The Guardian

Onboard entertainment

On the Berlin to Wrocław Culture Train, education meets festival, with musicians, dancers and a tarot card-reading witch taking the arts to passengers

Words: Jamie Fullerton

Madame Ziemowit the witch nods and scratches her beard as I flip a tarot card, revealing the chariot symbol. Picking the chariot seems fitting, as the turban-clad sorcerer and I are on a train, having just crossed the border entering Poland from Germany. Multicoloured light bulbs adorn carriage windows, framing a greenblue blur of fields and rivers. Next to us a toddler, sitting in a mini-library by the loo, draws squiggles on an Etch A Sketch. A jaunty brass fanfare plays through the carriage speakers.

This is the Culture Train, which makes the four-and-a-half-hour journey between Berlin and the Polish city Wrocław each weekend, and is surely one of the most creative and quirky railway services in Europe. Musicians, authors, DJs, teachers – and indeed performance artists adopting tarot card-reading witch personas – provide entertainment to passengers, who range from bum bag-strapped weekend trippers to Berghain clubbers on comedowns.

The idea, says project manager Oliver Spatz, is “a mix between a festival and an educational centre”. There is deeper meaning to the train than the flashing lights and music might suggest, however, with programming designed to strengthen cultural ties between Germany and Poland, challenge stereotypes, and bring art to a captive audience.

I arrive at the German capital’s Ostkreuz train station after getting the Eurostar from London to Brussels then the European Sleeper to Berlin. With the Culture Train leaving Ostkreuz at 8.05am on Saturdays, I spend Friday night at the Motel One Berlin-Hackescher Markt, overlooking Alexanderplatz station, four S-Bahn stops from Ostkreuz. You can leave the hotel at 7.30am and catch the Culture Train with minutes to spare.

Berlin-based Polish artist Jemek Jemowit, chosen for the Culture Train partly because of his connections to both Poland and Germany, sets up his tarot table soon after we depart. He dons his turban to become Madame Ziemowit and quickly has passengers lining up for free sessions. Natalia, a grinning German-Polish train announcer in her early 20s, declares on loudspeaker that Jemowit doesn’t actually believe in mystic tarot power. The real aim here is performance and social lubrication.

“We want to have this ‘clash’: more regular people meeting more art and culture,” says Jemowit, who runs a swimming pool-based art space in Berlin called Tropez. “Taking cultural stuff and art from the galleries and out to the people.”

The passengers’ Saturday morning yawns soon give way to discussions about tarot results. Emilia, a Berlinbased Polish woman travelling to Wrocław with her young daughter to visit family, tells me that the entertainment on board makes the journey pleasant rather than taxing. There are boxes of children’s books and games, plus wool and knitting needles anyone can get clacking with. Announcers host a quiz with questions about German and Polish culture.

Emilia, who is married to a German, rides the Culture Train regularly and says it’s a symbol of friendship. “The first thing I found out when I moved to Germany was that some people had the feeling that Poles were cheaters,” she says. “It’s not true. So, people who go to Poland can change their mind about this.”

The Culture Train