It was quite a while before we reached our first stop. Not that anything had gone wrong, just that this train took the scenic route through the foothills and forests of southern Germany. Normally, I'm a window seat kind of guy. I can stare out the windows and be entertained by the most remote scenery (except 80% of South Dakota) for hours. However, sitting on the floor by the bathroom didn't provide much opportunity to see outside. There was a girl next to me, comfortably positioned by the door, with her feet in the depression where the steps leading out of the carriage were. There was a window above her on the door, but it was too much work to try and watch out the window. I closed my eyes.
Before I knew it, we had arrived at the first stop. A few people got off, most of whom had spent the ride standing at the ends of the rail car like myself. A few seats opened up; in the time it took me to stand, new passengers had boarded and the seats were occupied. And with the sound of a shrill, high pitched whistle, we were off again. The whole stop took less than 3 minutes I imagine.
Again, the ends of the cars were still full with passengers standing. Many of these were businessmen in well tailored suits, with leather sidebags and iPhones. Not that I felt out of place with my Panthers Nike Gym Shorts, athletic tee, and 3 bags or anything. There were all sorts of people on the train - families, travelers, backpackers, old people, young people; it really is an important part of their every day lives. It's reliable, safe, comfortable (not so much sitting on the floor, but Drum Corps taught me to love that) and it works efficiently. I only wish we had some form of actual mass transit; the only efficient way from Minneapolis to Des Moines shouldn't just be I-35 by car.....
Right before we began our approach on the second station, a (seemingly taller) female German Conductor, dressed in a conservative navy blue jacket and skirt, patiently made her rounds through the cars. My curious seat on the train didn't phase her one bit; almost as if this was the normal spot for an exhausted traveler who had found themselves in a situation that hadn't been on their itinerary. I handed her my tickets [while holding my breath] with some reluctance, for fear that, if by chance my tickets weren't valid, she would stop the train and throw me off.
With two clicks from the punch machine, she handed the tickets back to me and continued down the car.
We arrived at the next stop which, to my surprise, was a destination for many people. Before the disembarking began, I picked up my bags and moved with the crowd to the next car. I was ready. By the time the new passengers were coming aboard, I had already found a pair of open seats. In the middle of the carriage was an open shelving unit for larger bags. I left the camping bag there, put the camera bag above me, and the computer bag at my feet. The seat was actually pretty comfortable; nothing luxurious, nothing extra - just a comfortable seat like in a bus (with much more leg room).
Just as the train was beginning to move forward, I found myself a seat partner. She was a middle aged woman, in a denim jacket. Her smile reminded me of my grandmother's. She spoke something to me in German (which was probably a combination of the words "is this seat taken")... I just smiled and patted the seat, inviting her to sit down. I almost tried to strike up a conversation, but, I retreated to the comfort of keeping to myself and staying quiet. Before I knew it, I was asleep.
I'm not really sure how long I slept. When I woke up, everything was still the same. My seat partner hadn't left. The three businessmen across the aisle were still on their iPads and laptops. We were still speeding through German countryside. With some new-found confidence, I asked her if she spoke any English. She hesitantly replied that she did (only a little, according to her), and we had a small conversation about the train and where I was headed. She reassured me that there were night trains leaving from Müchen and that I shouldn't be worried about making it to Wien tonight. She also encouraged me to go and find some lunch in the Bistro car, because the food is good and cheaper than in the station. She pointed me in the right direction, and I soon found myself face first into a ham and cheese baguette as we pulled into the next station. Mid-bite, I realized that this was her stop, and I wanted to say goodbye. Unsure if the food could leave the Bistro car, I smashed the crunchy sandwich in my mouth and took off towards our seats. Too late. She was gone. I never even caught her name.
It was dusk by the time we rolled into Müchen. The station was a lot like Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof - lot of tracks, lots of people, and a big glass roof covering it all. There were only about 12 platforms, but still enough people to make me want to grip my bags tightly. I spotted a ticket booth.
English. Purchase Immediate Ticket. Müchen Hauptbahnhof to Wien.
Wien Westbahnhof or Hauptbahnhof? It replied.
Either. Either. Hauptbahnhof. Select Train.... okay I need a EN for Europe Night train. EN 463. That's the one.
Please select an accommodation. Sleeping Bed. Couchette. Cabin Seat. (might as well try them all, right?)
