This entry takes us back to Europe, to the same rail trip with my friend Mark that was in the previous post, "Alpinism Explained".
Careful With That Wrench Señor
“Hey, you think there’s dining car?” I asked, after we had been rattling along in the Spanish train from the border for about twenty minutes. I had had half a tub of questionable yoghurt in the aisle of the much larger train on the French side earlier that morning, but that was not enough and it was too long ago.
“Uh, I kinda doubt it.” Mark leaned sideways and scanned up and down the aisle, which afforded him a view of the entire train. It had four little cars and an engine. There had been no lunch facilities at the border, but the trip down to Barcelona was only scheduled to take three hours, so we would be in the city in good time for a substantial late lunch.
With this question settled we returned to gazing out at the steadily diminishing brown hills of the Pyrenees as we gradually wound south, halting frequently to load up with manic school children. These stops were, sensibly enough, at train stations, but then at one point the train abruptly came to a standstill in the midst of what was conspicuously just an unpopulated field and not a train station. We sat quietly for several minutes, observing that it was significantly hotter here than it had been up in the Pyrenees. Then the train began slowly rolling forward again. This rolling brought it about twenty meters further along before it stopped once more. It was now very hot and it was very still. Even the school children became subdued. The heat made everyone sleepy.
After a little while we were abruptly roused from our torpor by the conductor who came storming past carrying a colossal monkey wrench. He exited our car and by leaning out the window we could see him stalk alongside the train, glowering, and then suddenly duck underneath. This was followed by violent banging sounds after which he reemerged, dusted himself off, shrugged theatrically and sauntered back to re-board.
“You’ve got to wonder what sort of problem that stops a train can be repaired by bashing the underside with a wrench?” I remarked.
Mark shook his head, “Dunno. Can’t say that inspired much confidence, but as long as it works…”
It didn’t. We sat and we sat. Then we sat some more. And then, after a little while, we continued to sit. It grew hotter and we grew hungrier and we grew thirstier. At one point we took inventory of our possessions and found that Mark still had a small packet of peanuts from Lufthansa. This was divided democratically and each nut was given solemn individual attention. We also discovered that I had thoughtfully packed a trail map of Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan.
The peanuts, perhaps predictably, did nothing to alleviate our hunger and, moreover, made our thirst exponentially worse. Across the aisle two corpulent Spanish matrons were lustily slurping a series of Pepsis until one of them spilled an entire can onto the floor. I stared at it like a cat watching a fat sparrow hopping by. It took every jot of self-control to restrain myself from dropping to hands and knees and lapping up the sticky brown river as it coursed down the passageway.
This carnival of laughs dragged on for another couple hours until we were startled out of our growing catatonia by a sharp twack-twack sound. A rabble of small children had gathered outside to pelt the train with stones. Things were getting jollier by the minute. I was just about to eviscerate myself with a ballpoint pen in order to put an end to the pointless suffering when impulsively, with no warning or explanation, the train lept into action again and we were off.
We arrived in Barcelona five hours behind schedule. Late lunch was going to be late dinner, but at least we learned something: breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day.