Training the SBB way

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in the Basler Zeitung English Section, 2001.

I discovered “training” by chance one day in 1998. I was pressed for time, had to get an article done for a magazine and at the same time, had to be at a meeting in Luzern. I happened to have a note pad with me and by the time I arrived at my destination, I had half of a first draft of an article explaining anxiety. On the way back to Basel, I wrote even more, which I later entered into my computer. A couple of revisions – and it was done!

The rhythm of the train, combined with the changing scenery liberated the writer within. The writing went quickly. Was it the train itself, or rather the fact that I was stuck somewhere with no escape? After all, looking at farms and sheep can get boring after a while. Either way, with that started my adventure in training – the SBB way.

That chance discovery soon became formalized into a monthly event – a writer’s retreat, one could say. I created a structured approach to training. Equipped with a rucksack filled with note pads, pens, a couple of books and a sandwich, I went on my journey to nowhere in particular. The object of my training session was to work on my writing – away and undisturbed from distractions. No phone, no e-mail, no one to chat with.

Arriving at the Basel train station, I did not know where I would be going. The idea was to feel free and simply get on the next train that was leaving town. Once, I made it all the way to Geneva and back, managing to write several pages, while also catching up on my reading. I could not have imagined that over eight hours of riding a train might be tolerable. But I was so focused on my work that it did not feel like eight hours. And those pauses to look up at the scenery certainly helped.

Clothes also figured importantly in this, as I had to be comfortable. After all it would be hard to predict how the climate might be in a train compartment. I relied upon layers, thereby allowing me to adjust them in order to achieve ideal training conditions. Footwear also became significant. I decided that slip-on pumps were ideal for their ease of removal. With no shoes, I could rest my feet on the seat across from me, or I could curl up my legs on my seat, and thereby create a sort of temporary desk on which to write.

“You won’t believe this,” I told a writer friend of mine in the US, “I have found a most amazing way to write.”

“Whatever works,” she replied with the wisdom that comes from having written 10 books and hundreds of magazine articles.

It worked for about a year and half. But then things changed. I was no longer only in Basel, but had to also spend time in Zurich. This meant that door-to-door, I had to commute nearly two hours each way. As a result, my enthusiasm for long train rides has diminished somewhat. Nevertheless I continue to train – although I have modified it to fit my current situation.

Within the two-hour commute, which consists of foot, bus, tram and train, there is a solid hour between Zurich and Basel, which is ideal for editing and revising my work.

I do most of my writing under stationary conditions now. But the trains still work well for background reading and editing. Many times, I write into the night while in Zurich. Then the next morning, I leave for Basel taking the draft with me.

If I time it right, I can catch a Eurocity, with a restaurant car, going directly to Basel. The table functions as a clear desk space where I can concentrate. And since most of the conversation around me is in German, it is easy for me to block it out. Of course, the occasional loud English speaking tourist can be a distraction, as everyone knows.

Pulling out of Zurich, I order a tea or hot chocolate and get out the pages to review. Soon, I see glimpses of the Limmat river, a signal that I ought to stop looking out the window, and get to work. Most of Aarau passes me by as I look up from time to time to see the rolling greenery, which gradually turns into Baselland. Then I see the signs for Pratteln or Muttenz, signaling that it is time to pay for the beverage.

As we near the Basel station, I see the multi-color graffiti on the concrete. This jars me out of my state of concentration, because it is not part of the mental image of Switzerland I have, especially after the rivers and greenery a few minutes earlier.

Then I hear the loudspeaker say in a Swiss-German accent: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are arriving at Basel…” I pack up my papers, editing in hand, and head to my office, where I will continue working. And so ends another session of training the SBB way.

Thanks to the SBB, I have found a very useful writer’s retreat – so to speak. When I have many distractions that interfere with writing, or just get tired of working at my desk, I hop on a train and continue working. Where do you think I wrote and polished what you’re reading now? That’s right – during a couple of training sessions.

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.