Sleeping Bed. Sleeping Bed has been selected. There are no seats of this kind available on this train. Please select another option.
Couchette. Couchette has been selected. There are no seats of this kind available on this train. Please select another option.
Cabin Seat. Cabin Seat has been selected. There are no seats of this kind available on this train. No options are available. Terminating order. Thank You.
I'm not making this up. I couldn't. I didn't believe it though. I wasn't going to believe it. How on earth could I possibly go this far away, only to be stranded again? No person could possibly have this kind of bad luck. So, rather than worry about it, I decided to walk around until I felt like trying again.
Up the escalators was a small waiting room that was only for people with actual tickets. It was a moderately sized glass room, filled with those curved wooden benches you are accustomed to seeing in train stations. A lot of the people in the room seemed to notice me when I walked in; at first I didn't think much of it. As time got on though, a few groups of young men in the corners of the room kept looking at me. I felt uneasy; like I was being watched - maybe a potential target for a theft? Just as I was getting nervous... my iPhone connected to Wifi.
13 Snapchats. 7 Emails. 4 Facebook notifications. 3 iMessages. Twitter, Voxer, Clash of Clans. My phone was blowing up! Before any of that though, I knew I had to email my dad. There had been no direct contact with anyone about my adventures from earlier in the day, so, in a brief (much shorter than this three part blog post) email, I let him know what had happened, how I found my way to Müchen, and what the plan was from here on out.
[Looks up from phone]
"Okay, those guys are still looking at me. I don't like this. I need to get out of here."
Now I was starting to feel a little too uncomfortable. It was only 21:30. I didn't have my ticket yet. The sun had gone down. The station was getting darker (but thankfully, still just as busy as before, plenty of trains were arriving and departing every ten or twenty minutes), and now these guys had been watching me for too long. I decided it was best if I kept moving around; so I did some exploring of the more "commercialized" part of the station. There were tons of vendors and American-style fast food places... Burger King, Starbucks, KFC, even the Coca-Cola restaurant. The station even had a sort of photography exhibit inside the main hall. I didn't really take any time to look because I decided it was time to try the ticket again. This time I went to a new machine.
English. Purchase Immediate Ticket. Müchen Hauptbahnhof to Wien.
Wien Westbahnhof , Meidling or Hauptbahnhof? It replied.
Please select an accommodation. Sleeping Bed. Couchette. Cabin Seat.
Cabin Seat. Cabin Seat has been selected. Is this correct?
Now Printing. Thank you and have a safe journey.
Holding the tickets in my hand felt like I had conquered the world. I didn't do anything differently except go straight for the cabin seat ticket, rather than trying the beds or the couchettes. I don't know how, or why I was denied the tickets at the first booth, but it didn't matter. I finally had my tickets for Wien; which meant I wasn't going to have to venture the streets of Germany at night looking for a room to stay. Thank. Goodness.
To pass the time, I decided I should sit somewhere a little better lit than the scary room up the escalators. Again, retreating to the safety and security of Western culture, I took up residence in the Starbucks right off of platform 12, where EN 463 would be arriving in about 2 hours.
After getting my drink (with the best spelling of my name I have ever seen), I tried to sit down and do a little computer work, to no avail; the Wifi here wasn't working. Same story for the phone. So, I pulled out a good book "Budapest" by Nicholas Clapton, that had been given to me by a good friend as a parting gift for my journey. Fittingly, the book highlights his journey to Budapest in the winter; a history lesson, with his own personal narrative, all tied together with discussions on Hungarian Folk Music and famous composers. For those of you that know me, I'm not much of a reader. But before I knew it, the clock was at 22:45. A train rolled into platform 12.
It wasn't a fancy ICE, or a sleek and modern TGV from France, or a shiny and clean Railjet. The engine was covered in dirt and was much older than the other trains. The front end was sloped, but wide and flat - not the aerodynamic design of the bullet trains. The faded blue cars looked like they had been manufactured at some point towards the end of the cold war. I got up from my seat in Starbucks to check the departure sign above platform 12.
In big, bright letters, the sign said "Budapest Keleti". To the left, the analog clock had barely reached 22:50.
