Milwaukee to New York by train

Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.

And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.

Or do you?

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Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.

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So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!

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North by Northwest (1959). My compartment was slightly smaller.

Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.

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The Amtrak observation car is a nice place to soak up some sunlight and admire the views.

But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.

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Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.

The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.

When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).

Don’t miss this comprehensive video tour of the same roomette I had:

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My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.

Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.

Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.

Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.

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So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.

I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.

I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.

Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?

If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!

Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.

Click here to see what happened next!

Cathedral spires and Jules Verne

A couple weeks ago, to celebrate a good friend’s birthday, I took him on a surprise day trip to the town of Amiens, just an hour north of Paris by train. Actually, it was only a partial surprise as I’d told him we were going on a day trip, but hadn’t said where to… only that it would take under two hours to get there by train (to throw him off the track a bit, since that encompasses a lot of destinations). He was pleased when he heard the train conductor announce that we were headed for Amiens, since (as I knew) he had never yet been there.

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Luck was mainly on our side, this day. The weather was nice—suitably sunny and warm. We got out of the train station and began heading toward the city center. As we walked, I took a few shots of some cute old-timey building façades. On the white building, in beautiful Art Nouveau lettering, it says North Train Station Seed Company.

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As soon as we started heading toward the river, we began to see the spires of the cathedral appear above the rooftops. A block or two later, after a turn around a corner, the enormous building emerged as a whole.

But before visiting it, arriving as we had at 1 pm, the first order of business was to have lunch. After the Lebanese restaurant I’d planned for us to go to disappointingly turned out to be closed during its normal business hours (the one thing that went wrong on this day, so I can’t really complain), we headed for another one on my list. Fuji Yama, listed on Happy Cow as an especially vegan-friendly eatery, turned out to be a good source of tasty maki, temaki and glazed mushroom skewers. As we savored our postprandial pot of green tea, my friend speculated as to the rest of the activities I had up my sleeve.

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One of the sites we would see was nevertheless easy enough to guess: the cathedral. We paid our check and made our way to it through some narrow streets full of old houses that were very charming indeed—especially to me, the non-European who is still in awe of such things even after eight years here.

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A network of narrow canals criss-crossing a section of town connects to the River Somme, which divides Amiens in half. Here, a canal flows along a street near the cathedral. It made me think of the film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Built remarkably quickly between 1220 and 1270, the Amiens Cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France (at 112 m/369 ft)  and the 19th largest cathedral in the world. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981.

A documentary about this cathedral can be seen here.

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I didn’t take many photos inside (to see the interior, check the documentary linked to just above), but this enchanting play of stained-glass-filtered light and shadow deserved to be remembered.

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I also happened upon these three gilded feathers, which took my imagination to some fanciful places as I imagined cherub statues coming to life and flying around under the vaulted ceilings at night. Perhaps they soared a bit too enthusiastically and lost some plumage along the way.

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I am not overly fond of either heights or very narrow, endless stone stairs in a spiral configuration, but Birthday Guy is, so I indulged him and we went up the tower for some panoramic views of the city.

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There are about 300 steps up, in total. But don’t look down before you reach the top!

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Some people from bygone days (to whom the cathedral was already ancient) left names and dates on the staircase walls.

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Views from the first level. Already quite high enough for me… but there were still more steps to climb.

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At the very top, we walked around among the tower’s uppermost stone encrustations under the watchful eye of a guide. In any case, it would have been harder to fall from this level than from the lower (but still lethal) one.

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A view of Amiens and the River Somme.

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I had to admit the views were rather worth the stomach-fluttering climb up those steps (and the seemingly interminable descent).

Next, we moved on to what I knew would be the highlight of our visit to Amiens: Jules Verne‘s house! Although born in Nantes, the prolific and visionary proto-sci-fi author lived in this house with his family for eight years just before the turn of the century. Today, it is a museum honoring his life’s work.

