when I was a child. Fluffy cloudy ceiling, fluffy cloudy floor.

…I think this comments thread now calls for a bit of ‘beautiful train journeys wot I have taken’, except I’m not sure I can now think of any. Barcelona to Figueres isn’t bad, as you pass through stunningly beautiful Girona on the way. Any journey involving Blackfriars station might do it for me, actually.

11. Beaman - May 25, 2007

Really, the ‘Bat and Ball’, I think I’ve seen that pub sign on the way to London myself.

The Dover – London railway route is not very pretty, plus it’s very slow, many many stations. Think Calais – Lille and you will get the gist.

12. Paul - May 25, 2007

I did Berlin to London by bus once, but there was nothing mythical about it, just a sore bum and the return of long-supressed memories of school trips to Berck Plage and St Goar.

We only have one sprog, and the shear volume of luggage that now appears to be necessary before we can go to the other side of town, let alone on holiday continues to boggle the mind.

As for smiling at children…it seems to be okay if you have one in tow.

13. narrowback - May 25, 2007

BiB…I didn’t get my drivers license until the ripe old age of 29 and that marked me as some form of deviant here in the states (outside of NYC of course)

i’ll be a bit short in the ‘beautiful train journeys wot I have taken’ department seeing as we here in the US virtually abandoned rail as a form of inter-city travel back in the 1960’s…my experiences have been rather limited. the Boston to Washington DC run is – for the most part – pretty grimy and the Chicago to NYC one isn’t much better (nothing like getting sidetracked within a steel mill complex in Gary Indiana for an educational experience) tho there is one two hour stretch north of NYC where the rail line runs along the bank of the Hudson River and the scenery while not breath taking is pleasing to the eye…

why would you be discomforted by being stuck with a squaddie? or was he one of those crazed snake eating types?

14. MountPenguin - May 25, 2007

Acksherly I did the UK – Berlin trip by bus once too, on a sort-of-school trip. Mind you I was still ridiculously young, and don’t recall any particular hardship (apart from losing my passport on the way back, but fortunately that was on the Dover side of the straits).

The train journey was much more memorable, though I shall save the gruesome details for my autobiography. Nearly went arwy though due to not having yet been familiar with the Kurswagen system, which the British Rail timetable computer knew about but failed to elaborate on.

15. MountPenguin - May 25, 2007

Ups, I meant of course “awry”. Arwy is Welsh for “Sheep next 50 yards”.

16. Ed Ward - May 26, 2007

Couple of great train trips I’ve taken:

L.A. to San Antonio on Amtrak. Okay, we got to Texas something like a day late, since that’s the way American trains work, but waking up in my window seat with the sun just beginning to peek over the Arizona desert was pretty nice.

And, the world champion: Oslo to Bergen. Non-stop scenery, changing every couple of hours. The hands-down-best way to spend 11 hours in all of Europe.

17. bowleserised - May 26, 2007

Vancouver to the Rockys was pretty cool. As is the line running from Glasgow up the west coast of Scotland to Oban.

18. Chris - May 27, 2007

Aha ahaha!

I travel a lot alone, with a girlfriend living in a variety of mezzo-exotic countries.

I put the maximum amount of effort into having no-one sitting anywhere near me at any point.

Step one: do not, wash, shower, shave, comb hair for 1 week prior to journey.

Step two: perform reverse psychology on fellow passengers, smiling at them and patting the seat next to me whilst licking my lips.

Often successful. Sometimes spectacularly not so.

19. narrowback - May 27, 2007

I’ll grant Ed W. that the west coast routes are a bit more scenic than those on this side of the Mississippi but my personal opinion is that they don’t make up for the 1960’s vintage rolling stock, an absolute prohibition against smoking (tough on those trips of a duration longer than 12 hours), lousy food service and delays of up to 36 hours don’t really compensate

20. Mangonel - May 27, 2007

Honestly, I don’t know what you are complaining about. No-one actually threw up at all, did they now?

21. Ed Ward - May 27, 2007

Oh, there was lots to smoke on that L.A. to S.A. trip! Courtesy of an Amtrak employee travelling to visit family in S.A. and one of the redcaps who caught us burning one down in the john. “You can’t do that unless you share. But if you share, I’ll share.”

Went back to my seat, lights out, desert outside, and ping! One slowly falling star. Good night!

