A Tale of Trains and Taxis

Most European travels begin with an annoyingly long flight, often accompanied by one or more shorter ones that induce only mild irritation. While this was true of my initial arrival in Europe, my travel to Leipzig took a different track. Namely, instead of a day on an airplane, I spent a day on several trains.

My route from Geneva to Leipzig, with connections in Basel and Frankfurt am Main.

My route from Geneva to Leipzig, with connections in Basel and Frankfurt am Main.

In my inexperience, I had naively thought that this would be much more relaxing than spending eight hours on an overcrowded plane. Sadly, there is nothing relaxing about waking up at 4:30 in the morning because the rest of your group is going home and needs to be at the airport at 5:30. Or, for that matter, dragging copious amounts of luggage up and down stairs to get from one platform to the next while trying to decipher the French and German instructions crackling with limited clarity over the loudspeaker. And all within scant 15 minute connection times.

I’m sure that the countrysides of Switzerland and Germany are every bit as fascinating as that of France, all velvety green grass and snow-peppered mountains, but I didn’t see much of them. I was too busy trying to keep myself awake so I wouldn’t miss my stops. Every five minutes or so I would jerk back into consciousness, certain that I’d missed the right station and was soon to be lost forever in the wilds of western Europe.

Of course, if I had been a little more familiar with train travel (this was only my second time, my first being an extremely stressful experience with a high-speed commuter train about a week before), I might have realized that all my stops were at the end of the line. Which means, of course, that I probably could have caught up on all those hours of sleep I had missed that morning without a second thought. But I, being the overly paranoid, nervous traveler that I am worried myself into wakefulness at steady intervals, even once using my halting German to ask a Swiss man (who probably didn’t even speak German, as we were in the French part of Switzerland) where we were. For my efforts I received a shrug and a couple of words in a foreign language that I pretended to understand.

Halfway through my three-hour train from Basel to Frankfurt my nap-wake-repeat cycle was interrupted by a woman who had just boarded the train from one of the smaller stops. Apparently I was in her seat, which of course raised the question of “if that was her seat, where was mine?” It turned out I was simply on the wrong coach, which meant that I had to go find the right one. Where I found an older woman sitting where I was supposed to be.

This was actually taken in France, but I'm sure the Swiss and German views would have been equally striking.

This was actually taken in France, but I’m sure the Swiss and German views would have been equally striking.

This was not turning out to be the relaxing day of enjoying the countryside that I had hoped it would be.

By the time I had finally managed to explain the situation to her, we had reached another stop, where she had to get off anyway.

Needless to say, when I finally stumbled off my last connection I boasted a world-class headache and had no desire to tackle a new city. On the contrary, I would go on to spend most of my evening silently wishing myself home and feeling jealous of my friends whose flight back to the U.S. had departed from the Geneva airport that morning.

But before I could finally relax in the comfort of my hotel room I had to actually get there first. I had a plan. I was going to take a taxi from the train station to my hotel. After all, as my travel agent had pointed out when she booked the room, I didn’t want to get lost in a foreign city at twilight while toting around 30-some pounds of luggage.

By the time I reached the set of stairs that led down to the street level exit of the train station, I was certain I wouldn’t even be able to find the taxis. Everyone had assured me that they’d be right there at the train station, but who knew? I had practically convinced myself that, knowing my luck, there wouldn’t be any taxis at all.

But by the time I was passing under the larger than life banner advertising Bachfest to visitors (complete with a correspondingly sizable portrait of Bach gazing sternly down on the people below), I had seen the sign pointing me to a fleet of taxis, all the almost-white color of coffee with too much cream. That worry thus alleviated, I proceeded to convince myself that I would probably tell the driver the wrong address for the hotel, and I’d end up at some hostel halfway across town surrounded by luggage as I watched my ride drive merrily into the sunset. Of course, that didn’t happen. As soon as I mentioned the name of the hotel, the driver knew just where I wanted to go. He even pointed it out to me.

Maybe not the most welcoming face to see after ending a 10 hour train ride.

The portrait of Bach featured on the banner that greeted me in the train station. Maybe not the most welcoming face to see upon arrival in a foreign city.

Turned out it was only about two blocks away.

