The Road to Hel
is Paved with Good Intentions
“It will not stop here tonight.”
“Not at all?”
“It won’t stop here at all?” I say, trying to damp down the edge to my voice.
The guy in the Deutsche Bahn uniform looks at me and shrugs, meaning he doesn’t understand. I’m embarrassed because I don’t speak German and because in my oversized coat I think I look like a little lost child.
Trying again, I say, “The sleeper train won’t come?”
“The sleeper?” he says. “Der Schlafwagen, nein – she will not be stopping in Köln tonight.”
So I work for this lefty, liberal arts organisation and we’re doing this lefty, liberal arts project around writing and the environment. We’re trying to do for climate change what Dickens did for poverty: eventually, a West End Musical. No, not that. What I mean is that we’re trying to use literature to change the way we think and talk about climate change.
This is a project with five partners, five writers and five schools working in five different countries and two different hemispheres, so it takes some wrangling. Skype’s great, and we have a group call every month to keep things ticking over, but I’m sure you can imagine that occasionally we just need to spend two days locked in a room together. At the start of the project, there was a meeting in London; this is the midway point, a year in, and we’re meeting in Hel. And yes that is a place, and yes I did rinse it for absolutely all it was worth. “We’re all going to Hell,” I said to my friends, “but I’m going next week.” You get the idea.
A few months before the trip, in a staff meeting, we begin talking through logistics. The plan is that a person or people from each of the five international organisations will fly into Gdansk and then be driven together to this peninsula at the tip of Poland.
“…if you’re an environmentally conscious arts organisation and you’re working internationally, can you actually, realistically avoid air travel?”
Flights to Gdansk are short and cheap, like a lot of European air travel these days, but this is a project about the environment we’re working on, isn’t it? And so some absolute joker at this meeting says, “You should go by train,” and instead of saying, No, shut up forever, like the reasonable people I know in my heart we are, somebody else says, “That’s an interesting idea.”
It all sort of spirals from that. Because of course it is interesting to wonder: if you’re an environmentally conscious arts organisation and you’re working internationally, can you actually, realistically avoid air travel? Is the train in any way viable as an alternative?
I’m the administrator at Free Word, which makes me responsible for these kind of logistics, so I look up the journey. The internet helpfully informs me that there will be four legs (not including the bus to Hel) and that it will take twenty-seven hours. Twenty-seven hours. Can we all just stop for a minute and think about how many hours that is? But what a bloody adventure, and anyway, Sam, our Digital Producer, has asked me to write a blog about the trip, which means I can view any potential misadventure through the lens of what a great story it will hopefully make later on.
Making the journey from our organisation are me, Eleanor, our Executive Director, and Rose, our Director – because after all, “there’s no adventure,” my friend quips, “like an adventure with your boss.”
It sounds sort of like the set-up to a very niche joke, doesn’t it? A Director, an Executive Director and an Administrator walk into a bar… And the huge great punchline of the whole thing is the twelve-hour sleeper train that will rattle us over the Polish border while we doze in our bunk beds. In the run-up to the journey, people focus on the sleeper train a lot, and not because they’re dying out so much as – well, come on. What a mental image.
“Bunk beds,” laughs our colleague. “You have to take a photo. I’m going to get you one of those Selfie Sticks so that I can see what you all look like.”
Ha ha, we all laugh. Ha ha ha.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing.
3.04pm depart London St. Pancras International
→ 6.05pm arrive Bruxelles-Midi Eurostar
7.28pm depart Bruxelles-Midi
→ 9.15pm arrive Köln HBF
10.28pm depart Köln HBF
→ 9.30am arrive Poznan Glowny
10.06am depart Poznan Glowny
→ 1.45pm arrive Gdansk Glowny
Bus to Hel
I’ve only taken the Eurostar once before and I’m quite excited. I like the Eurostar, even if in principle more than in practice; I like that we built a big tunnel under the sea and then put a train inside it even though we already had planes. It’s charming. Anyway, I’m scared of flying, and I get motion-sick in cars, but train travel is brilliant and I am so excited to do this big, epic, stupid voyage.
Because yes, it’s stupid in a lot of ways and we kind of know that. Twenty-seven hours! I mean who even has time for that. We’re a charity, we’re harangued and busy and understaffed enough as it is, but – who knows? Maybe it will be easy and brilliant and we’ll never need to fly again.
Sitting backwards, watching the flat Belgian countryside out of the window, I think to myself: anyway, this is what you miss when you fly. The world itself, the world you’re passing through as, at this speed, the hills and the trees and the second-long snatches of strangers’ lives bleed into one another, the colours blurring, the lines blurring, all for the briefest of moments before they spill over the horizon you’re leaving behind and cease, for you, to exist. This is what you miss when you fly.