22. pleite - May 28, 2007

Ed, thank you. As ever, nice tips, and you always tell a good story. Somehow the US seems impossibly far away at the moment. Norway doesn’t, somehow, and it and Portugal are the only holes on my visited map of Western Europe. I’ve heard so many nice things about Norway (bar the prices). I had such a passionate recommendation for the Lofoten Islands once – not accessible by train! – that, without having been there, I have an utterly fabricated but fantastic image in my mind’s eye when I rustle up thoughts of them.

Mango, too true. There was nothing gruesome about them. They were nice, in fact. I hugely disapprove of being in the immediate vicinity of puking public-transport-users. And now I have to get busy deleting some particularly ugly mental images.

Narrowback, I took a train from New York to Boston and, again, if I’m not inventing the images, I’ve got a feeling there may have been moments of beauty. I drove, or rather, was driven, from somewhere in Canada to New York once and that was lovely. The road seemed to follow a river for hours on end. Can’t remember if this was still in Quebec or in the US, but exactly my favourite type of landscape. Forests, water, emptiness… And still petrified of squaddies since ONE beat up TWO friends of mine outside a shitty club in student days. I ran, naturally, but did come to the rescue (when it was too late) with a hastily hailed taxi. I might, in fact, be scared of all young men.

Chris, you cunning old thing, you. I’ve never dared allow myself to take the outside seat in a row of two, or grab the aisle-seat on a plane and hope that no-one will ask for one of the other two. My sister has some good public transport stories. Falling asleep and waking up dribbling on a stranger’s shoulder on the Tube. Getting stuck between a Tube-train’s doors and giving an apology-monologue to the whole carriage while waiting for them to open again. And sitting on a wasp on another tube-train. Perhaps it’s just as well she’s moved to the sticks.

B., when oh when am I going to get to discover the gorgeous bits of Scotland? I even think I vaguely pretend to have Scottish origins. I’ve probably got a fictional relative or two up there (in addition to a sister plus family, and they’re not fictional at all). You don’t happen to own an abandoned house in a particularly remote and wildly beautiful bit of it, do you, where we could arrange a blogging workshop or something? I could bring crisps and a six-pack (of beer. Not anywhere near my stomach).

Penguin, did you almost end up on a train to Kiev? I’ve heard some good stories of people ending up on wrong trains in the UK, seeing as there’s no ticket-check until you’re on the train. (Couldn’t happen in Russia.) I’m yet to be ushered to the wrong destination due to my own fecklessness. Though I hope to have at least one newspaper article written about me getting on a plane to, say, London, Ontario, thinking I was going to another London altogether. Remember the poor English couple who thought they had cheap tickets to Sydney, Australia and ended up in some Sydney or other in Canada?

Paul, I emigrated by bus once. To Paris. Think I probably had a tiny rucksack and about 20 quid. But managed to stay there for two years somehow. I can’t believe I was ever young. Now I think a trip to Lidl is daring. I have a gaggle of nieces and nephews and have seen that children-luggage thing. Formidable. I can’t believe my mother ever had a baby bag or travelbag or whatever it’s called. Certainly no soup bag.

Beaman, slow trains do give me BSE, I have to say. I almost wanted to commit an act of terrorism yesterday when I had to go from Potsdam to Berlin proper on the S-Bahn and not a whizzy train. I went to school in Harrow for a while, and that was on one of those painfully slow, trains-stopping-for-three-hours-between-every-effing-station underground lines. Perhaps it’s what’s made me have to be a homeworking freelancer.

23. marshaklein - May 29, 2007

For some reason the expression “soup bag” makes me feel quite ill. Actually, perhaps it’s the thought of all that military-style organisation that holidaying families go in for that’s making me feel ill.
Fortunately we don’t have to go in for that any more, as the kids are older and, when they were younger, holidays abroad always involved driving and ferries, which was much more fun than flying. The girls used to love the “breakfast in Belgium, lunch in France and tea in Germany” type of trip. Usually followed by “breafast in Germany, lunch in Switzerland and tea in Italy”. Happy days, although somebody did once ask us if, when the kids shouted “are we nearly there yet?”, we chucked a calendar into the back seat, rather than look at our watches!