[Pulls out ticket stub]
VON -> NACH
30.07 23:36 MUENCHEN HBF -> WIEN HAUPTBAHNHOF 31.07 06.18 2
ZUG 463 EN WAGEN 260 Sitzplatz 16
23:36. My train arrives at 23:36. It is 22:50. 10:50. My train leaves at 11:36. It is 10:50. This isn't my train. Trying to go back and fourth between a 12 hour clock and a 24 hour clock isn't so difficult, however it does provide another opportunity for confusion. I couldn't help but to try and instill some more confidence in myself by repeating it over and over. It is 10:50. My train leaves at 11:36. This is not my train. I even went so far as to check the departures board above the information desk. Sure enough, EN 463 was in fact departing at 23:36.
And just like that, the train departed before 23:00. And just like that, I found myself getting nervous again. The board above platform 12 had gone blank. It wasn't showing the next arriving train like I thought it would. 5 minutes went by. 10 minutes went by. Nothing. As I walked over to the information boot again, I overheard a comment by a couple who had been sitting next to the paper departure list for a few hours.
"I can't believe those kids missed that train. It's laid out so easy. It says it on the board and above the platform. They're just plain dumb"
I casually checked the paper departure list by where they were sitting. It says EN 463 departs at 23:36. I'm not blind. I havn't read it incorrectly, 23:36.
[Walks over to the information booth]
EN 463, departing for Budapest Keleti station from Platform 12 at 23:36, is no longer listed on the departure board. There are trains departing at 23:20 - 01:00 listed. But not EN 463. Nothing says Budapest. Nothing says 463. It's gone. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not again.
The next twenty minutes felt like hours. I kept walking around the station, checking my tickets. 23:36. I scanned every single train on the departure paper board for some sort of answer as to what could have happened. EN 463, 23:36. I kept wondering how long it was going to take for those people sitting there to make some comment about me, being the silly kid who missed his train AGAIN. I almost started belittling myself "how could you miss the train. It was right there. It said on the sign. It was right in front of you. Now you've wasted even more money on a train ticket". The only defense I had was that everything said this train would be here at 23:36. I hadn't gotten confused or done something wrong. The date was correct. Everything was CORRECT. But EN 463 was not on the board, anywhere.
I finally agreed that, regardless if the board showed anything or not, I was going to wait until 23:36 before I decided to try to find a place to stay that night. Maybe eating something would calm my anxiety. Or using the bathroom. It was 23:25. After stumbling across the station map, and realizing again that WC meant "wash closet", I finally found the bathrooms. They were down a set of stairs by one of the entrances to the station. The bathrooms however required 1 euro and the men's was under construction.
[Walks back up the stairs]
To my delight and sheer disbelief, the sign above platform 12 had changed. It now said, Budapest Keleti. The analog clock was at 23:35. Carrying 3 bags, I sprinted over to the information booth. Lights were shining on the rails of platform 12. EN 463 was on the top of the board. Platform 12. Budapest Keleti. A mass of people began to make their way to the platform. The whistle blew and the train came to a stop. This was it.
The train looked exactly like the one that had come before. Another dirty, less impressive engine. The same faded blue cars. I really didn't have a whole lot of time though. I scanned the cars for WAGEN 260 (which I assume meant Wagon (train car) 260).
256. 258. 260.
Okay, Wagen 260. Check. Now for a seat number. Sitzplatz? I'm guessing that means seat? Sitzplatz 16. Okay. The train car was divided up into small rooms with lots of seats; exactly like what you see on the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter. These weren't English coaches, covered in fine upholstery and rich mahogany. These were eastern European coaches. I walked to the end of the coach where I eventually found my seat. It was a window seat with a small folding desk, like the ones in the auditorium seating in Lang Hall at UNI - just enough space for you to write with a notebook.
There were a lot of young people like myself on this train. Lots of guys with backpacks and girls with shopping bags. I felt at ease knowing I wasn't the only mid-twenties rider on the night train; although sleeping in a cabin with a camera bag full of equipment and a computer bag with potentially 5 other people did make me a little worrisome.
"Excuse me, do you know if these are assigned seats? I'm here on holiday and I haven't been on a night train before."
"Well neither have I! I'm so happy to hear someone else speak English! I think this word Sitzplatz means seat, and there are little signs on each room with the numbers. But, you're more than welcome to sit with me. I don't think anyone is going to be in here."
