Budapest or Bust
Here we go again, beginning another Drop Me Anywhere adventure; just me and you, my Virtual Travel Buddies. I’ve spent the last two weeks in Hartheim am Rhein, Germany; population 5,000. I stayed with Claudia, Norbert, their two daughters, Anne and Laura, their two cats, Thomas and Sophie, and their one, most loveable dog, Sammy. I found them through AirBnB and, as I just wanted a place to catch up on work and sleep, I wasn’t looking for a place in the middle of the action. Still, it gave me a chance to visit France with Claudia and Anne, visit Basel, Switzerland via a short train-ride, as well as give a speech in Freiburg to some wonderful students studying International Hospitality and Travel/Tourism.
So, it was with a heavy heart that, today I said goodbye to my adopted family (really, you should stay with them if you ever wish to visit the area. You’ll feel like family. Click here!) and hop on the train to Zurich where I’ll take the overnight train to Budapest. I’ve reserved a couchette, which means I get to “sleep” on a hard “bed” sharing a tiny space with three-strangers. Aah, it’s a glamorous life. Still, sometimes the prospect of getting horizontal, along with the perpetual dream of no other bookings in that couchette, makes the hope worth the extra Euro (€29.90 to be exact).
The booking of the train ticket is a small adventure in itself. I looked up the routes from Freiburg to Budapest and found an overnight train – I was looking for this as a way to save on accommodations as it’s a long train trip anyway, I might as well sleep – and found one with only one change of trains. This sounded great as it’s not only me getting on and off trains, but my luggage too. It had a link to request a price-quote as, due to taxes and international stuff, it can change. I clicked the link and waited for the response, which normally comes within twenty-four hours and allows you to claim that ticket by phone within another twenty-four hours. When I received no response by the next day, I used Claudia and Norbert’s phone to call the local DeutscheBahn number. After waiting on hold for an English-speaking agent, I explained my story and asked where my quote was. She replied that, for some reason, they didn’t send a quote, but simply issued a ticket, charged my credit card and mailed it to Claudia and Norbert’s house (as this type of ticket wasn’t available to receive online, using their address was the best option).
“Um, wow. Well, how much did you charge me for the ticket?” I inquired (trying not to be snotty as the lady seemed as puzzled as I about why it had been issued).
“€132.55” she replied. “But if you don’t want it you can send it back with a letter explaining what happened and it can be refunded.”
Well crap (I didn’t say this out loud), that would just be asking for a mix-up and I had no idea how much other prices were going to be. And it’s not so easy doing the everyday things like finding an envelope, locating a post-office and arguing in German.
I agreed to just take the ticket that was supposedly in the mail and I took the opportunity to buy a spot in a couchette while on the phone.
So now, all that was left was to wait for the ticket to arrive in the mail and print out the couchette ticket at any train station. The printing out of the ticket was easy, as I did it in Freiburg while on my way to Switzerland (again, it sounds much more glamorous than real-life). I was relieved when the actual train ticket arrived in the mail. Then, a couple of days ago, I was looking more closely at it as I was figuring out when I needed to be at the train station. I looked carefully and could find no times, train numbers or connections. I showed it to Claudia and asked if I was missing something.
“No, this is strange. I think you might need to go to the DeutscheBahn Office and ask them,” she confirmed.
So yesterday I brought my mystery train ticket into the DeutscheBahn office in Freiburg. I put on my best smile (I didn’t want any trouble) and told the man my sad story.
“Well, this is a little crazy. You need to know what time you’re going, don’t you,” he agreed.
Before long, Mr. Wonderful had offered me connection options (I went with the original as again, one change of trains which me and my bags appreciate) and I had a letter to accompany my ticket stating which trains I was on and the times of departures.
So, here I sit, on the train to Zurich. Claudia was kind enough to drive me to the Bad Krozingen train station where I could catch a quick train to Freiburg. As my train was running a bit late, it allowed me to sit at the juice bar in the Freiburg train station and watch a guy dressed in a leopard-suite walk by (no kidding, no idea why, no photos – too slow with the camera).
After an uneventful, and even on-time arrival I exit the train into the Zurich train station with a wide-eyed awe (it might be mistaken for dazed and confused but, potato/potahto). The station is big, and wide open and cold. I wander around trying to find the main, indoor part of the station as I have an hour-and-a-half to wait. I walk up to a guy wearing orange coveralls (assuming he works here but he could just be a friend of Mr. Leopard Suit) and ask, “Sprechen zie Englisch?” while wondering if they even speak German here. He smiles and, though he speaks no English, tries desperately to help. I point in an attempt to indicate where I want to go. After a minute of attempting to help, he sees a security guy walk by and anxiously flags him down. As he hands me over to the English-speaking security man, I thank him in English as most people understand an English “thank-you,”
The security guy tells me he’s walking in the direction I need to go so he’ll walk me there. His name is René and he gives me a little tour on the way. I learn that you must go up and down in various places in the Zurich train station as there’s a river running through it. He says it’s always a challenge when they want to expand as they must work around the river. “Still,” he says, “I think the engineers like to try to figure it out.” I agree with him, knowing too many engineers who get-off on these kinds of things. Next, we head into the great hall.
“It’s the largest hall in any train station in Europe,” he tells me proudly.
We also chat about how expensive Switzerland and he makes the point that, with the Swiss Franc being so strong, it’s bad for tourism. Even the Swiss go skiing in Austria as they get so much more for their money.
I thank René for the tour and pop into the bar and pizza place as, well, they serve Glühwein. It’s a really cute bar and I need to test the Swiss Glühwein.
My train is finally posted on the departure board and I climb aboard car 171 into couchette #41. I planned my packing differently this time. While both my bags expand, I’ve been expanding the larger one while keeping the smaller one unexpanded. This had worked fine until my first overnight train as the larger, expanded bag didn’t fit under the bed. It sat in the middle of the floor which I’m sure caused my fellow couchette-mates, who were sleeping when I arrived, to say very nasty things about me when they awoke. This time, I decided to expand the smaller bag as that should allow both to fit under the bed.
When I enter my couchette I see that Swiss Rail’s couchette seems to be a bit different. There’s much less room under the bed and now, with the smaller one expanded, neither suitcase fits underneath. I decide to unpack some of the smaller one and place the items in the larger one as, I might as well try to at least fit one bag under the bed. It turns out, no matter which way I do the puzzle, the pieces just don’t fit.
A few minutes later the conductor comes by to check my ticket and asks me if I want coffee or tea in the morning – ladies and gentlemen, I might have found love before even arriving in Budapest. “Yes, please! I love you,” I respond. He doesn’t have a big reaction but deep-down inside I know that he loves me too. I then ask if he can lower the middle bunk, which is directly above mine (these are raised in the four-bed couchettes and lowered in the six-bed ones). I know he has the magic key to do it, but he’s reluctant, and suggests I just put my luggage in the middle of the floor. I explain that others might be joining in the couchette and I don’t want them to hate me. Noting his continued uncertainty, I decide it’s time to use my international flirting ninja-skills.
“What’s you name?” I ask.
“Impad,” he says.
“Oh, like iPad?” I smile and laugh like a silly American. “Please can you lower it?”
He pulls out his key (it might just be the key to my heart) and lowers the bunk. I tell him I love him more than coffee.
Tomorrow – The dream is alive.