Herwart Hampers Hamburg Hiatus

For those of you with even a hint of an idea of how the world is put together, our travel plans will no doubt sometimes raise an eyebrow: Groningen to Hamburg via Amsterdam. is a great example. In our defense, it made more sense when we were intending to rent a vehicle for our northbound Dutch adventure and, anyway, we’re on holiday, so what does it matter?!

The trip from Groningen went without a hitch but as soon as we set foot on the platform at Amsterdam Centraal it was apparent something was up; There was just a weird feeling about the place. Accomplished globetrotters that we had now become, we were getting pretty accomplished at decoding travel language so it was off to the departure board where we found our train, followed  by a list of the stations it called at enroute, near the bottom of a long list. All seemed fine except for a little phrase next to it. Does that mean it WILL be stopping at those stations or it WON’T we asked each other. Obviously we looked knowledgeable (there’s irony for you!) as we were asked by no less than four other English speakers to decode the message and collectively we decided it was time to toughen up and consult the information desk.

As it turned out, as we tromped back to our hotel through the drizzle in Groningen the night before, Germany and it’s neighbours were being set upon by Storm Herwart. Hamburg was flooded out, Berlin in a state of emergency, and no one really knew what trains were running. The very helpful lady reissued tickets for us to travel on a train to “as close to Frankfurt (the only line that was believed to be open at that point) as it can get” and then advised us (after a lot of backwards and forwards about her not being able to tell us what to do, us saying we would tell no one, her: it’s more than my jobs worth, us: but we have no idea WTF TO DO (yes, there was little undignified voice raising) before The Bean Counter stumbled upon the perfect phrase for this sort of situation, so important I will put it in bold for anyone who ever finds themselves staring at this particular brick wall: “What would you do in my position?”) the staff at that station would know what was happening.

Duisburg is apparently a very picturesque city and the site of the world’s largest inland port. We saw none of that; just a run down, filthy, overcrowded, railway station with opportunist beggars using hardcore stand-over tactics. The lady at the information desk was only interested in us understanding “none of this is my fault” and that there were buses to Hanover leaving from outside the station. A quick google on our rapidly discharging devices showed us it in the right direction so out we charged. The line was long, really long, snaking from a point unseen well past the station and we dutifully fell in and waited, and waited, and… A man in a uniform was talking to group in front of us. No, there was only one bus going to Hanover and it could seat 40 to 50 people. The crowd erupted into grumpy retorts that sound really scary when shouted in German and The Bean Counter found himself alone with the unfortunate railway worker whose job it had been to impart the news. “So,” he smiled, hopefully dusting off the new phrase, “what would you do in my position?” The poor man looked furtively over each shoulder before hissing he would go back into the station and take his chances.

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As we walked back through the doors the nearby information board flicked up that a train for Dortmund was leaving. Again it was in the right direction… The train was nearly empty as most people considered it too small a jump in the journey but we were just keen to get some distance between us and the excrement-adorned Duisburg Hauptbahnhof.

At Dortmund we simply followed the crowd and were lucky to be one of the last accepted onto a (again, heading in the right direction) Hanover bound train. The very quiet businessman we had first noticed in Amsterdam and then Duisburg was stuck standing with us and our suitcases in the tiny space between carriages. He became our hero when he saw off , with a very loud, scary sounding, German retort,  the very drunk, very racist/sexist/angry man who was hassling us because we were Australian. When the train stopped at Hamm our hero disappeared only to return towing a railway employee (who had been conspicuous by their absence) who told us there was space for us in a carriage five down the train. “Follow me” he said and set off at a sprint.

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It takes a bit of organisation to wrestle five suitcases and six people off a packed train. I was jog-trotting down the railway platform, suitcase dragging, handbag flapping, counting the carriages as I had lost sight of everyone, when the call went up: Where was Farm Girl? She wasn’t on our original carriage, our businessman friend assured us. She wasn’t at our five-carriage-up destination; The Bean Counter had just been there stowing suitcases. Panic ensued. There is sprinting, there is shouting. One man grabs The Princess as she runs past and tells her not to worry, the train won’t leave without us. “No!” answered The Princess in a tone that would not have been out of place in a black and white Hollywood tearjerker, “You don’t understand; we’ve lost a child!” The man’s response was priceless: “Oh! Bad luck!” He sounded so like Gruber (he of little tank fame in the sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo) that we all burst out laughing.

