Written: October 14, 2011, in DC
About: Europe, summer of 2003
This is the dumb moment. The moment I am standing still, staring at the train schedule board, where my train’s departure time is instead replaced with some words in red. I arrived here on a fine-tuned, precisely designed plan, and now this plan slumped on the floor in a useless pile. The English-speaking clerk at the window confirmed the menacing words. The last train from Amsterdam to Berlin has been cancelled and clock is fast advancing on midnight.
The carefully orchestrated plan crawled to a trash can and disposed of itself. I stared at the clerk, who was of no help. I stared at the street outside. Well, I stared at the darkness outside. There was nothing much out there, certainly not a place to sleep. I didn’t have that much money in my pocket anyway.
I repeatedly stared at the board, the street, and the floor. A decision had to be made and soon. Some sort of decision. It didn’t even have to be a good one. In my pocket I had a train voucher which allowed unlimited train travel within a 24-hour window across France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Options in Amsterdam have come to a zero. The number of trains yet to depart tonight did not. A rash new plan was born.
I marched back to the clerk and asked for the next train to Paris. I decided I’d get on the next train to Berlin from there. I am beginning to think that things only get truly interesting when something unexpected goes terribly wrong.
Night trains are an excellent way to spend a night. There is barely anyone on, and the sleeper cars are often open. You can have a room all to yourself if you feel like it. Then arrive in the early morning and have yourself a full day in the new city. As an added bonus, sleep on the train is some of the best sleep possible.
New York grabs you by the collar and drags you into a jet stream of humanity. New Orleans pours you something suspect and laughs hysterically until you do as well. Paris charms you, simply and effortlessly. Gare du Nord greeted me on a cool and quiet morning. The city was fresh and just waking up to a gorgeous sun. I quickly procured coffee and something baguette-related, parked myself on the bench, and took in everything romantic and aromatic that surrounded me. Which, given the circumstances, was a fair bit.
It was the perfect hold on a cool break of a twirling song.
The idyll of the Parisian breakfast did not last as long as I had wished, and again it was time to get on a train. The final leg of the trip was also troubled, though in less charming ways. The train simply broke down. Twice.
One of the unintended train changes was in Cologne. Everything was in German (which I don’t speak). I’m pretty sure I ended up on the right train mostly by accident. In the middle of the chaos, I called my brother in Berlin to update him on my travels and let him know my adjusted arrival time. He asked me where I was, and I realized I didn’t actually know. I was asleep when we got here and someone told me I had to get off the train. I could see outside and recognized the great Cologne Cathedral, so I told him I thought I was in Cologne. This now stands as the greatest feat of my person architectural erudition.
I was now traveling in daytime and no longer had the luxury of empty train cars. The voucher allowed me on the train but did not guarantee a seat – a fine but crucial distinction. The trains were over-crowded, so I had to bounce between diner cars and entry landings. Memorable company included a group of German army cadets (who mostly grinned and smoked) and a group of Asian girls (who mostly chatted and giggled).
That afternoon, I finally made it to Berlin and my brother picked me up at the station. The moment was filled with a sense of decisive victory. So much could and did go wrong and did, and none of it mattered.
When travel plans go awry, sink your teeth into the new reality instead of angrily lamenting your schedule. It’s the only way you’ll go to Paris just to have breakfast.