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A globe structure sits atop the building’s tower in homage to his most famous work, Around the World in 80 Days (1873). In front of the home’s winter garden, an elegant Art Nouveau verrière stretches out to shield visitors from the elements.

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Beautiful tiles on the house’s façade featuring the typical colors and organic floral shapes of the art movement.

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The music room.

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An imposing fireplace in the dining room.

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Jules Verne’s own personal shoebutton hooks, nail buffer and… toothbrush?

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Another impossibly elegant room.

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A parlor with sofas that were graced by the bottoms of many famous Victorians, back in the day. George Sand was one of them, but I have forgotten the others.

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Copies of Verne’s writings on his desk.

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A recreation of the interior of one of Verne’s boats, which may have inspired the vessel featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871).

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An undated letter accompanying the gift of a gold-handled walking stick from the Boys’ Empire League in England. My favorite part, from a description of how the funds to buy the gift were raised: “Boys are not much burdened with pocket money, as you know…”.

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A set of Around the World in 80 Days dessert plates! What I wouldn’t give to have one of these.

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Period Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea board games.

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Around the World in 80 Days trading cards.

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I couldn’t help taking a moment to admire these embroidery-upholstered chairs!

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Here, we have a framed section of some Around the World in 80 Days wallpaper from the time of the book’s first success. Who wouldn’t like to have a room papered with this?

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An 1881 essay titled Ten Hour Hunt, in which Verne describes the trials and tribulations of his first and only experience hunting. “There are some who do not care for hunters,” it begins, “and perhaps they are not totally wrong.” Verne was a visionary in the realm of science; perhaps his forward-thinking extended to other areas as well.

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A wheeled lobster with bat wings… or, alternatively, a model of one of Verne’s imagined flying machinges.

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Cross-section of a model of the rocket used to travel through the heavens in From the Earth to the Moon (1865). A top hat is a must when exploring space—especially if you expect to meet with high-ranking representatives of moon people. You’ll also be glad of the table lamps, wallpaper and velvet-upholstered chairs when they come round for tea.

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A poster advertising an 1892 theatrical production of From the Earth to the Moon in Reims. Those moon women look suspiciously corseted.

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Ten years later, cinematography pioneer Georges Méliès would make a silent film adaptation of the story. You can watch it here in a restored version with a wonderfully otherworldly 2012 soundtrack by French band Air.

Visiting this house made me realize I haven’t yet read much Jules Vernes at all. Only Journey to the Center of the Earth, ages ago, and in English! This lamentable oversight is something I hope to correct in the very near future. One book that I’m especially eager to read is Paris in the Twentieth Century. Written in 1863, its depiction of the dystopian world of 1960 was deemed too unbelievable by Verne’s publisher and so was never published during his life. It was finally released for the first time in 1994 and the predictions apparently proved remarkably prescient. Still waiting for the monorail at Bastille though…

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The end of the house tour. Time to head home!

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On our way back to the train station, I noticed this decidedly modern building, which provided a curious kind of contrast to all the 19th-century (and Victorian retrofuture) images I had just been steeping in. Also, it strangely reminded me of a cute United Nude shoe, which has nothing to do with anything else I’ve been talking about. 😉

But I digress. What I wanted to say, to conclude this post, is that Amiens is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Paris for a longer stay or are just a huge fan or cathedrals, Jules Verne, or both! If you reserve your ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, train fare is only 10 euros each way.

Short days in Scandinavia

I usually spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve either in Paris or back home with my parents and sister. But this year, for something different, I went north to Denmark, where my brother is now living. To make things more interesting (and give my trip a much smaller carbon footprint), I decided to travel there and back by train rather than flying. This took me through Germany (with stops in Hamburg and Hannover), which was fun as I hadn’t been there for a few years. And as I also spent an afternoon in Malmö, Sweden (only a half-hour from Copenhagen by train), this trip took me to three countries, two of them new to me. I love this about Europe—with these relatively small nations (compared to the US), it’s so easy to cross borders and experience other cultures and languages.