By one of those weird quirks of advance rail fares, it’s cheaper to go first class than standard class from Brussels to Cologne and it turns out we get dinner on the way. As I’m a vegetarian and this is continental Europe, the porter looks at me like I am a crazy person and then gives me a tray of mystery foodstuffs. I’m genuinely unable to identify a single thing by sight except maybe a tomato (spoilers: yes, it was a tomato) but that’s fine because it’s delicious and I’m a 20-something urchin and it is FREE.
As I sit there in the lap of luxury, I remember I’m going to have to write about this journey. What on earth will I say? I wonder. It’s going so well. Can I really write a whole thing about how I went from one place to another place and had a nice dinner?
After dinner, there’s coffee, and as the porter hands me my cup he says something to a man at the table opposite us about the strikes delaying trains in Germany. We ask about the strike (“they want to work less hours for money,” he says, and I wonder whether that means he’s in a different union or a bloody SCAB) and Eleanor asks if he thinks it will affect our connection, the sleeper to Poznan.
The porter waves a hand. “There may be some few hours’ delay,” he says.
“But we’ll get where we’re going?”
“Yes, yes. You will sleep, and in the morning you wake up and you will not be in Poland maybe, but a few hours later you will.”
We thank him and go back to drinking our coffee and reading our books. It doesn’t seem to be a very big deal.
We have to wait in Cologne for an hour and a half, and I’ve never been before – I’ve never even been to Germany – so I immediately a) take a photograph of the sausage shop in the station (which accidentally makes it look like the guy behind the counter is seriously ashamed, sorry bro) and then b) bustle everyone outside to look at the Cathedral. It’s beautiful and gothic and there’s a full moon. I shout things like “bonus travel!” and “Cathedral!!” and then I make everyone walk to the nearest bridge so I can look at the Rhine, too.
Eleanor and Rose are good-humoured about all this despite, I imagine, internally deciding never to take me anywhere ever again. As we have a long layover, there’s even time for a swift drink in a nice pub by the station, safe in the knowledge that soon we will be on the sleeper train, snoozing our way towards Poland.
As we clatter back up the steps towards the concourse, elated at how well it’s all going, Rose says, “Oh, this is what the point of life is! Not just getting on a bloody plane.”
I’d like to say that at that moment there was a rumble of thunder in that distance. There wasn’t one, but I’d like to say it anyway.
When we get inside, our train has no platform and it’s sort of highlighted in red, so Rose goes to ask a man what all that means. Eleanor and I stand about unconcernedly, chatting away until Rose, ashen-faced, bobs back towards us through the crowd: “He says it’s cancelled.”
SFX: The sound of a penny dropping. Our fearless adventurers stand on the busy station concourse and look a bit lost.
Because, yeah, okay, we’d talked about it a lot before we went, and we knew it was going to be difficult. We knew there were ten million things that could go wrong, that we could get lost or stuck or delayed or even miss a connection, but I don’t think in my wildest dreams I imagined that the trains just…wouldn’t run?
We divide and conquer, tackling different members of staff. Mine, rudely but with the sort of bold optimism I will not see again for many hours, tells me it isn’t cancelled at all and we need to go to platform seven. We have literally nothing better to do, so off we all trundle, still in relatively good spirits (I would argue we were still at stage one, denial) to platform seven, where nothing is happening.
I find another member of staff, a man in a Deutsche Bahn uniform who’s very quietly and serenely answering people’s questions in the far corner of the platform. The reason he’s able to do this is that there’s a big old chap standing at his elbow, looking everything up on his phone. The member of staff is visibly relaying first the question and then the answer between the old man (let’s call him Googler) and each questioner in turn, but nobody addresses Googler directly. I start to wonder if I’m the only person who can see him. Maybe he’s the railwayman’s dæmon?
I tell them what train I’m looking for and to their eternal credit, neither of them laugh in my face. But the Deutsche Bahn man is unrelenting.
“The sleeper?” he says. “Der Schlafwagen, nein.”
The train, he tells me, is still running, but there’s no chance of us meeting it; for reasons he cannot explain to me and does not seem to really know himself, it will not be stopping in Cologne tonight.
Here’s a fact: I can’t think about the environment without thinking about the apocalypse. I’m depressingly inactive and curiously disempowered in the face of climate change, because it is too big and it frightens me, and when I try to imagine the future, it’s pure Hollywood: chaos, destruction, the end of days.
As I walk back along the platform to find Eleanor and Rose, I try to think about why we’re doing this – why it is we’re now stranded in the middle of a country where none of us speaks the language at 10 o’clock at night – but thinking about why we’re doing this means trying to think about climate change.
