by Helen Lumb
A Pendolino? A Bombardier Turbostar? An Intercity 125?
If you happened to be playing Pictionary and you picked up a card reading ‘train’, what would you draw? I’d bet money on it that it wouldn’t be any of the above – no, you’d sketch out something resembling ‘Thomas The Tank Engine,’ replete with a round smokebox face and a cylindrical funnel, billowing clouds of ‘smoke’ into the sky.
That’s because our lasting image of the train is that of a steam locomotive. Some people might argue that this is due to its distinctive shape (making it the train of choice in the cutthroat and quickfire world of board games that require drawing skills.) I’d argue that it is something more than that – something magical. Why else would J.K. Rowling have chosen the Hogwarts Express to be a steam train?
I love trains. Luckily, I’ve never commuted to work by train, meaning that my association with rail travel is unsullied by the prospect of a long day at the office at the end of it. Boarding a train for me has meant that I’m going places, places where I actually want to be: a night out on the town, a weekend trip to France or a Christmas sojourn up the West-Coast line to visit friends and family. And they’re just the ‘ordinary’ train journeys. The ‘extraordinary’ ones almost always include steam.
Maramureș is a long way from Bucharest, but if you want to ride the Mocănița, better just suck it up, or make a couple of stopovers along the way – the mediaeval majesty of Sighișoara perhaps? A car is essential or if like me, you don’t own a car, you could join an organised coach trip and pay someone else to sort out the logistics.
Mocănița, as you may already know, means ‘shepherd’ and since to me it seems like a diminutive, I think of it as ‘The Little Shepherd.’ The term refers to a number of narrow-gauge railway lines in Romania but the one which winds its way along the spectacularly beautiful Vaser Valley is perhaps the most famous.
The morning before we boarded, it snowed. Our train sat in the station like a child’s drawing, fat and black, framed against the white, belching great grey clouds from the chimney. Inside our carriage, a sobă stove had already been lit and the warm smell of woodsmoke drifted its entire length. A guard appeared, carrying a bottle and several small plastic glasses; what winter steam train ride would be complete without a shot of pălinkă? And then, with a shrill, echoing, shriek of the whistle, and a jangling clunk of chains, we were off.
Whenever I travel by train, a poem invariably pops into my head. Usually it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘From A Railway Carriage’:
‘Faster than fairies, faster than witches
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches.’
Not only do I agree with him that there is something magical about railway journeys, but the final line ‘each a glimpse and gone forever’ captures the sense of snapshots of lives being lived, the snapshots that you experience from your train window – a boy in blue, running up a lane towards a house, his dog bounding beside him; a horse and cart, laden with three men, being driven over the black river; an old man fishing, raising his hand to briefly return my wave.
It would be an exaggeration to say that we sped along ‘faster than fairies’ – in fact, ‘trundled and jolted’ would be more accurate – but the sideways lurching of the carriage, the heat of the fire, the hiss and the scream, the smoke and the steam, all made for the same sensory experience that explains why travelling by steam train is so special. That and their association with the past and of course, in particular, with the Orient Express, the opulent train service which swept all the way across Europe, from the capital of the country of my birth to the capital of the country of my home.
What could be more magical than that?
Helen Lumb is the owner of Park Lane English. She travelled with Hai Să Socializăm on a trip led by Tony Fanica.