Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Romance of the Rails

Today is my birthday. Because I like symbolic gestures, I’ve scheduled this post to be released at exactly 8:50 am EST the exact time of my birth 48 years ago in a Manhattan hospital.  I will be back in Manhattan at that moment, in the apartment I have known for almost 40 years, many of those as a resident, and no year having gone by without being a guest. I will likely take a long walk in my native town and pass through places my feet have touched and eyes have reflected hundreds of times over the years. Some journeys take you forward; others take you back, but every journey, whatever the gains and losses encountered along the way, is about movement onward.

I write those words with a smile, knowing that I have so often lamented that my life is going nowhere, or going wrong. With the perspective of age, I can now see that it was always going exactly where and how it needed to go, and that I could not be sitting here as the person I now am had any of those gains and losses been missed. I now understand that the happenings I construed as delays or detours or even disasters were all uniquely designed to keep me on track and safely arrived at my destination. But I haven’t always seen things this way. I haven’t always had this philosophical detachment from and faith in right outcomes.  I wanted it all to be as clear as showing up on time with the right stuff and proceeding from point A to point B.  Maybe this is why many years ago I came to love train travel.  It gave me exactly what was missing in my life:  getting somewhere.

 Old Penn Station, NYC, archival photo

I love waiting rooms in train stations. Not only do they have inspiring and expansive architecture, like secular cathedrals erected to the gods of travel, but they hold the history of every passenger who ever left one place and went to another, for business, for pleasure, for family, to experience new things or revisit old ones, to embrace adventures or escape them, to change who they are, or rediscover who they always were. 

It’s all there, in the great everchanging hanging board of destination cities and times, in the sellers of tickets who literally hold your future in their hands, in the great iron horses waiting on the tracks, ready to carry hundreds of souls to their destinies. It’s all there to feel anew as soon as I step into the great vaulted spaces, ceilings high to hold all those aspirations, my footsteps echoing on the polished floors, the air astir with the passing of persons with places to go, the very manifestation of a world of human possibility.

Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by JMW Turner, 1844

I love the first forward movement of the train when I am in my seat and ready to go. There is always that slight tug backwards and then the first shift forward, like an animal recoiling before it can leap. I feel it in my gut, the way your stomach flutters when you set eyes on a lover, and in my mind I feel that same excitement and contentment of knowing now something is HAPPENING, now I am GOING SOMEWHERE.

But I also love the last moments of approaching the end of the line. For the route I most often take, the Boston to NYC Amtrak, this means my native city coming into view in the distance, and identifying all the buildings I know so well, seeing that crazy impossible cluster of tall buildings and the millions of lives in and around them, all standing together on a tiny sliver of island, and knowing that is where I come from, that is why I am who I am, that is the cityscape whose image is engraved on my heart.  Then we enter the tunnel to pull into the station and those last moments of rushing through the subterranean darkness make my heart beat faster. I am transformed; when I exit the train in Penn Station, I leave behind who I am outside NYC, I become again the determined headlong urban walker, weaving untouchable through the masses of people, more people in five minutes than I normally see in a month back in Boston, like a shark through water, retracing a course I know so well I could do it blindfolded. The electricity rises in my bloodstream. I’m home.

I also love arriving in a new unfamiliar place, the feeling that anything can happen, the focus and acute senses needed to navigate an entirely unknown place and people and get to where I need to be, a hotel, further transportation. I have always claimed that I have “travel magic.” I do a lot of research when I travel, but there is always an element of the unexpected, and when I have taken great leaps of faith that things will work out, they always do, thanks to a combination of my own openness, curiosity and instincts with a lot of help from the kindness of strangers who seem to materialize at just the right time with exactly the right information or services. Knowing I have this luck does not mean I rely upon it, but I have come to embrace that sense of friendly uncertainty as both exciting and instructive. Its application to everything unfamiliar that presents itself to me has been one of the saving graces of my life.

