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 I didn’t grow up with trains but vividly remember the time my brother demonstrated the model steam engine he had built himself in our kitchen in Ireland. Although motionless (mounted on a stainless steel base), it was a thing of beauty and my fascination was literally ignited. I watched wide-eyed as the shining pistons gained momentum and steam belched out at regular intervals. Years later when travelling on the orient express, I recalled my very first encounter with a proper steam engine. Thank you Seamus! Indeed, little did I know then that Swiss trains would come to hold great meaning for me.

I arrived in Switzerland for the first time in my life in 1981 on the night train from Paris to Lugano. It was the ‘Quatorze-Juillet’ and fireworks accompanied the train all the way. The young priest, who was travelling in the same compartment, got off when we arrived in Basel at 5am as he was studying in Fribourg and had to change trains. He returned minutes later with a box of Belgian chocolates shaped like shells. In those days, trains weren’t hermetically sealed, so I could pull down the window to receive the present. He explained that Switzerland was landlocked but ensured me that I was very ‘bienvenue’ – most welcome! He also taught me my very first words in Swiss German. ‘Es git nüt wos nit git…’ hard to explain even in German, but meaning something like, there is nothing that does not exist. It kind of sums up the Swiss ‘can-do’ mentality, very much present in the mechanics of their watchmaking, the building of viaducts and tunnels, and engineering on difficult terrain in general.

I continued as day broke beautifully over lakes and hillsides, mountain passes and wedding-cake churches, to arrive in Lugano.

After spending three months in Switzerland, it was time to return to Paris to fly home again. On that trip I met a wonderful elderly lady from Basel with whom I talked about my stay in the Ticino and my newly found love for cooking and sourcing from the plethora of fresh products at the market in Lugano. How surprised I was at home in Ireland some weeks later, to receive a complete set of beautifully illustrated books on French cuisine and a leaflet explaining the ‘ins and outs’ of making Swiss Fondue (rubbing the inside of the caquelon with garlic was an all-important step before adding any other ingredient).

Such are the ways of train journeys.

After moving here in 1982 there were the regular trips on the Glacier Express to Bevers in the Engadin where we tended a garden and that 8 hour trip from Buchs to Vienna in 1986 to visit a friend who was studying Art at the Konservatorium, travelling in sub-zero temperatures in January through snowy mountainous landscapes – not unlike being on the polar express. On my way back to Switzerland a little man entered the compartment and standing in the doorway dressed in heavy green woolen hunting gear, wearing tweed breeches and a hat adorned with pheasant feathers, looking not unlike a leprechaun, announced: “The doors of paradise are made of marzipan. Is there a place free?” Everyone had to smile but we soon found out that he was a renowned professor, who was on his way back from a conference on ecology and sustainability where he had been the key-note speaker. This was 1986 remember, so somewhat ahead of his time too. Another statement of his has stayed in my mind ever since: “Zärtlichkeit ist Umweltschutz!”, which translates loosely as, ‘Kindness is environmental protection’.

If you love something, you will do your utmost to keep it safe. Be kind!

The restaurant compartment is one of my favourite places to write and I often took the train for a day trip to Lake Geneva to visit Corbusier’s Villa “Le Lac” on the shores of Lac Léman. I had been studying at the University in Lausanne the previous year and loved going back to visit. My professor for literature was also the curator of the Villa. On one such occasion I took the last train back to St. Gallen from Lausanne and it was in the restaurant compartment that I met Andrea who was to become a very dear friend. Over Riz Cazimir at that smart white table with the tan leather Cassina chairs, (more like a table in an elegant restaurant than the dining car of a regular train), we discussed art and architecture and as the train sped through the night, we made plans to visit the newly renovated Rietberg Museum in Zürich as soon as possible. Sharing meals is a blessing…

For our 30th wedding anniversary, Remo kindly invited me to stay in Principe Leopoldo in Lugano. We decided to travel down by train, like in the good old days. Needless to say we had a ball, visiting friends who were staying in Hermann Hesse’s former home at the time (whom we happened to bump into in Al Porto) and just enjoying being back in Bella Ticino again. It was all going great up until the moment when we got to the train station to board the train back to St. Gallen on Sunday evening. Crowds of people lined the platform as an over-filled train entered the station. The volcano had erupted in Iceland and all flights from Milano had been cancelled. I refused point blank to get on the train. Remo was feeling uneasy as he had to be back in time for work next morning. Two minutes later another train, unannounced and practically empty, entered the station. Remo glanced at me wryly and I tried not to look too smug as we boarded. The train was old and the waitress in the galley kitchen was very concerned as she couldn’t get the coffee machine to work. Remo took off his jacket and placed a tea towel theatrically over his arm as he straightened up to become the train’s new head waiter. He got the coffee machine working and as some travellers were being quite nasty towards the waitress because there was no bread to be had with their soup, he explained that today everything was a little bit different. Everyone smiled because it really was like a comical sketch. Laughter leavens life! They were all supposed to be flying to somewhere from somewhere else but were forced to take the slower route. People from all over the world, now connecting as if they had known each other forever, on this little train, chugging its way through the alps with a funny waiter.

There is one train though, that appears only for a short time in Switzerland and is exclusively for children. It’s called the ‘Märli-Tram’. Invented in 1958 by the department store Jelmoli as a Christmas attraction, it employs a fleet of actresses each year who, dressed as angels (with wings) tell the children a fairy story while the tram travels across the glistening streets of Zürich.

What was it that C.S. Lewis said? One day you will be old enough for fairytales… I surely am!

Wherever you go in 2024, try taking the train. May your encounters be good ones and leave you with stories to tell.

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