Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Long (Rail)Road Home

I finally had the right ticket, and only two days to get across Europe to London. Barring any unforseen holdups I should make it to Brussels in about 24 hours, according to the ticket lady-- yes, the same one who gave me the wrong ticket the day before. Catching the evening train out of Sibiu to Medias, I was there by ten and had an hour to wait at the creepy station. They keep the lights down so low you can't see to read, and shadowy figures pass in and out, making you clutch your bags a little tighter each time. In the dim light of an upstairs strange sort of waiting hall I did a little Sudoku and tried to forget where I was.
Then went out to wait for the train. In Romania at many stations you must walk across the tracks to get to your platform. It's an odd feeling at first, doing something that back home you've been told all your life is wrong. It really drives it in how far from home you are. Anyway, in spite of studying a handy diagram on the platform as to which car mine should be, I immediately got on the wrong one. Everyone was rushing so fast to get on I thought the train was going to pull out any moment, and I didn't want to miss it again. And of course, there were no car numbers visible, nor conductors for that matter, so I squeezed past the many people in the narrow aisles in a vain search for my little temporary quarters. I finally found a conductor stretched out in the dining car who told me the wrong car to go to. By this time I felt like you do in those dreams where everyone else is in class, watching you as you search for yours. The couchette cars all looked horribly crammed with people squeezed together trying to stretch out to sleep, and were hot, dark and stuffy; I prayed my berth wasn't in them. I found what I thought was mine, according to the recumbant conductor, and entered the sweetest little cabin you could hope for: only two beds, clean, crisp sheets, extra little cubbys, and best of all, no one else in it. It looked too good to be true.
As it turns out, it was.
Almost immediately a woman conductor brusquely entered and asked to see my ticket, whereupon she stated that I was in the wrong cabin... and look what I had done to the sheets by setting my bags on the bed! When I apologized and asked the matron where my proper car was, she proudly announced that she was not in charge of that car, only this one, and had no idea where mine was. Now, these trains always have the exact same layout, according to the diagram at the station; you would think that someone who works every night on the same 10-car train would eventually get a basic grasp of where each one was. In any event she at least pointed me in the right direction, whereupon I found my berth in a four-bunk cabin with three of the jolliest Romanian fellows I had yet met. They were on a holiday to see Nurenburg, and one of them eagerly asked me if I spoke German. When I could only say "Ein bisschen" (a little) he shrugged and, in very good English, asked me what I thought of Bush. They handed me a Pilsner beer from their cooler and we launched into a discussion on everything from U.S. politics to the war in Iraq to the price of real estate in Romania.
They seemed to be the happiest people from Bucharest there ever were, and laughed at everything from the way I taught them how to open a beer with another bottle, to each other's jokes, which were mostly in Romanian and as such were beyond me but it was nice to see such happy fellows after so much gloomy, rude service I had gotten recently. The youngest of the three was a patisserie chef and passed around some delicious, nutty-flavored cookies.
After a decent night's sleep with only the usual midnight passport check at the Hungarian border and a lot of clanging and bumping in Budapest about 3am, I woke up approaching Vienna and had to sadly say auf Wiedersehen to my bunkmates. They gave me some more cookies and I hit the ground (literally) running as the train was late and my connecting train was due to leave that very minute.
I should explain that in Europe it's pretty unusual for trains to be late, but it does happen. They generally leave right on time-- to the minute-- but holdups along the way can slow them down, and if your connection is leaving soon you have to huff it or miss it. Along with a bunch of backpackers, I ran to what looked like my train. It was going the right way (to Frankfurt) and leaving at the right time (now). We all climbed on and scurried to find seats. I grabbed the first one I found and plopped contentedly into it, only to hear an announcement (only in German, of course) saying something about "rezervations". I overheard someone explaining in English that you needed reservations on this train. It figures, right? My reservation only went as far as Vienna; for the rest I was on my own with my Eurailpass. But if I went inside the station to wait for a ticket agent I would surely miss this train and have to wait, possibly for hours, for another one. I had had enough of being delayed and decided to risk it. I slunk down in my seat and hoped for the best, as the train pulled out. The more time passed, the more nervous I got, sure I was going to be found out and dropped off at the next lonely little whistle stop. But my fears were groundless; when the conductor came around he simply stamped my railpass and moved on. I breathed a sigh of relief.
A bit later, though, at another stop a lady got on who informed me that I was in her seat. I gladly got up from the second-class seat and went in search of the first-class cabin. At this point I should explain that my Eurailpass was for first class seating, but I often found the people were more interesting and the seating almost identical in second class, and I hadn't wished to be noticed before I was sure I was safe. Now I boldly entered the hushed, sleek first-class section with its wood paneling, cushy seats and free coffee, and slid into a seat where I could even plug in my computer to recharge. It was actually a four-seat compartment with bucket seats and a nice big table. I was sure it wouldn't last long and as soon as my ticket was checked they would say something like, "Dumbkopf! Ziss car iss for Ferst-Klass peoples only! Rouse, you fool! Get out! Schnell!" Ironically, when the first-class conductor came around, he took one look at me reaching for my bag and waved me off, saying, "It's ok, I trust you." Me? With my two-day whiskers, ill-fitting baseball cap and scruffy "Stop Animal Abuse" t-shirt? Hm. Ok, whatever. At least I got to stay. He even handed out candy to us. Sweet.
Perhaps it was because I was typing on my little laptop. I was working on this blog, but it was diffucult with the beautiful Austrian and German countryside rolling by. When you leave Hungary and enter western Europe the villages just look prettier, the farmsteads tidier and (best of all) the apartment blocks-- that very symbol of the communist blight-- are almost nonexistant-- or at least not visible from the train. Any factories are hidden or kept discreetly away from the towns, and the buildings don't have that run-down look you see so often in the east. Not to say Romania and Hungary don't have their charms; Sibiu's Old Town was a delight and some of the other villages and such were very nice. And I never got to the beaches at the Black Sea and other resort-y (a word I just made up) places. But when you cross over the border you just know you're not in Krakow any more.
In first class I met a nice couple from San Diego who explained to me what had been happening between Russia and the Georgian Republic. I had only heard scraps and hints, and of course there was no CNN or BBC in Sibiu. It seems I had missed quite a bit. I wondered what else had happened in the world while I was traveling. It's ironic: I used to be a news junkie, but about the only thing I knew about the U.S. in the past 6 months is that George Carlin and Bernie Mac had died. Even more ironic is that I really didn't miss knowing all those petty details that we clutter our lives with. I saw little blurbs on Yahoo about the latest Olympics scandals and didn't care to read any more. I just wanted to connect with those I knew back home and around the world, and thus spent most of my internet time emailing people.
As the day passed we stopped in Linz, Nurenburg, Wurzburg, Frankfurt. To my surprise we even passed right through pretty Bacharach with its wonderful old buildings nestled along the Rhine, which I immediately recognized from my visit there the previous year on a Rick Steves tour; I must have passed it in the dark and not even noticed on my way to Romania. It didn't even appear on my Rail Map of Europe. I was glad I'd already seen it or I would have been angry to have come so close to such a picturesque town and not been able to stop. I wondered how old Herr Jung who gave us a town tour was doing.
The stretch of towns along the Rhine in the area is one of the prettiest I'd seen in Europe. Then after Bonn we approached Koln (Cologne) where I finally had to stop to change trains for Brussels, only there were no more running that night, so I booked the first one in the morning and stepped outside the station to find a hotel. I looked up and almost gasped at the colossal Koln cathedral towering over the platz. Checking back on my list of "things to see in Europe", the "Dom" was the one must-see of Cologne that I had emphasized. And here it was in my lap, purely by chance. In the fading light it looked solemn and mysterious, brooding over a multitude of people who, almost to a person, wholly ignored it. There is an overpass across a street that requires one to walk up the front steps of the Dom to reach it, and I watched passengers leave the banhof station and do just that, but nobody even so much as gave the magnificent structure a glance. It's amazing how quickly one becomes used to things. I took a quick stroll around the area which, as the usual manner of historic cities, has been turned into a pedestrian shopping mall, with the requisite fashion stores, McDonald's and Starbucks, which serve so well to bring history truly alive. I retired to the hotel lobby where I had a final German beer (Kolsch) and caught up on my email, before going to my room and watching some of the Olympics (for the first time with English narrative).

