Driving backwards

A journey at the window from Wuppertal to Hamburg

The world meanders past us like the flat land in Niedersachsen, Deutschland, while looking backwards out the train window.

I look out the window. As I sit backwards to the direction of travel, the Doppler effect has a double effect on me. What I see, I see later than I would see if I were looking out of the window in the direction of travel.

The seat opposite me is empty. There are crumbs on the floor. Someone ate something crumbly, it wasn't me. Today I'm sitting opposite to the direction of travel. The train seat computer had this idea and sat me down like this. Backwards. Some people get sick from it. I look out and the world slides out of my view, not into it. It appears in the corner of my eye on the right at breakneck speed, expands to a window area just over a metre wide and then disappears amazingly slowly into the nothingness of the car body. Does the train swallow the world or does the light of the world not reach my eye because the train obstructs my view?

Matterhorn. Treeless meadow.

Supporting roles

I understand panorama cars. The world isn't getting downsized that much. It's opening up in front of us. Like a stage. Enter leading man. Zermatt. The Matterhorn. Here it's a treeless meadow. More like a supporting role. When I look backwards from the train, nothing comes towards me, everything stays behind, flees from me.

Thomas Wolfe:

He had caught many of the images that haunted him through the train window from a passing landscape. (...)
I am - he thought - a part of all that I have experienced, that has experienced me. And the experience has no existence except the one I granted him.

Thomas, Wolfe, Schau Heimwärts, Engel!, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg, 1954, Seite 151

The train arrives at Bremen central station. It is slowing down. "Exit direction left." When did we forget how to see for ourselves in which direction we have to get off? We have not forgotten, we are only slowly being incapacitated. "Please use all doors to board." We are not encouraged to do so when we exit. So they want us to go IN through all doors, but not OUT through all doors?

It rattles, it rustles. Suitcases rumble against the seats, bags would be quieter now. Do windproof synthetic fibre jackets crackle louder when you take off your clothes than good old waxed cotton? The new passengers are sitting. The new train boss is more eloquent than the old one. He goes beyond a simple greeting, we learn about the delayed arrival times, but there is no apology for the delay.

The train rolls out of Bremen and accelerates imperceptibly. Already the allotment gardens are lagging behind me faster than the exit tracks of the station did. Do the allotment gardens deserve that? There was not so much time for them. Time shortens space, Einstein knew this as well as the French philosopher Paul Virilio, who believed that speed destroys space and condenses time.

Good. The ugly suburban office factories with their forced parking deserve to be left behind. The world is accelerating relatively fast, how can you sit back in your uncomfortable second class IC seat?

White stripes have been painted on a suburban platform. They wipe past in grey. On the flat green pastures large puddles of grey sky. Now the farmers can shine, the cattle can drink from it, but the grass has to drown. The grey of the sky is not uniform, it shines brighter on the horizon, a horizon that, like everything else, does not rise before me but remains behind me. I am moving away from it at 160 kilometres an hour. There is a horizon in front of me as well, but I do not see it. For this I would have to turn my head, twist my neck, or move. I don't turn around.

Lush green pastures in January. Next to them are crops wrapped in plastic. Picked up. Not driven into a barn. That's where the holidaymakers live now, while the hay ferments lactic acid in white plastic. Horses do not tolerate it well.

The winter barley has also risen. In narrow rows they stand at right angles to the direction of travel, they stand crosswise. Like into a comb I can briefly see the end of a row, very briefly. Then the next row. The winter barley unfolds like a book before my flat horizon. Lower Saxony.


I see the train rushing past my window into my past. With every gap in the carriages, there's a short bang. The air between the cars is compressed, compressed and in shock-like contractions it escapes and simply fizzles out into the brief moment when two time journeys meet.

Birches line a forest. Who sewed them there? They shine so beautifully white in front of all the brown pale grey that has the first month of the year so firmly in its grip.

Not only birches line a forest, paths also line trees, fences line paths, the tracks sew the landscape into individual pieces, the stitching is a threshold, my track is double stitched, we are in Germany, it holds better.

