Moving house by train

· Long Read Remembering Here&Now

A Christmas story from 2004 by Madhuri.

decorated Xmas tree

Les Diablerets, Switzerland, Friday, Dec. 24

I think the chalet looked, finally, wonderful from top to bottom when we left. Rudra’s a great cleaning-helper once he gets going, and we did a good job. Mr Mermod the builder / taxi-driver / caretaker charged us fr. 30 for the taxi to the bottom of the hill! I guess because of all the bags… 13 suitcases, holdalls, and cardboard boxes!

On the way down the snow-clad mountain in the narrow-gauge train from Les Diablerets to Aigle I said to Rudra, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just ride in this train all the way to Siena?” The stately little transport was so tidy, so warm, so composed, slipping through the blue-white landscape. And our Stuff… tidily disposed in the large luggage area just outside the compartment door; no trouble at all.

But of course this was fantasy.


Stopped in Domodossola. We crossed into Italy twenty minutes ago, and first the taciturn Swiss customs passed through the train, then the more macho Italian ones, with Something-Something FINANZA on the backs of their jackets. One huge brawny guy was led by a huge brawny German shepherd.

A beauty with a grave face just walked through dressed Italian-style: super-pointy gold boots, low-slung jeans with a gold-skinned little bulge of tummy over the top; a t-shirt with the obvious textural complexities of a lace bra underneath. Black leather jacket. Her brow is broad and open, her piled-up hair blond-streaked. On the front of her t-shirt is one huge mascara’d eye. Perhaps she’s thirty-five. My own fashion eye, gone dormant in the Alps, wakes up too!

We’ve changed trains twice. Aigle, Sion. With all our bags and boxes. Two to go: Milano, Firenze.

Here suddenly the snow is gone.


Past Milano. What a circus! The conductor had told us, after consulting a little doohickey he poked with a little pointed thingamy, that the train to Firenze departed from track #7. He did keep saying “Napoli,” but I couldn’t find Napoli on my train map, anywhere. (And yes, I know it’s Naples.) We reached Milano and de-trained into a charging, milling chaos more like India than western Europe. The landscapes we’d passed through, too, had seemed blasted – decrepit, falling-down ruins, old tires. The air grey with mist or pollution or both. Rudra’s never been to Italy; he remarked on the resemblance to India.

On the light-up screen above each track, nowhere did it say Firenze. The Napoli train was leaving from track #8. I left Rudra with the mountains – luckily there were free luggage carts – and dashed off to see where we were supposed to go. But the information office had a queue a half-mile long and no officials were in sight on the platforms. Finally I ran down platform #7 and accosted a pimpled youth in glasses sitting on a bench reading a book. He spoke no English but was helpful – he came with me – asked two policemen who didn’t know; asked a train-driver in his cab, who did. It was the Napoli train.

Six minutes ‘til the train was going to leave! We pushed the two piled carts and I dragged a last rolling bag which did not fit on either one, and helter-skelter down the buckled pavement we went beside the long train. First class lasted far too many cars!

My cart kept veering off to the left trying to smash into the train. I’d drop the handle of the other bag, seize the thing with two hands, right its direction, grab the bag behind me, and keep on. Every time the pavement rippled up this would happen; and it rippled regularly as we tried to speed.

I doubt my poor brother saw it as good exercise, as I did; he doesn’t seem interested in same.

At car #6 I figured we had to just get on or miss the train. We started hoving bags up to an open door and to my surprise friendly hands grabbed each one and lifted. A few American girls were in the vestibule, also going to Firenze. They said they’d stay with the bags while we schlepped. We did this in relays all the way down the crowded, narrow-aisled train to car #11, where our reserved seats were. The train was going lickety-split by this time so this effort was accompanied by swaying stumbles, accidental hooking of bag-bits onto passengers’ sticking-out shoes and clothing, run-over feet, whapped shoulders, and so on. I became very sticky very fast, but adrenaline propelled me nicely.

Before we attempted the last three bags – two of them mammoth – Rudra gave up and said he’d just stay with them where they’d landed and meet me in Firenze. I agreed quite happily. I now have six bags to get down the steps; he has four. And perhaps he can steal the opportunity to smoke there in the vestibule.

All today’s trains stank of smoke, though smoking was not permitted. My spirit did feel freer without Rudra’s presence for a piece of the journey – he is so solid in his gravid soul – and, it seems to me, somewhat oppressed. Perhaps he has also had enough of Switzerland’s multi-levelled chill, and is in wait for Italy. There is, too, something about sitting all alone with a hundred people in the same train-car which is a special kind of solitude: people’s energy supports and flows through me, yet leaves me be. A travelling-partner is also a support, but a distraction too from the blessed speechlessness of just being. The smoke oppresses though – all these people just reek of it, from their puffings on platforms and so on.

Rudra, dear man, must be feeling most awfully oppressed by my luggage – talk about gravid – but he has not complained. He is no athlete – just a spartan – but has rather gaspingly hauled and hefted bags containing heavy masses of paper, a computer, stones, numerous pairs of shoes, food, clothes rolled up and then packed so tightly they are a solid mass, and many other can’t-live-without things. His own hold-all is so heavy with books I cannot lift it.

