A Mennonite fever-dream: aboard the Russlaender 100 train in B.C.

It was like a Mennonite fever-dream. And at this point I’m just trying to make sense of it all.

Did this really happen?

(Continued from this post.)

I was traveling with a group of people seeking the same thing — to commemorate history through an immersive learning experience. Together.

The train had just crossed into British Columbia, and the last thing I told you about was the woman who made it clear to me that I needed to get my language straight. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do that here.

This is only going to get messier, you know.

But I’m doing it anyway! (AHHHHHHHH!)

So. I was on the train. I secured a seat in the dome car for some incredible views of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. Like this incredible picture of a waterfall!


Then, I took a picture with Irmgard and she told me not to show anyone. So I promptly showed everyone the pic on my phone while she was right there (I figured that way she could stop me in real time — yeah, I’m sorry, I’m not a safe person to be around apparently) and she was not very impressed with me. But, just look!

She’s gonna hate me for this. (BUT LOOK HOW CUTE)

This was the last photo I took on this day, labeled 5:02pm. The next photo I took was of was our arrival in Vancouver, at 7:51am. I’m going to try to explain what happened in between.

My phone’s battery was dying. I knew there was basically just one outlet available in the games car (or whatever it was called — coffee and games always available at nice tables; a most convivial train car!). So I left my spot in the dome car to see if that outlet was available. What I found was a group of the under-35 set (whom I kept thinking of as being around 17 years old… I was corrected often, many of these folks were in their 30s and had several degrees, were established in their careers, married, had children… and my assumption that they were super-young was quite insulting; yet another 45-year-old faux-pas, ugh, sorry! It must be very insulting for people to not be able to see your accomplishments, I am kind of faintly remembering what that was like and the feeling is very real and I am sorry.) Anyway, I saw the “youths” (omg there I go again) playing games at THE table which has the sole outlet… and that outlet had one of those mega-chargers on it with many ports and they were so kind and let me join in the situation so I left my phone there charging with all the other ones and pretty much forgot about it. (This is not at all how I envisioned me managing the lack-of-outlet situation! I’d imagined I’d seek an outlet far and wide on the train and end up sitting far away from everyone, alone, for hours. But no. I guess I’m too lazy/interactive for that kind of thing, plus, just facts: I was traveling with very kind, generous people.)

I was on a train with no phone, because there was no power and no wifi anyway. My time of being entirely disconnected had arrived.

It was just me and my little journal. I scribbled frantically. Let’s see what I wrote down.

Dr. Aileen Friesen delivered a lecture in the dome car, which was entirely filled by the time I arrived so I sat in the coffee/games car with many other tour participants, and activated my “quiet box” — which was supposed to allow me to listen to whatever talk was happening elsewhere. Unfortunately there was some static which added to my own personal mental static (ha) but I did write down a few things. She told us about B.B. Janz, how he helped the Russlaender come to Canada, but it was complex. Both the government and the Mennonites wanted a separation of church and state… be careful when studying and drawing conclusions of any sort. Wow, those notes are terrible (classic me).

A little while later, author Armin Wiebe took the mic in the dome car. I was still sitting elsewhere, I believe… and the static from the “quiet box” (is it just me or is that name slightly sinister?) had faded so I could actually hear clearly. (Guess I should have activated the quiet box a little earlier to get all the static out? I don’t know.) I wrote down, “stories have to take place somewhere” … “carnal Christian” … and some of  his manner of writing “Flat German”: “learned themselves away from…” and “standing the pulpit behind” — which are direct quotes from what he read to us from one of his books (I forget which one!).

I then ended up in the dome car again, and had the chance to chat at random with whomever was around. I learned about Alissa Reimer, who is telling her family story in animation. She’s creating a 10-part series of whatever stories she was able to get out of her grandparents, because oral tradition gets skewed or forgotten over time. She was encouraged by Dr. Friesen to read the broader history as well, to give her family story context. (Seems like pretty good advice to me! I wonder how often this oversight occurs…)

Then, author Helen Rose Pauls took the mic. (I quickly realized this was the same woman who had told me I’d gotten some things wrong! So I listened. She’s pretty engaging!) She said that Mennonites were “completely intwined with the draining of the lake, but maybe not in the way you thought.”

Helen was at the front of the car, and I was at the back. OH WELL.

She said that rich Americans bought the drained Sumas Lake and planted thousands of acres of hops. The newly arrived Russlaender were recruited to pick the hops — there were ads in the Rundschau: “workers needed”. A Mr. Eckert bought the land, chopped it into pieces, and sold it to Mennonites. “Before long, you have a village.” The families first picked hops, then planted berries. “They were trying to copy the Russian villages.” And, “the thing you could not be, was lazy. You could be ugly, but not lazy.” (I wrote this down because it made me laugh.)

So. Another view. (But does it feel too easy to point at “rich Americans”? People so removed from us… but are they really?)

I enjoyed taking pictures of Kenji as he took video footage of us all. (Recognize anyone else?)

At some point, it was time for supper. There were three sittings for supper — and I had chosen the final sitting at random, figuring that would be my final event of the night. One of my dinner companions raised a topic which ended up being… not a hot-button topic necessarily because I think we all agreed… yet at the same time, this conversational prompt had us sitting in some silence before another dinner companion began speaking, thoughtfully. They shared a deeply personal story that is not mine to share here.

The train is a liminal space. Not only were we disconnected from everything resembling our typical reality (phones, internet, screens) but there’s something about these in-between spaces that can result in unexpected revelations. At this late dinner hour on the train through the darkening mountains, I was not recording anything anymore (or even attempting to)… I was simply sitting with someone else’s story. I do not remember anything about the food. (I do remember that I made sure to get a beer, though!) I remember that some things are complicated. And sometimes we accidentally hurt others with our words.

Dinner over, I was not sleepy like I had thought I would be, despite the fact I was clearly sleep-deprived from the previous night’s adventure. I wondered what the dome car would be like in the dark, so I ventured up the stairs.

There I found a few others, and we sat in companiable silence, watching as the light faded from the mountaintops and the lights of the train took each curve in the distance… a surreal feeling.

As the train crept closer to our final destination, I contemplated all the various ways of telling the Mennonite story. Academic. Personal. And how, thanks to this experience, they were bumping up against each other in real time. It was bizarre. It was like a fever-dream.

I slept.