Farm Girl was located while this interchange was taking place. She was on the carriage five carriages down as directed, sitting surrounded by five empty seats onto which she had spread her possessions; her backpack, jacket, headphones, Miffy-in-a-Dutch-soccer-strip, and on the last one, her shoes (“I ran out of things”). Ours weren’t the only damp eyes in carriage five-carriages-down on our reunion with Miss ten year old intrepid traveller Farm Girl; It had been a long day for all.

It was dark by the time we got to Hanover. The cold was biting and we were turned away from the train showing the magical destination of  “Hamburg” so the mood was a tad low. No one wanted to leave the platform for the station proper in fear of missing whatever train showed up so we opened our suitcases on the platform, rummaging through them for warmer clothes, which is how we discovered the bag of Kiwi Party Sweets we had somehow missed giving to our hosts. Oh the friends we made on that platform, sharing out the milkbottles, minties, spearmint leaves and those nasty fruity tasting ones that have the texture of warm putty. The mood was fairly jubilant by the time the train pulled in and people helped each other stowing suitcases, holding coats while sleeping children were settled, and generally bantering together.

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So, long story short, we made it to Hamburg that night when lots of other people didn’t. We even arrived smiling, in a group of similarly smiling people who bid each other fond farewells and wishes of good luck. Thanks in part to a packet of Kiwi Party Mix lollies – those fruit putty ones in particular.

17 thoughts on “Herwart Hampers Hamburg Hiatus

      • I bet! I’ve been thinking of your story. It always floors me when people have such an aversion to people who come from other places. What. The. Heck. As I’m sure you know, we have such people in our own country, and when you add racism, what an ugly mess. Glad you were safe and saw the good as well as the bad on that trip.

      • What a thing to have to hear! It is fine to cherish our cultures and our countries, but there is only one race, the human race, and the sooner people realize this, the better. In the United States, we have a long, long way to go toward this goal.

  1. I felt exhausted just reading through all that – what a nightmare, but it is the sort of thing that happens in travelling no matter how carefully plans are laid. And isn’t it amazing how trouble sometimes brings people together. I guess you Christchurchians would know that of all people, but all the station platforms in your story made me think of stories of the Blitz in London and how people mucked in together through adversity.

    One of our favourite family memories from our Europe trip a few years ago is the time our tour guide (small group tour) took us on a detour off the planned itinerary to see some amazing caves (they were spectacular). We should have hopped onto the train again an hour later, but two hours later the train still hadn’t arrived and the caves were in the middle of nowhere. Eventually a train came which we boarded, but we’d missed the connecting bus at the other end, and had to sit in the train station for hours (3 hours) in the evening while our tour guide organized transportation for us to get to the village another hour away which was our destination. Turned out the bar in the train station was basically the village pub and the local men all came and had their evening beer under the fruit trees out back – about 6 men in fact, all ages. We bought them a round of beer, and they were so grateful that one of them disappeared and came back 15 minutes later with a wheelbarrow full of fruit – he turned out to be the local greengrocer and we gorged on fresh figs, fresh tiny pears, and nectarines. Between that and the beer and the packets of potato chips that was all the bar had in the way of food, it was one of our favourite meals in Italy. I have to admit our story is not like yours because a) it was summer and dry, and b) we had a tour guide who was responsible for figuring out all the transportation issues which c) meant we didn’t have to negotiate around our complete lack of Italian. And by the way, when I first read the title, I thought it said Hogwarts, not Hewart 🙂

  2. Hi, After listening to other travellers’ tales of the efficiency of the Germans and how orderly everything is, I was somewhat astonished to learn that Germany harbours at least one dirty, smelly, run down station and there is graffiti on their trains also.
    I am not surprised the railway system was in a state of chaos in the face of an extreme weather event. Extreme weather events still know how to keep humans in their place.
    I enjoyed reading how you coped with adversity and still came out smiling in the end. Hopefully, there was a warm bed for you in Hamburg.

    • German stations were a bit of a mixed bag in our experience. Still, when things ran well, they ran really well; when things turned to custard anyone remotely connected to public relations ran to the hills. That’s why it was so amazing our hero businessman managed to unearth someone. To be fair, the ICE train in the photo was recorded because it was so old and tatty; most of them were very shiny and graffiti free.
      Hamburg was definitely worth the trip!

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