I slept quite well on the Phoenix, apart from waking up whenever we stopped, which was surprisingly often, and when the alarm went off at 3.30am. It was a loud, hooting alarm, and at first I thought it was my morning alarm call, and pressed buttons frantically in the dark to make it stop. In doing this I turned on the light, so I was able to check the time, and realised it was a different sort of alarm. While I was still blearily wondering if I should get dressed ready to evacuate the train, it stopped, so I went back to sleep. I never did find out what was going on.
The train had a shower cubicle in the toilet room but I decided this was an experience I could do without. Yes, I know, unadventurous. Shortly after six an attendant arrived with a box of breakfast, a coffee, and a clipboard.
‘Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’ he asked; ‘Ein bisschen,’ I replied, cautiously; and I think the subsequent conversation was mostly in German. I’m sure I remember him saying ‘There is a change of plen’, but the reason I think most of what followed was in German is because I then struggled to find the German for ‘Hang on, I need to find a pen and paper to write this down.’
The change of plen came about because the train was running very late (85 minutes – blimey), so the authorities had decided to omit a couple of stops so it could catch up – something of a mind-boggling solution, really; what about those people intending to get on the train at those stations? Those of us who had expected to get off at Koln or Dusseldorf would have to get off at Dortmund instead, and change to a different train. I showed the attendant my cue card and pointed out my 0743 connection from Koln: ‘Plenty of time,’ he said, but I had my doubts.
Certainly it was something of a sprint across the platform at Dortmund, but the new train was very swish, and on every seat there was a handy leaflet which listed not only the stops, but the other trains leaving from those stations shortly after we arrived. From this leaflet, and from the advice of fellow travellers, it became apparent that in fact, this train did not go to Koln main station. We would have to change again at Koln Messe-Deutz. And I could see in the handy leaflet that there was no way I was going to make my 0743 connection to Brussels. I had expected to have an hour and a half at Koln, plenty of time for coffee and breakfast and a cigarette, seeing what was outside the station, and then finding the platform for my connection. Now I had no idea how much time I would have or what train I would catch. And I was going to be late arriving in Brussels, where Emma was meeting me.
I had no internet access but my phone had sent me a ‘Welcome to Germany!’ text, so I texted Mum to ask her to let Emma know. She texted back Emma’s phone numbers by return, so at least that was one thing I could stop worrying about. And the handy leaflet told me which platform I needed to go to at Koln Messe-Deutz, so that change was quite straightforward. The new train arrived at Koln Hbf over a river (I am so ignorant of German geography – I need to spend several days with an atlas now, to find out where I went and what river it was) – so it felt like Charing Cross, and that too was quite reassuring.
I found the travel centre at Koln Hbf without difficulty and took a ticket for the Argos-style virtual queue. As I sat and waited I tried to muster the necessary German vocabulary to explain what had happened and ask what I should do. ‘Zug’ and ‘spat’ came to mind for ‘train’ and ‘late’, but was Zug der, die or das? I think my real problem with speaking German is that I treat every conversation as an O-level oral exam, in which I need to be completely accurate with all the cases and endings and the word order; and so I get just as panicky and worked up as I did before the exam in 1985, which is not a good state of mind to be in. And of course the nice lady spoke English anyway. She stamped my ticket, printed off my new journey, and wished me a nice day.
So as I stood outside having a cigarette I told myself that it was a nice day. Instead of arriving in the dark, there was sunlight playing on the massive cathedral adjacent to the glass-fronted station; I was only going to lose an hour in Brussels; and I was on my way home.
But I was still anxious, and set off on the long walk to platform 8 in something of a hurry; it would be just my luck if the train to Brussels was the only train running on time in the whole of Germany. It was a Thalys train, even more swish than the previous one, but with free wi-fi only in first class. Because it was the train after the one on which I was booked (‘Hop on the next train!’ said the stamp on my ticket), I had no reservation. But although each seat was numbered, it lacked the usual display showing reservation details. So I sat down, and then somebody with a reservation for that seat showed up, and I had to move. Later I was woken by an apologetic girl and had to move again. Then a lot of students got on, with large bags, and duvets, and I had to move again … and again … Tired of this, and rather disgruntled that the supposed best railway operator in the world not only couldn’t run its trains on time but also hadn’t devised a method allowing passengers to see if a seat was free or not, I loaded myself with my baggage and set off to find somewhere to sit where I might be undisturbed for a while. In the corridor where the carriages join, near the toilets, I nearly walked into a strange metal object – a small frame with wheels, like a low barbecue stand, or (as I thought it was) an empty cleaning trolley. I was slightly shocked at something so dangerous being left in the walkway and added this to my mental list of why Deutsch Bahn is not as good as everybody thinks it is.
