The last time I went on a really long train journey (what I’d call a ‘proper train journey’) was from London to Edinburgh in 2018. I loved seeing different parts of Scotland, visiting friends in Edinburgh and Glasgow, feeling like the weather was going to knock me over every time I walked outside. But my favourite part of the trip, if I’m honest, was the five or so hours I spent on a train getting there and back.
I feel a particular kind of calm on long journeys. It’s that feeling you get when all the planning of a holiday or the logistics of a work trip is done. The frantic scramble to reach the plane or train is over and you can finally settle into your seat for the foreseeable. In Tomasz Jedrowski's debut novel set in 1980s Poland, Swimming In The Dark, the protagonist Ludwik describes this moment as "the act of leaving, the expanse between departure and arrival when you’re seemingly nowhere, defined by another kind of time." It’s a special quality of time where you are suspended between two points, with no immediate responsibilities, and all you can do is be. I didn't travel enough before to experience it as often as I'd like but now that it's completely off the cards, I miss it. A lot.
Much of the power of this travelling time depends on the nature of the journey – inevitably it will be more relaxing if you are on your way to a holiday than if you’re travelling for work. But that doesn’t mean it can’t exist on a work trip. This suspended time is one of the few spaces where you are made to shrug off the responsibilities of adult life and let go of the otherwise constant anxieties of getting through the day. You have no power over how fast you go, what time you arrive or whether you have enough signal to reply to that email. Instead you are forced to accept that time as it is: a period to listen, or watch, or read, or just think, watching the world go by (and, if you’re me, pretend you’re in a late '00s music video).
You have no power over how fast you go, what time you arrive or whether you have enough signal to reply to that email. Instead you are forced to accept that time as it is.
That feeling is impossible to access right now and not just because we literally can’t get on a train or a plane. It's also because, in the midst of a pandemic, we're not afforded the mental space to tune out. From the beginning of lockdown there have been expectations to use our time wisely and a sense that we either do or should have obligations and projects. Spending time at home means you’re always reminded of chores not yet done, the constant contactability of the digital age has fused the already blurred lines between work and time off, and what is happening globally is impossible to forget.
By its very nature, travelling must end and the time it takes you to travel is finite. In the act of arrival you become a person with responsibilities and obligations and a long to-do list (even if that list is one of sightseeing and fun). And it's because of that distinct end point that you can submerge yourself in the mundanity of the journey itself. It’s only a few hours with just you and a book/a show/the view from the window. If you tune out now there’s no material harm because you will always come back.
It’s hard to know when those kind of journeys will be possible again, let alone if public transport will be a space we can relax in for months to come. But we should not lose the value that can be found in the space between leaving and arrival, in that different quality of time. Where possible we should work to carve out that space for just watching, listening, learning or thinking without feeling guilty for being ‘unproductive’. We should use it as respite, to reinvigorate ourselves for the fight – more important now than ever – to make the world better for all of us.
The mundanity of travelling may be gone for now but there is no guilt in missing it. By giving yourself permission to tune out for a journey, you are not pretending the world does not exist. It is more like a form of self-care with its original purpose reinstated: once you arrive, you are ready to step back into the world again.