Compartment Car 293, by Edward Hopper, 1938

I also love everything that happens between departure and arrival, especially on long distance train rides. It’s one thing to board a plane and several hours later find yourself across the continent in another time zone having only witnessed cloud formations and the seatback in front of you, and quite another to witness every city and every shift in landscape that lies between beginning and end. A few years ago I had the great good fortune to take the train from New York to New Orleans. My cabin was small and the hours many, and yet, I have never felt time pass so quickly or had more spacious accommodations. The rhythm of the rocking of the train lulled me to sleep at night, and the sight of one town after another kept me window-gazing between the calls for meals in the dining car where I met fellow travelers, train enthusiasts and lovers of adventure.  By the time I reached the final stop in New Orleans, I felt so content and energized I would have stayed on that train and let it take me anywhere. When would you ever feel that way upon leaving an airplane?

There is a timelessness and universality to staring out the window of a moving train, aligning me with all the artists of the past for whom train travel served as a theme or motif, from the French Impressionists to Kerouac to Tolstoy to Hitchcock who understood the romance of the rails, but also aligning me with my own past and future selves. All of life seems like it is on track and making its way from where it once was to where it must eventually be, and that is a wonderful feeling to have in times of such great uncertainty. 

Happy Birthday to Me. And to all of you good people out there, may your travels this holiday season be safe and satisfying!


  1. loved your post. related to some of your train thoughts and enjoyed the photos. i was born in the Bronx, NY some 20 years before you. all the detours in life do make sense when you come of a certain age. enjoy your birthday and your life.

  2. Happy birthday Gabriella! What a beautiful post to celebrate your birthday! Keep on riding trains and trusting your travel magic!

  3. Deanna! I was born in Manhattan, but lived in the Bronx, actually, for 9 years before we relocated here! Good to hear from a fellow Bronxite and thanks for the birthday wishes.

    Luis - many thanks for visiting - safe travels so far, and a whole day ahead of me to reacquaint myself with my hometown, with camera in hand of course! Enjoy your week.

  4. Hi dear Gabriella;

    this is such a wonderful post, great to read.
    I wish you a happy HAPPY birthday and also all the best, lots of LOVE, happiness and creative times.

    Hugs, kisses and more.....

  5. G!!!! I've only just started readiing this post....TODAY IS ALSO MY BIRTHDAY!!! Will the coincidences never end???? Except, we are not quite twins...I'm 53 today, so I've got 5 years on you! Okay...back to reading the post. A VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!

  6. G....again Happy Birthday and what a wonderfully charming post about travel. Some of my earliest memories of travel are on the train, with my mother as we left Chicago on the train (having grown up in Pittsburgh, I'm sure we flew to Chicago to get the train but of course there is NO memory of that) to travel across the prairie to eastern Montana where she grew up. I was a young child and slept on the upper bunk. lulled by that rocking motion, watching the farmland go by, even through the night when I should have been sleeping....enchanted all the while by the mystery of passing lives, passing time and the little blue light high up on the wall of that tiny cabin. Those train trips were magical and will remain a part of my being forever....thanks for sharing your love of train travel too. P.

  7. Hey, Gabriella. I haven't read your blog yet, but hope to start looking back through all your posts soon. I found it in my attempt to find YOU, wish you a happy birthday - which is in my calendar - catch up a bit. I won't fill your comments page with a personal message that would be dull for your other readers. But if you get a second, send an email to me at writethebook(at)gmail(dot)com
    I'd love to write back.

    Have a great day, you colorful woman.

    - Shelagh

  8. what a lovely post, Gabriella. i, too, have that love of adventure, and also believe that every experience you have is meant to bring you to where you are....in a sense, on a constant journey with all the world to investigate.
    have a wonderful birthday....enjoy being home.

  9. this post is a masterpiece !!!
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY !!! i am sorry that i didn't arrive at exactaly the right time you posted . It would be fun .
    There isn't one single image there that isn't perfect .
    great photos .
    i will come back later .

    all the best .
    have a great time there !!

  10. Dear Gabriella, a very happy birthday to you!!
    Love trains, so I loved reading your post.(somehow I missed your previous one)
    Me too I enjoy gazing at the world passing by; towns,messy suburbs, villages,back-gardens,people waiting at barriers, animals in their meadows,ponds etc. I always take a book but never read but a few pages as the outside scenes attract my attention.I feel under a pleasant kind of hypnosis, the rhytmic sound of the train contributes to this. I love it.

