Train Rides Ain't the Same
By Cora (Corey) ANN METZ
Traveling by train with my mom in Louisiana left indelible, pleasant memories. After buying our tickets, she'd find the right platform and track to await the right train. While waiting, I’d hold her hand and lean to peep down the tracks to spot that familiar light. As the train pulled in, I squealed at the deafening whistle and the steam spewing from around the massive wheels. Satisfied with its arrival, I stood in awe as the hulking steel cars snaked to a screeching stop.
After boarding, I’d claim a window seat for my privileged view: serene marsh lands, flocks of winged creatures soaring over the bayous, and kids running and waving as the train skirted their shanty towns. Recently, a job opportunity materialized in Darmstadt, Germany, about a four-hour drive from my town of Vilseck. To lull in the comfort of those childhood memories, I decided to take the train. Unfortunately, Ma wasn't here to help me survive.
The trip to Darmstadt proved worthy of bragging, given the solitude, the comfortable ride and the rustic, picturesque countryside. Even changing trains in Nuernberg and Aschaffenburg amounted to minor inconvenience.
After arriving, I checked into the hotel. Next morning, I awoke refreshed, ready for the day’s interview, which unfortunately lasted three days. Stressed out from the long meetings and the company's hard-sell tactics, I decided not to make a commitment until they ironed out some issues.
At 4:30 that afternoon, I boarded the train, looking forward to a leisurely trip back. I changed trains in Aschaffenburg and Nuernberg as on my trip up. (No problem). My next and last stop should have been Vilseck (big damn problem!).
The attendant strolled through the aisles checking tickets. I eagerly presented mine. She looked at it and frowned, not a good sign for me. Handing it back to me, she screeched in fractured English, ”YOU ARE GOINK WRONG WAY. THIS TRAIN GO TO SCHWANDORF. YOU MUST GET OFF TRAIN AT NEXT STOP UND GO DIRECTION NUENKIRCHEN!" I almost freaked out, "Schwanndorf? Where the hell is that?" Unmoved, she continued, "YOU MUST GET OFF AT NEXT STOP, OK? FROM DERE YOU TAKE TRAIN TO NEUNKIRCHEN, OK?"
No, NOT OK. I wanted to punch her, but it wasn't her fault. It wasn't anybody's fault, but I could feel a tantrum brewing.
I closed my eyes momentarily, took in a deep breath and mentally counted to ten...twice. After that, I was calm enough to hear, ”OVER THERE...TRAIN TO NEUNKIRCHEN STILL WAIT. HURRY!” She resumed checking tickets and never looked back, not even once, to see if I was still a functioning human being.
Frustrated, I grabbed my bags and scurried off, foolishly deciding to skip the safety aspects of what should have been a simple process. I jumped down to the network of tracks, carefully hopping over them with good intentions of crawling up to the other platform. But finding myself eye to eye with my target posed a problem.
Desperate, I threw my bags up on the platform anyway. After getting a good grip with my hands, I hoisted one leg up. Huffing and puffing to get the rest of me up, I couldn't budge, not even if a pack of wild dogs was nipping at my heels. Suddenly, a severe, paralyzing butt cramp figured heavily into this not-well-thought-out shortcut. Ignoring the curious stares from the other travelers, I paused and closed my eyes, waiting for the pain to subside. Then I slowly extricated myself from my awkward position, hoping no one had reported a deranged woman on the tracks to the Polizei (police). I looked around for something to make this shortcut worth the embarrassment. Two large wooden blocks nearby provided the boost.
Finally boarding, I fell in line to have the attendant guide me to an empty seat. Tall and militarily imposing in his uniform, he stood ramrod straight with hands clasped behind his back. He greeted passengers frostily with a quick nod and no hint of a smile, I assume, for fear of cracking his face. Tiptoeing around him carefully, I snatched a glimpse of his nametag: “Blutstein (Bloodstone).” "Hmmmm......“Gotta be careful not to tick him off,” I thought. After securing my bags, I got up to find Herr Bloodstone to ask him to check my ticket to ensure I was on the right train. I approached him cautiously and broke the ice in my best German, "Bitte, nachpruefen Sie?" (Can you check this, please?) Whisking it from my shaky hands, he scanned it quickly and frowned, not a good sign for me. A Darth Vader-like voice with a thick Bavarian accent thundered, "YOU ARE GOINK IN WRONG DIRECTION! DIS TRAIN GO TO NUERNBERG! YOU MUST GET OFF IN NUERNBERG UND TAKE TRAIN TO AMBERG!"
