After agonizing whether to head south to Milan or east to Vienna, I decided to head east. I took the ICE (inter-city express; a high-speed train) from Amsterdam to Duisburg, then connected from Duisburg to an overnight train for Vienna. I was dreading it but wanted the experience.
On the ICE, I helped one woman put her gigantic rollaway bag on the overhead rack. Then her female travel companion began freaking out on her and telling her that she was “furious” because she couldn’t get any work done and she was mad at herself for letting rollaway-bag-woman do the planning. This is ridiculous – I’m stupid, she said. For you, this is a vacation. For me, it’s not. I can’t get any work done.
Then a German woman walked up to me in a half-full car and informed me that I was in her seat (I was, but in fairness to me – I did not have an assigned seat for this segment of the trip.) Did she really need that seat? I apologized and picked up to move. She noted my laptop and asked me if there was internet access on the train and I replied, “no, I wish.” Then, a half hour later as I was prepping some images and listening to music, she worked real hard to get eye contact with me and then started talking to me again. I took out my earphones and she asked if there was Internet access on the train. Rather than asking her if I’d just stepped into some kind of time warp, I merely gave her the same answer I did the first time.
People started acting sketchy when they announced that it was the last stop in the Netherlands. Not sure why they were, but I would not find out; entrance into Germany was a breeze. I wandered around the Duisburg station for about half an hour – didn’t get to see much – then boarded a City Night Line train for the ride to Vienna. Oddly enough, the Vienna night train was also the Milan night train – make sure you get in the proper car, kids, because this train, somehow, splits in half along the way.
There are many pickpockets on this train, said the announcer. Many? If you know this, then do something about it. How does it work exactly? Do these pickpockets buy tickets and just hope to recoup their investment?
Rolling out of Duisburg, we passed right by an airport, and a plane came in for a landing immediately above us. Then the train cocked off to the side a bit – more than I was entirely comfortable with, especially since these things are not attached to their rails – and we stopped for about 10 minutes. Due to technical problems with the rail in front of us, our arrival in Dusseldorf will be delayed.
All along the side was a row of cold, stone apartment buildings. The haunting sound of those old two-tone sirens in the distance. Dusseldorf, Zoo, it said. It was hard to see as much as I wanted from the train – and not just because it was dark, but the interior lights of the train reflected off the glass.
The German magazine at my seat had a girl on the cover who looked like a porny version of Kirsten Dunst. She had removed her high heeled pumps and was hanging them off her fingers by their straps, as if that was sexy. The porny part was fine – it can get you through the night – but leave the shoes on. I mean, you can’t have it both ways. Porny requires footwear. Look, honey, once I’m done with you, maybe then you can let your hair down and go to the beach.
I had been dreading the CNL trip because there were no first class cars on this train – and it was an overnighter. I decided on a seat rather than a sleeper because I didn’t want to share sleepers with people. I’ve been open about meeting new people all along the way, but sleeping right next to them was a bit too cozy. The CNL cars were not crowded, and most people were able to spread out and secure a couple of seats for themselves. The German announcements were a bit hard to follow, since about the only thing I remember about German class was that time Fred Rummel brought a snake in and set it loose. I remained confident that would be all I’d need. If I had any trouble with German authorities, I could have Fred talk with them.
The CNL train was definitely not one of the fancy, high speed ones – but it wasn’t bad, either. It was a non-smoking train, I had a little extra room, and that was good enough for me. It seemed at the beginning we hardly ever got above 30 miles an hour. We stopped several times. Maybe this is why the train takes 16 hours to get to Vienna.
Some industrial buildings with windows way at the top, 30 or 40 feet up, so the sunlight shone in on their work, but prying eyes did not.
And then Bayer, with its giant lit up sign shaped like a pill. Bayer was the place that a German guy I met in Amsterdam claimed had commercialized LSD. I couldn’t help but let him know it was another German pharmaceutical, Sandoz, who deserved the credit. And now, there they were. Did anyone in there know about this new urban legend?
In Cologne, lots of modernish-but-dull looking condos along the tracks. I did notice the occasional effort to stand out of the housing crowd – a lone red electric star shone from one of the windows, a string of white lights decorated another. I wonder if they leave them on all night?
Lots of construction out there – scored by the constant grinding of the wheels and tracks as we navigated the track. Still moving pretty slowly. I wonder if it’s the Italians weighing us down? All those carbohydrates.
