Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Travelling by train

 "No mode of transportation inspires more detailed observation than the railway train" - Paul Theroux

There were a few reasons I decided to travel Europe by train. The first was to impress my nephew, who at 2yrs old is already a keen observer of toot toots in general, and Thomas the Tank Engine in particular. Another was ecological. While flying halfway across the world is a shocking thing to do to the environment, the only way I could justify it was to travel by train once I arrived. The plan was to pass through Germany, Switzerland, France and England all by train. The third reason was romantic. There's no other mode of transport where you can watch the scenery rush past free of road traffic, where your cup doesn't spill during turbulence, and where you can plug in your laptop or phone, read, or chat to the person sitting opposite you.I wanted to experience it for myself. 

So imagine my disappointment when, fresh off a 30hr flight in Frankfurt, and armed with instructions for how to travel by train for 16 euro to Erlangen via Nurnberg, I was informed by an efficient German teller that the only way to do so was to take almost every slow train in Germany, go via every small city and arrive three hours later than planned. With no way to contact my friend with changes to the agreed arrival time, I had to opt for the more expensive route. With a heavy heart, and even heavier pack, I purchased my ticket, found the platform, and boarded the train, only to discover that it was full of commuters. Suddenly aware that I had not showered in two days, I slid my backpack into the luggage rack, and eased myself carefully into the only available seat, next to a rather displeased man in a suit, and tried not to smell too bad. 

Things improved when I undertook my next journey three days later. "You have to book well in advance if you want a good price" they all said when I had been trying to book my tickets a few weeks earlier, which doesn't bode well for somebody like me who isn't good with decisions. I had been staring at the three options before me on the computer screen: 1) cheapest with no flexibility if you miss any of the connections 2) First class for only 20 euros more with officially no more flexibility, although reports indicated they were more forgiving in first class or 3) most expensive, with full flexibility. Eventually I selected option 2. I wanted to see what First Class was like, and after all, the trip was about 9 hours in total, with 5 changes of train. I reasoned that I might as well be comfortable. And it was such a pleasure to step into that empty First Class carriage and settle myself in with laptop, lunch, journal and reading material. As the scenery wizzed past, it changed from German cities to Swiss alpine countryside, and the trains changed from high speed intercity express to cute mountain crawler. I began to feel like I was really on holiday!

It was during the journey from Morges in Switzerland to Paris that I made a friend. Finding myself seated directly opposite a young man with a wide smile, it occurred to me that it would be weird not to talk at all for the next 4 hours. He was very willing to tell me, in French, all about Cape Verte, the island where he grew up off the west coast of Africa, the economic and social issues they face, explain about the glass making factory where he works, and show me photos of his eight year old daughter, who lives with her mother in Spain. I have to admit that this level of detail in a conversation was only possible because he was African-Francophone. I can never understand the native Swiss or French because they talk so fast. When the conversation drifted from the status of women in Cape Verte into the question of why a lady so beautiful should be single at age 36, which is charming when delivered in French, I decided to pull out my book and begin to read it in earnest before I gave the guy the wrong idea. 

One of the tricky things about train travel is making sure you catch it. I seemed to be forever running from one platform to another, trying to make tight connections. "Oh, they are very relaxed with the Eurostar" my friends told me. "You can't really miss it, because they let you on even if you're not there the full 40 minutes in advance". Well, it turns out you can! Having only booked it a few days earlier, I had paid a *LOT* for my ticket from Paris to London, and had to travel very early in the morning. We'd spent the evening before having a traditional Parisien BBQ, which means not eating until 10pm, and then doing so at a leisurely pace, so I had only had about five hours sleep when I awoke at 7am for my train. Admittedly, I lingered longer over my shower than if I was heading to the airport, but managed to arrive at Eurostar headquarters together with other passengers expecting to catch the 8:45am train. When I reached the head of the queue for British immigration, a guy in a cockney accent asked me where my arrivals card was. Sorry, what? It turned out they were back beside the check-in desk. "Can I come straight back to you when I've filled it out?", I asked. "No", was the careless reply. So, after bounding over to the arrivals card pile, bounding back, filling it out while progressing again in the queue, getting through immigration, taking off belt etc for security clearance, putting belt back on, misplacing jacket, and finding jacket again, I began to feel a sense of urgency about getting to the departure gate. After a mild panic because there didn't seem to be any clear indication of where to go, I found the departure gate, relieved that I had 'made it'.

"Ticket please", the neatly dressed lady ordered in french, and I began furiously checking pockets and bags. When I couldn't produce my ticket, she calmly closed the departure gate and informed me that I had missed the train. In a total panic, I began pleading with her to help me somehow, and when this produced no positive response, I decided to find the booking confirmation on my phone. Ah ha! There it was, and I raced over with the phone in my hand, jacket sliding out from under one arm, and bags falling from the other. But when I looked at the phone again, I had somehow, in the mayhem, DELETED the exact message that I needed. It all seemed hopeless. But, as I stepped back to assess the situation, I could hear another traveller who had missed the train asking what the cost was to re-book. "Oh, there's no charge", I heard the neatly dressed lady say "we simply book you on the next one". And, buoyed by this new information, I conducted a more careful search and low and behold, there was my ticket in a pocket I hadn't remembered putting it. They changed my booking, and I happily boarded the train, delighted to be finally on my way, and vowing never to tempt fate again!

When I arrived in England, I was exposed to a plethora of trains. There was the underground, overground suburban traings, and of course the regional trains taking me up north. The thing I loved about those English trains was that, as if they are all relatives of our friend Thomas, they seem to have so much personality attributed to them. When the announcement advises me that this train will be "calling at" West Ealing, Ealing Broadway, and West Drayton, I can't help picturing the train as an upper class Jane Austin-y fellow popping in for a cup of tea and a slice of cake at each of those places before reaching its final destination.  

And so it was with sadness that I boarded my final train from Frankfurt am main to Frankfurt Flughafen. I was heading home. But I couldn't be sad for long. Two gypsies got on board with an amplified stereo, and began to enthusiastically sing along and dance to the German version of various English pop songs. They timed the walk-about with the cup for donations perfectly so travellers about to get off at the airport could relieve themselves of spare euros before leaving the country for an indefinite period of time. I parted with about 50 cents before waving goodbye to European rail for another decade or so, and promised myself that I would do more to support the campaign for high speed rail in Australia.

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