Slow Travel to Oslo: diary begins

8 Nov 2010 jane

Entries from Jane Trowell, Anna Galkina, and Rebecca Beinart on their separate Slow Travel journeys from England to Oslo for Gentle Actions in Kunstnernes Hus

[Anna Galkina is a researcher with PLATFORM on Arctic issues relating to oil & gas, environmental and human rights abuses.]
11.11.10 On the way into the Eurostar section of St Pancras, a not very often discussed but sometimes quite painful characteristic of slow travel throws itself in my face with the stamp of a passport control officer: travelling slow involves a hell of a lot more borders. Lucky the EU citizens for whom all is open all the way east till Belarus! I am somewhat lucky too with the two-year UK residence permit and a somewhat unexpected Schengen multi-entry visa in my Russian passport. Even *that* costs me long days and hundreds of pounds spent each year at embassy application centres; privileged I am to have the time and the money for all that border bureaucracy.
14.45 I have stepped out of the confusing, kaleidoscope-like, but refreshingly billboard-free lobby of the Eurostar onto the train, and it is leaving London. I couldn’t wait to prove Jane wrong here with her hypothesis on how high-speed rail separates people, because the last time I glided under the sea at 150mph, I had the most insightful and personal discussion about education, with the cheerful Dutch schoolteacher in the next seat. This time, no such luck: my neighbor leaves for the onboard cafeteria and does not return until Lille, at which point she goes to sleep in her seat.
17.05 At Brussels Midi station, I’m greeted by a massive mural of Tintin riding the front of a train at top speed chasing criminals somewhere in the Wild West.
19.20 The Thalys train from Brussels to Cologne is only half full; I parcel myself away with laptop and headphones. Sometime later, the red unevenly blinking lights of the many windfarms of Germany whizz past. I’m on my way to Scandinavia, where one of the ongoing struggles of the indigenous Sami community is against a massive wind farm, ineptly placed with barely any consultation with the locals. Like oil, like large windfarms, high-speed rail is a huge industrial project, and it seems to me that we should add to arguments over its existence/non-existence (or use/non-use), a discussion of the *how*. Simple example:
Eurostar recently announced that they’re working on extending their connection to Germany, so one could get from London to Frankfurt in under five hours. By 2014.
A bit earlier, Russian authorities announced they’re in negotiations to put up a high-speed link between Moscow and Kiev. Next year.
How is this possible that one link will take four years to construct, and the other, apparently just a year? Well, Eurostar has to spend time and energy on complicated negotiations with landowners, to soundproof and fence off the track, to carry out safety tests. Russian rail apparently doesn’t. The high-speed Sapsan trains between Moscow and St Petersburg have had one train off tracks in the first year of running, and an uncounted number of accidents, including fatalities, for people wandering out onto the tracks. Anyone notice similarities with an other industry?
20.25 First impression of Cologne train station: two Vikings walk side by side carrying a large boombox blasting out disco tunes, followed by a ladybird, a pirate, and a creature made up entirely of flags. More than half the public appears to be in fancy dress and drunk. Random encounters, the joy of slow travel. Turns out I’ve caught St Martin’s, the beginning of the festival season. For the next hour or so I lose myself in carnival, wandering round streets through the dancing and singing crowds, even as street cleaning machines are starting to sweep up the broken glass.
08:10 My company for the overnight Cologne to Copenhagen ride has been two Japanese tourists, a British/Dutch arts journalist, an Australian-sounding man with family in Denmark, and a bald, slightly darker-skinned, non-English speaking man, who takes his large suitcase onto his bunk and sleeps awkwardly half-seated, leaning on it. Before daybreak, the German border police comes in to check passports. The bald man fumbles in his pockets and repeatedly shows his ticket, at loss to explain himself. After a few minutes of this, the border guard grows angry and starts shouting at my fellow passenger, finally pulling him by the collar down from the bunk, and gesturing him to get the trunk down also, and leave the train. A few seconds later the bald man at last produces his passport. The guard stops shouting and leaves, ending the five-minute drama of borders.
10:40 I’ve told the above story to the lovely Steiner kindergarten teacher sitting opposite me on the train to Goteborg. As a counterpoint, she offers stories of organized Polish robbers from over the border which keep southern Denmark in fright. Sweden rolls bleak and industrial in grey and sepia past the window.
16:00 Fields outside are covered in snow! I’m on a train from Goteborg to Kil (pronounced: Scheel), and I don’t even know where Kil is. Sometimes it’s not true that slow travel brings you closer to the world around you: it’s the Deutsche Bahn phone operator who decided I should go to Kil, and I only found this out when looking at my tickets in Copenhagen.
21:00 Safely arrived at Oslo central train station and looking forward to discussing all this…


