At the end of August, Mrs Mabbsonsea and I celebrated 25 years of marriage with a short trip to Berlin. We first met there in 1989, spending two weeks on the same volunteer team. It was just three months before the Berlin Wall fell in November that year and we have wanted to re-visit for some time and see how the city has changed.
What people seem to be finding hard to believe, as we bore them with our holiday stories, is that we travelled there by train. Not part of the way, but all the way. And back. Who would do such a thing? It cost two or three times as much as air travel and took much longer – about 14 hours, door-to-door.
Flying uses a lot more fuel per km than trains, short flights more so as a greater proportion of the journey is take-off and landing. For that reason, I have decided not to fly. I have been thinking about the givens we work with. For many in my society, their non-negotiable given is that they should be able to do what they want (if they can afford it, and if not, get it on credit). Two examples: they should be able to travel where they want and they should be able to use as much electricity as they want when they want it. But what if the non-negotiable given is the chemistry of the atmosphere? For that to be non-negotiable, other compromises will need to be made, which may be costly. I am lazy and a product of my culture and I don’t make enough of those compromises, but one thing I am doing is not flying.
Travelling by train from Brighton to Berlin, changing in London, Brussels and Koln, gave us a sense of the distance we were travelling. Through the window of the train (except when we were in the Channel Tunnel) we could see how we were moving across the earth. A high-speed train distorts this a bit because I don’t have much of a reference point for what 250 km/h really means, but this sense of place and movement was enhanced on the outward journey because the high speed train broke down. We had to board a slow train at Brussels and travel for an hour and a half through Belgium. At Verviers, buses had been laid on which took us on an extraordinarily scenic tour through the Ardennes to Aachen. There we caught another slow train to Koln. None of the sense of the distances or the grandeur of the countryside or the width of the River Rhein, or views of the cathedrals at Koln or Aachen (where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800), would have happened from a plane. Nor would a nostalgic glimpse of the Schwebebahn, Wuppertal’s historic suspended monorail, which I rode during a school trip in 1980. I think a train goes too fast for my soul to keep up, but it is a whole lot less disconnected from reality than an aeroplane.
Berlin is a long way from here. I think that length of journey is about my limit. So there is a lot of the world I will never see, even if I manage to cobble together enough leave at some point to do a more complex expedition. Part of me feels a bit sad about that, but then even without my flying ban, I couldn’t visit everywhere. I read recently that Jesus lived a fulfilled life without seeing the Grand Canyon. Our greedy consumption of as much oil as we can afford has removed many of the limits to our expectations, but like most over-consumption, it doesn’t seem to have made us happier or better people. Perhaps it is time that we put some limits back on what we will do individually, in order that the limits might be expanded on the chances of the world having a flourishing future.
We loved our trip to Berlin. It’s a fabulous city, with so much thought-provoking and interesting history, incredible architecture and with a great big wood in the middle of it. I’d recommend a visit … but only if you travel there by train!