Saturday, 19 October 2013

How to REALLY take the metro in Rotterdam*

I have been living in Rotterdam for years and I've always travelled by metro. In fact I have probably spent more time on the metros than I ever have in my favourite places. Yet I have never paid attention to the different metro carriage models and their specific attributes. How many carriages of the 5200 series are still in service? How many doors does the 5300 series model have? What's new about the 5600s? How many people are they designed to carry? I didn't know the answer to any of these questions. When you come to think about the attitude that causes this ignorance, it draws you in a discussion about what it means to be alive.

In the Russian formalist literary tradition, critics talked about the vices of habitualization and how it devours our human experience.  An excerpt from Tolstoy's diary may illustrate what this means:

I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn't remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember - so that if I had dusted it and forgot - that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.**

The formalists then argued that one of the purposes of arts is to defamiliarize us with the familiar, and in doing so enables us to experience life afresh in full. Every property of every aspect of reality must not be taken for granted, for when they're taken for granted they're as good as being taken away (from our perception). In this regard art can serve as reminder and sometimes as guide.

Now I don't like to talk about how being alive can be an art in itself, I try to avoid the tasteless and jarring phrasing. When I say something like that I fear being beaten up by the higher power that punishes bad artists. It's a great fear. 

But I WILL put it like this:
What is the difference between taking the metro 100 times and 1000 times? I think the difference doesn't inherently exist per se. The difference needs to be made.
For the great majority of time I have imagined travelling as means to an end. I would listen to music or read a book on the train. I would scribble down these lines in my stupid notebook on the bus. Sometimes I do psycho people-watching. But I do these things either to pass the time, or to efficiently utilize the time for other priorities. I do OTHER things while I travel, but I don't DO travelling. I don't DO being on a metro. What does that even mean?

Lately I've been trying to figure it out. I've been trying to find meanings in being on a metro in Rotterdam. It consists of noticing details and patterns and also doing a little research. Below I will introduce one of the attention-areas I've been developing and I invite you to develop your own.

Currently there are 4 types of metros running in the R'dam system. The 5300s, the 5400s, the 5500s and the 5600s. The 5300s were the oldest, 5600s the newest, the rest were in between. Out of all these different metro series, only the 5400s were each given a unique theme in interior graphics***. There exist 18 of these 5400 carriages, and here is a list of their specific themes:

Jungle Animals
tiger, butterflies, gorilla
Ancients Ancient architectures
Pyramids. Tutankhamen.  Hieroglyphs on top. Meanings?
Rotterdam Landmarks
Euromast, Erasmusburg,
Dutch Nature
frogs, sheep, chapels, windmills (kinderdijk?)
Sun Flowers
Old Rotterdam (Photos)
Stadhuis, the harbour, hofplein etc
Ocean (Big animals)
Sharks, Walrus etc
African women, African animals
Colours: Orange, Yellow, Pink, Red
Dutch Nature
frogs, sheep, chapels, windmills (kinderdijk?)
Ocean (Tropical)
Corals, tropical fishes, clown fishes
Music and Instruments
Instruments: violins, guitars etc
Iconic Cities
Paris, London, Sydney, New York
Forest Birds
owls, close up bird faces

At first I thought to discover all the themes myself, and whenever I caught a 5400 I would note it down. I did this for a week or so, and then I found out that the information is available on wikipedia. Wikipedia literally only lists the themes though, and the specifics are still left for me to map out as my ambitions grew. I have not caught some of these numbers yet since I started mapping them, and this table still needs more filling in. The version presented above is only the first 3 columns of my spreadsheet, the full version includes more details. 

I intend to also take pictures and eventually build up a comprehensive mini database for the 5400s' themes. The 5410 with Old Rotterdam photos is particularly interesting and I want to list out every location in those shots. It'd be a magical experience to take an metro heading to Hofplein, and on your way also witness a graphic memory of how the place looked like 60 years ago. You can imagine yourself travelling through time as you travel through space, and symbolically this can be real too. Are you ready to sniff on that spacetime muse glue? 

The other outstanding one was 5403 with the Ancient Egyptian theme. I have a friend who had been telling me about ancient Egyptian mythologies and their newly discovered parallels to concepts in quantum physics (He's reading a book about it). Usually I'm under the impression that the layman's understanding of quantum physics is highly inaccurate, but as someone who has absolutely no knowledge in the field, it's perhaps hypocritical for me to pass this judgement. The hieroglyphic patterns inside these metro carriages might be arranged randomly, or they might spell the secrets of causality, of the after-life and of a spiritual macrocosm. You can do the research. Or at the very least you can do some more imagining with the metro's graphic assistance, and enchant yourself in doing so. How does it feel like to journey through a Pharaoh's death and rebirth as you travel to work on each new dawn?

The 5400s create opportunities for new meanings on yet another level. The carriages are periodically recombined into sets of 2 or 3 before they start their service on that day (I don't know how often they do this---to be researched), and as such 2 or 3 themes are randomly chained in an order. This creates 2 or 3 scenes that can very easily be imagined as the background settings for one continuous narrative. How does one travel from a game of tennis into a sunflower field? What does this journey mean to you? You can develop your own system of interpretations and your own theories. You can even go as far as charming your friends by getting on a metro with them in the weekend, walk them through the carriages and read them the meanings of this particular combination as if you were reading tarot. They might think that you have finally cracked, or they may choose to welcome the inspiration. That's their call.

The 5400s travel on metro lines A, B and C. They cannot recombine with carriages from other series, so whenever you see one 5400 you know that the rest of the chain are also themed. They come in at least two at a time, because each carriage only has driver's controls on one end, and they need at least two carriages to connect tail-to-tail. You can enjoy them in ways described above, you can enjoy them otherwise, and you can develop various meaningful ways to enjoy other metro series too. When you do, it'll be really cool if you tell me about it because I'd love to know what I'm missing out. Truly, there is so much to miss out. I don't even know the first thing about listening to different metro motors start.

* The opening picture in this post was from a metro in the 5200 series. They're pretty old and Wikipedia said that they're being completely phased out in 2013. I don't remember being on one in a long while, I'm assuming that they're mostly already relieved from service. But if you ever get to be on one in these last months, consider yourself lucky. I would even encourage you to take a picture if you have some sort of camera on you. Unlike newer models, the 5200s were fraught with graffiti and they represent a lost era. I think the reason for this graffiti difference was that the 5200s did not have interior security cameras installed. These were artefacts from a time before an open surveillance society. Perhaps it was worrying that no one could know for sure what happened on the metros, but it is also worrying that now the only people who know are those who have access to the tapes.

** Leo Tolstoy's Diary, entry dated February 29, 1897

*** except 5407 and 5414 which are identical. 


EDIT: after I've written this post I've been taking the metro more often and caught the 5200 a few times. Maybe they're letting them serve a final tour? Maybe they have postponed the phase-out? Here's a photo.