REBECCA: Nottingham to Oslo by train
(Rebecca is an artist-activist whose work is concerned with ethics, food, social justice and culture. She was invited by Gentle Actions to contribute to the “Food as Counterculture” habitat. Rebecca worked closely with PLATFORM on the C Words project (2009).

Saturday 6th November

In the novel ‘Slowness’, Milan Kundera equates speed with forgetting and slowness with remembering: he proposes that the speed of modern life is an attempt to forget.

“The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.
Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man. As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is non-corporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.” Milan Kundera Slowness

My ears pop as we go through a tunnel. Then, the intense strobe of bright sunlight through the trees. This is not slow travel, just slower travel. I am on the Eurostar, beginning my journey to Norway. I’m tired and grateful to have two days of sitting on trains ahead of me, looking out of the window, or simply closing my eyes. I am already surrounded by different languages, conversations I do not understand, and I realise that international train travel offers a strange kind of quiet time – permission to sit and do nothing and be anonymous. For now, I am unusually happy to be what Tim Ingold calls a ‘transported passenger’: gliding over the surface of the earth without engaging in a meaningful way with the places I pass through. Some forms of journeying can be the opposite of this:

“Wayfaring, I believe, is the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth. By habitation I do not mean taking one’s place in a world that has been prepared in advance for the populations that arrive to reside there. The inhabitant is rather one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being, and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture”. Tim Ingold, Lines

On the Eurostar I do not feel like I am weaving anything: rather I am wrapped in a metal cloak that allows me to switch off. But the fast trains create an interesting internal slowness, a reflective space. Sitting, thinking, reading, writing. Sitting. Not-thinking. The scenes through the window rushing past, a storyboard of Europe’s hinterlands.

My thoughts are interrupted by other travellers who are not so interested in anonymity. On the Thalys high-speed train from Brussels to Cologne, I am sitting next to a rowdy crowd of German football fans, who drink large quantities of beer and rum and regularly burst into enthusiastic out-of-tune song. There is a kind of rhythm to their noise: a chatter of stories, hilarious laughter, an argument about a player, a burst of loud sound and table-slapping. Blah blah, ha ha, rah rah, boom. I try to imagine it as a lullaby as I semi-doze.

I have four hours in Cologne before my night train to Copenhagen. The station is a constant stream of people, meeting, parting, rushing for trains. I walk outside into the night and there is the cathedral, imposing and impressive. The station is brightly lit, grand in its own way with a huge glass front and many places to spend money. Between the new and old architectural triumphs lies a square: strangely lit in the murky city dusk, it seems like a theatre set across which characters parade. I sit on the steps leading up to the cathedral, drink mugwort tea and watch. An old man stands at the bottom of the steps, smoking second-hand cigarette butts with grave concentration. Then he fastidiously checks through the bins with a pocket torch, and finding nothing of interest, moves on. A huddle of teenagers occupy their own patch of the steps, drinking beer and occasionally shouting something that is evidently very funny. Some goths appear out of the dark. A man in a wheelchair plays the trumpet, busking. People wait for people. A lot of wheelie-suitcases make their noisy journeys across the square and are swallowed by the mouth of the station. A couple kiss for a very long time. It starts to rain.