And now, as I eat one of my miso-and-mustard-and-pickles-on-homemade-multi-grain-bread sandwiches, I reflect how every apple eaten, tissue discarded, sandwich consumed, is that much less luggage. I celebrate each subtraction, however tiny.

My bits of Italian start returning – “binario.” “Signore.” “Per favore.”


Train to Siena. My god, if I’d thought the last change was a circus! Half an hour seemed like enough time to get from track 10 to track 3. But track 3 proved to be hidden away – one had to search for it. I started lugging as soon as I got off the train: first two bags – stop; rush back – two more – carry them a little ahead – stop, etc. After what seemed ages Rudra appeared with just one wheeled one; he’d left the two monsters under a bench. He wanted a trolley but the few we saw were in use. So we leapfrogged bags as fast as we could up along the platform towards the main part of the station; then to the right looking for track #3. Astonishingly soon twenty minutes had passed, and we still didn’t even know where it was – an arrow directed us vaguely down a platform where there was a train on one side, closed offices on another. Rudra was suffering, with his super-heavy bag and smoker’s lungs and computer lifestyle.

Eight minutes to go. Struggle, pant, heave, haul, lift, drop, grab… over and over.

Handles separating from bag-bodies. My backpack, stuffed to the limits of its zipper, lost its carry-loop, and the straps were coming out from their stitching. Rudra’s wheel-less grey bag broke a strap.

Two minutes to go, we’re rounding a corner, track #3 is in sight! Can we make it? It seems impossible. Heave, lift, sweat, peer back, count bags, heave, go on, across a dirty square of tile at the track-head. Now we are beside the train! Barely! The first door is to a bicycle compartment and it’s still open. People are still getting on! I rush up loaded, gasping, hold bags up, people grab and lift.

“Grazie, grazie mille!” I pant, heaving more bags. Rudra struggles up behind with the bag of books, the one with the broken strap. I’m amazed he can lift it at all.

We’re on! I’m amazed – I’m stretched – I’m laughing, I fall in a heap on the bags, the train is moving, just one last woman is swinging up and on. Immediately she’s in my face, telling me in Italian to move my bags.

I’m still catching my breath, and I lose my temper – extremely rare occurrence, but she’d yelled at me and I yell right back in the spontaneous intensity released by athletics: “I’m trying to breathe! Just a minute! A person’s gotta catch their breath! We just dragged these things for half an hour ‘cause there weren’t any carts!” Only then I realized that she is the conductor! I had really yelled right into her face.

But this is Italy, and maybe it’s normal to yell at train conductors. She doesn’t throw me off the train, but insists we move some of the bags off into a separate bicycle-room, where she also has a desk. We’re sitting in the large vestibule on fold-down seats with three-quarters of the luggage around us. Later she comes out, apparently mollified, and punches our tickets. I hope we’re not ejected into some polluted nowhere along the way!

Man, that was a workout! Seven months of hill-climbing pays off! Who needs a gym?

Perhaps I sort of thrive on such situations.

After a bit I ask Rudra if this qualifies as an adventure (he loves adventures, such as having had to spend the night on a bench, and being accosted by police, outside the train station in Aigle when he’d travelled up to Les Diablerets to stay with me) – or is it just suffering? He thinks for a minute. “Suffering as adventure,” he said. “Now, if we’d missed the train, that would have been adventure!”

The train empties at a station except for one man who lurks at the back of the car; he looks at me as I go in with his Italian undressing-eyes. I sit down at this end and have a snack and read Bill Bryson and laugh.


Siena station, 9:00 p.m.

It’s nearly deserted. Spacious, pleasing stone building with arched doorways and polished floors. Mild-to-coldish; a completely different story than the Alps, where my toes were frost-biting in my boots this morning.

We wrestled bags across the ramp which crosses the tracks. As I wheeled a bag over I was caught for a moment in a frequent childhood nightmare, of trying to cross tracks and being unable to move, my legs as if splodging in slow glue.

Rudra suggests I go look for Nisarg and he’ll manage the bags. I take a few of them anyway and go off in search of the lobby. I certainly do not expect her to be on time; she is a Reflector, and they are not obliged to have a sense of it, or at least not consistently. I am happy anyway, so happy, to be standing in front of this empty station looking at rained-on pavement in a new funky country where everything is less safe but looser, more of an adventure. I feel the richness of Italy, like olive oil on pasta with parmigiano, soaking into me.

Presently Nisarg buzzes up in her little silver car and leaps out, all light and shining and grinning and dimpled, her hair tousled around her head. We hug – and hug – and hug – and for those long minutes we are in India, where hugging Is, and I feel her inmost stillness and she feels mine, and we are still together, sharing in the emptiness which unites everything.

“You feel like you came straight from heaven!” she says.

“And you,” say I. Then, because this stillness is clothed by Girl, she admires my elegant travelling-costume (dress, hat, boots, gloves, coat).

