The Brenner Pass, unseen

Yoakum Brenner Pass

Warning: this post is about a train journey to Rome as the Alps flooded. Skip if only interested in Berlin.

On Thursday my son and I took the train to Italy to meet my mother, who was in Rome for a conference. Our first train was an early afternoon ICE to Munich. I had a coffee in the dining car and my son binge-drank coffee creamers. The sandy pine flats of Brandenburg gave way to the hills of Thuringia, with their spooky-pretty onion-domed village churches, then the dark Thuringian forest. Look at those rushing rivers! I said. Look how close up to the train the water comes! Even though I said this, and even though I knew we’d had Dauerregen for days, I didn’t realize that what we were seeing was an early stage of serious flooding. By the time we got to Munich it was raining hard, cold monsoon rain. I was excited for our two-hour layover, because I thought we would grab dinner at Manam Thai Food & Sweet, but sadly this was not to be: it was Fronleichnam (Corpus Christi), a minor Catholic holiday that is in Berlin just a word printed in the calendar but is in Bavaria a public holiday so serious they close not only the shops but also, to my bitter disappointment, the delicious Asian restaurants. So instead we ate crappy pretzel sandwiches in a train station food court while perched on high stools unsuitable for young children.

Then we got on the City Night Line to Rome. When I booked our train tickets at short notice, I’d had the damn fool idea that we could save money by sharing one bed in a sleeping car. So we had the lower berth of a two-bed Damenwagen (women-only sleeping car), and an older Austrian women with bright red hair and a glittery purse had the upper berth. The Austrian woman had recently married an Italian man who lived in Orvieto; she was, she said, a regular on the City Night Line. She resented having to share her sleeping car with not one but two strangers, one of them a boy rather than a Dame, but was also eager to speak English.  Long after my son’s bedtime and lights out, she persisted in practicing her English on him and randomly calling down to us from her upper bunk “Bond, James Bond”. As with the chocolates she had foisted upon him after his tooth-brushing and bedtime, I was not sure to what extent this was an act of passive aggression.

As anyone but me could have predicted would be the consequence of sharing a narrow berth with a four-year-old, I did not sleep at all. I also did not look out the window at the Alps, because it was the middle of the night. As I lay awake and heard torrential rain falling, the train crossed into Austria, stopped at Innsbruck and followed a tributary of the Danube up the Wipp valley to the Brenner Pass. The Brenner Pass is the lowest alpine pass, only about 1370 meters above sea level. We crossed it around two in the morning, and then we were in Italy, heading down the southern slope of the Alps towards Verona. All the towns had slash-names:  Chiusa/Klausen, Bolzano/Bozen. It was around this point that my son fell out of bed, which he slept through: like many small children, he sleeps well on trains. The sun rose around Florence, the attendant flipped our bed back up into seats, and we ate muffins from breakfast boxes as the train crossed the sunny Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, arriving in Rome around 9:30.

The route my train followed is the old Austro-Hungarian Brenner Railway, the first train line to fully traverse the Alps. The railway was completed in 1869, but it served as a road long before that. The Romans used it in the 2nd century AD and the Alemanni crossed it southward to invade Italy in 268 AD. For many centuries mule trains and carts traversed it; a carriage road opened in the 17th century. The pass made several dark appearances in 20th century history: Hitler and Mussolini met there in 1940 to celebrate their Pact of Steel, and one of the main ratlines for Nazis fleeing to South America after 1945 crossed it.

If any place could be pinpointed as a dividing line between southern and northern Europe, it is the Brenner Pass. It is a border between Romance and Germanic languages, between the southern and northern slopes of the Alps, between the Mediterranean and continental climates. I would like to have taken a picture of it, but I did not actually see anything when I crossed it. So instead I have posted above an imagined landscape of the Brenner Pass, by African-American outsider artist Joseph Yoakum (1889-1972). Yoakum never saw the Brenner Pass either. In the last decade of his life he drew thousands of imaginary landscapes of places around the world he had never visited, especially mountain ranges.

Yoakum also liked to draw floods, so would perhaps have been interested in what happened along my train’s route just after my journey. The torrential rain I saw in Munich fell unabated across central Europe from Thursday to Monday. Thuringia registered a record-breaking 61 liters of rain per square meter in one day. The Elbe and Danube and Inn smashed levees and burst their banks; towns in Bavaria broke 500-year-old flood records. Landslides killed people in Austria and the Czech Republic. In Rosenheim, where my train stopped between Munich and Innsbruck, the levees burst, so there is now no train service between Munich and Innsbruck, and none is expected for a while. The Brenner Pass route across the Alps has weathered the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the advent of the railroad and the building of highways; how it will endure climate change remains to be seen.

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