Anthropologists on the tracks: Reflections on life, speed, and sustainability

Autumn is approaching and the IIAB office is back to buzzing with business after a great summer. As we gathered again and shared holiday memories, we realised that more of us had been interrailing; by accident, rather than intend. Strikes and shortage of staff led to cancellations and the rebooking of flights across countries — forcing travellers to rethink their routes.

The sudden changes to our travelling plans served as food for thought on the mental, social, and sustainable aspects of travelling. Read along as our anthropologists Emilie and Louise share their reflections from their summer on the tracks, taking trains across Europe with their families.

"I asked our daughter which she preferred: Plane or train? Without any hesitation she said ‘train!’"

Emilie’s route: Zealand, Denmark to Florence, Italy — 2 days / 9 trains

As my husband and I planned our holiday in Italy with our 3-year-old daughter we decided to book direct flights mid-day, have an overnight stay in Florence, before travelling the last 100 km by train. That seemed like the pleasant and most convenient choice. Our travel plans ended up quite a bit different that that — and to be honest less convenient. Yet, it was much more of an experience than travelling by plane would’ve ever been

First, a bit of context to my observations: our flight got cancelled and our last-minute option was 2 days of interrail passports taking us through Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and then Italy. During day 1 we spent 12 hours onboard of 4 different trains, followed by an overnight stay in Munich. On day 2 we again spent 12 hours onboard of 5 additional trains before reaching our final destination in Tuscany, Italy. Here are some of my observations from the tracks.

Wayfinding by train is universal yet local

Every time we had to change to a different train it was mostly smooth sailing, arriving on one platform, finding an information board and navigating our luggage and ourselves to the next platform, train and seat number. Even though this was a ‘heat-wave-sweaty' experience, it was surprisingly easy to navigate in each country and all types of trains. The internal logic was the same everywhere: find your destination on the information board; the platform; and then the section of the train your seat is in. Go on the train.

This experience gave me a glimpse into both a universal code of wayfinding, but also a more local perception of who the target group of travellers are (or are not!) in each country. In Italy, all information regarding train arrivals/departures was communicated both in Italian, English and Chinese. This told me, that Chinese tourists is a main target group for tourism in Italy. On the other hand, we also experienced a lack of elevators on the more rural stations indicating a less inclusive transport system than we are used to in Denmark.

We reached a less smooth part of our route when crossing the border to Italy. Up until then all our trains had been running on time, but apparently train delays were the standard in Italy as the message from the train personal was that our next train would wait for us (!). How that logistically makes sense is not fully clear to me, but with some delay we reached the Tuscan hills.

Train stations, alongside airports, are what we as anthropologists typically would call ‘non-places’ as they are so universal by design you could be anywhere in the world — and in time. However, having seen my fair share of airports, I would argue that train stations are less of a non-place than airports. To me, the stations capture some of each country’s perception of time, inclusivity, and tourist target groups.

The train is a (more) social space than planes

A fundamental difference between travelling by train versus plane is the position of the seats. On airplanes all seats face forward, allowing for a space of privacy and conversation limited to (potentially) the person next to you. Onboard trains there are several ways the seats are positioned: facing each other in groups of four, a row on the side making room for bikes, or next to each other. Furthermore, travelling on rails, people enter and leave in a constant flow. My experience this summer — and admittedly having a talkative 3-year-old alongside us helped with this — was that we were having more interactions with strangers than we would have had on a plane. On one of the many trains we took those days, our seats were placed in different seating areas. So, me and my daughter sat alongside a mum and her two kids. As this mother was handing snacks to her kids, she also offered these to my daughter. This was just one example out of many positive interactions with strangers.

At IS IT A BIRD we have explored the social life onboard trains on several occasions. One of our key insights has been, that train passengers are prompted to constantly negotiate the space, and “accept” each other’s presence as a strategy to feel safe within a confined physical space. While the doors are shut there is no way out. And every time the door opens, new, strange people enter the social setting. The confined space, the flow of passengers coming and going, and the interior design invites passengers to engage more than on a plane. My own experience reminded me of the social nature of being human. On the other hand, we are also constantly negotiating the social space we are in (as my husband experienced, while feeling overwhelmed by the three friends talking loudly right next to him for a sweaty 3 hours).  