The next day, I had just time to step inside the cathedral for a peek (truly an awe-inspiring sight) and snap a few photos of the outside, although I wasn't happy with the light. Then, in just about 3 hours, I was in 5 different countries: after passing thru Aachen, Germany the train sliced across a tiny corner of the Netherlands, then into Belgium to catch the Eurostar chunnel train at Brussels which passes over a bit of France before tunneling under the channel to England. It would be difficult to be in 5 states in the U.S. in that time, I think, although I'm sure it's possible somewhere. By the end of the day I was all the way back in Bicester, England at my brother's house, after a nice, quiet train trip to London, a quick Underground ride to Marylebone (even conductors pronounce it differently) station and just in time to catch the commuter train to Bicester.
After a last night's packing I caught the same train back to London to figure out how to get to Heathrow airport. There were several ways to get there and I didn't have a huge amount of extra time, but luckily I happened to take the route that transfers at Paddington, whereupon I spotted signs for a "Heathrow Express" train. Exactly what I wanted! Instead of riding around and fighting crowds in the underground, I eased into a seat on a nice, quiet train going directly there! And as this was my last chance to use the "first class" aspect of my Britrail pass, I made the most of it, stretching out in the large seats, enjoying the fact that I was the sole occupant of the entire car.
Then after the uneventful flight home where I watched a few movies I was back in the U.S.A., after 6 months of almost non-stop travel. Rest was not to be, however, as I left in two days for San Francisco to check out a job and look for a place to live, should I decide to stay.

Next: What I learned from my travels.

1 comment:

MozzarElla said...

Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed account of the last days in Europe. You really had me chuckling and shaking my head as I read your experience in the trains, notably in Austria and Germany. I loved zee vay you wrote in a GeHrman aczent. Eet was zo perfekt!

You've really reignited my desire to go back!

Looking forward to reading more. And...San Francisco? Pray tell--- more!