There were tip-up seats by the carriage doors and one of these was unoccupied, because it was blocked by a huge bag. I indicated to the young man sitting next to it, who said ‘It’s not mine,’ and after that I didn’t worry overmuch about squishing it or bumping it in trying to move it out of my way. Hurrah. A seat which couldn’t possibly have been booked by anybody else. I sat down.
After a while a young man carrying a gorgeous smiley baby came past, pushed open the door to the baby-changing room, and walked back again. He returned accompanied by a conductor, who tutted and moved things, and the man took the baby into the room. The conductor went off and came back with three of the students, and soon there was a glorious row in progress (in French, so I could follow it, although part of the row included the conductor sarcastically offering to speak in Belgian, English, German, Afrikaans, or Spanish, as the students seemed to have such difficulty in understanding simple requests made in French). It seems the students had put luggage into the baby changing room, and the conductor started by giving them a mild ticking off about this. They protested there was nowhere else to put it, but the conductor was inflexible; they must find somewhere, they should not be travelling with things they could not safely store. The strange metal frame was, it seemed, part of their luggage (there was also a large plastic mushroom-shaped thing, and a bag with a metal metre-rule sticking out of it). The conductor felt the metal frame was a dangerous (an opinion with which I entirely agreed). Sulkily, one of the students (who had already been rather rude and then claimed he was being polite) rearranged bags on the luggage stand, managed to fit the frame on, and triumphantly indicated this to the conductor. Part of it was sticking out and the conductor felt this was still dangerous, so they wrapped it in a duvet, but he still wasn’t satisfied.
It was all so shouty and Gallic that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they’d started throwing garlic-fried snails at each other, and while it was at its peak the poor man with the baby had to exit the changing room and walk through the middle of it. From my tip-up seat, it was a hugely enjoyable spectacle, and then quite suddenly it was all over – a compromise had been achieved, the students had been sufficiently apologetic and contrite, and the conductor (who had one point had threatened to put them off the train) was satisfied. It was probably the most fun I’d had on a train in all my hundreds of miles of travel.
At Brussels, Emma and I found each other near the taxi stand. She offered to take me somewhere more interesting but I was starting to feel European citied-out, so we went back into the station for coffee and a waffle. I had never had a waffle before; Emma rated this one as a 5/10 but I thought it was delicious. (My Deutsche Bahn breakfast box had contained two small slices of rye bread with a small portion of the German equivalent of Dairylea cheese spread, and a chocolate chip muffin – and it had been hours ago.) After our second cup of coffee we went in search of a baguette, for my Eurostar lunch, and biscuits and chocolates for presents for people at home. And after a cigarette it was time to check-in for Eurostar.
When I got to passport control, I found I didn’t need the landing card I’d filled in. ‘My cousin from Canada said I did,’ I explained to the lady in the booth. ‘Well, you’re a Brit, you should of bin telling her!’ she replied. A proper English voice!!!! All it needed was ‘Leave it aht!’ in front of it. I went to spend my last Euros on tobacco with a broad smile on my face.
Coach two was absolutely miles down the platform; I comforted myself with the thought that with any luck, this would mean a short walk at the other end. In the train, I sat myself in a window seat. Much later in the journey, I realised the symbols next to the seat numbers were nothing to do with the aircon buttons, and everything to do with indicating that my booked seat was not a window seat; but it seemed too late in the day to offer to change. There’s no benefit to a window seat on Eurostar, anyway; it’s just as boring in the other direction.
I was not best pleased to have to go through all the ticket and passport shenanigans when we arrived in England; this wasn’t considered necessary when we arrived in France, so I had packed the documents away and it took me a while to find them. And I didn’t have time for this; my connection from Euston was at 1436, and although half an hour had seemed plenty of time when I made the booking, it had been shortened by the late arrival of the Eurostar at St Pancras (SIGH: it was clearly not my day) and I had forgotten to allow for the length of time it takes to get off the train, along the platform, and out of the station.
I set a new personal best for the walk to Euston and arrived with four minutes in which to find the right platform and walk all the way to it (the London Midland trains normally departing from the far side of the station). I scanned the departure board frantically.
There was no train departing at 1436.
Eh? I pulled out my ticket. Oh. 1446. I had time to get a coffee then.
The journey to Long Buckby I spent resetting my phone to pick up a 3G signal (I had forgotten I had changed this in my efforts to get mobile abroad), and then reading facebook and news stories on the internet. No need to keep scanning for wi-fi networks now! (I later deleted about 20 saved networks from around Europe.) I was on my way home, travelling through landscapes so familiar that I only needed to glance up occasionally to check they were still there.
Wendy met me at Long Buckby. We went to Mum’s, where I finally had a decent cup of tea, and then Kit and the children came to collect me.
Back to the real world; back home.