Best train journeys: Interlaken to Jungfraujoch, Tokyo to Nikko by bullet train, Helsinki to Tampere (on a train with carriages SPECIALLY DESIGNED FOR FAMILIES), Tampere to Rovaniemi by sleeper and, yes the Fort William to Mallaig trip which B. mentioned (goes over the viaduct which appears in the Harry Potter films, so is now hugely popular with young families and sad people, like me, who do that “ooh, this was in a film!” thing.
Worst train journey: The recently undertaken Edinburgh to Winchester, where the train stopped what seemed like every 10 minutes at places that probably don’t even exist other than as stops for that particular service. Added to which, the staff had obviously undergone some sort of customer service training and were almost aggressively cheery. It was hell.

Check out http://www.seat61.com/index.html . I’ve only recently discovered it. It tells you how to get EVERYWHERE by train, including Scotland!

24. leon - May 29, 2007

The railway journey between Inverness and the Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland was heartbreakingly beautiful, though the line to Oban was pretty nice too.

I went to Berlin on the train, but it was night-time and I couldn’t really see anything other than the environs of Brussels.

25. pleite - May 29, 2007

Leon, I think that’s Brussels at its best. Invisible. Although I remember being there once, and went to some nice museum about musical instruments, and there was a nice view from there of the old city, if that’s what it’s called, which I don’t think it is, and that was pretty mythic. Beauty. Crowdedness. Spires. Just what you’d want. But I still think Brussels is one of the nastiest places on earth.

Marsha, another site for me to get addicted to. I’ve already worked out how to go from London to Berlin by train. Eurostar to city-of-the-day Brussels and then sleeper to here. What a shame eAsyjEt is 80 times cheaper. Bugger. And you have been everywhere. I liked Finnish trains. The width and comfort of the Russian ones but all posh and spingly-spangly too. I’ve only gone to Savonlinna by train, which did, admittedly, have the thrill of changing at Parikkala, which is bang on the Russian border. I’d just come from Russia, so was less thrilled than some, but for those who’d never been to the evil empire, it was fun to be on the border. I love borders.

Marsha (still), darling, do you think you’d better get a job, or work for yourself, rebranding or reselling Scotland? No-one knows it’s actually the most beautiful place on earth. Why don’t they? I think Scotland’s image abroad is, “Like England, only worse”. Which would be a shit slogan. Have I said before how I stumbled across Loch Lubnaig, which I thought was mega-heaven – saw it on whisky/kilt/shortbread/something-Scottish ad later – and went again with my sister who said, as lochs go, it was pretty ordinary? Maybe the Nats will take care of improving Scotland’s image abroad.

26. MountPenguin - May 29, 2007

About flying to Sydney in Canada… on the Abendschau this evening they anounced that LTU (a longish-haul holiday-type airline) will start directs flights from Berlin to Melbourne.

That’s Melbourne, Florida.

(To anyone not familiar with Berlin: they announce new flight routes on the main Berlin evening news because despite being the capital city of Europe’s largest nation, it’s a bit off the beaten track as far as long-haul flights go, so new intercontinental routes which go to places other than say Ulaan Bator are quite exciting).

27. narrowback - May 29, 2007

I gotta think Ed that your smoky train trip was some years ago. I believe that Amtrak went totally “non-smoking” back in the late 90’s and for many years prior to that it was limited to the cafe car or private rooms.

When I took the train from berlin to Dresden a few years back I was pleasantly suprised – no, thrilled – when I learned that there was a somking car and I could enjoy a cig at my seat… damn!

Bib – sorry to hear about that nasty encounter with the squaddie. an experience like that would definately sour one on an entire class of individual… maybe because I was once a “squaddie” myself I’m a little less intimadated

On a Quebec/NYC drive there is a route or two that follows the banks of the Hudson and that would account for at least three hours of drive time…however, they’d be off the main drag so that makes me wonder if that’s the area you’re talking about. The Hudson Valley is one of my favorite spots…it was my stomping grounds during my undergrad and immediate post under-grad years and I just loved the train ride between NYC and Albany.

there are wee parts of the Boston/NYC leg that are visually ok…but the second leg of the route NYC/DC travels through some awful parts of New Jersey, the slums of Philadelphia and tract housing in Maryland.

28. narrowback - May 29, 2007


29. MountPenguin - May 30, 2007

BTW Deutsche Bahn will be making all of its trains non-smoking in the next few months. Regional trains in Berlin / Brandenburg will go non-smoking from July 1. And Berlin’s new Help-Keep-Mount-Penguin’s-Lungs-and-Clothing-Reasonably-Non-Stinky- Law is due to go into effect in 2008.