After Cologne, there was a new announcer. Female now. But not really gentler; to me, everything sounds harsh in German. An old lady walked through the car in pink flip-flops.
Many pickpockets on this train….
Then, finally, the moment we’d all been waiting for – bona fide German authorities. I’d heard things, seen movies. How bad could it be? There were two. A lead guy, and then a lieutenant, backup-type guy with a clipboard. English or German, asked lead guy, smelling like a cigarette. My first thought was that it might be good practice to answer “Deutsch” just to see how far I could get. I always had the Fred-Rummel backup plan. Neh.. English. “Passport and ticket please.” He spent a moment looking them over in silence, then said something to his wingman in German. As Wingman wrote some stuff down, lead-guy informed me that I should move to my proper seat. I didn’t even realize I had an assigned seat on this train. Ja, 53, he said. I apologized and he said “it’s OK” – but what he meant was not that, despite the half-empty car, that I could remain where I was. Nono, he just meant I wasn’t going to be in trouble for sitting in the wrong seat. I asked if I could stay where I was, knowing i was pushing my luck. His answer was a longer, more pedantic, half-smiling version of nein. I gathered up my things and relocated to seat 53, which, like many of the seats on the train, was broken. So I put my knapsack in 53, sat in 54, and hoped I wouldn’t end up in jail. Jesus, lead-guy, between you and stupid-internet-lady on the other train, it’s little fucking wonder you gave Hitler 90% of the vote.
One of the things about traveling alone that sucks is that you have to bring your bags everywhere… want to go to the bathroom? Haul them in. Want to go to the dining cart on the train? Many pickpockets … best to bring them along. So, instead of heading to the dining car (and also risking another encounter with lead-guy that might precipitate some kind of formal inquiry) the cereal bar that had been in my knapsack for a month would be dinner. Probably not a bad idea anyway – the way I’ve been eating on this trip is surely adding on the pounds.
Lady with pink flip flops again – this time with her hand covering her nose and mouth as if she were standing in the middle of a cesspool. She looked at me as if she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing the same thing.
I met a couple nice girls who boarded at Hamburg. Casey and Duckie with a little pink elephant named Ellie. The three of us made some smalltalk. Casey was kinda cute except for the three days without a shower and the quarter-sized cold sore on her lip. A bit later, Casey went off to smoke a cigarette, and was gone during our stop in Mannheim, which happened to be the stop where the train split in half. Duckie and I speculated as to whether Casey had gone too far down the train to smoke her cigarette and might be on her way to Milan. Ciao ciao!
But she returned, the lights were finally dimmed, and folks began to try to get some sleep. I could see outside much better. It was then treated to something wonderful. As we sped through the Black Forest, there was a thick white fog on the ground. You had to wonder, were it not for this railway, would this space see a human in a hundred years? But the stars and moon saw this space, and shone down on it like they had for a trillion nights. The train’s electric cables were creating eerie flashes of light that illuminated the forest around the train like a strobe. It was right out of a Grimm Brothers’ tale.
Then, we began to slow. What could be out here? In the dim, dark distance I saw humanoid figures, with big strange heads each emitting an odd bluish light. The headlines began popping into my head…
Cyclops Family Eats Train
American Snatched From Train by Alien Cyclopses
But as we closed in, it was clear the rail workers meant us no harm.
Knowing I’d get no sleep during the trip did not diminish the annoyance of one of the worst snorers ever. The guy one row behind me was engaged in the most guttural kind of snoring – and it was unpredictable, too, so it made it a lot harder to zone it out. Silence for a minute or so, then an explosive UGGGGH KUCK KUCK KUCK… I eventually found myself wishing for derailment. Not just any kind of derailment, either .. but one that could be unquestionably linked to his snoring. Then, as we stood together in the cold foggy forest, looking out over the fire and twisted metal and dying passengers, him still dazed and shoeless, I would look at him and say, Just look what you fucking did! Now are you happy, Mr. Obnoxious? You and your goddamned snoring!
Then, as if God had reached his own personal limit, SnoreMan’s cell phone rang. A cell phone call at 0330? Who could it be? My hero is who it is. The snoring never restarted. As we disembarked in Vienna, I wanted to ask – sir, who was it who called you? I might name a park after them or something.