On a journey like this I am struck by how difficult it is to spend time in cities without money. The cathedral steps offer a fine resting place when it’s dry, but the rain drives people indoors. There are not many places to sit if you are not a paying customer. I find a weird bar inside the station, too weary to drag my bags around for further exploration. I drink expensive beer and write. A man comes in to mine-sweep the tables – glugging down some drinks left by people in a hurry before the waiter clears them away. He sees me watching and flaps his hand at me, as if to say ‘none of your business’.

Sunday 7th November

The night train to Copenhagen was not as glamorous as I’d imagined. I haven’t had many sleeper train experiences to compare it to, but I remember a trip to Belarus five years ago. I travelled with two friends on a train from Warsaw to Minsk, to take part in an amorphous art event full of mis-translations and cultural confusions. That train had wallpapered corridors, lace curtains and plastic flowers. Half-way though the journey we stopped in a massive warehouse on the border and waited whilst they changed the wheels on the train: the two countries have different gauges. Intimidating men with fur hats and various weapons demanded to see our papers and shouted in Russian. On the return journey, my friends woke me at midnight to celebrate my birthday with sickly cake and sparkling wine. The guys from the next compartment heard us and joined us with a bottle of very strong bitter alcohol. They told us in heavy Russian accents that they worked for the KGB, but we guessed that if that were true, they probably wouldn’t have told us.

The ‘City Night Line’ is a grubby train with cramped couchettes. Half of the train is destined for Moscow, and I wonder if I could accidentally wake up in Russia. A friendly woman who is in my compartment explains where to stash bags. It is late and there are already people asleep on the other bunks. It’s an intimate space to share with five strangers, breathing one another’s breath; the young guy on the bottom bunk has a ghoulish tattoo and a hellish cough. I am so tired that I sleep soon. When I awake, it’s crisp frosty winter outside, and we are in Denmark. We arrive in Copenhagen at 10am, into a station that is grand but old-fashioned. I put my bag into a locker and walk around the city for a few hours, smiling at the sunshine, the bicycles, and coffee in a cobbled square. I have no guidebooks or maps, so I meet the city in a state of ignorance and enjoy imagining the stories behind what I see. There’s a building guarded by strange creatures, dog-dragon-lions. This area has a lot of weird and wonderful architecture, including the Tivoli amusement park. I walk into a square that has at its centre a screaming bear atop a fountain. As I wander, I think of other journeys I have made, of fairytales and histories, of the stories that make a place. Each place is the seed for an unfolding of further stories, memories and observations that overlap each other, touch each other, that fall like dominoes, each one triggering the next. The way we experience place has so much to do with what we carry with us, both physically and in our heads.

Writing about Time and Duration, Henri Bergson challenges our usual conception of time. He offers instead the notion of ‘Pure Duration’: our experiences as we live them, which are not a linear narrative. He describes this as simultaneous, fluid and flowing time: our inner experiences of the world are overlaid with immediate and remembered emotion, sensation and association. The closest we may come to an awareness of Pure Duration is in our dream life, where there is no linearity. Bergson uses the metaphor of melody as a way of thinking about our experience of duration: ‘The metaphor of the musical phrase conveys the notion of ensemble that attaches to the experience of duration… a multiplicity without homogeneity, in which states of feeling overlap and interpenetrate one another, instead of being organised into a distinct succession.’ (Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will)
I return to the station to board a train to Göteborg. The train sails over a long bridge connecting Copenhagen to Malmo, the water glittering below. It’s a quiet journey, an elderly couple near to me dine on sandwiches, the train slowly fills up. I am reading ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ by Ursula Le Guin and my mind is drawn into the planet of Winter and attempts at diplomacy between peoples from (literally) different worlds. Occasionally I look up and remember where I am, seeing the neat Swedish landscape slip by and increasingly large forests. I glimpse the sea, and the beautiful orange sun sinking to the horizon. A factory chimney with clouds of smoke suspended above it, so still and pink they seem unreal. I change trains at Göteborg, and start the final leg of my journey. It is dark now and I retreat into my book. Le Guin describes a trade caravan crossing the frozen land of Winter, where no vehicles travel faster than 25 mph: ‘The people of winter, who always live in the Year One, felt that progress is less important than presence.’ When I finally reach Olso I hope that I can hold on to something of this – be wholly present in the rich and amazing concoction that I am about to enter into.


