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On travelling by train

As a rule I only gift books, and although this isn’t something I adhere to very strictly, I’ve, on more than one occasion, had the pleasure of gifting a collection of written works from the private domain by Danilo Kiš (brought together by none other than Susan Sontag.)

Kiš’ big point in the first couple pages is as follows. To travel means to live. I’d only come across this book after we’d long finished our travels but a pang of recognition immediately sprung up. One of our agreements before we’d started the whole ordeal was that we’d not treat any of it as vacation. It was merely a display of what “normal” life could be. In that sense we believed that to travel didn’t have to be separate from life. As Kiš writes: “To travel is to reside in a train which moves in whichever direction, its final destination does not matter. That is the hedonist travelling an sich, travel for the sake of travel, voyage pour voyage.” A large part of our time spent travelling was time spent sitting in trains, eating, reading, working, talking, moving and thus ultimately, living.

Contrary to other forms of public transport the train also allows you to live. The French anthropologist Marc Augé speaks of anthropological places and non-places (non-lieux). Non-places are (often utilitarian) places which have lost any anthropological identity. Think airports, buses, waiting rooms and to some extent trains. They’re spaces in which everyone is anonymous and within which communication between its inhabitants becomes very difficult. Now what makes the train so fascinating, especially when compared to a (public) plane or bus is that the train invites its inhabitants to get comfortable. Seeing as we pretty much lived in trains for two days a week, trains become a sort of portable anthropological space. We would set out our meals, our books, our laptops, and as such we slowly removed the veil of our anonymity. The train allows for people to live, to transform their space (even if it’s just 2 seats and a table) into a personalised space. Such a space allows for one to become approachable, to approach, to transform the clinical nature of anonymous public transport into one in which we all suddenly become ordinarily human.


Much of the world is becoming increasingly instrumentalized, spaces become optimised in favour of some greater economic ideal, losing much of their personal identity, trading it in favour of reproducibility. The importance of anthropological spaces can’t be underestimated. More precisely, the importance of friction can’t be underestimated. Friction (which is ruled out by the design of a non-place) is what leads to debate, it’s what leads to insights and, if done well, is what leads to tolerance. In that sense train travel could even be held as an ideological acte de resistance, challenging the models that make up more and more of our lives in favour of the rugged, curved and edged reality that they attempt to approach. 


We travelled by train because, contrary to other means of transportation, life goes on whilst travelling.


The very first morning of our very first trip.


We'd set up our food, camera's and everything we might need whilst living on the rails.

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