30. Karl-Marx-Straße - May 30, 2007

When I first came here, I also did the train and boat thing via Dover, as at that time, it was about a thrid of the cost of flying, and still quite a bit less than the Eurostar. It was a pleasant-enough journey, beginning at Victoria, I think, in a decrepit slam-door train (the thing of which all real train journeys are made) and then walking around Dover Priory or whatever the station at the port was called (it’s since been closed, so the walk is a lot longer) in the dark. It was an overnight ferry, and there were quite a few people trying to sleep in the extreme cold on the floor between the seats, and like me, most of them would have been bitten by fleas in the process. I must have travelled through France by train somehow, before an ICE (very cold as always) took me towards the east. Oh for the days of the British Rail International travel centre.

31. pleite - May 30, 2007

Karl, I once went to Paris by night-train/ferry/night-train and that was lovely. Indeed, a crappy old slam-door train on the UK side, which was wonderful. I’ve helped foreigners get off those in the past. “Oh, it’s very straightforward. Slide down the window, provided you’re as strong as a horse, lean out and open the door from the outside.” The night-train of course made me think I was in an Agatha Christie drama, although there were only proper little coupés, or whatever they’re called, on the French train. There wasn’t a murder, though. (By the way, Marsha, if you’re reading, have you seen Karl’s piece on Das Leben der Anderen?)

Penguin, I wonder if Melbourne, Florida is nice. It can’t be as nice, surely, as Melbourne, Victoria, which, I’m told, is one of the nicest places on earth. I once heard on the BBC about new flights between Minsk and somewhere in Scandinavia. The ex and I looked at each other dumbfounded. That news item could only POSSIBLY have interested me. (I’ve given up smoking again for a day or two. Looking forward to the smoking ban, in a way.)

Narrowback, I was so thrilled on one of my many, dread-inducing trips to Schönefeld Airport to see that there were bits of the train you could smoke in that I went and sat there and puffed away when I would otherwise have had no intention of doing so. But I think I’m usually a selective smoker. Just walking along doesn’t do it for me. No, it has to be sitting at the computer – those are my favourite cigs – or, natch, with booze or in committed smoking company. It’s lovely having a co-smoke with my 95-year-old pal for example (she pipe, me fag).

32. leon - May 30, 2007

I always wished I’d been able to go on the “Night Ferry”, the train that was actually driven onto the ferry itself while you slept cosily in your bunk or whatever, but a quick webternet search reveals that this finished in 1980, as explained here.

33. leon - May 30, 2007

As for Brussels, I really just stood around a mostly-closed Brussel Noord for an hour idly eyeing the monitors while everyone else, being (unlike me) smokers, passed an hour smoking furiously. There could have been almost anything in the dark beyond the station platforms as far as I could see.

On the way back I had a particularly pitiful ‘Brief Encounter’ moment when a girl in the buffet/bar carriage was plainly waiting for me to start talking to her, as her friend had started talking to a guy on the other side. Tragically I lacked both the German to start any kind of conversation attempt, or the Euros to buy another beer and thus a) (via my atrocious accent) prove my Englishness and b) have an excuse to linger for another 30 minutes. So I just slouched back to my couchette, grumpily. The romance of train travel, eh?

34. pleite - May 30, 2007

Leon, that Guardian thing is nice. Thank you. I remember on another occasion trundling down to Victoria and buying myself a ticket to Paris with my trusty cheque-book and cheque guarantee-card, before I realised you were meant to have money in your account for that sort of caper, and that was the only time I did the train-sea-train journey alone, but, alas, not on a single train. I’ve got a feeling you can still go from Sweden to Germany by train and the train gets put on the ferry, although that might easily have finished 50 years ago too. I bet Karl knows.

And bad luck on your Trevor Howard moment. I hope you’ve managed to meet your Celia(s) since. But not at Crewe Station. (Or was it somewhere else?)

35. Karl-Marx-Straße - May 31, 2007

I’ve got a feeling you can still go from Sweden to Germany by train and the train gets put on the ferry

Indeed you can (and indeed he does). But I fear it’s incredibly expensive since the Deutsche Bahn stopped having any responsibility for it. It goes from Lichtenberg and a few times a week you can see it parked there, with the locomotive painted with the words “Scanlines” so you think it really is a ship. A few years ago, you could get the InterRegio (those sadly now abolished, long-distance but not extremely fast cheap-ish and cheerful trains, as a kind of thing between Intercitys and RegionalExpresses, but without all the hoipolloi and their Wochenendtickets), but with many bicycles and the disabled en masse too”Kurt Tucholsky” to Malmö, during the daytime too. But now it’s all “luxurious” sleepers – to Malmö, I mean. Otherwise the blue InterRegio carriages have been painted white and red and now they call them “InterCity”, and charge more, obviously.

