Australian blogger Black and Blue Man takes a train excursion and finally gives in to a life of luxury.
Hundreds of years ago during my mid-teens in the 1980s, I began reading the 1968 Herbert D. Kastle novel The Movie Maker. I didn’t get very far into it because it wasn’t really my sort of story, but there was one early scene that fired my imagination and stayed with me ever after.
At that time, I’d never flown on an airliner and couldn’t imagine if or when I ever would. As well, back then air travel was still expensive in Australia – so Nat Markal being able to buy himself two seats seemed like not only a great idea, but also an unimaginable luxury.
As the years passed and I did more and more long-distance traveling, I often recalled Nat Markal and his two seats – especially as air travel, although it became more affordable, became an increasingly uncomfortable and unpleasant experience.
For a long time, however, I still regarded booking two seats for travel as a fantasy. After all, from time to time I got lucky and wound up with an empty seat beside me, and although flying sucked I was only spending an hour or so in the air each way, so I told myself to just deal with it.
Funnily enough, a few months after I went bankrupt in 2011 I did a Nat Markal not once, not twice but three times.
It was for this holiday that involved three trips by road coach. Because each leg involved several hours of travel, and seats were cheap, I decided to splurge and buy myself two seats each time.
And it was great.
Not only did I have extra space to sprawl in comfort, but my second seat became my side-table that held everything I needed within easy reach – food, drink, iPod, Kindle, tissues, moist-wipes and small garbage bag.
In early 2012 I had to travel to Canberra for work. I could have flown there and back on work’s dime, but for several reasons I preferred to travel by road coach – and because it was much cheaper, work certainly had no objection (in fact, back in early 2009 for other work in Canberra when I had first requested to travel by road coach instead, the approving manager had even thanked me in writing for saving the company money).
Once again I decided to do a Nat Markal, although I paid for my second seats out of my own pocket.
And once again, it was great.
A few weeks ago, I got an unexpected but very welcome invitation to spend time with some old friends down in Albury down on the NSW-Victoria border. After some thought I decided to travel to and from Albury by CountryLink train.
That meant 7-8 hours of travel each way, but that didn’t bother me for several reasons. First, although flying would be much quicker, it wasn’t something to look forward to. Second, traveling by train was less expensive.
Finally, I’ve always loved train travel; I hadn’t done a long-distance trip for about 10 years; and 7-8 hours on a train meant 7-8 hours of reading and relaxing.
So I decided to make the traveling an enjoyable part of the overall experience, and to add to that I decided to go first-class each way – which was only $30 more than economy, anyway.
And I also thought about doing a Nat Markal, but in the end I didn’t.
First, although I had the money to do so each way, I thought that perhaps it was being too indulgent and I could use my second-seats money for something else.
Second, a train carriage is much less cramped than a jet-airliner cabin; I remembered train seats being larger and more comfortable; and I could get up and walk around whenever I needed to.
Finally, I gambled, on a train there could perhaps be more of a chance of winding up with an empty seat beside me for all or most of the trip.
So I booked myself one first-class seat each way.
Finally, the big day of the trip to Albury arrived.
I packed a suitcase, my backpack with my iPad and iPod and Kindle, and a bag full of food-and-drink goodies.
I got to Central Station with plenty of time to spare, checked in my suitcase and had breakfast. Half an hour before departure, we were allowed to board and get settled in.
I stepped into my carriage, looking forward to the long leisurely trip ahead and hoping that I would be lucky to have an empty seat beside me for most of or the entire journey.
The carriage looked very inviting. It was clean and roomy, the mostly blue decor was fresh and relaxing, and it was mostly empty.
Thus far, the only people on board were a group of six at the end of the carriage I’d entered, three people at the centre, and one or two people up at the other end of the carriage.
I moved up the aisle and looked for my seat number. I passed the centre row where the three I’d spotted earlier were sitting – two guys in the two seats on the carriage’s right, and one young guy in the window seat on the left.
Two rows later, I discovered where my seat was.
It was next to the guy sitting on the left, and he’d already turned my seat into his side-table.
Oh, for fuck’s sake, I mentally groaned.
There’s a mostly empty carriage here – and yet CountryLink is cramming everyone together?
Briefly, I considered sitting in the vacant seat behind mine. But just as quickly, I dropped that notion.
First, it wouldn’t be fair to the person whose seat it was. And second, I didn’t want to cop any shit from CountryLink when someone came to check our tickets.
So I did the right thing and told the guy that his side-table was my seat.
Quietly, he cleared his stuff, and I unloaded what I could of my stuff and sat down.
Not a promising start to the trip, I thought, but all was not lost.
When the CountryLink ticket-checker came through, I could always ask if I could move to another seat.
Not long after, the train departed Central and began its long journey south. Soon after that, the CountryLink ticket-checker came through.
And just after my fellow passenger and I were verified, my fellow passenger asked if he could move to the seat behind him.
The ticket-checker told him sure.
