This story took place twelve years ago when I was a student in Munich.
It’s Silvester (New Year’s Eve in German) in three days’ time and the gang decides that ringing in Das Neujahr in Berlin is a really good idea. The only problem is we’re in Munich and travel is very expensive during the holiday season.
Useless McGyver (so named because of his ability to create something useless out of anything) persuades us that we can buy Schönes-Wochenende (rather promisingly translated as “beautiful weekend”) tickets to travel for cheap. The only catch? We can only hit the rails on Saturdays and Sundays, which leaves us less than two days to get to Berlin in time for the New Year’s countdown.
He assures us it’s a great idea nonetheless, adding, “What could go wrong?”
Famous last words.
Come Saturday morning and the whole team is assembled: Two Americans (Useless McGyver and Blue Mike, so named on account of his cerulean locks), two Italians (Manuel and Chiara, possessing normal names on account of their not being American) and one Malaysian (me).
With any luck, we’d reach Berlin before nightfall. Visions of us digging into hearty Schweinshaxe (smoked pork knuckle with mushy peas) and glugging down Maß after Maß of chilled Berliner beer are as good a way as any to start our trip.
How optimistic we are. How foolish.
We are stuck in Augsburg.
The Hauptbahnhof is about to close but our next train hasn’t arrived yet. We are huddled in one corner trying to keep warm when Useless McGyver returns and repeats the station manager’s message: No trains. Apparently some trees fell on the tracks due to the heavy snowfall. Therefore: no trains and no idea when the tracks will be cleared either.
We have no choice but to try our best to get some rest while squatting down or lying against each other. It’s impossible to sleep though. We start telling each other stories, mostly ribald jokes and exaggerated sexual escapades. Blue Mike starts climbing some pillars, just for practice. It’s apparent, if there were anyone else in the station besides the manager, we look like a most disreputable and eccentric gang of hooligans.
What we are is young, and there’s no better time to be young when you still have your youth? (Didn’t some long-dead German author write that, once?)
It’s almost dawn when the station manager shuffles over and advises us that, if we wanted to, there will be a train in 15 minutes. Cue mad scramble to gather our bags and a hasty run to the right platform. We get there with time to spare, board the very punctual train and settle into our seats with proud smiles on our faces as we leave the station.
That is, till Manuel shares an interesting observation of his: “Hey guys, this train is going to Karlsruhe. Aren’t we supposed to be heading towards Nuremberg? Isn’t Karlsruhe in the west?” asks Manuel. The west, as in the opposite direction from where we ought to be travelling.
After switching trains a couple of times, we now find ourselves on alternate route to Berlin; this time via Frankfurt. Oh the joys of cheap Schönes-Wochenende tickets! They’ll get you to where you want to go; there’s just no guarantee you’d get there on time or via the shortest, quickest routes.
We are grumpy, hungry and tired. (Also, we are probably very dirty and crumpled-looking, having not encountered a proper shower or bed in over 12 hours.) At this point, you’d be lucky to get a less-than-civil grunt from any of us still half-awake.
Then Chiara starts dancing. This is considerably difficult given the continuous chug-chug-chug motion of the train itself and also due to the number of other travellers crammed together in the carriage. (Standing area only.) Yet our Italian wonder rises to the challenge and continues dancing.
Then she begins singing: “Sweet dreams are made of this / Who am I to disagree? / I travel the world / And the seven seas / Everybody’s looking for something.”
It’s the 80’s all over again. And soon, one by one, everyone joins in singing this Eurythmics classic. The chorus goes on and on, in different accents: American, German, French, Chinese. One tall Swede proceeds to smack his backside every time we get to the lines “Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused”; and everyone wakes up from whatever weary half-slumber they were nursing.
Not quite chaos in the carriage but a sort of happy bohemian rhapsody (minus the high notes). We are not sly or pretty or witty but damn if we aren’t having fun!
There is a collective moan of regret when the train conductor announces that we’ve reached the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.
We have just left Hildesheim and heading to Braunschweig next. Outside you can’t really tell where we are because it’s still all a blur of white. Snow has covered most of Germany. This is a quieter part of the journey and all of us manage to get some seats, though not necessarily together.
Useless McGyver has a spot near the back of the carriage where he’s interrogating some hapless Greek girl about island-hopping. Manuel and Chiara are together, chatting away in quick-fire Italian. Blue Mike is somewhere, sleeping (we can hear him snoring but most of the other passengers are sleeping too, so that’s okay). I’m alone with a book, near the exit, when the door swooshes open and a beautiful Indian girl with the most amazing eyelashes drops her knapsack in front of me and asks, “Gestatten Sie, ist dieser Platz frei?”
I shake my head and she murmurs her thanks, gratefully sinking into the seat in front of me. I notice her accent’s British so I ask her if she’s from England.
“Oh you speak English? That’s brilliant! My Deutsch is so schlect I’m embarrassed to even ask for directions!”
And that’s how you start a conversation with a stranger, I guess. We find the common ground, something as basic as a shared language (even if the British edition is a different breed from my melodious Manglish), and you hit the ground running. This is why I love long train rides, the way you get to move from carriage to carriage, choosing a different seat each time or simply stand where there’s available space and meet someone interesting wherever you find yourself.
It is, come to think of it, a lot like life.
The Berlin Hauptbahnhof! After 22 hours spent on the tracks, it takes us a while to believe we’ve finally reached our destination. Tonight we will head to Das Brandenburger Tor where the main Silvester und Neujahr celebrations will be held. Fireworks and laser-light shows; concerts and crowds of visitors from all over the world: it’s all here.
We came here for the countdown but now that we are here, I doubt any celebration could beat the experience of our haphazard train odyssey across the country. Reaching the destination is an accomplishment, but the journey, I’ve learned, is the real adventure.