36. Karl-Marx-Straße - May 31, 2007

I’d read a different, but extremely similar, article to that one linked by Lion above, on the boat/train to Paris and the hand-written tickets. But I think it’s already been established that there are certain themes on which the Guardian repeats itself regularly. Same procedure as every year, and that.

37. pleite - May 31, 2007

Karl, mind you, it seems quite a fuss putting a train on a ship. Mind you (again), not as much of a fuss, or as mad, if this isn’t an urban myth, as putting a train on the back of a lorry to transport it from one bit of the UK to another because, I’m guessing, it was cheaper to do so. Trains do seem rather suited to running on rails, after all. What a shame dodgems aren’t the chief means of roadgoing conveyance. Even I could drive one of those. And laying all those extra rails would surely be good for the economy.

38. Karl-Marx-Straße - May 31, 2007

Do you think they (Deutsche Bahn) would try and sell you (“recommend”) one-trip travel insurance when buying a journey via dodgem? Check the small print, it probably has a clause pointing out that the policy does not include injuries caused by overhead electrical connections or collisions with other dodgem-like vehicles, or from having to listen to 80s hits very loudly for the whole of the journey. And would you have to buy a new ticket from a tattooed, muscly man who was probably in prison on many occasions,every 3 minutes?

39. pleite - May 31, 2007

I could cope with muscles every three minutes – I considered looking at my weights this morning – but not tattoos. Dodgems don’t run on rails, of course, so I don’t know what I was thinking, but rail-running dodgems could be invented. Or they could be like trolleybuses, only smaller. Trolleycars. St. Petersburg had trolleybuses. Always quite a fuss when they broke down.

40. leon - May 31, 2007

[Dagmarx] You’re right. The Grauniad knows when it’s onto a sure thing, article-wise – pack some hack off to France every year for the princely sum of sixty quid and hey presto, a couple of thousand words filled. The hand-written ticket is clearly the kind of ‘picturesque’ detail that always needs to go in.

41. MountPenguin - May 31, 2007

I read in the Times (of London, England) the other day that the new Heathrow Terminal 5 will be getting automated dodgem-like vehicles which will carry people around. I am sure one could get some mileage out of that.

Disclaimer: I was at the library, where they carry that particular Murdoch rag, and was reading it on a break to prepare myself for an upcoming trip.

42. leon - May 31, 2007

I get the Times free on train seats like everyone else.

43. Karl-Marx-Straße - May 31, 2007

Is the Times still worth every penny, especially on Mondays, when it’s 10p? I mean, is it still 10p on Mondays?

There are, I think, 3 places in Germany with trolleybuses. Somewhere in Brandenburg, and, hmm, Gütersloh, probably. Wpedia obviously has all the details. And there’s no reason why Deutsche Bahn wouldn’t run dodgems. They make most of their money out of transporting stuff by lorry, and then by renting out retail space. The train side of thing is just a legacy annoyance. And then there’s the bicycles, and the carsharing.

44. MountPenguin - May 31, 2007

Eberswalde. (I happen to know that because the parents-in-law of a friend of Mrs. Penguin live there, and friend of Mrs. Penguin was most surprised that such things exist).

I am sure I remember seeing some in Potsdam, but that might have been a while ago.

45. pleite - June 1, 2007

Penguin, good factoids. I never fly into big airports, because of the cheapo factor, though when I next visit my mother in Twickers, I might pop to Heathrow for a go on the dodgems. I hope there’ll be waltzers and roller-coasters too. The planes could take off on rails too. Rails down the runway, then curling upwards like a roller-coaster, only ending in the middle of the air, by which point you’d hope the plane would have gathered enough momentum to do the rest by itself. Honestly, I think rails could be the answer to world unemployment. It’d be handy for film-makers too.

Karl, how does the bike thing work, quite? I often fancy popping on one of those seemingly abandoned DB bikes, even though I never really go anywhere, or have anywhere to go. Do I need a chip-card, like for the new, improved cigarette-machines?

