Ah, Europe! The land of convenient and affordable train travel! Where you can hop on any locomotive and ride that rail from country to country and see everything you’ve ever dreamed of with total ease, freedom and, of course, speed.
This, at least, is what they tell you.
Those of you who have read my previous post about train travel know that even the European rail can let us down sometimes, but everyone says it almost never happens. And since lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say, I was more than a little surprised – not to mention bitter – when the trains let me down again. And when I say let me down, this is what I mean:
Saturday 13 June 2009, times are approximate
9:00 am: I ride my bike to Amsterdam Centraal.
9:26 am: I am seated comfortably on a Thalys train as it pulls away from Amsterdam right on time, due to arrive in Paris Nord at 1:35 pm that afternoon. I am going to Paris to spend the weekend with my brother, sister, and brother-in-law before they come to Amsterdam. I haven’t seen them in almost 6 months.
11:30 am: The train makes a routine stop at a little station in a town on the Netherlands/Belgium border.
12:30 pm: The train is still sitting at the station. No one has given us any information.
1:30 pm: They finally make an announcement. The train cannot continue on this track and is turning back to Amsterdam. We are instructed to go outside the station, where buses will pick us up and take us to the central station in Antwerp, where we can catch another Thalys train to Paris. We herd outside, where we join a crowd of about 300 people from other trains that faced similar fates. There are no employees or officials, no buses, it’s not clear where or when they’ll be stopping at the station, and it’s very, very hot. I debate getting on a train back to Amsterdam and calling the whole thing off. If it’s anything like the last time this happened to me, it could take all day.
2:00 pm: An unmarked bus pulls up to the curb, and the crowd surges toward it. I wrestle my way through the mob and manage to get one of the last seats. There are people packed into the aisles and fighting each other as the bus pulls off toward Antwerp.
3:00 pm: The bus arrives in Antwerp. No one has told us where to go or when the train would be leaving for Paris, so I wait in a long line at the international travel desk. Once at the front, an employee tells me that the Thayls train from Antwerp will probably also be delayed for an indeterminate length of time, so we have to go to Brussels and take a Thalys from there. She gives me a new ticket.
4:00 pm: Train leaves from Antwerp to Brussels.
4:45 pm: Train arrives in Brussels, but I realize the woman at the info desk didn’t tell me which station the Thalys would be leaving from. I assume it’s Brussels Centraal, so I get off there. I can’t find the train on the departure screens, so I wait in line again at the international travel desk. I ask to confirm the Thalys train going to Paris at said time. “Yes, that train is on time,” the employee said, “but it’s not leaving from this station.” Momentary panic. Fortunately I have enough time to get to Brussels Midi before the Thalys leaves.
5:15 pm: I wait with a crowd on the platform designated for the train that will finally take us to Paris. There is already a train sitting there but no one is let on. People are confused. They make an announcement in French that our train is actually leaving from another platform, so a mad luggage-toting race down the escalator and through some corridors ensues. They let us on the correct train – people who had actually reserved this train and many who, like me, were on the final leg of a relentless chain of delays. I sit down but am soon approached by a spry French gentleman in his 60s; he insists that I stay in his seat, that he’ll stand and let me know when his legs get tired so we can switch. Things are starting to look up.
5:30 pm: The train departs. The people sitting on the aisle floor next to me – a man from Colorado with a few missing teeth, a gold chain necklace and a Loony Toons tattoo (a walking definition of white trash) and his overweight 9-year-old daughter – won’t stop talking to me.
6:15 pm: I give the seat back to the French gentleman. He lets me sit on his suitcase in the aisle. I make myself comfortable and immediately notice that the people I am sitting behind (trash from Belgium this time) are watching a movie on their laptop. I then notice that it is amateur porn. Hardcore amateur porn. In such a crowded train, with people looming over them in the aisles, they must realize they’re not the only ones who can see this woman’s elastic orifices. I mean, who does that? After the glorious grand finale, they turn off the movie and start playing solitaire.
6:45 pm: With my in-car entertainment over, I resort to my iPod and with Yann Tiersen soothing my nerves I look out and realize the beauty of the countryside between Belgium and Paris. The sun is warm and low over the hills and everything is glowing.
7:30 pm: The train arrives in Paris Nord. I take a deep breath and head for the metro.
8:00 pm: I walk up to the hostel where I am meeting my siblings and see them through the window. I jump up and down, waving wildly, and I know immediately that 11 hours of delayed train travel was worth it just to see them 2 days before I would have anyway.
But seriously, what the hell?