How Not to Travel - a Short Story Based on Real Events
We’d planned well, we thought. Our tickets, with reservations, travel plan, and high hopes had been bought two weeks before our planned departure. The brusque woman at the ticket office had given us a no-nonsense rundown of the journey, and we trusted her. Who doesn’t trust the rudely given instructions of an East-German lady new to her job?
The day of travel came about and I felt optimistic. My suitcase was nicely packed – everything fit perfectly. I’d checked our tickets a few times, and knew exactly where they were in my rucksack, nestled between my book and my laptop. Leon and I decided to meet at the train station a little earlier than necessary, to be on the safe side, and so I hopped off the bus full of confidence, spying him across the throng of people.
He looked stressed.
I smiled at him, making my way across the tram tracks, suitcase lugged behind me. He paced nervously, pointing at a sign smack-bang in front of the station. It seemed the trains between Potsdam and Berlin were cancelled, with the only alternative being to take a replacement bus and a different train for a small stretch of the journey. After enquiring for more precise information in the station’s ticket office and being met with thinly veiled disdain from the man behind the counter, we decided the best option would be to take our chances and hop on one of the buses.
It’s a good thing we did take that bus, by chance, because we barely made it to our first planned train. Had we been any later in deciding to risk it, we wouldn’t have even made it out of the city in time in the first place. Not a great start for a long journey neither of us had
made before, but everything seemed to be in order again. (Or so we thought).
The next part of our journey worked seamlessly, changing at Berlin Ostbahnhof into a very Eastern-European train with no air-condition without issue. The train clattered noisily as it moved, speeding us eastwards. Leon and I (considering ourselves in safety) settled down and watched a Spanish TV series I’d downloaded onto my laptop. After about an hour, we packed our things away, got up, and left the train at a small station called Rzepin.
Rzepin is not a place you want to get stuck in. Usually, when I say that something is in the middle of nowhere, I might be exaggerating a bit. This time, it hits the nail on the head.
Full of optimism (though slightly harried, as we barely had five minutes to get to our next train), we stepped off the train onto the platform. And instantly furrowed our brows. There was nothing there. Not a smidge, not even the essence of something graced that station. A few people milled about, but not a single train that looked even remotely like it would be going to a big city sat in the station. Nevertheless, we (still hopeful) went to check the departures board for our platform. We knew exactly what we needed: the 14:09 train to Wroclaw Glowny. The board displayed a train leaving at 14:08, a train leaving at 14:10, though both to places we didn’t want to go.
14:09 could not be found.
Panicking, as it already was 14:09, we asked a young man sitting on a bench whether he could help us. He spoke incredibly good German, luckily (something we would not encounter for the rest of the week, nor English for that matter), and sprang up from his seat with vigour, eager to help. But even though he was incredibly nice, his friendliness could not conjure our train into existence.
Baffled, we wandered around the station (having accepted that we weren’t getting the train we planned on) until we found a hidden ticket office inside the station’s building. The lady at the counter signalled to us that she spoke no English, and no German. Leon and I don’t speak a lick of Polish (to my shame, as I usually try to learn the languages of the places I travel to, since I don’t want to be an entitled foreigner). Leon, fluent, however, in technology, whipped out Google translate and swiftly communicated our issue. The lady, understanding flashing in her eyes, checked her computer.
Our train didn’t exist.
Having transitioned from mildly to rather alarmed, we inquired as to how we might still complete our journey. We unfortunately had to shell out the money for a new ticket, but Leon was unconcerned and so I tried to let his slighty-calmer-than-I energy seep into me.
Our new connection meant we had to change one more time, but it seemed relatively easy. We had to get off at a station called Zielona Gora, which was the last stop on the line for that particular train. We got on (after spending the extra hour at the station eating Pringles and doing not much else) and settled in, sure that the worst was behind us.
You can probably tell by the way that sentence is written that the worst very much was not behind us. I can’t be sure, but I think some people like to call that foreshadowing.
Our train slowed and entered a station called Zielona Gora Pryzlep. At this moment, my brain short-circuited. Zielona Gora was in the name – it had to be our stop. The fact that I previously knew we had to wait until the last station didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nor did the warning of the Polish train conductor that this was not our stop. Leon and I got off, and for about half a second I felt the satisfaction of finally having done something correctly. Until we looked around, and realised that compared to this, Rzepin train station was practically a city. The station was barely recognisable as such, and we realised that we had, indeed, gotten off a stop too early.
At this point, Leon’s stress levels had shot up, and I weakly told him not to panic, while violently panicking myself. Luckily, my spiral into meltdown-style horror snapped Leon out of his state, and he managed to think rationally. Despite this, a solution didn’t seem to exist. By foot, we were over an hour away from the station we actually needed to be at, no other trains were scheduled to leave from where we were, and we were smack-bang in the middle of rural Poland.
But the training every teenage girl of legal drinking age has been given by her mother kicked in: in an emergency, call a taxi. Now, I didn’t know whether taxis even existed in that area – the likelihood seemed to me similar to expecting a horse-and-carriage to show up in the middle of London. But it was worth a shot, and I eventually (after trying three) found a number for a taxi that patched us through to a very confused Polish man. He spoke neither English nor German, and for a moment, we felt totally stranded. So close to a possible solution, yet so far, I felt ugly tears making their way to my eyes. But Leon, once again, fluent in Google translate, whipped out his phone, and painstakingly completed the transaction.
Taxi in five minutes. Quick look at Google Maps: location we had given the taxi company, twelve minutes away. Fuck.
Hurtling down a Polish road, on the side of incoming traffic, suitcases in tow, the sun beating down, is not exactly ideal. Even less so for someone with breathing issues, which presented themselves wheezingly while Leon sprinted ahead. I shuffled, following him, watching him disappear around corners until we landed in a very dodgy-looking industrial estate. Neither of us said anything, but we both looked at each other knowingly. There was no way a taxi would come here! It was more likely that the Polish authorities would end up sending our corpses home to Germany.
Defeated, I sat on the pavement, hyperventilating and wondering how I could have been so stupid. Leon, ever unable to be idle, wandered around, frantically pacing the wasteland we had somehow gotten to. Miraculously, a few seconds later, a taxi arrived, and we dragged our suitcases across the sandy ground like parched men at the sight of water.
The taxi brought us to the correct station, and we waited there, anxiously checking, double-checking, and triple-checking that we were on the right platform. Leon left to get snacks while I brought my long panic-attack to a close, and I called my mother to inform her of all our mishaps before we got onto the last train, the right train, to Wroclaw.
Hours later, exhausted and drained, our train pulled into Wroclaw Glowny, two hours later than our originally-planned arrival (which all things considered, is pretty decent), and we staggered to our hotel, which by the graces of God was less than 200m from the station, before checking in, and collapsing on the bed.
This journey was probably one of those, that in hindsight, you can class as a learning experience. Which is accurate, but learning isn’t always fun...