Another excuse for traveling by rail was the chance to take a train that crosses the Fehmarn Belt strait by ferry! Yes, it drives right into the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany alongside the cars and patiently waits for the boat to reach Rødby, Denmark on the other shore 45 minutes later. During this time, passengers must leave the train and go up the stairs to the upper levels of the boat, where a plethora of duty-free shops and pricey food services can be found.

When you get this far north at the end of December, the days are pretty short—the sun sets at about 3:30 pm. I was hoping that it would still be somewhere in the sky for the beginning of our ferry crossing, but some technical delays meant that we couldn’t get started until around 4 pm. So my photos are a bit dark (click on them for a larger view), but for a better look you can also check out this short video that someone made in the summer.

A good share of the vacation was spent cozily on the couch, indulging in movies with my brother and his wife and kids, with candles and plenty of popcorn (this was where the mysterious Danish hygge was to be found, for me). We watched some Christmas classics, such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and The Shop Around the Corner, and some of our childhood favorites including Coming to America and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But there was of course also a Denmark outside waiting to be discovered!

Because I was in Copenhagen right in the middle of the holidays (plus a Monday), most museums and restaurants were closed, but I did manage to stroll through the city streets and also explore a bit of Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that happens to lie within the borders of Copenhagen. One restaurant I did get to visit (twice!) is SimpleRAW, which I highly recommend. Despite its name, it does offer a cooked burger plus another cooked dish of the day (dhal, the week I was there), and hot drinks like coffee, tea and matcha latte, of which I was very glad as it really was SO COLD outside. Their raw lime cheesecake was simply divine.

The weather was gray and drizzly most of the time, but I still managed to get some fun and colorful photos. Here’s a selection.

I took one afternoon to go and explore Malmö, Sweden, which as mentioned above is only a short train ride (more trains!) to the east of Copenhagen. Trains leave in both directions several times per hour, and the cost is only around €10. I loved Malmö, a very cute smallish town with lots of old-timey charm. It didn’t hurt that it was also a nice sunny day.

Thanks to some advance planning, I managed to visit two vegan restaurants that were not closed during the holiday period. First, Lotta Love Açaí Bar, where I had—what else?—a huge açaí bowl covered with fruit, nuts and cacao nibs. And later, Vegan Bar, which is more like a restaurant with a bar in it and offers a range of super yummy burgers, including a portobello mushroom one. I also happened upon a thrift shop with lots of cute things (candleholders, clothes and dishes that would have been perfect for my food photos). It was sad, but probably also lucky, that I couldn’t buy anything due to insufficient room in my suitcase (and my apartment!).

If you ever visit Malmö, don’t miss Lilla Torg, a little square with a lamp installation that is lit both at night and during the day, but is most interesting after sunset.

We also took a day trip to Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, to visit the impressive ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. Established in 1859, it is Denmark’s oldest public art museum outside Copenhagen. It has been especially attractive to visitors since 2011, with the addition of the circular skywalk installation Your Rainbow Panorama by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson. Inside, we enjoyed various exhibits on multiple floors, most of them featuring Scandinavian artists apart from a temporary exhibition devoted to works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

The final excitement of my trip was the New Year’s Eve party with some friends of my brother, for which we made a huge dinner. My contributions included a spinach, red bell pepper and tomato quiche and some almond-apricot cupcakes decorated with toasted slivered almonds and edible gold dust. Everyone in the neighborhood was setting off fireworks the whole evening, but at midnight they multiplied their efforts by 10 and there was no break in the booming, crackling and colorful explosions of lights for a full 35 minutes.

Soon after that, I was back on the road (or rather, rail) again to return to Paris. I stopped for the night in Hannover, where I got to try out the highly acclaimed restaurant Hiller, and the next evening was home and reunited with Sésame, who greeted me with many kitty kisses.