The forest on my right is young. If I were faster on the road, it would grow faster than I am aging.

Bomm. Another train.

Trains usually only come towards us. They rarely pass us. It's different with cars. Is that why train travel is so relaxing?

The landscape in my view is disorderly. Well, orderly perhaps, but not at right angles. Now and then paths run alongside the tracks, at a proper distance and sometimes even parallel. This means that path and track never meet. The path has disappeared. I did not see if it ended in frustration or if it decided to go in another direction. Maybe away from the track, into an indeterminate distance to my right. Or maybe he felt attracted by the track and crossed it, cut his run, pierced it, stopped by a barrier, manually operated, automatic or semi-automatic. Or the path used a bridge quite freely to cross, looked at the track in its two directions and then set off on the other side to continue.

The station of Tostedt looks better than the one of Wuppertal. That was not difficult now.

After the station the number of tracks next to us doubled. Now there are two tracks next to ours on the right. They probably lead into a parallel universe of estimated dimensions, where I exist twice.

Soft waves have crept into the meadows. Here the farmer with his tractor can drive uphill a bit and then downhill again. A welcome change. Like drinking an Alt instead of a Pils in the evening.

The landscape swings up to heights. Then an Aldi.

Again a train. No bomm.

The two tracks are further away from me now. Between them a grass strip. Spaces between them. Heinz Ehrhardt. Made. I can see him for a moment. The train.

Stations are like the faces of fellow passengers. You forget them before you see them.

We're going north. Bremen with its Hanseatic pepper sacks is over, ahead of us is Hamburg - is there even one left? Harburg also promises it, the castle, I have never seen one.

The sky has turned into a uniform grey ceiling, the glow on the horizon has been left behind. In the reflection of the window glass, the neon tubes of the train lighting try to illuminate something like heat, like a strip of dawn they divide the sky. But it is already dawning again.

Noise barriers. No one can expect train passengers to have to put up with the noise of playgrounds or be forced to listen to the lawnmowers and DIY enthusiasts in their garages. You have your peace on the train.

I write without a keyboard on an iPad, would my old ABC typewriter with built-in printer, designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in the 1950s, be a nuisance here?

Hamburg-Harburg. On the platform to my right is a brick building. It is surrounded by a mossy lawn. On it a grey metal post, which carries the signs for the platform number and the platform area. 3B. Set right next to each other. In Wuppertal, numbers and letters remain separate. To the right of it stands a lonely conifer about three meters high. Next to it are two concrete blocks about one meter long, about knee high. They shine moist. In front and behind, below and above, the surfaces are rounded, on the sides straight. It doesn't seem to invite you to sit down. All about. I can't tell.

There we go. This place exists twice now. There and in my memory. Perhaps in the memories of others. But could they write what they have seen?

I'm driving across a mighty river. It is full of water that flows to the right out of my sight. No ships.

All mixed up. Houses. Streets. Cars. Bridges. Graffiti. Signals. Trees. Containers. Caravans. Allotments. Rainbowls. Overturned umbrellas. Piles of gravel. Bridges. Two bridges. A noise barrier. It shields the tracks from a highway. Is that so?

It's all messed up. But the sleepers. They're concrete, always the same distance apart and I'm bolted to them. Sleeper bodies, ballast bed, steel tracks, wheel tyres, car bodies and seats - everything is welded together into one unit, but the tracks and the sleepers have to stay behind, while my time and my train inexorably move into the future, which I cannot see because I only look into the past. Backwards.

On the right, some cars and trucks have now joined the train. They are travelling at approximately the same speed in the same future direction. Oh. No, they're not. So much is separating us. In a car, you can only see the past through the rearview mirror. You always look ahead.

I've driven 410 miles and never looked back. I'm getting out of the car. Maybe on the next train I'll look ahead. I am curious if the world looks different then.

Driving backwards - Forward or backward?
Forward or backward?

tl, dr;

I took the train to Hamburg and made notes, the world passing by behind me.

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