The train is by its design and different flow of passengers a social space encouraging us to interact more, and this provided both funny and positive experiences for us this summer. As we had our non-cancelled flight back home, I asked our daughter which she preferred: Plane or train? Without any hesitation she said ‘train’. Food for thought...

Louise’s route: Copenhagen, Denmark to Lyon, France — 2 days / 11 trains

“We are sorry to inform you that your flight has been cancelled, we hope it does not cause you too much inconvenience”… When I received this message at 4am on the first day of my holiday, I did not yet know that the not-so-Easyjet was about to remind me that there are other benefits of travelling than the convenience of speed.

Me and my family had booked flights with Easyjet to Southern France. I felt slightly guilty about it already when booking the tickets. It was the less sustainable choice. I know. But also, the far cheaper, faster, and more convenient — at the time of booking anyway.

As our flights got cancelled, the family gathered for a crisis meeting, accompanied by croissants and black coffee to get at least a bit of the French vibe. We decided to opt for interrail passes for the 3 generation-travelling company consisting of my parents, my sister, and my 2 sons. What followed were 3 full days of travelling the same distance which by plane and car would have taken 4 hours.

Riding the train is an invitation to be present in the world

My suitcases were the first reminder of my very physical presence in the world. My family was eager to get to our destination, so when we discovered that there was a train with vacant seats departing in less than an hour from the Copenhagen Main Station, we rushed to get there, and brought along all our suitcases, that would otherwise have been conveniently (for us) handled by the airport crew. Our luggage was heavy, and as we on- and offloaded it for each of the 11 trains to follow, I was embarrassed by our attachment to things. It made me wonder how packing for a flight nudges you to not care about weight and size as long as it’s within the regulated limits. When carrying your luggage in and out of trains, and having to find a spot for it onboard you are very much reminded of how much space you demand as an individual among other travellers.

While travelling by train the world felt big and diverse and full of depths to explore

As the landscapes of the exterior of the trains changed, so did the interior design, and our co-travellers. New faces entered (and masks went on and off as we crossed borders, but that’s on another note), languages and attitudes shifted, and I felt pleasantly present in a world that revealed itself as big and diverse — even though we just travelled through western Europe. I was quite excited to witness what a big and diverse country Germany is, for instance. And to see glimpses of beautiful inner cities across my route that would otherwise have been hidden below clouds.

"Upon arrival by train, I felt grounded with both body and soul, feeling present, and ready to explore"

What’s with our addiction to speed?

Me and my family spent a total of 24 hours in trains over the course of 2 days. I cannot remember when we had previously had that much together to engage in continuous conversation. Some of the time onboard was spent reading. Looking out the window. Playing cards. Eating snacks. And some was spent engaging in a conversation which we could all fall in and out of. Elaborating, reflecting, and resuming.

The transition of travelling from one end of the European continent to another seemed to happen at a pace where my mind was allowed to digest the gradual changes. A friend of mine once argued that travelling by train allows for the soul to follow. And I have sometimes had the feeling, especially when travelling long-haul flights, that it takes at least a few days for the soul to land, after being somehow detached from the body. Upon arrival by train, I felt grounded with both body and soul, feeling present, and ready to explore.

The pace of the journey made me reflect on our addiction to speed; whilst travelling and in life in general. It made me wonder what the point of it is. It seems that we have learned to connect a high pace with privilege, as if it holds a value in itself. Of course, it is preferred if we have to be somewhere on time. And waiting in queues will probably always be less preferable than fast lanes. Yet, sitting on a train which is rolling, somewhat on schedule, at a steady pace, must be the healthier mode of travelling — the more sustainable for human and planet. But that, of course, goes without saying.

Reflections and reminders for next summer’s vacation planning

We probably both would have preferred to be able to plan our train journeys, rather than jumping onboard with all of our suitcases and little overview of the European train schedules. But, when looking back at our summers onboard trains, we hope that we do not forget our learnings. And, that when we start planning for the next summer holiday the benefits offered by the train will way heavier than the immediate benefits of time and convenience offered by the plane. We hope that we will not be seduced by the speed but stay open to see the journey as part of the adventure.

Late summer greetings,

Emilie Baage Stuhr & Louise Vang Jensen