Leon, I quite like that London tradition of discarded newspapers. If I’m ever in London, which never happens, actually, I’m always happy to look through Metro to read which child is missing or who’s fat or who’s thin. But I’m not sure I’ve ever got a real paper. I haven’t read papers since leaving the UK in 1999. I used to read them like mad in France, hoping I’d become an intellectual, but I’ve long given up on keeping up with the world. I was trying to get hooked on Melvyn Bragg and Occam’s razor this evening on Radio 4 but then the chicken soup was done and it was back to brainlessness.

46. MountPenguin - June 1, 2007

Well, with DB wanting to buy Tempelhof Airport, that rails thingy could be an option if they want to get their trains off the ground efficiently.

With the bikes you don’t need rails, I believe, but do need to phone the number printed on the bike, tell them which bike it is and also your credit card (or maybe Bahn Card) number, then you get another number to punch in which releases the lock. Or something along those lines. Sounds like it might be easier just to steal a normal bike.

Talking of which, anyone taking part in the Sternfahrt on Sunday?

47. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 1, 2007

Karl can’t – seriously – ride a bike. But I’m thinking of having a go as part of the Sternfahrt. The chances of getting run over – apart from doped-up cyclists, obviously – are pretty minimal.

Those DB bikes were hacked by members of the Chaos Computer Club the other year. They reprogrammed a good percentage of them so you could borrow them for free – and changed the logo on the LCD screen/keypad thingy (hidden in that metal box on them) from “Call a Bike” to “Hack a bike”. Only, obviously, to make DB aware of security issues, after they claimed repeatedly the system was 100% secure and could never be broken into, and not for fun.

48. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 1, 2007

And – seriously – a BahnCard is a good idea if you want to use one of those bicycles. Then you can hire them for about 5 ct/minute less than if you didn’t have a BC. If you have a “BC 100”, i.e. a season ticket for the entire German rail network, the bikes might even be free. But I doubt if anyone reading this has one of those exclusively-expensive passports to mobility (within the realms of the ICE network).

49. leon - June 1, 2007

I remember there being trolleybuses in Ceske Budejovice. How about trolleybicycles? Cycle to the nearest major route, hook yourself up to the juice (probably via a big, sparking, dodgem-like thing sprouting from the back of your bike) and off you go. The risk of electrocution would probably be astronomical, though, and in any case Clive Sinclair will almost certainly have patented it already.

50. pleite - June 1, 2007

Leon, good idea, apart from the electrocution bit. I find cycling painful enough on the jacksy already without getting a squillion volts up there too. And, anyway, I haven’t cycled for ages. Which is mad in Berlin, where everybody does it. But I can’t think where I’d cycle to. Maybe I’d go out for a recreational cycle? Maybe I do need to invest after all.

Karl, you’ve learnt to drive. Bikes are next. It’s not that hard. Which is nonsense encouragement, really, but, believe me, if even I can do it, it’s not that hard. Though I can’t think where you could practise that wouldn’t be mortifyingly embarrassing. In a floodlit park at night-time? I learnt very late, on my very own street, on my cousin’s bike. I think the only snorts of derision came from my father.

Penguin, I won’t be Sternfahrting, as I am without Drahtesel and really ought to be working. So do you think you pay for those DB bikes by the minute, then? And, presuming the system is cheap, is DB happy to bother staffing a hotline for you to phone in, give your credit card details and then do a transaction for 29c? It all sounds queer. But perhaps I should gve it a go to see if I could fall in love with cycling or not.

51. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 1, 2007

After a quick shufty at http://www.callabike.de, the first 30 minutes per cycle trip, once you’ve registered, are *free*. But only in Stuttgart.

Here, you have to register too, for which you pay 5 Euro, which you can then use for cycling. Then they take the money you owe them out of your bank account once a month, or as soon as you reach 15 Euro, whichever is first. It costs 8 cent per minute up to a maximum fee of 15 Euro per day. A whole week costs 60 Euro. If you have a BahnCard or a VBB-Abo (if you bought it from the S-Bahn or the DB, i.e. not from the BVG or Connex or someone), you pay 6 cent per minute.

You can put the bike back anywhere you like, as long as this “anywhere” is a crossroads or corner of two roads, within Berlin Zone A (i.e. inside the S-Bahn ring). It’s impractical if you don’t have a mobile phone as you have to phone them up and tell them where the bike is (actually, it’s an answerphone), and only then do you get the code you have to type in on the keypad to finish the hire period. There are various fines if you don’t keep to the rules. The things are apparently virtually indestructable, and don’t get nicked as the parts are all non-standard so they won’t fit on other bikes. Unless there’s a Chinese bike factory somewhere copying them as we speak, which is very possible.