JANE: 5.11.10, Higham, Kent to Oslo, Norway
St Pancras International. London (16.04) to Brussels Midi (18.59)
After half a day’s work, I’m lugging the borrowed wheelie holdall to London Bridge Station from PLATFORM. It feels like an impossible weight, and I’ve always been suspicious of using a wheelie case for fear of doing my back in again (dragging it along on one side of your body or the other – not balanced). This is definitely an experiment. And it started unpromisingly with several carbon cheats which left me very self-critical.

Earlier, due to the weight of the holdall, I’d had a sneaky lift to Higham station from home, and at the London end, I’d balanced the monster on the rack of my rescued bike on the walk from London Bridge’s bike racks to PLAT. Some hours later, going to St Pancras I was a bit late, hot & bothered, and decided to pay £3 for a short hitch along Tooley Street in a taxi (if a bus had turned up i would’ve done that for sure). Worth it just to soothe my mood at the outset of the long journey.

Mum’s been trying to get me to use a wheelie case for years, but I’d rather carry the weight evenly on both hips with a well-designed backpack, than pull a load with one arm or the other. I love my backpack.

But carrying many kilos of pamphlets and print material, this seemed the best option. And, I won’t have all that material with me on the way back from Kirkenes. But on the way back, I’m not on the train. I’m actually flying for reasons which will unfold. But in terms of me lugging heavy monster, there’s something wrong with this travel plan.

I feel foolish and grumpy. This is the wrong sort of wheelie case, you idiot!! I should have a smug one that sits on four wheels that you roll along with a nudge from your little finger. My slow travel journey suddenly seems long and stupid, and risky to my back. I stare at people humping and rolling their cases, tripping themselves and others up, and realise unhappily that I’m now one of them. I get a trolley.

Most people who travel for business or pleasure, are not travelling with backpacks. Backpacks are a northern/western design for the strong and healthy, and mostly young. You have to be able to swing the load up. You have to have strong legs and shoulders. You have to not mind about wearing clothes that are chafed and scrunched by the pack’s straps.

The other thing is, they’re largely used by people with only themselves to pack for. People with no dependents. They make voluntary slow travel seem easy. And it’s true, this wheelie thing is a hassle.

But that’s precisely the irony.

This is voluntary slow travel.

Most of the world’s people who are forced into slow travelling (or have not options) – ie. migrants, refugees, displaced people, people collecting water or fuel – are carrying everything on their bodies: on their heads, backs, hips, and often pulling children, elderly and animals behind them.

The privilege of choice eh.

I have four changes to make before I arrive at Oslo. A doddle with a backpack. But not for me, now. I’m in the ranks of the cranky older person (and that’s increasingly my future). All this lugging and changing trains is one thing a plane journey saves you, eh. Hmm…
Next time I post the print materials (never mind the horrible cost) and take the backpack.

Brussels Midi (19.28) to Koln (Cologne) Hauptbahnhof (21.15)
I got myself by the door of the packed Eurostar train so I could make a quick exit – only 25 mins to find the Koln train’s platform, and I also wanted to get some Euros, water etc. And I didn’t know the station’s layout. I would need time to get my bearings. I get some help from a nice Brussels woman and follow the streaming crowd to the main station. My eyes are peeled for a cash machine but none are obvious. The next platform is thankfully close, and I find the departure information and seek platform 6A. I have time but not loads. I had humped the monster down the stairs from Eurostar and now looked for a lift. Couldn’t seem to make the lift work so humped the monster up 3 flights to the platform by hugging it to my body like a huge sleeping child, a reverse backpack. (Sudden 20-year old memories of meeting Dan in the port city of Brindisi, on our way to take the ferry to travel around mainland Greece. Me with backpack. Him with the biggest wheelie holdall you’d ever seen. He was seriously struggling, and it was very hot. Every manoeuvre from then on was dictated by this giant. I named it Il Duce, and I meant it in every sense of the word.)