The station looks like any other train station I’ve been through in any other country, billboards, benches, but in a flash, all I can picture is the apocalypse: this vast, wide network of tunnels echoing, empty of people, paint peeling, that same billboard advert with the little boy on it left up forever and ever. And the smell of rust, of metal and concrete left entirely to the mercies of water. I see Cologne as Venice; the Rhine as we saw it earlier, still under the moonlight, with its black waters rising as steadily and as implacably as the sun, until the bridge that crosses it becomes less a feat of human engineering than a feat of memory.
We need to work out what to do next, so we don’t get stuck on this bloody train platform all night, and I push the images out of my mind, but I’m angry with myself. It’s terrible, thinking like this: it frightens me and it disempowers me, but I can’t help it. I do it anyway.
As far as we can tell, there’s pretty much one train still running in Germany tonight, and we have a choice. If we go back down to the information booth in the station concourse, they may be able to sort something out for us, but most likely we will need to wait until the next Poznan train runs in the morning. Because of connections, this will delay our journey to the extent that we will miss the first entire day of the day-and-a-half-long meeting we’ve come all this way for to begin with.
And that means…we have to fly. There’s nothing else for it if we want to make the meeting – and we won’t get another chance to be in a room with these people before the project finishes next year.
It’s not an easy decision to make, giving up when we’ve come all this way, but it also is, because we only have a split-second to make it in. The last train in Germany is screaming into the station and we either stay the night in Cologne and try to continue on from here in the morning, or we get on this train to Frankfurt, which has a busier airport and, we suspect, more options in terms of last-minute flights.
So we board the train.
The journey’s supposed to take a little over an hour, but it takes more than two. We keep slowing down in the middle of dark, unfamiliar countryside and sitting there quietly for unspecified amounts of time, listening to the engine tick over. At the start of the train ride, things have gone so wrong that we are hysterical enough to be in good spirits, but by the end we’re all just tired and disappointed.
Although we are adults, you’re never too old to call your mum for help, and Eleanor calls hers and asks for a hand with booking flights. There aren’t many from Frankfurt to Gdansk that will get us there in time and affordably, which means we have to go via Copenhagen. So I was wrong after all: I thought the punchline to this joke was the sleeper train, and it isn’t even that. It’s the absence of a sleeper train. It’s coming all this way and trying so hard to avoid flying only to get two planes instead of one.
A Director, an Executive Director and an Administrator walk into a bar, but the bar doesn’t exist today, and also it’s a train.
Set-up: How many arts organisations does it take to save the planet? Punchline: This whole misadventure has ended with us doing more harm than we’d have done if we’d just flown in the first place. Ha ha ha.
I don’t even have the headspace to read my book and just sit dumbly looking out of the window at the lights of little houses in little German towns I’ll probably never visit. I think about a bit of Daniel Kitson stand-up I saw once, where he said that there should be a word for the feeling you get when your train grinds to a halt in some field between stations, when you look out at all the houses with all the people you don’t know in them and sense, for a moment, the lives you haven’t lived. I think about asking Sam to make one up.
3.04pm depart London St. Pancras International
→ 6.05pm arrive Bruxelles-Midi Eurostar
7.28pm depart Bruxelles-Midi
→ 9.15pm arrive Köln HBF
10.28pm (ish) depart Köln HBF
→ 12.50am (ish) arrive Frankfurt Hbf
9.35am depart Frankfurt Airport
→ 10.50am arrive Copenhagen Airport
2.20pm depart Copenhagen Airport
→ 3.15pm arrive Gdansk Airport
Bus to Hel
I don’t want to say this was a cursed trip, but by the time the heating broke on the second plane, I was beginning to suspect Poland was actually a myth. (Spoilers: Poland is not a myth.) Our journey took 28 hours door-to-door, but even things that feel interminable aren’t actually interminable, and eventually we made it to the Hel Marine Station on a peninsula at the top of Poland. And was it worth the trip?
You bloody bet! They’ve got seals at the Hel Marine Station! And I made friends with their dog, so I had a great time, anyway.
No, but: was it worth the actual trip? All that hassle and fuss, trying and failing to avoid going by plane? I guess the answer is that I don’t know.
It’s easy to wave this whole thing away as a bit of fluff, an experiment we tried and failed, and then move on. After all, the amount of international travel involved in this project is a drop in the ocean compared to what some bigwigs make every morning just for breakfast meetings, isn’t it? So who cares? Why is it down to overstretched arts charities to make 28 hour train journeys instead of just hopping on a plane?
I guess because if climate change is any kind of story at the moment, it’s a story about how lots of little actions can add up to a big, unpleasant whole. And if you’ve always wanted to feel like you matter, it’s your lucky day, because in this story, everything we do and everything we don’t do matters. When it comes to climate change, small differences might be all we have the power to make, but they’re worth making and thinking and talking about – and writing about – because the alternative? Well, the alternative is too frightening to even consider.
Bus from Hel
6.30pm depart Gdansk Airport
→ 7.50pm arrive London Luton Airport