It probably wouldn’t have been that far of a walk if I hadn’t been carrying a tote bag and a backpack and lugging my suitcase behind me. When I’d packed, I done my best to eliminate all but the essentials, but even so that suitcase was heavy. When they weighed it at the airport it was about 35 pounds. So naturally I was not wild about heaving this bulky, purple monstrosity of a suitcase around while I tried to navigate my way across multiple lanes of traffic with only a general idea as to where I was going.

Time to break out that flawless (I jest) German of mine again. I did my best to explain to the driver that I still wanted him to drive me, because I didn’t know how to get to my hotel, even though I could technically see the top of it peeking out from behind other buildings. I thought he must have gotten the point, although he seemed a little exasperated at my silly American ways. To his credit, he didn’t say anything as he helped me with my embarrassingly heavy luggage.

I’ve never been in a taxi in the U.S. before. However, I’m assuming they are required to follow normal traffic laws. I’m assuming the same is true in Germany. But this driver drove the way my mom does when my brother is doing his best to irritate her while we’re on a road trip and the only thing she’s eaten in the last eight hours is half a package of Skittles that she bummed from my dad. That is to say, it didn’t exactly come across as friendly driving.

At the time I was certain it was because the driver was mad at me for wasting his time. Of course, I was still going to pay him, so I didn’t see what right he had to be angry. Now, after spending a little more time here, I think that may be just how people drive here. Since that first day, I’ve ridden in a taxi again, this time with the rest of the group, and the exact same erratic – but just under control – driving style was exhibited that time as well.

A typical German taxi. Like I said, coffee with too much cream. Photo credit.

A typical German taxi. Like I said, coffee after someone lost the milk pitcher in it.

The driver explained to me that the hotel was hard to get to because not only was it apparently the middle of rush hour, but also because the fastest route required a U-turn. This was executed quickly and with ease as I clung to my seatbelt and tried to avoid making my headache worse by bashing my head against one of the rear windows.

He had been right: it really wasn’t a very long drive, and he seemed to warm up considerably as I was paying him. I apologized again for the inconvenience (although I’m not exactly sure why – like I said, it was his job and I was paying him) before turning and ducking through the revolving door into the lobby, where tinkling piano floated through the open doors of the restaurant. Groups of people clustered here and there, speaking with the ease of people who are confident that the words coming out of their mouths are actually conveying what they mean to say.

I was sure that every German came equipped with an American Alert that was going to go off as soon as I moved.

It’s actually quite difficult to cross a wide lobby full of people while pulling a suitcase without someone looking at you, but attempt it I did. I didn’t quite skirt the walls or stick to the shadows, but I did avoid eye contact and rush up to the reception desk as quickly as possible. Where, naturally, I hovered awkwardly until someone offered me assistance.

What can I say? You can’t learn confidence like mine.

There is nothing quite like the sharp spike of panic you feel when the receptionist at your hotel in a strange country tells you they can’t find your reservation. Even if you know you booked it because you’re currently holding the reservation papers and payment confirmation in your hand. Or the slow, crawling feeling in your stomach as you wait for a manager to come figure out what’s going on.

They weren’t going to find my reservation. They’d kick me out of the hotel. I was going to have to spend the night on the street.

I may or may not have a tendency to overreact to bad or uncomfortable situations.

Needless to say, the manager did find my reservation, they did have my room, and I did get to spend the next three nights in relatively Americanized comfort. The hotel staff even spoke English.

The view from my hotel window -  a little overwhelming for someone from a town the size of Columbia.

The view from my hotel window – a little overwhelming for someone from a town the size of Columbia.

So while my first day in Germany didn’t exactly go off without a hitch, it wasn’t as much of a misadventure as it could have been, and it would certainly make a good story when I got home. That was what I had wanted when I’d decided to do something crazy and go to Europe for the summer. So that night as I looked out over the Leipzig skyline I reminded myself of all those generic comforting sentiments that people tell you about new situations. It’ll be fine. You’ll have the time of your life. You’ll have so much fun you won’t even miss us. It’s normal to be nervous.

I wasn’t sure that nervous was really the right word (I think “freaking out” would have been a more appropriate phrase at the time), but it didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter that I had no idea how to navigate the citywide tram system. It didn’t matter that no one had ever told me the difference between the S-Bahn and the Straßenbahn (the latter is intercity and the former is not).

I would make myself believe it didn’t matter that my family was on a different continent almost 5000 miles and an ocean away. I had already made it through one day. This was what I had wanted.

I could do this.

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