With a heavy heart we packed our bags, said goodbye to our friends, and headed out of Paris.
On the way out we made sure to stop by our favorite bakery and pick up a pile of delicious pastries for ourselves and the friends we would be meeting in Germany. Some of Natalie’s close friends from college were staying in Berlin and let us stay with them!
On the way to the station we saw even more fantastic architecture! We hadn’t had a chance to wander up this way before – it was less quaintly Parisian and more industrial, closer to a concrete, business-type city. The people were still stylishly dressed, of course.
At the East Station we saw an outdoor exhibit on some of the world’s strangest buildings.
Bonus points for looking like a space colony. Many of these were in Japan, yet another mark for the mutual admiration that the two countries seem to have for each other. It’s such a big cultural exchange that Mariage Frères, a fantastic French tea company has a Japanese division – the only country in Asia that merits a full Mariage Frères store.
After a bit of figuring out where our train was at the station, we got on and peacefully rode through the French countryside onward to Germany and Berlin. Along the way we had to change trains, and about fifteen minutes after we did, we realized that something had not made it with us in the transfer. Our bag full of delightful French pastries was spiriting away from us on another train! Natalie’s leggings were also in the bag, but those were replaceable. After a vain attempt to recover the bag by calling the train company, we let the treats go and continued on to Berlin. A quick walk through the residential neighborhood of Moabit, which borders the station and is surrounded by rivers, we arrived with the rest of our belongings to a warm welcome at our friends’ apartment.
Part of Europe’s magic is that you can get on a train in the morning and be in a completely different country in the afternoon, complete with a different language and very different views on how the same batch of ingredients should be prepared to make food. We’re moving on to France today, via train through the Southern Alps. I am unsure of where Italy ends and France begins. On this side of the EU, borders are easy, imperceptible. And the landscape looks the same: sun-drenched fields and mountains clothed in vegetation showing the first hints of fall foliage in yellow and red.
We disembark at Chambery and catch a local train to Grenoble. The scenery rolls by effortlessly again and I can’t help but think that Europe seems so very small.
JR is Japan Rail, a group of companies providing intercity rail access in Japan, runs fantastically fast and on-schedule trains. We bought ourselves a JR pass for the entire island in one of the main stations in Tokyo. Was it worth it? The way we did it, yes it was. We rode up and down and all around the island, and looking back, we saved a few hundred dollars. The benefit of the pass was flexibility and unlimited rides during the pass period – we could jump on any train at any time in the unreserved section or, after a quick visit to the JR office in any station, we had reserved tickets for our whole journey for that day or the next. These passes can be bought at any of the larger JR offices and an ‘Exchange Order’ can be purchased abroad, which can be traded in for a pass.
The coolest thing though, is the trains. I’m not a train fanatic, but I like me some public transit. JR’s lines are fast, clean, stop on the correct spot to a t, and arrive – barring some actual incident – to the second as promised. We hear legends of JR issuing apologies for mere seconds delay, and indeed they do. This went viral just recently : JR sincerely apologized for being 20 seconds early out the gate.
We were waiting for our train at an outer station when the announcer came on to tell us a train was passing through and to be careful to move behind the line. I never stray past that line anyway, but I remember sort of smiling at the announcement, waiting for this train to .. and then with a tremendous wind and a whooshing noise, the train was gone. They are blink of an eye fast.
So how fast does their 300 km/h speed feel? Here’s a video I took from the window of one of our trains.
Like many other things in Japan, the trains have an associated collection – pins! Luckily there were only five – one for each color line on the main island. We ran around like mad the last few days of the pass, seeing random towns along the way and collecting the whole set of pins. Sightseeing incentive, effective!
We’re bound by train to Yogyakarta, the “cultural capital” in southern Java that’s affectionately referred to as “Jogja”. Though a flight is only an hour compared to the train’s nine-hour trip, it’s nine hours well-spent admiring Java’s scenery.
This is the most densely-populated island in Indonesia, and villages, fields, and rice paddies speed by every second. Each moment is a snapshot of Java beyond the cities, where most people farm and know no other way of life. As we speed by, I imagine all of the knowledge they must have about farming and the seasons of Java—how to start rice shoots growing, when to plant them in the flooded paddies, when to harvest the rice plants, when to let a paddy lie fallow. I try to imagine what it must be like to push the rice seedling into the muddy water, feet sunk into the same mud that will nourish this rice plant as the sun beats down on my back. It’s hard work and I’m lucky I don’t have to do it, but I want to know how it feels.
As people increasingly flock to Indonesia’s cities (a worldwide trend), the passage of this agricultural knowledge halts. Maybe one day it will disappear entirely, forgotten or as good as forgotten, left only in written texts. But hopefully someone here will see value in this knowledge and keep it alive.