"Okay! Well, I think I'll go see if I can find my seat then. If not I'll come back. Thanks!"
I was honestly kind of hoping he would sit with me. He seemed nice and friendly; after so little interactions with people since the airport, I was ready to finally have some social activity. He also didn't seem like the kind of guy who would run off with my camera gear. I went back to writing in my journal. Looks like I had the cabin alone to myself.
[Conductor's whistle blows. Train begins to leave the station]
And then the door opens up. This guy throws his green duffle bag on the floor and says "Hello". He sat down on the opposite corner of me and put his feet up on the opposite seat. I asked him how he was doing, and with the traditional European reply (see, when you ask someone how they are doing, people take it seriously; not our fake "I'm good" or "Great, thanks" that we use all the time. They actually tell you how they're feeling..weird, right?), he told me.
"I'm so tired man. I've been working all day and just want to sleep. Are you still writing?"
[Closes the journal]
"Nah man, it's okay, I'm done for tonight anyway. You can turn out the light. I'm ready for sleep too"
[Turns off the light]
I think we talked for a solid 2 hours. His name is Thomas Meyer and he works for a social media company as a director of sales; essentially companies hire him to help advise on their social media accounts. So, we had a bit in common. Conversations about Facebook and Twitter turned into discussions about film and House of Cards. He asked me what I was doing headed to Wien. I told him the whole story.
"Why don't you just stay at my place when we get to Wien. There isn't anything to do in the city at 6:00 in the morning and my girlfriend and I host an Airbnb place. You could sleep on the couch bed and she'll make you breakfast. You can get a nice shower and leave when you need to. 20 Euro sound fair?"
I was hesitant. In our last email, Dr. Johnson had told me to beware of "overly nice" people. Not that he seemed overly nice; I just didn't want to find myself in a situation that put my safety at risk. Staying in a guy's place that I've just randomly met on the train. Hmm.
"That sounds great; I'll think about it. Thanks" I replied.
We continued to talk about all sorts of things. He threw me a magazine and told me to put my feet up on the seat. (I had already been scolded by the conductor for having my feet on the chair without a magazine or something). He gave me a company shirt and expected me to take a selfie with it at some point in Budapest (I'll do it soon I promise!). We pulled into Salzburg station at about 1:30 in the morning. An announcement had come up earlier about the train being split into 3 parts. Thomas jumped out of his seat and left the car.
After a few minutes, he returned.
"They are disconnecting the train cars. Part of the train is going to Wien, part is going to Italy, and part is going to Prague. We are in the right car. Don't worry. Also, could you set an alarm for the arrival at Wien? I don't want us to sleep through it"
"I would, but my phone is almost dead"
[Throws me one of those battery cylinders to recharge my phone]
"That should work. Do you have Wifi access yet? All OBB trains, in Austria, have free Wifi on all the routes"
[Checks phone Wifi.]
"Okay then, here, I've set up a hot spot for you. Just don't download any videos okay? Goodnight!"
"Hey Thomas, I'd love to crash at your place when we get to Wien."
"Okay cool. I'll call my girlfriend and let her know you're coming"
We sat in the station for about 2 hours. The lights were bright. There were some guys a few cabins down (that had been drinking) that kept talking all night. The train car moved back and forth a few times. Finally, at about 3:30 in the morning we departed. I didn't see how it was possible for us to travel the length of Austria (about 200 miles) in 2 and a half hours. I soon found out.
Just because the train was dirty, the coaches were from the 80's, and the train wasn't shaped like a bullet, didn't mean that we couldn't go fast. There was no digital sign telling us how fast we were going, but from my terrified gaze out the window, it was really, really fast. So fast I actually was worried that the train engineer had fallen asleep, the train was speeding out of control, and we all were going to die. The train cars swayed back and fourth, creaking and groaning. Everytime we crossed over a swith in the rail lines the car shook. I couldn't sleep. It was too fast. Thundering down the rails, we passed by farms and small towns that were gone in the blink of an eye. Silhouettes of trees and barns against the night sky were merely blurs. Then, gradually, the train began to slow down. We were coming to a station.
The train stopped. Okay. The engineer hasn't fallen asleep. We're okay.
In less than 60 seconds we were off again.
The sun started to rise. One more stop before I finally reached Wien.