    Have a great time, take good care and enjoy!
    Love xx Renilde

  11. beautiful words.
    beautiful images.

    happy birthday, Gabriella

  12. Monica - thank you! Your wishes mean so much to me - hugs and kisses back to you!

    Patti - I am not at all surprised that we share a birthday!! After all, we have already established that we are twins separated at birth (even though it was a five year labor!!) This makes me smile. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

  13. Hey, Shelagh, fancy seeing you here! Thanks for looking for me and I hope you find some good reading on my blog. I've only been at it since August and really enjoy the medium...much has been going on lately, will catch up with you properly soon!

  14. Barbara, wise words! It's good to feel that when things seem to be going wrong or against the plan, all you have to do is accept and wait for the purpose to be revealed, instead of wasting time and energy feeling frustrated! Some of my best times have come via detour! Thanks for stopping by.

  15. CAIO - glad you came by, sooner or later, my friend! Thank you for your kind words - I love all these photos too, they have been gathering together it seem, waiting for this post! When I was on the train yesterday, I kept seeing the same images I had photographed before! Talk about timeless!

    RENILDE - I'm glad to know you are also a lover of trains...it occurred to me yesterday that when you arrive by airplane, you descend from a height and have the first impression of a city from the air, all tiny, neat and pretty, and then suddenly you are in a sealed sterile building far from the actual nature of the city you are visiting - but when you arrive by train, you crawl slowly through the most run-down neighborhoods into the heart of the city and get to see the real character, up close and personal, and can even smell the air when the doors open and close at each station...it's such a rich experience!

  16. Douglas, many thanks! I am always happy when you stop by.

  17. Dear Gabriella, congratulations!
    is always a joy to complete one more year!
    I wish you every happiness on the planet! ;))

    now, congratulations on this lovely text, lovely, lovely!
    you describe everything so well with so much feeling, many details, it seems that we are with you. How lucky to travel so easily in a decent rail system!

    How good that you have gone to 'your place' - that illustrate your life...
    I loved your birth certificate, is moving! Italian descent from father and mother - like me - tutti buona genti! ;))

    sei bravissima!
    mille baci

  18. Everyday is a "come-and-go", the life repeats itself in the station.
    Some people arrive to stay, others go to nevermore. There are people who come and want to come back, and others go and wants to stay. There are people who only came to take a look. There are people smiling and crying.
    To arrive and to leave are only two sides of the same trip. The train that arrives is the same train of the departure.
    The hour of the meeting is also the hour of goodbye.
    The platform of this station is the life.

    These words up are always on my mind and i would like to share with you in your day.
    Beautiful word and excellent pictures to illustrate it. Thanks for share part of your history and personal sensations about your travels.
    Congratulations and be happy, my dear! Enjoy the trip!
    See you in 2011!!!! Sweet hug.

  19. This is a beautiful post Gabriella.
    Happy birthday to you.


  20. Happy Birthday, Gabriella! What a beautiful post and a simply wonderful birthday tradition. Enjoy your visit....

  21. Happy birthday! we are the same age.. 48
    Beautiful postings today !

  22. Denise - mille grazie carissima! I do feel very lucky today, and full of hope for the future...

    Cris - I love the words you shared! They say exactly what I feel. I am so happy to know you, kindred spirit! Hugs and kisses to you.

    Robert, thank you for your wishes. Wishing all the best right back to you, as always.

    Wong - are you a Tiger too?? That would explain a lot! Thank you for your wishes, my friend.

  23. Thank you so much "anonymous!" It's good to be home, even though I'm still fighting that bad headcold/cough...I've shared my photos from my last trip with my family here, and there was a certain photo of a mischievous kitty with a blanket fringe for a hat that made a big hit!

  24. Happy birthday time G - from across the miles. Hope you have a wonderful visit returning to the place you know so well and where you are probably most 'you'. It knows you too. The train ride stories were lovely - it's always special isn't it?