Unfortunately, that petrifying voice blocked out my comprehension. I feigned ignorance, "Bitte?" (Excuse me, please?) Thoroughly ruffled at my audacity to ask for a repeat, he exploded, “YOU MUST TAKE TRAIN TO AMBERG!" Inconsolable, I sputtered, "But I just came from that way!" Indifferent, he shoved my ticket back and continued with an impertinent flair, "AMBERG!.... YOU CHANGE TRAIN UND FROM DER YOU GO TO VILSECK!" I took my ticket back and glared at him through squinted eyes. My compressed lips and limited German prevented me from arguing with him, and besides, he was too big and surly for me to put up a fuss with. Thankfully, he stepped away, taking his stoic look and sour personality with him. It wasn't his fault...it wasn't anybody's fault, but I could see a nervous breakdown on the horizon.
I trudged back to my booth to await the next stop. Too dejected to sit, I stood by the window and leaned my head against it to pout, trying to grab some solace from a tight formation of birds, children waving excitedly, and the beauty of the setting sun bathing the countryside in an orange glow. But these pleasant distractions whizzing by failed to snap me out of it.
I wanted to cry, scream, pull the emergency cord, wallow in the aisle, things I could probably pull off if I were two and traveling with Mom. But Herr Bloodstone kept eyeing me suspiciously, staving off my pity party. Suddenly, a staggering mix of stale liquor breath and body odor caught my attention. On top of that, I felt someone staring at me. Turning to check the source of this stench, I locked eyes with a tall, thin unkempt man. Stringy, shoulder-length hair framed his gaunt face with finishing touches of deep-set, blood-shot eyes and a long beard. I almost blurted, "What the hell are you looking at"? but he spoke first.
"Can I help you? I have a handy (cell phone). Can I call someone for you"? He spoke flawless English! Thoroughly humbled by his kind gesture, I spoke up, "Yes, please." I explained my situation to him and asked him to call my friends in Vilseck. He took their numbers and dialed them all, but no one answered. Just like friends to be out when I’m just about to lose my very last marble.
At 7:15 p.m., I got off in Nuernberg (again) and headed for the other side of the station. Keeping safety in mind this time, I took the stairs but met with a urine-reeking hallway strewn with litter and walls battered with graffiti. I held my breath as I ran through and up the stairs to the other platform. Whew!
I boarded without any problems, but began to feel like a freeloader taking all these rides on one ticket. “Too bad this isn't Disneyland.” I chose to stand for the twenty-minute ride to Neunkirchen. Arriving, I stepped onto the platform of a tiny bleak station, which was cold, deserted, and eerily quiet. Conjuring up childhood nightmares of Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, I quickly hustled my bags into the station, claiming a spot with my back to the wall and full view of both doors.
With so much activity and stress, I had to use the ladies' room (toilette). I found it, but had no clue as to why it was inconveniently locked this time of night. The men's room door was ajar and I really had to go, but who knows what I’d find in there! "It" was too pressing to hold in. Going into the nearby woods was out of the question. So, I bolted out the front door to scout another source of relief. Fortunately, a restaurant (gasthaus) was across the street. My bags? I decided to tuck them in a corner and head out.
I tore through the door, startling the diners who all looked up at me in unison from their meals. But the women knew that look of "urgency and desperation" on my face. I ignored them all to focus on finding the ladies’ room. Finishing up, I ran back to the station. Not surprisingly, my bags were still in place. Only in Germany! Never in New York!
Though trains are hardly ever late in Germany, I decided to recheck the arrival time on the schedule posted on the wall. “Hmmmm...45 minutes away. At least I’m on the right track this time.” I walked to the front door again and looked out. With all the mishaps, I’d survived it so far. It couldn’t get any worse. Unfortunately it did. It started to snow.
The thick flakes blurred my vision of the gasthaus across the street. Shivering underneath my long black coat, I drew it tighter around me to keep warm and sat huddled on my bags in the corner. Later, a family of three came in and nodded a "hello." I wanted to share my misfortunate day with them, but they spoke only German. I didn't know the language enough to explain it to them without me sounding foolish and them losing interest. It ’s times like these when I miss my dog, who would always listen attentively to me whenever I needed to vent. So I kept it to myself, deciding to corral my friends and unload on them once, if ever, I got back home.