On callabike.de there’s even some information in English (which I haven’t looked at – the German’s bureaucratically-complicated enough and I can’t imagine the translation will be very good).

Bib, I can sort-of ride a bike. I think the last time I rode anywhere was from Prenzlauer Berg to a concert in Viktoriapark in 1999. I was very scared, and then we realised the bike was very broken indeed. I took the U-Bahn back home. The first time I rode a bike was early 1998. It was the same, broken bike. I’m considering going to the Radfahrschule in Steglitz.

52. narrowback - June 1, 2007

“dodgems”? Is that british for what we yanks call bumper cars? if so, the nomenclature would be indicative of different approaches to the activity…you folks try and get out of each others way and we yanks all turn into kamikazes single mindedly intent on smashing into your opponents…

isn’t there a Radfahrschule up in your neck of the woods BiB? I did stumble across some fenced in small setup of “streets”, “intersections”, etc. complete with regulatory signage/crosswalks/etc….it looked deserted but then again it was early on a weekday march morning…

53. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 2, 2007

“Dodgems” are “bumper cars”, narrowback – I think that even in Britain both names are used. On callabike, until I read some very techy and anoraky articles on how the system was hacked, I assumed they had some kind of GPS system built into them so those people with the Deutsche Bahn vans could collect them every night and put them back on their starting points. I was actually disappointed to find out it was as old-fashioned as to involve people phoning an answering machine and speaking on it where exactly (within 30 metres, or else) they’d left their bike.

54. narrowback - June 2, 2007

thank you for the explanation KMS and btw I’ve always just loved the visual juxtaposition of the masthead of your blog

55. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 2, 2007

Thanks – it’s a genuine photo, though Walmart have got out of Germany since it was taken a few months ago, as they only ever made losses, and a lot of bad press since they set up shop here a few years ago.

56. pleite - June 4, 2007

KMS, speaking of Walmart and Germany, I heard a programme about Walmart on the wireless once and they explained – this was before they’d abandoned Germany, obviously – that this was the only country where they’d had to stop having a member of staff saying, “Welcome to Walmart,” (or something like that) as the natives clearly didn’t like it. To be honest, I’m surprised. I thought our new compatriots would love someone to wish them a nice day and that they could complain to about something or other. But apparently not.

By the way, riding a bike’s a bit like sex. Once you’ve done it once, you never forget how, so join up to callabike and ride away with glee. Mind you, it works out quite expensive, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s better to invest in an unbroken one after all, though friends-with-bikes have recently stunned me with what the things cost. I thought they’d cost 20 euros. I’ve heard a four-figure sum quoted for posh ones.

Narrowback, indeed, bumper cars or dodgems. It’s the only time I let my testosterone come to the fore with utter strangers. Makes me think I probably wouldn’t be a very good driver, though. Maybe I need to go the bike-place for some refresher cycling and anger management classes.

57. leon - June 4, 2007

There’s something very reassuring about the Germans being able to defeat the forces of the Walmacht, something I doubt the British would be able to do. The bigger and tackier and out-of-townier and high-street-destroyinger the shop, the more we love it; my old hometown is just a sea of these vile retail sheds nowadays.

58. MountPenguin - June 4, 2007

Walmacht… I like it.

I think Walmart didn’t stand a chance against Aldi and co., who pretty much own the bottom end of the retail space, and have a strategic advantage that they do both smallish local supermarkets which are viable just about anywhere, as well as larger ones, which there’s less call for here.

BiB, you can probably find a pre-owned bike at a flea-market or similar for €50 or so (although the pre-owner might still be looking for it). Bottom-of-the-range new you’ll find on sale in supermarkets / Baumärkte for something like €150, although bits will fall off them over the next 18 months or so until you decide to abandon yours in a dark corner of the Hinterhof, where it will be either discretely removed by dodgy-looking characters with southeastern European accents and sold for its scrap value (€7), or by the Hausverwaltung. I’ve done pretty well with my €400 bike, which is well-built but not immediately attractive to bike thieves, and which has survived 7 years of mistreatment and only cost about €150 to repair (that’s less than €25 p.a. running costs).