  25. Gabriella!! congratulations!! for another year and many yet to come, plenty of happiness and more and more wisdom with everyday. We can deny we all are traveling, even when we manytimes don´t notice it. Of course i am talking about the huge travel the life is, one that lead us to unexpected places and that keep us many surprises, from the very pleasent to those that we all would wish to avoid. But travelers despite it all. The train of our lives that started its journey, in your case 48 years ago, and have a fixed destination, even when unknown for you. Maybe that is what is exciting about every journey, even that of life, that we can plan and make schedules, but we will never how it will end.
    Receive a big hug and my best wishes, today and forever!! ;)

  26. Hi Fiona! Funny you should say "birthday time" - for a while now I have thought of my birthday not as one day to burden with the expectation and obligation of one singularly fabulous gift or event to mark it, but at least one whole week of suspending the rules and permitting all sorts of indulgences! Just the way I like to extend my travel experiences with long train rides vs short airplane hops! So, here on the day after, I am still very much in the midst of birthday enjoyment and when I take the train back to Boston tomorrow, that too will be part of my gift to myself! All the best to you...

  27. Alberto - thank you for the hug and your wishes for happiness and wisdom! Wisdom often comes painfully, but I welcome it all the same, because it makes me so much better able to seek, recognize and embrace happiness! I wish you the best on your own journey, my friend!

  28. HB, Gabriella. I love your choices of pictures.

    On the West Coast where I was born and raised trains are a rarity and therefore so much more compelling. There is a history, and tracks, but they're just not part of many people's routines. Of course I love them; and I'm sure we all love the distant howl of a freight train as it passes through the fields at night.

    I rode the rails to New Orleans also, early this year, from L.A. Those 48 hours were wonderful and the trip was over far too soon. I experienced many times the ebb and flow of interest as destinations are met and left again that you describe so well.

  29. Good to see you here Don! I thought of you today when I was in Central Park and saw quite a few SF Giants baseball caps on the natives! The distant howl of the train, yes...reminds me of how big a part trains play in the history of American music too...I'm glad you have had the experience of visiting N.O. by train - it is a rare and precious treat! Many thanks for the HB wish.

  30. Gabriella,
    do you except a wish after your birthday?
    Hug you also as all your friends, even when
    so late!!

    Wish you a very happy birthday, wish that
    every day will be a happy day!!

    Hugs from me,

  31. Monika, of course I am always happy to accept your good wishes and hugs, any day! Thank you so much my dear - have a happy weekend!

  32. Gabriella,
    what a fault..
    except. accept.
    Blame it on my tiredness. OK, my dear?

  33. Dear Gabriella,
    What a great read. I nearly always begin my day with a visit to my favorite blogs and this morning was no exception. At least, until reading your post! It made my morning and I couldn't get from paragraph-to-paragraph quickly enough to devour more.
    Oh...and may I add, have a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

  34. Monika, there is very little you could do that I would not forgive! All is OK.

  35. Gary, I'm glad you enjoyed this one! I suppose my love of trains and the connection to my birthday made it an extra special post. I will do my best to continue to be an exceptional read! Best regards to you.

  36. Oh I'm so sorry that I came so later, but I was away those last days,
    happy birthday ...

    the train picture of Turner is one of my favourite painting!!

  37. Laura dear! Last but certainly not least! I've missed you! Thank you for the birthday wishes. That Turner painting is amazing, isn't it? To stand before it is like being in the middle of a beautiful storm!

  38. Happy Birthday! You and I share very close birthdays - mine is on the 18th. We also share that same love of travel, of planning and then the wonderful unexpected. I completely agree about trains. We don't get too much of a chance to take them out west, but when I was in Europe that's all I took and I loved it!

  39. Hi TB! I'm not surprised we are close in our birthdays because it seems we share many interests and traits - what would a Sagittarian be without a love of travel and an embrace of the unexpected? It seems you also have the willingness to try new things and refreshing honesty in sharing the results of your endeavors that is also typical of our sign. I wish you the best for your birthday this weekend and a great new year!!