The packed Thalys train to Cologne glides in from Paris and all is good. I dump the monster and find my nice, ample, window seat. Belgium is traversed in the darkness. Announcements in four languages punctuate the ride – Flemish, French, German, English.

It occurs to me again that slow travel that involves several transport interchanges requires the traveller to be pretty confident in themselves if it’s to be a positive experience. You need to have some facility with languages, or be happy to guess what things mean in different languages. You need to be able to ask somehow, point at things, try pronouncing unfamiliar words, or wave your ticket, use sign language if necessary. You must not be too worried about making a fool of yourself. You must want to have lots of encounters with different people: that’s the reason and great reward for moving around like this. But all this asks a lot of people. It can be tiring, and unnerving. Scary and anxious-making at times. For many, the package tour where the tour guide does everything for you surely has its attractions.

Voluntarily choosing slow travel is not for everyone, on grounds of personality. For those who have no choice, they just have to lump it.

Random thought: trains are definitely imitating planes these days. High speed, dedicated lines, they skirt over everyday life. Virgin Pendolino (in Britain) are the worst with their small windows and sense of being crammed in. Thalys is at least roomy. But the high-speedness echoes the disengagement of planes or motorways. On some trains now in UK, carriage with mini-screens in back of seats like planes. Complete disengagement. Very scary. But makes sense in age of iPods, iPhones, iPad, iMe, Playstation etc. Everyone in their own bubble, ignoring the travel, pretending to be anywhere except where they are. My connections are very close together on this trip – no time between stops to dally, take the air, and catch up. High-speed trains plus rapid connection times heightens the blood pressure…

From Koln Hauptbahnhof (22.28) to Copenhagen (10.06 next day)
The overnight train gets in quarter of an hour late from Prague. I find my compartment and am sharing with a family of mum, dad and three beautiful blond boys. I am really tired and we chat a little in English, getting the berths ready, getting settled. Very nice, but too sleepy to really talk. Next morning I wake as if I’ve been truncheoned but after a “City Breakfast” (4.5 euros) in the cafe, looking with wonder at the gorgeous blue-sky dawning day and Denmark’s flat fields, cosy farmsteads and wind turbines in small homely groups, I’m feeling more appreciative and human. I get chatting with Swedish Eva Lena and her husband Per and her kids Samuel,Vincent (twins aged 13) and Dante (aged 10). I tell them what I’m doing in Oslo and Kirkenes and we chat about trains and planes; slow travel; slow food; climate change, threatened species…

Eva Lena is very critical of Sweden. I tell her that I like to think of Scandinavian countries as getting things right – welfare state, standard of living, human rights, environmental policies. I tell her I know it’s a stereotype, and every country wants to think somewhere else has the solution. And that Stieg Larsen has taken the romance out of thinking of Sweden like that. We laugh a little. But she and Per also grunt, exchanging looks. Eva Lena goes on to talk with such dismay about the disconnect from the land in Sweden; that in Italy there’s such a strong food culture, organic food! That this is something that Italy has got right! She says most people in Sweden just don’t want to know about anything like this, as long as they have cheap food.

They live in a small fishing town on the coast towards Goteborg, and then it comes out that Eva Lena has just become a Green Party councillor for her town. She was under no illusions about how hard it would be, that Sweden is so so behind, in her opinion. But although I know she has reason to be daunted, I felt sad that she feels this. She explained that people think of the Greens as having plenty of vision but no grasp of finance and budgets, the economy. I tried to talk about how all visionary movements get told this. It’s a way to dismiss and puncture… you have to last it out. She said “The first meeting I have is budgetary.” I wonder how it will go for her and her three GP colleagues on the council.