I go get Rudra, we load the little car with all the stuff, my god, bags and boxes crammed into the boot and back seat to the ceiling, and then Rudra gets in, his skinny self squashed, barely, into one side of the back. He does not complain. He is just so uncomplaining in general.

Nobody’s on the road this Christmas Eve and it is a joyous ride through remembered countryside, and we’re home in a trice. On the way Nisarg updates me on a sorry love-affair.

Nisarg is the only person I know who can have a broken heart in a state of laughing, shining grace, devoid of blame or bitterness. Confusion, yes – enough to have her on the phone having long conferences with me these last weeks – but tonight she is all glowy bliss. (The man was no match for her anyway.)

We’re at the podere (large farmhouse). I see dry vine-branches on the arbour over the drive – in summer they’d been green and sheltering. We start hauling bags up the two steep flights of stairs to her flat. Then we come through the door and around the corner into… Christmas!

I stop in stunned awe. Nisarg has assembled a Christmas tree, with lights like winking fireflies all over it, and an array of presents underneath! My god!

Rudra and I sit on the couch and stare at it. And stare – and stare. I go all silent. It’s kind of like T.V. – the focus of light – but also it’s touching, and as I sit I feel the chalet-care responsibility leaving my body, my muscles. (It has been big, this underground worry I’d carried since April – especially since Rudra arrived, Rudra whom I cannot govern and who is very likely to leave stove-burners on after he’s taken the teakettle off – though it was I who forgot the pot of carrots steaming on high heat and demolished a formidable double-bottomed soup-pot.)

Yay! No more responsibility for three floors of perfect borrowed house.

Rudra and I are holding snifters of red wine. I can tell it is very good, but I give mine to him after exactly two sips.

Nisarg runs up a few stairs to her study, and puts on… Elvis singing White Christmas! Then he goes into Silent Night, and she tells us the story of the creation of that song just near her hometown of Salzburg. We are laughing.

Nisarg, gracious hostess, says she is honoured that I come as a guest on my travels. I say I am honoured to be here. I add the gift I brought for her to the arrangement.

The long wooden table is set with gleaming plates and glassware. She has, on her wood-stove, cooked minestrone. I cannot eat a thing but go to assemble my sleeping-quarters. She has made my bed so freshly in the little attic room with its window looking out onto the tiled rooftop. Then I duck into the bathroom and have a quick shower in the diminutive tub to wash off the stickiness of travel.

When I get into bed, so cosy with two hot water bottles, I realize how exhausted I am. My body takes to the flat, firm mattress with extreme and joyful relief. My head is cradled just between, barely on, two pillows. My body feels like it has dragged ten bags of great heaviness up the Matterhorn and down the other side.

But all the bags made it, despite the dogged near-panic state of the last changes, and the way bags staggered and loitered and tilted and fell down and hid out behind corners the whole journey.

I sway into a rocking, train-lilted sleep. So deep; so strongly-pulled I am under the surface…


I dream… someone has given me two beautiful flat pieces of rose-quartz, the stone of unconditional love and acceptance. One of them in particular is just gorgeously pink, rich, glowing. I’m showing them to someone.

Then I’m on a grassy lawn in a park. I have become that most beautiful piece of rose-quartz, and a man is holding me suspended by two lengths of twine and swaying me forth and back, forth and back. I am a swing! The word surrender comes to me. I am the soft ecstasy of let-go, where the ‘me’ dissolves into the utter, sublime trust of being moved by something or someone Otherwise.


Christmas Day

Waking is delicious. This body has been stretched and stretched and is so happy. Oh, it revels.

I come down the stairs, brush teeth, peek gingerly out into the main room – Rudra is all wrapped, head to toe, in a quilt on the couch – and see Nisarg peeking in exactly the same manner from her study door at the other end of the room. She giggles and tiptoes past Rudra’s immovable-looking bundled form. Then we are going into enthusiastic talk, but in whispers.

I retreat upstairs to write this. It’s raining out. Life is thrilling, unburdened – though I have enough Stuff here to set up house – but it is not known what will happen.

Time for wrapping myself in my shawl to sit on the cushion-with-back which serves as my meditation chair.


Later. What a meditation! My respect for dramatic physical exercise is much reinforced. Osho’s insistence on physical totality is so right.

I sat in a humming silence so solid I could not move. Like a good book, I just couldn’t put it down. My hands were cupped in each other in perfection and then seemed to disappear. My body felt it’d been stretched in six directions. Most notably, my whole right side had gotten much longer than the left. I loved the cushioned chair, sat back against it, legs loosely folded, and did so enjoy myself in the humming pyramid of Being I had become! I felt pulled into this! My tummy sometimes mentioned persimmons, which I knew to be downstairs – but I could not yet break the spell.

Finally I heard Rudra’s rising from the couch downstairs. Nisarg was doing things in the kitchen at one end of the big room. Time to get up, dress, participate. Search for another gift for her among my jewels.

Loc Casette, Ticino, 25 December 2004

Image credit to Annie Spratt


Madhuri is a healer, artist, poet and author of several books, The Teenage Poems being her latest one.

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