After arriving in Amberg at 8:30, I checked the schedule for the next train to Vilseck, a 15-minute ride away by car. “Let's see: Amberg to Vilseck: 10:15. 10:15! That's two hours away! I can't spend two hours in this train station!” I decided to try calling my friends, who should be home by now. Called Billy....no answer...forgot that Wednesdays are his Bible study nights. Called Betty....no answer....forgot that Wednesdays are her German-American Friendship Club nights. Called Mike....no answer.....who knows where the hell he is. Taking a taxi home would be too expensive. So, the wait continued as my patience wore thin. In the meantime, I contemplated spending the night in this train station so close to home.
The noisy, party like atmosphere in the station grabbed my attention. At nearby tables, rosy faced individuals at different stages of inebriation huddled around each other, laughing and clinking their glasses to toast anything that moved. A haze of gray smoke drifted lazily around them. Empty beer mugs, shot glasses and ashtrays teeming with smoldering butts filled the tiny tables. I looked around again to see if this was a train station or if I had accidentally wandered into a local pub.
I grabbed my bags and headed for the phone again. While dialing Mike’s number, I caught whiff of a familiar stench....the same liquor-breath from that nice man on the train. With the phone still up to my ear, I turned around to face a huge man with thick, wiry gray hair and a Santa Claus beard. Blood-shot eyes and a bloated beer belly told me that he was no fitness trainer. He slurred something in German and smiled, giving me an unwelcome glimpse of his yellowed chipped teeth. I blurted out in fractured German, “Scrammen Sie!” (Get lost!) But he continued smiling, tickled, I think, at my lack of a proper response in his language. Or maybe I just sounded plain foolish to him. I then gave him a look which, in any language, told him that my day had been disastrous enough and I didn't need any ‘wannabe Casanova’ hustling me. With his smile fading as quickly as it had come, he turned and stumbled toward his partying buddies.
Still having no luck reaching my friends, I needed something to help me pass the time. The party atmosphere coaxed me to have a beer too. I dragged my bags to an empty table to sip my suds, trying not to sink into a deep funk about this. Dutifully, the strong beer relaxed me. Envying the others having a good time, I wanted to join them to forget my troubles, but the fat guy sitting with them changed my mind.
Finishing my beer, I headed back to the phone and finally got Mike. He laughed throughout the brief description of my situation. He said he'd arrive shortly. Called Billy and briefly told him of my trip. He was still laughing when I told him that Mike was coming to get me. Betty would probably laugh too, so I skipped calling her.
Mike arrived, laughing as he walked through the door, but I was not amused. He grabbed my bags with one hand and with the other put a reassuring arm around my shoulder and led me to the car. In the driver’s seat was his “friend,” a wacky lady (loose term) with a hair-trigger temper and a short attention span, politically correct terms for just plain stupid. I headed for the back seat, but for some reason, Mike insisted I ride in front. Recalling my day so far, I got in front as he wished.
She started up the engine, which belched a sound between a frog with tonsillitis and a Texas-sized tornado. “Bad, bad muffler, I thought.” I tried to buckle the seat belt, but it wouldn't snap securely, so I held it in place across my lap for the short trip to Vilseck.
She slipped smoothly into traffic as snow continued blanketing the streets. The windshield wipers did little to clear the view. Though the icy, two-lane road to Vilseck posed a major hazard, Miss Stupid drove like it was summertime dry. "Just what I need, a crazy driver, a hoopty with broken seat belts and no air bags."
I tried to settle down, welcoming the warm air thawing my body. It felt good, and I was finally going home. But her kamikaze diving tactics elevated my panic level to an all-time high. I gripped the seatbelt tightly as she swung the car sharply into an ‘S’ curve which forced us all to rock left and right. She tried to exchange pleasant conversation, talking to me as if we were chatting over coffee in a cozy cafe, actually thinking I was interested in what she had to say. Freezing a grin on my face, I blocked her out and kept my attention glued to the road and my feet riveted to the floorboards, praying she wouldn’t send us all tumbling down the steep embankment.
I lost count of the times Mike yelled for her to slow down. But her erratic driving continued. I wasn't sure if she was ignoring him or couldn't hear him over the roar of the muffler. With this unfolding heart-stopping drama, my first thought was to pass out, but who knows if I’d ever get home. My second thought, "Maybe I shoulda waited for the damn train."
Finally I arrived home safely. I was too tired to cry, but just tired enough to sit in the middle of my living room floor and laugh hysterically at what had taken place that day, but promising myself, “Next time, I’ll drive!”