Europe on 95 Phennigs a Day

by Dennis Nyback

What would a film tour of Europe be without an overnight train ride? Leave it me to figure out a way to not find out.

I got out of Nurnberg a couple of hours behind schedule. At 11:00 there was no one to let me into Kinokomm so I could grab my bags am as promised. I killed an hour and a half by sitting on the cement step and doing the Sunday crossword. Around midnight I would regret it. By 2:00 I was finally off and rolling toward two days of rest in Leuven before flying back to America. Things were fine until I changed trains at Koln, a little after five. I blissfully boarded a Thalys train. Unbeknownst to me, it required a supplementary fee. This was explained to me by the conductor.

The train was nothing special, and being in no rush, I balked at paying the extra eight bucks. As a result, I had to get off at Aachen. The next train would do as well. The rub? The next train was in three hours. I decided to take the eight bucks I'd saved and eat dinner. The only problem was I had no German Marks. Here is where the introduction of the Euro screwed me up. I had 9 Dutch gulders in change and a ten gulder note. The Dutch border was nearby. The coins would be worthless the next time I went to Holland with the introduction of the commom currency.

I boarded the milk run to Herleen. It took 24 minutes and I was soon eating a burger and fries in that sorry ass town. I finished eating and took the train back to Aachen. I would have five minutes to make my connection to Brussels. Snag? The milk run ran ten minutes late. Back in Aachen I found the next train to Belgium wasn't till the next morning. Double snag? My rail pass would expire at midnight.

Two trains came in at the same time. One went to Koln and the other to Dortmund. I asked a conductor if there was a way to get to Leuven by backtracking and working around. It was 9:10. He consulted many pages in his master pocket schedule and finally came up with the answer: take the train out of Aachen in the morning.

I went to the train info desk. The harried clerk was being screamed at by a woman. I asked him about bus service. He told me "In the morning". I explained my problem to him. He felt that since the late train had caused my problem (not my Euro addled stupidity) that I could get an extra day added to my pass. He also said the night train, not on the schedule, would stop to change from German to French crews, at four in the morning. He told me to come back at 3:30 and he would fix it up. I could do that.

It would help if I had a book to read. I was fresh out. I thought a youth hostel would have a few. I would read anything. Unfortunately, I was informed, the youth hostel was out of town. I killed an hour walking to the only big hotel in town on the long chance some English traveler had left one in the lost and found. A pretty blond desk clerk told me they had no such thing, managing to do it while looking at me like I was a lunatic. That got me to 10:30.

At the Aachen station there is a small doorless waiting alcove off the main lobby. It has five chairs in a row. Opposite are five pay phones. There are three vending machines at the closed end. One of the vending machines talks and makes annoying noises. The noises grew more annoying as the night wore on. It also made it hard to sleep. Other things also contributed to that. A young, well dressed, Japanese girl, her long black hair pulled back in a jaunty ponytail, used the phone. She used it for two hours. She would make a call, heatedly bark into the receiver, for what seemed like forever, get hung up on, and call back and repeat the exercise. She did the same thing to several different people. She barked in Japanese, German, and Italian.

A spry old man with silver hair came in and exchanged greetings with the info guy. He wore gray and black checkered slacks, black socks, black oxfords, and a navy blue pea coat. He had the deep tan you can only get by living in LA or living on the street. There was an inch and a half long gash on his brow that had been not too recently repaired with stitches. He looked like William O. Douglas.

He sat in the chair next to me, pulled his coat up around his ears and went to sleep. He smelled horrible. I wanted to move to the chair at the end of the row, but a bicycle leaned against it. It had been pushed in by a small woman with short curly red hair. It was laden down with tent, sleeping bag, camping gear and who knows what else. The woman had a wrinkled face and couldn't have been a day under sixty-five. She sat next to the bike carefully studying a map. I wanted to ask her how far she had come, but fearing a language barrier, I remained mute.

I stayed where I was, smelling the fragrant William O., who slept on blissfully undisturbed by the barking Japanese woman, the talking vending machine, and the occasional drunken men who wandered in and out of the station, always speaking in very loud voices. I got up and walked around the corner to the bathroom. It had a turnstile and required 50p to get in. I only had 95p left and decided it wasn't worth it. When I returned to my seat I found that the woman with the bike had finally left, bound for god knows where. I changed seats. The Japanese woman finally ran out of people to yell at and left at 12:30.

I closed my eyes and nodded off. Nearby drunken voices awakened me. It was one AM. Four men and a woman had invaded the alcove. They each clutched a 16 ounce Tuburg in their hand. They seemed to be arguing about money. The woman didn't say much. After she'd had enough to drink, she carefully placed her beer on the floor to get ready to talk, opened her mouth, and accidentally kicked the beer can over. She finished talking before righting it. A large puddle of beer moved toward my feet. I moved them.

The arguing drunks left. I was now left with the odor of spilt beer to mingle with the odor of William O. who continued to sleep like a baby. It was one thirty. It went on like that for the next hour. I would close my eyes and immediately drunken men would start singing, the click click click of women's shoes would pass by on the way to the vending machines, or someone would start speaking angrily into one of the phones. It seemed that every third person who used the machines would drop all of their change on the floor.

At 2:00, I looked once again at the prices on the vending machine. I was 5p short of a candy bar. I decided I really wanted one. I took everything out of my bags searching for a lost coin. I didn't find one. I then remembered the sound of people dropping their change on the floor. I carefully scanned the floor around the machines. Nothing. I then scanned the floor around the photo booth, instant business card, zodiac bracelet, and other odd machines scattered around the lobby. Nothing. I then did a systematic search of every inch of floor in the entire station. Still nothing, but at least it was now past 3:00. I suddenly realized I was being a fool in not spending 50p to use the toilet. Next spring, with the advent of the Euro, the coins would be worthless. I walked to the turnstile to find it only accepted 50p pieces. I looked both ways and hopped over the turnstile.

At 3:30 I approached the info guy. He was reading a newspaper, a cigarette dangling from his lip, with a small radio playing 70's pop music by his side. He didn't seem glad to see me. It had been quiet for all of fifteen minutes. I thought he would make some official notation on my rail pass, or issue me some sort of ticket. He just told me to get on the train and explain the problem to the conductor. Great I thought. I had never found a conductor who spoke English on a night train between Berlin and Paris. It turned out that it didn't matter. The train was a mile long, and since there was a fifteen minute layover, I could take my time looking for a seat. I walked along a dozen cars with the curtains of the compartments closed, and sleeping passengers within. No one disturbed them. In years past I would have been one of them, only then, before the European Union, we would have all been rudely awakened to show our passports before crossing the border.

I finally came to a car with the curtains open and several empty compartments inside. I entered it, dumped my bags, and was soon asleep. I awakened with a start. Sunlight crept past the curtains. I wondered if I had slept past Brussels and was now on my way to Paris with my expired rail pass. I looked out the window. We were entering a large rail yard. The sign said Brussels Midi. I had awakened just in time. It was 6:00 am. I got off, and after a half hour wait was on the train to Leuven. I sat in first class. The conductor came by. He glanced at my now fraudulent rail pass and handed it back with a "Merci". I got off in Leuven and trudged through the deserted Sunday morning streets to Stuc. At 7:10 I entered the dorm room and was soon fast asleep. And so goes the end of the race, staggering toward the finish line. Stuc is deserted. All I have to do is find someone to tell me how to get to the train station in the morning and I will be on my way home.