Train journeys and the Rules of the Game

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In all our time together, J. and I have rarely lived in the same place. This might seem strange or unbearable to some people but it’s something that I’ve got used to over the years. Of course, there are drawbacks. Sometimes I long to be able to spend an evening with him in the middle of the week or cook and then stroll in the Berlin parks as we used to do. Everything needs planning and there’s no room for spontaneity. You also have to accept waking up alone most of the time which is hard and if the separation is too long, no telephone calls or emails can seem to fill the void between you. The first journey I used to make to visit J. regularly was from Lyon to Chambéry. It wasn’t particularly long and was one of the loveliest imaginable along the smooth waters of the Lac du Bourget where I could see the Dent du Chat before arriving in Chambéry with its parks and pink villas. The next one, from Mulhouse to a small town in the Black Forest was slightly more adventurous and involved changing trains twice and taking a tram across Basel from the French to the German station. From there, the route followed the Rhine via charming little towns through the hills. I remember that I had to get up early to return to teach in Alsace on Mondays and felt so melancholy as the mist rose up from the river or the first rays of sun stroked my face.

Now of course, I travel regularly from Berlin to Munich which takes much longer than the other journeys (5-6 hours). At first it seemed interminable and boring but somehow I’ve grown to love the time in the train and it seems to go by so quickly. For a start, I read more than ever and can often shut myself away in my book while the landscapes whizz by. The mournful, snow covered woods and graveyards are now gleaming and alive with the summer. Somehow, it also seems to be like a safe little world in the train where fellow travellers eat, chat, play, sleep and read. One time when I was coming back from Leipzig on a stormy night, it was so peaceful and warm in the carriage that I just didn’t want the journey to end. Life is so much simpler inside when you’re headed somewhere and free of any obligations. It’s when you get there that you have to think about them again. Travelling also gives you the chance to meet people you’d never normally get to talk to and hear wonderful stories. I’ve never forgotten the woman from Nice who told me about her grandchildren as we travelled North or the man from Freiburg and his stories of his time in London or A. who also visits her boyfriend in Munich and who studies art. Of course, with each journey, there’s also the excitement and joy of meeting him again and the two days together followed by goodbyes which never seem to get any easier but that doesn’t stop me savouring the time away from everything in the train, eagerly turning the pages or drifting into pleasant dreams.

As any traveller knows, one of the worst things about coming back is the empty fridge, unless you live with someone thoughtful enough to keep it well stocked with all your favourite things. I’m not and so this inevitably means going to the supermarket just after I get back, although I can’t face this without a cup of tea first.. My shopping trip was fairly successful but frustratingly, I always seem to buy things I already have and forget things I need. Today, I longed for something simple but tasty and settled on potato salad. I don’t much like the regular ones you buy in supermarkets with sloppy mayonnaise and acidic onions but J’s mother makes a delicious one, all golden and steaming in a large glass bowl. I remember a wonderful scene in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, one of my favourite films of all time, when the some of the staff of the Marquis de la Chesnaye make anti-Semitic comments about him but his chef defends him by saying that only someone of class would know the proper to make a potato salad is by pouring white wine vinegar over them while they’re still warm. This was exactly the kind I too wanted to make and the one below is a liberal adaptation of that given to me.

Warm potato salad (serves 4)

1 kg potatoes

150 ml vegetable stock

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 onion, finely chopped (red or spring ones work well)

1 clove garlic

A little sunflower oil

Salt and pepper

  1. Begin by washing the potatoes and cutting off any dark bits. You can either skin the potatoes to begin with or wait until they’re cooked but still warm. I prefer to do it before to avoid burning my fingers but I’ll leave it up to you. Put them into a saucepan and fill with just enough water to barely cover them. Add some salt and cook on a medium heat with the lid on for about 20 mins or until cooked.
  2. When they’re ready, drain and leave to cool slightly. Remove the skins if you haven’t done so before and cut into slices. Don’t worry of they fall apart as they don’t have to look perfect.
  3. Heat the stock in a small saucepan and add the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Still well then remove from the heat and pour over the warm potatoes until they have absorbed the liquid and are neither too moist nor too dry. Add extra vinegar if needed.
  4. Toss in the onions and crushed agrlic, pour over a little oil and mix well before enjoying with crusty bread or tender fish.

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