I am in the slickest train in all of Germany, the brand new, super cool, high speed German bullet Intercontinental Express. There is a panel at the end of each train car showing the ground speed, route, arrival schedule, and temperature in red-on-red L.E.D. There’s an electrical outlet on the armrest of each seat, and a place to plug in your headset for the optional audio entertainment service (remember: we are talking about a train here.) And the seats have an E-Z-boy inspired reclining system whereby the bottom of the seat shifts forward as the seat rest angles back, so the seat back pivots along a vertical axis as it reclines and never enters your rear neighbor’s space, a design move that must certainly have been a calculated step towards a socially healthy railway habitat. There are even certain cars on the train where they show films on big TV screens. It is truly a new millennium, and I am duly impressed.
I have the first seat in a car without a TV screen, so I have spent the morning watching elderly East Germans trying to open the bathroom door, which operates solely with sensors. It is not clear why the train is so full of elderly people on this morning, perhaps they are traveling as a group, and perhaps they are simply among the small population of East Germans who are not working but can still afford to go somewhere. These are all people who survived a war that destroyed their homes, their families, and the very fabric of their society. They adapted through 60-odd years of Communist rule capped off by an explosive free market invasion. And now they are faced with bathroom doors that have no knobs. Its too much. They rally in solidarity around this door, and if these people didn't know each other before, they do now, because the use of the bathroom has become a group effort. Allegiances form as directions are shouted across the train car "push the green button! and now the red one! no, the RED one!" A hapless man walks towards the bathroom, unaware that a woman is already inside, and he pushes the green button. You can hear her muffled, and then less muffled, cry, 'its occupied,' as the door slides open slowly and evenly on its track to expose her on the toilet in full view. She didn't realize that the solid red button shuts the door, but that there’s another blinking red button that locks it. The hapless man is mortified, and he tries to shut the door, pulling on it in its track, but it won't move: he hasn’t pushed the red button. Some women in the car run to the rescue, blocking the view of the toiletted woman with their own bodies and frantically pushing all the door control buttons, none of which can be reached while on the toilet. They eventually manage to shut the door, all of them now encased inside, and you can hear their laughter underscored by the white noise of the flush.
After this incident people go to the toilet in pairs. Couples approach the door together, both hesitate, and then the man bravely goes in first. Other people, having used the bathroom without incident, come out and try to close the door behind them. The only door-control button outside the bathroom is the green button, and so they push it, but the green button only opens the door, and so the door stays open. But they stand there, pushing the green button over and over, as the door stays open. I can see little sparks flying out the backs of their heads as their ‘close the door after you use the bathroom’ training collides with the image they are seeing: a green button with 'open' written on it in big letters.
All of this makes me feel terribly evil, because I, alone, know how the bathroom door works -- I can open it, shut it, lock it, open it again, and close it behind me -- because not only do I navigate in a world full of sensors and sinoid beeps on a regular basis, I have read all the buttons. But do I say a word? Do I help any of these clear-souled, sheltered victims of digital expansion? No, I smile at them, take notes, and consider offering to trade them any property they might own for a few of those green glow-necklaces and a bag of capacitors.
I miss my connection in Frankfurt because the super cool, high-speed, intercontinental express train with no bathroom doorknobs was 15 minutes late getting in. So I had to take a subway 40 minutes to Mainz, a bumpy regional train to Bonn, and a commuter train to Euskirchen, where I finally met up with the connection to Gerolstein that I was supposed to get out of Cologne. All this on my super expensive, super cool, high-speed, intercontinental express train ticket, carrying my super heavy bags with all the new things I just bought because I am newly rich with the newly over-valued American dollar. And in the meantime, I get treated to a bumpy ride along the Rhein River, through several, magical Brothers Grimm-like villages, some standard variety castles on cliffs, a nice view of the town of Bingen, and a 180 degree look at the famous Loreley Rock. The Loreley, of German legend, subject of numerous poems, folk songs and art songs (none of which anyone on the train will sing to me, and I do ask) are fairies or sisters or some kind of beings, in any case female, who inhabit this big rock and whose seductive song is so alluring that it causes sailors to drive their ships right into the rocky shores, crash, and die. Every person on this Rhein River train, including some of the elderly, bathroom-traumatized East Germans who had somehow made the same additional 12 connections that I'd just made and ended up in the same car, was discussing the Loreley Rock with great exuberance and with various claims of expertise. One man was apparently a Loreley scholar of some sort, and he gave a little speech to anyone who was listening all about the Loreley -- which ships allegedly wrecked in what years and how many sailors died and oh those women, etc, etc, without ever once mentioning the curious similarity to that other, Greek, legend and the fact that the Rhein doesn't really have ‘rocky shores’. But, anyway, eventually we arrive at the site of the legendary misanthropic rock, and everyone in the train car faces left and stares out the window at it. All you can hear is the locomotive chug-a-lug, and our collective held breath, for quite a long time, until one East German woman finally whispers, "somehow I imagined something bigger." It is, in fact, just a rock, and not a very impressive one at that. But it has a little yellow flag on top, signifying it as an official tourist destination.
I remember having had a similar experience when I finally went to Plymouth Rock after hearing about it for years in school. I almost got sick in the car from the anticipation of it all, like all my organs were squeezing together to make room for this tremendous experience I was about to take into my body. I would soon be standing on the very landing place of the first Pilgrims, within the powerful aura of that geological wonder that beckoned the old world into the fertile bosom of the new. I felt like I was about to meet Jackie Onassis, or Pocahontus, or Little John or something. And what do you know, it was, quite plainly, just a rock, about 4 feet wide, a few feet tall, sitting in the sand, not particularly noteworthy in any way, not particularly noticeable at all except for the government-sponsored cement shrine in which it was housed. Did the Pilgrims really think this was such a big deal? I mean, didn’t they have even bigger rocks in England? How did they even see it from their ships way out on the ocean? Did it shrink over the years? Can water erode rock to such a great extent in 300 years? Did visitors chip away little pieces of it until this is all that’s left? Is this what acid rain does?
Something happened to me that day. I started asking questions.