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.
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.
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.
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.