essay

57640 eastward bound

The late summer train leaves Prague, heading east, crowded with students, tourists, grannies. Past the city outskirts, I settle into the sensations of the train ride, the motion and the collective sound of small mechanical train parts that tick, rattle and ring, a thousand little springs and bells going all at once. A kind of boredom sets in, mostly the annoyance of too many loud voices of my fellow passengers, noises which unmoor coherent thought and hamper useful daydreaming. The young woman seated across from me receives an unending series of instant messages, usually with a tight smile pressed on her lips, sometimes splitting into a poorly suppressed fit of momentary laughter at her interlocutor’s apparent wit.

The clouds are dark and heavy on the left side of the rails, while on the right, it is clear and sunny. We ride along a chance cleft in the weather, a storm front moving in perpendicular to our path, and I have he feeling of experiencing two distinct days at once; a contrasting one for each brain hemisphere. Then, we pass through a managed forest of regularly-spaced pines, and the light of the low-hanging sun strobes through the train car unpleasantly, a visual vibration jarringly out of sync with the soothing lullabye of the train. I close my eyes, but my eyelids only filter the pulsing light with the reddish tint of blood and flesh. The shifting intensities trigger a mild synesthesia, and in the center of my head, I can almost hear a series of surging whooshes, like my own pulsing blood at triple speed.

We are not just travelers from place to place, we are also travelers through realms of light. As the day progresses in steady motion, the reality of my experience of is modulated by changes in ambient light that come into the train car from the outside.

In Budapest, I change to a bus. Passing through flat lands, the sun’s rays skim the tops of every grass blade, touching each with silver, a gauzy scrim spread out over pasture and field. Fingers of this light cut through gaps in the scattered trees, seeming to clutch at them as if to pull them out by the roots, but instead merely dappling the deep shade beneath with bright, dancing spots. Sometimes, a lone falcon sits on a fencepost like a mute sentinel, taking note of our passing. As my eye is carried far out onto the horizon, the solidity of the hills melts gradually into soft blue forms that seem false, like stage cutouts, and separated from the sky by a slight darkness of a matching hue. Strips of tilled earth alternate with shining webs of vine-draped fences and the drooping black lines of the electrical network. I see a green region, then a blue-green one, and then further on, one that is blue. As the land recedes from view, the farther places become bluer. The air itself, like the sky, is blue.

We reach the Ukrainian border just as evening is falling, there is a long line of vehicles waiting to pass customs. It is clear this will take some time. We are let off the bus, and I try to see to the end of the line. There is tension in the air as the many travellers have had to give up momentarily the free sensation of movement with a sudden halt to confront the bureaucracy and armed guards of the border control. As I step out, a huge cloud of crows flies overhead. From the narrow channels between the parked trucks and buses where I am standing, I see it pass as a black veil, crackling with flapping wings and anxious caws.

I stop for the night in a hotel near some train tracks in Ternopiľ, the eastern extreme of my journey. Floating in through the open window, along with the night air, is the sound of every train, coming and going, the song of rolling metal and churning gasses. I can also hear the sounds of the platform announcements, reverberating through the distance until their substance is lost in the waves of echo that they stir up, seeming to say, “your journey is not over, not yet.”


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 21st post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

Two other filecasts are related to this one by theme and geography.

58060 east by rail ~
58066 penumbra