Dining Cars

Dining cars are one of those wonderful things that have been relegated to the past. I used to love walking to the dining car when I was on a trip, passing the time away as I ate my meal. I’d even eat on the dining car when I was young and broke.

It was perfect: the white tablecloth on the table (old sauce stains and all), the weighty antique cutlery, and the single carnation. I’d start with a beer. Out would come a well chilled bottle and an old, sturdy glass. Sunlight would pour through the window casting an amber shadow from the beer on the tablecloth.

I rode on a train that passed through East Germany back when Germany was still split into two countries. I think was the Berlin-Austria route. It had the dining car of my dreams. An older waiter come over in his white apron, pulled a tiny pencil from his pocket, nodded his head with his expression like he was a doctor listening to his patient describe symptoms, and wordlessly took down my order. I ordered the beer, soup, vegetable salad, and pepper steak from the daily menu.

I started out of the window as I waited for my food. Old East German villages passed before my eyes. Their roofs glowed in the warm autumn sunlight. There were rivers, and forests, and soft meadows. Clouds drifted slowly above. My only complaint… the food was terrible. How bad was it? So bad that I can still remember how bad it tasted, and it’s been ten years.

I remember thinking that a country that could have such a lovely dining car, and yet serve such bad food, couldn’t exist for much longer. And that’s what happened: East Germany came to an end just a few years later. I can’t say that bad dining car food directly leads to a country’s collapse, but there’s some connection there.

I was going to write a short story that takes place in a dining car. A man who’s traveling alone sits at the same table as a young woman. He orders a steak sandwich and a beer. She just has the soup and a water. As she sips her water she starts up a strange conversation. She is carrying a human finger preserved in alcohol. She takes it out of her bag and places it on the table. Are you intrigued? I ended up never writing it. You just don’t see dining cars around anymore these days.