Airports are pretty big places. They handle a lot of people quite well by spreading people out through different terminals and gates and whatnot. Train stations handle a lot of people too. Except, they don't have terminals and gates; they have platforms that are all underneath one, massive (usually glass) roof. All these platforms converge on one massive common area at the edge of the tracks (remember, most trains in Europe have engines at the front AND the back, so when they pull into a station, they can just pull out the opposite direction, rather than pulling through). So, as you can imagine, a station with 8-12 platforms could get quite congested around rush hour. My first station, Frankfurt Fughafen had 4 platforms. Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof has 24 platforms. Twenty. Four.
[Train slows down at the platform furthest to the left, or right depending on which way you look at it]
Still a little dazed from the sheer size of this place, it took me a moment to regain my mental stability and prepare to go and find ICE 229 for Wien. Struggling to regain my busfeet (balance) on the moving train, I just barely got all of my bags slung over my shoulder by the time the train came to a complete stop. The old woman, again, chuckled at me as she scurried over to the door to avoid the stampede of people exiting the train. Trying not to look out of place, I too quickly got off the train and started walking along with the crowd towards the end of the tracks. One of those mindless moments you know; don't think, just follow everyone else. The thought HAD crossed my mind that my train could be leaving soon, and maybe I started walking faster; I can't remember.
"Okay. Find this train" I thought.
At the center of the station is a giant sign which reads "Departures"... it's a blue digital sign that has, depending on the size of the station, a long list of trains that will be departing within the next hour or two. It shows the time, train number (which are different abbreviations... different countries have different trains... ex. ICE is German, RJ is Austrian, TGV is French, IC is German, EN is Euro Night Train, etc etc etc), ultimate destination of the train, and what platform the train will be departing from. Amidst the sea of people, I push my way to find the information booth (sort of like fighting your way to the bar at SPOCO in Iowa City, just with less drunk college kids and more German) to get a closer look at this board.
[Scans the entire board for Wien]
[Scans the entire board for Wien AGAIN]
"Okay, no problem. Maybe the train's final destination isn't Wien. I'll check the departures list"
Along with the live updated digital display, there is also a board in the station with a paper listing of every single train that comes in and out of the station. The list contains the platform number, train number and abbreviation, departure times, as well as each one of its' stops along the route with the time. It's a massive list.
I had a lot of nicknames throughout my primary education. One of the first was "Eagle-Eyed Isaac" - I was really, REALLY good at those I Spy books... remember those? This was sort of like an eye spy book... except everything was in German and my only hint was to look for a general time the train was supposed to leave. (Conveniently, my THIS IS NOT A VALID TICKET booking confirmation from the Austrians listed a train change, but failed to mention what time on the actual print out). After a few minutes of intense searching, I finally found it.
16:21 ICE 229 Frankfurt Hbf - Wien Hbf 23:12
"16:21... okay that means 4:21 PM"
[Turns around to look at departure board]
No ICE 229.
[Looks at clock on departure board]
"Okay; stay calm. I'll just go and do what Dr. Johnson said.... smile and ask politely for some help at the information booth. Maybe there's a chance the train hasn't left yet and I'm just confused." This information booth was much larger than the one at the airport. I had to wait in some poor excuse of a line (Chinese tourists travel in packs you know). There were 4 tellers. None of them were German women. I was lucky enough to get the old and irritated gentleman who was just on the last 15 minutes of his shift. He was sporting a Stalin-esque mustache, which of course legitimized anything he said.
I walked up to the counter (terrified of the answer I could receive) and said,
"Has the last train to Wien left for today?"
[Looks at his watch (See what I mean? This guy didn't even have to look at the stupid computer, he just knew) ]
[I sigh and look down]
"NEXT!" He proclaims.
This is the part that people warned me would happen. This is the part you don't experience when you travel with a school group. Some call it the "Post Honeymoon Phase" or the "I'm in over my head phase". Everything that is good and exciting has come to a screeching halt. One of the school of music professors at UNI said it like this
I wasn't sure what to do. Coping with the reality that the train has left and there are no other trains going to Wien from Frankfurt is a pretty heavy burden. I started pacing around; walking to different parts of the station hoping to find some sort of a solution in the rafters. "Maybe I should send an iMessage to Bryan" (he's the Colt I met at the airport who was staying with his brother in Frankfurt) I thought.
No Wifi. No way to communicate with anyone.
"Okay. I just need to sit down."
Thinking that McDonald's would provide some familiarity and solace for this moment of foreign dismay, I collapsed into a seat and closed my eyes.
[5 minutes pass. I open my eyes]
"Still in Frankfurt. Shit. Okay. Sitting in McDonald's isn't going to fix anything. Neither is crying or getting overly hysterical. I need to find of a solution. There has to be one."
