For the next couple of weeks we’re welcoming a guest author to the blog — one of last year’s #TalesOnRail Artists in Residence, Jack Callahan! Jack is a writer and photographer living on the coast of Maine in the US.
During the winters when I was growing up in New Hampshire, I took swimming lessons at our local pool. The pool room was thick with humidity and chlorine and big lights that looked like portholes lit the pool from below, where the light danced in the water while we swam. The pool was surrounded by high glass walls, always fogged from the heat, outside of which snow swirled out of sight and into the developing night. The two things that stand out to me most from those swim lessons now are how fast my hair would freeze when I left, and a photograph that hung in the hallway upstairs above the pool.
In the cold hallway above the pool, unceremoniously across from the door of the bathroom, hung a photograph of a bridge that fascinated me. It was a snaking bridge with a cottage roof and a foreboding tower, and it slinked out over smooth water like an emissary from the picturesque waterfront behind it, where turrets and flags stood on rooftops waiting to welcome you. It was the setting of a fairytale, and over the course of my swimming career I was told many fanciful stories about the bridge; that the bridge-keeper lived in the tower to prevent people from crossing; that the person who painted the bridge’s shingled roof did so for life, taking years to paint from end to end only to start again as soon as they’d finished.
I forgot about the bridge over the years. Once the setting of so many of my imaginations, it became just another slide in my memory bank, and in the half remembered vision of it I couldn’t recall if it was a real place or a fictional one, if the photo had even been a photo at all and not a painting.
Flash forward about 20 years, and I’m getting off a train in Lucerne, Switzerland as part of the Tales on Rail trip with Rail Europe. I’d never been to Lucerne. I wasn’t even sure the correct way to say the city’s name, since all the local signs spelled it the German way: Luzern. Walking out the train station, the colorful, etched façade of the city stood up on either side of what looked like a docile river, all surrounded in pale blue mountains. Front and center, just a few meters from the door to the train station, stood that bridge, stretching haphazardly from one side of the shore to the other. I saw it only when someone else pointed it out on the bus I was taking to my hotel.
The placid river the bridge stretched out over turned out to be the point where the Reuss River begins to flow out of Lake Lucerne. Lucerne turned out to be an incredible town of grand hotels, cobble stone streets, and all the quiet luxury that you expect lakeside in Switzerland. While none of my other discoveries matched the moment of recognition I’d had when I saw the bridge, which I now learned was called the Kapellbrücke and was originally constructed in 1365, the fact that I had no expectations for the place allowed it to exceed my wildest dreams. Nestled on the edge of the lake beneath gradient mountain peaks stretching to the horizon, I am still amazed that a place like Lucerne was able to sneak up on me.
In today’s world, it’s hard to show up to a new place and be surprised. My usual research diet before a trip takes me from Wikipedia (where I get an introduction to the place’s history), to Google Images (where I acquaint myself with its landmarks) and Google Maps (for orientation purposes). I then finish on social media, to find restaurants and coffee shops and picturesque street corners. This method usually allows me to hit the ground running, but events conspired against me in all the typical ways before traveling with Rail Europe; I was busy; the itinerary was already set; I hopped on the plane from Boston with a spy novel instead of a map. I went into this trip without a plan, and I’m so happy I did.
I’ve had my well-researched travel planning backfire before, but I never realized how much it affected the way I saw a place. What I gain in knowledge and preparedness I lose in surprise. That feeling of accomplishment I have at the end of trips comes at the expense of wonder. It’s always a balance, but chancing upon the Kapellbrüke in Lucerne reminded me of the reason I travel in the first place: that recognition that the world is massive and diverse but not that far removed from my life. I went halfway around the world and stumbled on a childhood memory. You can’t plan that.
Want to join us for this year’s #TalesOnRail Artist in Residence trip? Details here!