When I was in Romania last month I discovered time travel. I know this sounds ridiculous — isn’t time travel a futuristic, high-tech impossibility used by the likes of Doctor Who and the crazy professor in Back to the Future?
Well yes, time travel is a popular device for filmmakers to dump their characters in imaginative locations, but for me it’s something much more simple: it’s simply travelling overland rather than flying.
How is this time travel? You might ask, quite reasonably. Let me enlighten you.
First of all, I need to explain why I decided to come back to the UK overland rather than by the cheapest, quickest, and easiest-to-arrange method — plane.
I am inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg who cuts through all the crap my generation produces, all the token gestures, empty promises and half measures that are doing nothing towards reversing our relentless march towards climate catastrophe.
If Greta can cross the Atlantic by sailboat then why can’t I cross the continent by train and bus — and, in the future, when I’ve got the right gear, by bike? If all of us stopped flying and insisted on electric vehicles we could transform Big Oil into Big Renewables.
Romanian Trains are Time Machines
I’ve been travelling in Romania for over 20 years and one of the best things about that beautiful and misunderstood country is its train network. Although it’s quite a run-down system — the Romanians have copied the UK and US model of prioritising road over rail — it is the biggest rail network in Central Europe (I wish they would appreciate this more as rail will, hopefully, displace road and become the transport of the future).
When you get on a Romanian train you have a choice: you can get really stressed about how slow it is, how shoddy the trains are, how unfriendly the staff can be, how you can’t rely on it and, despite all this, how expensive it is (for their uber-low salaries).
Or you can do what I do and imagine you’re stepping into a time machine. When I get a Romanian train I let go of my usual framework of time: I let go of the very structured programme that comes with a flight, or a train in the UK for that matter, and just accept the fact that it will take as long as it takes.
Also, if you’re lucky enough to get on a Romanian sleeper train you really are stepping back in time because some of the wagons were built over 50 years ago — many in East Germany which is a country that no longer exists — and each sleeper wagon has its own butler. Some of the cabins have pre-war wood panelling, a sink, a place to hang your suit and two single beds with cotton sheets and old fashioned blankets.
Despite the shuddering, the scream of the whistle and the noises that old trains make, I always sleep like a log when getting the sleeper train between Romania’s major cities. I sometimes imagine that I’m in the 1940s, grateful for the fact that I’m in a warm bed and not a concentration camp or trench.
So, last month, when I decided to flout convention and come back to the UK overland — starting with a sleeper train to Vienna and then Flixbus to London — I immediately threw away the rigid timetable that comes with a flight. I knew it would take longer, would probably cost more and, until I got to Vienna, I didn’t know how I’d complete the journey. But none of that mattered as I had a week at my disposal.
That, for me, is time travel. It’s simply looking at time differently when travelling.
Learning from Time Travel
There are several things that can be learned from this. First of all, by rejecting the rigid template of airline schedules it’s a much more relaxing experience. As long as I get on the train in time I don’t care how long it takes; I’ve got all the time in the world and I use it to catch up on sleep, read, write and talk to people. It’s wonderful.
Secondly, this approach to time is essential for real independent travel. If you take a year off with a highly detailed schedule you’ll probably have a miserable time; but if you just have some money, a destination and a decent allocation of time you can learn as you go, be flexible, listen to people you meet and, in doing so, discover all sorts of amazing things.
Thirdly, it’s fun to show people that there is an alternative to flying. Because air travel is considered the most efficient way to go, despite its carbon footprint, governments subsidise it and corporations make it easy, cheap and attractive.
But, if you take a different approach to time, all sorts of more environmentally friendly options come up. I plan to get into long-distance cycling next year but what about walking? Why not walk across Europe? It would be a life-changing experience. Or hitching? And what’s the big hurry anyway? Why do we have to get to our destinations as quickly as possible?
The most important thing is that we must stop flying, and using fossil fuels, if we have any chance of reducing greenhouse gases. Again, we have a choice: we can plunge into despair or change the way we travel and live.
The naysayers claim that saving the planet is complicated. It’s not. All we need to do is stop using fossil fuels (and stop eating animals — but that’s another story).
We can despair at the lack of action that governments take or start making changes in our own lives. We can all become examples for those around us, and watch the ripple effect.