This one was not my fault. I must say this up front because generally when something goes wrong on a family vacation it is my fault: Not having a Speedo to wear at Aquaboulevard when one was needed, having two reservations at two hotels with very similar names, getting attacked by gypsies at an ATM, taking the 405 to the Getty Museum during the morning rush hour, telling the taxi driver in Iceland the wrong day to pick us up…let me assure you this list could be a much longer.
The morning we left Paris everything went as planned. We left our hotel, wheeled our bags to the metro station and caught a train to Gard Nord. We arrived a solid hour before our TGV train was to leave. I will admit now that I tend to arrive too early to train stations and generally there is nothing to do in a train station except look at that big black board with little yellow letters and numbers and hope your train track is posted soon. I now know that the big black board is just for amateurs, the real train people know how to read the paper schedule by each track. So we sat there waiting looking like little birds waiting for momma to feed us. Eventually the black board gave us the track to report to and we headed there like it was a Southwest flight and seating was limited.
We found our seats, placed our huge suitcases in the luggage area (another rookie move, everybody puts their bags on the overhead no matter how large) and sat back safe in the knowledge that we had a great train ride to Köln, Germany ahead of us. From there we would change trains and head south along the Rhine River and eventually end up in Bacharach. All along the Rhine are old castles and the train ride down to Bacharach would be very scenic and I was really looking forward to not only the arrival, but the trip itself.
As the train left Paris I began to stress a little about the train change in Köln, we would have about an hour and 45 minutes to get on our next train while in Köln and I really wanted to step outside the station and see the cathedral. If you haven’t seen pictures of the cathedral stop reading now and Google it, okay, impressive huh? So the plan was to get off our train in Köln, find the next track and then split up, two of us would watch the bags and two would go look at the cathedral and then we would exchange spots.
The TGV trains go fast (200 kph) and we would be in Köln in about two hours, so I did my best to enjoy the blurry countryside. Everything was going so smoothly I couldn’t believe it, smooth is not how anyone in my family would describe any of our vacations. Then it happened, as we were pulling into Brussels, home of the sprout I guess, the conductor or whoever came on the radio and made an announcement in French, German and two other languages that were not English. Everyone around us looked annoyed and began collecting their things. We did what any red-blooded, single-language Americans do during moments like this, we sat hoping that someone would come and lift us from our seats and carry us to our next train. That did not happen. Instead a steward (or whatever you call the train waiter) came and told us to get off the train.
We got off the train and looked for a fellow American. Americans are easy to spot in Europe they are usually the only ones wearing white tennis shoes and a T-shirt that advertises some soda. I found a lady who informed me that the weather between Brussels and Köln was windy and the TGV train could not continue so we were going to have to make a train change and ride a regular slow train the rest of the way to Köln. No one knew when the new train would arrive or leave, no one knew what track it would be on, no one knew much of anything but I decided to wait with the rest of the herd and not make a move without them.
Here begins our long series of tragedies. Emma had to pee. Now peeing in an American train station would probably be no problem, but in Europe nobody pees for free. I didn’t have any change and we did not want to be separated so we hoped our new train would arrive soon so Emma could pee for free on that train.
That did not happen, 20 minutes went by and Emma was in tears, there was a train sitting next to us and I told her to hop on and pee. She was slightly concerned that the train would leave while she was onboard, which is a realistic concern so I told her I would stand like Clark Gable one foot on the train, one foot on the ground, while she went pee.
Emma dashed on, hit the bathroom and accomplished the task without any further problems.
When we got back to the rest of the family it looked like the crowd had thinned some. Where were people going? I had hoped that we would all move like cattle to our next train but it appeared that people were breaking off into small groups in an attempt to lose us. Then another announcement came over the intercom. The remaining people began moving. Down an escalator we all went and into a large station house, it took about two seconds for us to lose the group. We heard track eight was where we were to go, but when we arrived at track eight a policewoman told us that no we were supposed to be back at our original track. We dashed back to find nothing. My wife decided the policewoman didn’t know what she was talking about and we headed back to track eight just in time to see our train leaving the station.
My ambivalence about Brussels had taken a shift, actually my feelings for the entire country had changed: I hated them. Ask any American what they know about Belgium and you will probably hear two things: chocolate and waffles. If the American is a history buff they might toss in the fact that Hitler rolled through Belgium in about four minutes during WW II, but other than that Belgium is about the blandest, boring European nation out there. I am sure that if I spent time wandering around I might end up liking it there, but that is not going to happen because I hate Belgium.
Well, what do you do after you miss a train? You go stand in a line and hope that someone will tell you what to do. I took our tickets and my angry face to the information desk, my only luck was on my way to stand in line I saw the policewoman who gave us bad information and I yelled, “Thanks, we missed our train. Thanks a lot.” Who says Americans are ugly travelers?
The ticket agent guy was pretty helpful and got us leaving the station after waiting for another hour. This would have been a good time to find an ATM, get some cash and maybe a snack or two, but instead we went to our track and camped out. We were not going to miss another train.
The train arrived; we got on and began our trip to Köln. Since this was a smaller train, there was no food service on it and all of us were getting hungry. It was about 6 pm when we arrived in Köln and we had 30 minutes to catch our next train. There wasn’t much time to get anything to eat, or to see the cathedral, or get any cash, so we sat and waited for our train. It arrived and we left as the sun began going down.
The train we were on was a commuter train and it stopped at every little town along the way. I moved my obsessing about trains to our hotel reservation. I had booked two nights at a small Pension that had just a few rooms. I told the hotel owner we would be there at 3 pm and according to my train tickets we would not be arriving in Bacharach until 10:30 pm. Would she hold the room? Would she even be open? How am I going to find the place in the dark?
In Koblenz, we had to change trains one last time. We sat outside in a small train station waiting. None of us had eaten anything since breakfast and it was now nearly 10 pm. I dug around in my bag and found some loose Euros and Dylan went to a vending machine and got two sodas and two bags of candy. I was certain that it would be the last meal of our day since Bacharach is a tiny little town and nothing would be open when we arrived.
We caught our last train of the day and sat looking out into the dark. We could see the river, but the castles on the hillsides, and the scenic vistas were just a dark mystery. When we arrived at Bacharach it was dark, the streets were dark and the little town was asleep. We rolled our bags up the cobblestone road, “Look at this place. It’s like a fake German town in Disneyland,” I said and it was. Half-timbered houses, crooked cobblestone streets and charm that I assumed no longer existed in our world today. For the first time since waking up, I finally relaxed. It all worked out, not as planned but we were here and if the pension was open we would be able to get some sleep.
I knew exactly where Pension Lettie was located thanks to Google Earth and we made it to the darkened door without a wrong turn. Before I even knocked, I saw a curtain draw back and a kind older lady’s face. She smiled and waved. All of the anger, all of the stress, all of the worry vanished as Lettie opened the door and let us in.
“You’re late,” she said in perfect English.
“We had trouble with the trains today,” I said.
“Are you hungry?”
“Yes, we haven’t eaten since morning.”
“Hold on,” Lettie went to her phone dialed a number, spoke for a couple minutes and then said, “The restaurant just up the street will stay open until you come. Leave your bags and go and eat.”
We left the Pension, walked up the street a few hundred feet and found a small Doner/Pizza shop. After our long day of travel, our evening could not have ended more beautifully. It wasn’t the beauty of the town, although there is plenty of beauty there, it was the kindness of the people; although, I still hate Belgium.