59. matkr - June 4, 2007

BiB, speaking as a former bike geek, i’ve found bike shop chains such as little john offer great value, new road bikes in the latest fashionable aluminium combos for €200 or so – plenty good for wandering aimlessly, day or night, around berlin. used ones at places like treptow markets seem quite overpriced by comparison (€100+ for scrappy examples seem outrageous to me),

60. pleite - June 4, 2007

Hello matkr – though don’t you think for a second I don’t recognise that assortment of letters. I know you’ve visited before. But do I know you? I’d hate to think I’m thinking of you as an anonymous little thing if I do actually know you. I mean in the virtual sense – and thank you. My beloved does repeatedly express an interest in purchasing bikes, so it can definitely go down on the list of things to do. But I’m such a girl’s blouse and I know I’d be scared, even in bike-friendly Berlin. I used to cycle around central London. God I was shit at it.

Penguin, now call me a work-avoiding autist, but that’s less than €21.50 running costs p.a., which is marvellously cheap. I only have no idea about what such things cost because a) I am dim and, more importantly, b) I was given the only bike I’ve ever owned, known as the Big Whitey, because it was, unsurprisingly, big and white, by my former mother-in-law. Never cost me a penny. And I stopped using it before I could ruin it terminally.

Leon, I don’t know of any of that type of huge shop in Berlin, bar Ikea, though I suppose they exist. Our local shopping centre, while tiny, and making me think every time I enter it that I’m in small-town Brandenburg, has bothered to give itself a car-park, so perhaps that’s as close as we get. It’s always utterly empty. And, in this case, there was no hight-street to destroy. I’ve got a feeling the whole affair was meant to be something of an urban regeneration project. Don’t know if it’s working. It had a bouncy castle on the roof of its bowling-alley extension the other day… I quite fancy some gin.

61. leon - June 5, 2007

A bit of googling revealed the following, a genuine vintage Bundeswehr bicycle, which would be most appropriate. Although if it was possible to get such a thing as a NVA bicycle that would be even better.

62. pleite - June 5, 2007

Leon, I dimly had to google NVA and thought initially you must have meant this NVA, i.e. the National Vulvodynia – which I thought might be to do with the former Yugoslavia and didn’t know was an ailment at all – Association, though I couldn’t understand why they’d need bicycles. Then my brain switched itself slowly on. That is, indeed, a lovely specimen. I think my Big Whitey looked equally humble. Are you a London biker?

63. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 5, 2007

Gone off the idea of an ex-NVA Barkas, have we, Leon?

64. Karl-Marx-Straße - June 5, 2007

And quickly: a pointless bit of information. Royal Mail bicycles (very nice, but Deutsche Post ones look much better, but as they have to transpport about 10 times as many letters, no wonder), ah, I mean, Royal Mail bicycles were, I remember, made by leppers. I mean, the company “Leppers”, which seems to be from Holland.

65. pleite - June 5, 2007

Karl, no bit of information is too pointless for this blog. Always happy to learn something new. The Dutch do quite a range of almost-rude-or-funny-sounding-in-English manufacturers, don’t they? If it’s not Lepper bikes, it’s Fokker planes. (Fokkers are Dutch, aren’t they? Or are they German, actually?) I think there’s a clog (-or-perhaps-cheese)-manufacturer called de Kunt.

I had to referesh my visual memory for the Barkas. More visual loveliness.

66. MountPenguin - June 5, 2007

One occasionaly sees a brand of children’s bike called “PUKY” in this neck of the woods.

Mrs. Penguin is in proud possession of a genuine Diamant from Karl-Marx-Stadt, DDR. Perfectly decent pair of wheels actually.

67. matrkr - June 6, 2007

fokker’s dutch, and ‘puky’ is common slang for c*nt across the southeast asian malay-speaking archipelago. fwiw ;)

68. leon - June 6, 2007

A Barkas would be very nice, but a bicycle would probably be cheaper.

69. pleite - June 6, 2007

Leon, yes, and presumably bikes are exempt from the congestion charge. Do it in the gym though, along with your rowing and weights. Too scary for central London.

Matrkr, yes, I’ve met more than one Malaysian queen who is known to exclaim ‘puky haram’ when particularly incensed! (Does this mean you’re the Malay-speaker I think you are? Hello!)

Penguin, yes, Communism didn’t automatically equal shit manufacture. Many people with a love of photography I knew were always on the lookout for some particular type of Soviet camera when in Russia.

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