I head back over to the printed timetable of all of the trains departing for the day. "I'm in Frankfurt. I need to get CLOSER to Wien. I have a train from Wien tomorrow that I MUST make. Okay. Staying in Frankfurt puts that train at risk, so staying here isn't an option" I thought. "I have to get closer to Wien. The closer I get, the more chance for another train connection to Wien...maybe one today. It's a shorter distance. Alright." I continue to scan the board for any ideas.
There weren't any physical maps around, which made it harder. I also STILL had no wifi. Luckily, I remembered a bit of Deutsche Geography; München (Munich) is a large city in south eastern Germany. I looked up at the departures board. There was another train that was to depart for München in 2 minutes. Too soon. I couldn't make that. There were other trains leaving for München that night as well. Then, the departure board said the train was running 15 minutes behind schedule and hadn't entered the station yet.
My only thought at this point was GO.
I sprinted over (still with a hiking backpack, a camera bag slung over my shoulder, and a computer bag in my hands) to the nearest ticket booth and started the purchasing process.
English. Purchase immediate ticket. Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to....
I stopped. "What if the train gets to München and there isn't another train to Wien? Which station should I pick in München? I should double check." Time was running out.
"I'll just go and do what Dr. Johnson said.... smile and ask politely for some help at the information booth" I thought. I once again swam through the throngs of people, only to see another disorganized excuse for a line had formed. I wedged myself in, dirty looks and all. The Stalin-Mustache man was still at his booth. I strategically let people ahead of me to avoid encountering his wisdom again. A few people went ahead of me. Time is running out. He calls me over.
By some miraculous wonder, he got up from his seat, and a new, younger, smiling gentleman (without a violent dictator's facial accessory) sat down and asked how he could help me. The words spilled out of my mouth faster than I could articulate.
"I've missed my train to Wien. I have to be there tomorrow morning. Can I get a train to Wien tonight if I jump on the next train to München?!?" I proclaimed.
[His fingers furiously typing on the keyboard]
"Of course! Let me print you off an Itinerary"
To be completely honest, I didn't care what he said at this point. There were trains going from München to Wien. Today. He handed me the itinerary and began to explain, but I stopped listening. I was determined to get on that next train. The sooner I got to München, the better chance I could get at grabbing a train to Wien that same day. Maybe I'd even be able to stay at the hotel like I had planned. I thanked him, raced over to the ticket booth, and began the process again.
English. Purchase Immediate Ticket. Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to München Hauptbahnhof. Most immediate time available. I double checked the train number; it coincided with the one that was just pulling into the station...the one that was 15 minutes late.
PURCHASE. €101. I didn't care. I had to get on this train.
[Train screeches to a hault. Doors open]
"Printing. Please wait"
[Passengers are filing in and out]
"Printing. Please wait"
[Passengers are boarding]
Done. I grabbed my ticket and jumped on the train. Phew. I made it. Something was wrong though. Not a single person was on the train. Anywhere.
There's an old saying in Drum Corps, "If no one else is around, you're probably wrong". I was wrong. But it didn't make sense. This was the right train number. I booked 2nd class; that's what the train door said. This is second class, going to München. I stepped closer to the door of the carriage, the doors opened, and I peered out. People were running to the end of the platform. No one was entering my car. This can't be right. If I get off, I run the risk of...
[Friendly woman yelling at me in German]
"I'm sorry, I don't speak German. English?! "
I could see her brain shifting into English-Mode by the expressions on her face. She struggled.
"This part of the train is...staying here.... You need to...get to the front of the train"
Sprinting for my life down the platform, I then saw what she meant. This train had 4 locomotives. It was essentially two trains stuck together. The one in the back had been detached from the one in the front. I had boarded the stationary train, not the one that was detaching and leaving for München. Just like in a movie, I dove into the first available car behind some other businessmen. No more than 30 seconds later, the doors closed.
As quickly as the train arrived, it departed.
This ICE was packed full. Every seat was taken. Every single one. There were about 5 other people crammed with me in the area between the two cars. There were holding bars, so this seemed like a pretty normal occurrence for some of them. This might do for a quick ride, but not a 7 hour haul. I needed to find a seat. A few people ahead of me started to move around the cars, searching for an available seat. I followed suit. This is a train though; so moving around the cars, while moving, with 3 bags, probably looked quite comical. I didn't find it funny. I was tired. Sweating. Hungry. Thirsty. I also really, really had to pee again.
The next two cars were the same. Every seat was taken. Every single one. I couldn't manage the strength to keep going. I finally dropped my bags at the connection area of two cars and sat on the floor. I couldn't stand anymore. This wasn't the comfortable ride I paid €101 for. This wasn't the destination I was supposed to be going to. This wasn't as easy as it should be. This wasn't how I planned it.
I'm sitting next to the bathroom. Damn it.
[Checks phone for wifi]
Nothing. I had no way to understand where I was going, or what I was to do when I go there. I had no way to communicate with anyone.
[ICE begins to increase speed. The landscape turns from city to lush forests. The whole train tilts as we go speeding into a curved tunnel. The only lights are those illuminating the carriage from inside]
All I could do was hope that nothing else would go wrong today.
I was wrong.