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The Naomi Narrative: Ramblings on a train

Published: September 26, 2008
Section: Opinions


I’m on a train from Budapest to Vienna, en route to the land of wiener schnitzel, apple strudel and cafés. I can escape my life as a student in Budapest but I can’t seem to escape my overactive brain. I wonder about trains. Are they a metaphor for life? The nomadic twenty-something traveler going through Europe to escape responsibility or family or his future. Looking for love, and the existential angst that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy share in Before Sunrise. Meet a beautiful, foreign woman on the train, spend one flirtatious day discussing life, art, literature. You know you can’t be together, its finite nature frees you to be vulnerable, to merge soul and body into one, if only for a short time. The ultimate one night stand, with the backdrop being a romantic European city instead of a grimy bar.

Adventures can be had in the nomadic style-just you, a few euros, a backpack and the road. On The Road, capital letters, Kerouac style. A casual glance out the window rewards you with a view of the Alps hugging the sky. Lakes the color of sapphires. Sunsets so stunning they make you ache. When the glory of nature leaves you speechless, you avert your eyes. Turn your attention to the Proust or Sartre sitting open on your lap. Take a sip of your black coffee. Adjust your black beret. Wax philosophical with a stranger over a cigarette. You don’t mean to be a cliché but you can’t help it.

Yet the romance of the train can go bitterly wrong, and extend to the deadly. Anna Karenina and Vronsky meet at the train station, in the dim light of a worker’s accidental death under the rails. The novel comes full circle when Anna throws herself to the tracks, in a desperate act of suicide. Perhaps she killed herself to escape her misogynistic reality, or perhaps the flaw was her own inability to commit to happiness. Wherever the blame lies, the very train that brought Anna to Moscow and her new social circle violently stole her away from it, crushing her fragile body.

We continue to be fascinated by trains. Europe. Trains. The same railroad tracks that take me on my weekend excursions in my junior year abroad took my ancestors to less inviting locales. I was met in Vienna by world-class art, grand castles, a hostel that sponsored a pub crawl. My great-grandparents were met by Joseph Mengele, tattoo artists and showers raining Zyklon B. Europe is a death factory, tracks snaking through the hard earth to reach the silent graveyard. I took the sleeper car while they took the cattle car. I travel Europe with my non-Jewish friends and am haunted by ghosts they can’t see.

But I wanted Europe. More than that I wanted Eastern Europe, raw and gritty Eastern Europe. Could have had Israel. Could have accepted my birthright. A semester at Hebrew University. Shabbat dinners with my relatives, improving my Hebrew, learning more of my history. Find a nice- or not so nice- Jewish boy to keep me occupied. I said no. Chose Budapest. Cosmopolitan city scarred by Communism. An afterthought of a capital, subordinate to Prague and Vienna. A city with a towering castle, lit up every night like a fairytale. And I was the princess for whom the magical city was created.

Or maybe we all just want Europe. Quintessential post-college gift from parents is a trip through Europe. My father did it thirty years ago, I did it last year. It’s transitional. Before law school, before medical school, indulge your travel bug, satiate your travel lust. It’s a rite of passage, go in a child come out a man. It educates, it humanizes, it cultures. Hit up the top cities, see the Mona Lisa, climb the Eiffel Tower, eat pot brownies. Live the stereotype, be the stereotype. The train will bring you there- you won’t be derailed.