My fellow passenger relocated, I turned his former seat into my side-table and silently thanked him for my unexpected good fortune.
About four hours went past.
I alternated between reading on my iPad, listening on my iPod and napping.
Lunchtime arrived, I treated myself to a meal from the buffet car and added dessert from my goodies bag, which now sat on my fellow passenger’s former seat.
I had gotten an unexpected opportunity to travel like Nat Markal, and it was a very pleasant way to do so indeed.
It was just after we’d pulled into Cootamundra, about halfway to Albury, and I was mostly absorbed in reading again.
A young woman stopped beside me, gestured to the window seat and said, “Excuse me, that’s my seat.”
I looked up from my iPad.
Behind me, in the corner of my eye, I noticed that my previous fellow passenger was now gone from his seat behind me.
Ahead of me, to the front and to my left, I saw that although the carriage had filled up more since Sydney, there were still a good number of empty rows available.
Oh, for fuck’s sake, I mentally groaned again.
Quickly and quietly, though, I cleared my stuff from the window seat and its fold-down table so that my new fellow passenger could sit down.
As I settled back into travel mode, I scolded myself for falling into a false sense of security in having assumed that my previous fellow passenger would be traveling as far as I would, so that his seat would always remain mine. But I also got annoyed again at CountryLink, and wondered why they insisted on cramming strangers together.
I assumed that it was because it made it easier to clean carriages after trips – if all passengers were concentrated together, so would their rubbish, and therefore it saved time and costs. Which was fair enough from their point of view, but not very enjoyable for passengers like me.
As the train resumed its journey, I considered that perhaps I should have booked two seats for this trip after all.
I also considered that for the trip back in a week’s time, I could still book a second seat.
And then came the incident that definitely made up my mind.
Soon after we’d left the station, the ticket-checker returned.
He checked my new fellow passenger’s ticket, and as he gave her the okay she asked politely if she could change seats because hers was damp.
The ticket-checker responded loudly with, “Damp?!? What do you mean – damp?!?”
There was a moment’s awkward silence throughout the carriage, and then my fellow passenger politely asked again if she could change seats because although she didn’t know why, her seat was damp.
To which the ticket-checker again responded loudly with, “Damp?!? What do you mean – damp?!?”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, man! What does it matter?!? Just let her move!
For a third time, but now with an edge of frustration to her voice, my fellow passenger politely asked if she could just move to another seat, please.
To which the ticket-checker grinned and said, “Yeah, sure!”
He moved on – good riddance! – and my new fellow passenger relocated to her new seat, which was where my former fellow passenger had also sat behind me.
As I heard her speak to other passengers nearby and wonder aloud what the ticket-checker’s problem had been – and I silently sympathised with her – I felt her seat and found it to be not damp but warm.
Still, before she’d sat down my goodies bag had been there for a few hours, so maybe it had made the seat uncomfortable for her.
I got annoyed with myself again with perhaps having done that, albeit unwittingly – although maybe she simply hadn’t wanted to sit next to me, which was fair enough.
Once again, though, I was mostly annoyed with CountryLink.
I was annoyed that for whatever reason, they crammed passengers together when they could be spread throughout a carriage with greater comfort and more privacy.
And I was especially annoyed that reasonable and simple requests to alleviate that were treated rudely by some staff.
Enough was enough.
Fortunately, the rest of the journey passed without incident.
Even more fortunately, two days later it was payday and one of the first things I did that morning was to ring CountryLink – and five minutes later, the seat next to my already-booked seat for the journey home was also mine.
And five days after that, after having spent a pleasant week in Albury, I traveled home first-class like Nat Markal.
Okay, so it wasn’t quite like flying first-class – but I had two big comfortable seats to myself and I set up a very relaxing corner of the world for 7-8 hours.
Once again I read and listened to music for hours, and I also improved with an absorbing new habit I’d picked up in Albury – Sudoku.
I also ate and drank well from my goodies bag and the buffet car.
That trip alone was one of my favourite parts of that week.
Late that night after I got home, I was catching up on reading at Longform.
One of the latest articles featured there was the very interesting ‘How to Spend 47 Hours on a Train and Not Go Crazy’ from the New York Times Magazine.
Included was the following:
…the tendency of Amtrak conductors to seat long-distance passengers next to each other, even if the next car contains 20 rows of empty seats. This policy is designed to keep rows open for passengers who board at later stops, but sometimes those anticipated passengers never materialize.
So maybe CountryLink has the same policy.
But even if they do, or whatever reasons why they seat booked passengers like they do, the two trips I’d just taken with them had given me a new policy of my own.
Whenever possible in future, for long-distance travel with CountryLink or anyone else, I will do a Nat Markal and book two seats for myself.
Yes, it’s an added expense, but if affordable it’s worth it indeed – and like my journey home, it becomes an enjoyable part of a holiday in itself.
Until next time, stay well and take care.
Originally published in two parts on blackandblueman.com