The family had just travelled by train to Paris and back for a holiday… I tried to tempt Vincent to write a little about that for this blog. He was listening to our conversation and chipping in from time to time very thoughtfully. It was so so nice. I’m going to keep in touch.

This is one massive reason to travel by train: these chance encounters frequently happen, in a way that you rarely get with planes and airports. Planes and airports are mass transport, but somehow hyper-individualistic, super-selfish and so survival-of-the-fittest too. Mind you, like I was saying earlier, it seems to happen much less in the Eurostar-Thalys-style high-speed modern trains where we are crammed in as if on a plane than it does on old-style and slower trains. My running theory is that high speed militates against gentle or slow conversation. It makes everyone a bit breathless?

10.15am Ritazza cafe, Copenhagen Station
Last time I was here was during COP 15 in December 2009. It was jumping with people. The station’s architecture is so stunning, but I’m struggling with the global success of even smallish chain cafes and eateries. Now even Upper Crust is here (sandwich chain to be found in hundreds of stations across Britain). Here of all places, in the land of the open sandwich and the fabulous breads. At least Ritazza (another chain found in Britain) is selling Ramlosa or Carlsberg water. But Carlsberg is selling water now?? I find a socket and charge the laptop, and think about COP 15, the expectations, the realities and the aftermath. Hmm.

Copenhagen (11.00) to Goteborg (14.32)
I am crossing the Oresund bridge that spans the waters between Denmark to Sweden at Malmo. Incredible.
16 km long, and opened in 1995 with great technophiliac fanfare, it ended the ferry’s dominion over this route. Now high-speed trains can whiz across; road traffic too. What does this mean? What did it cost to build the bridge in terms of carbon; and what does it mean to zoom in a high-speed train. How does it compare to the ferries? And what does it do to culture? Genuinely want to know…

When the Channel Tunnel was opened, James and I went to the proud exhibition centre at Dover which proclaimed that the Chunnel had its own electricity sub-station on each side, and that the Dover sub-station generated enough electricity daily to power Leicester for a day (population 300,000). Ai?? We argued about the Eurostar. Was it better that people could be tempted off planes for the short run to Paris despite the coal-guzzling implications?

We are arriving at Malmo, a city that has hit the news at home in the past two weeks due to some horrendous attacks against immigrants and refugees. Stieg Larsen we need you…The train pulls away from Central station and emblazoned on three silo towers are the giant letters WTF, helpfully explained underneath by the words What The Fuck.

Glorious coastal train journey. Must be a bit of a breeze as there are plenty of white horses cresting the waves. Low-lying lands, waterlogged fields. Forests, Low-rise towns and villages.That characteristic dark blood-red colour used on so many houses and farm buildings. A blue sky hung low with big fluffy white and grey clouds. A man does sudoku across the table, and a young girl delightedly nibbles a pastry as her little brother does some kind of Star Wars educational game on his gameboy. The train is packed.

14.30 At Goteborg Central Station, last stop in euroland Sweden
Shopping is my aim – a last chance to buy cheap booze! I lug the monster (who I’ve now have grudging fondness for, realising its not its fault but mine) across the many-laned highway and venture into a shopping mall. Jumping with people. Usual-suspect shops and Swedish ones… Find an indoor beach volley ball competition is going on, complete with sand. Also a karaoke event. Crowds of people. Pretty multiracial. Finally find the supermarket – get a few things to keep me going but I am faced with a disaster – only beer, no wine, and NO spirits. My plan to buy one bottle of Akvavit or whatever for those late night conversations has come to naught. Don’t think beer is what I want. Ah well…

Onwards to Norway. Land of the £6 pint (in a pub)…

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