Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Vegas to London: the Brussels leg

**This was written on Eurostar on Monday 18 April - posted later**

It is an unremarkable morning in Koln.
The hotel is on the raw side of the station. All station's have a raw side, the side you're not supposed to see. The side where the prostitutes work; where something is always being built or demolished and the roads are always coned and dug.
Some have four raw sides.
From the room's balcony, you can see this mucky, bleak, platz. A place to scuttle through and hundreds of schoolchildren and office workers and labourers are scuttling.
I have a headache. Dehydration. I seem to have forgotten the basics of day to day.
My shoulders and back hurt beyond what is simply annoying. My bag isn't very heavy but it is heavy enough to pull my spine to one side - 'unstable vertebrae' was how the osteo once described what I have. And to bruise my shoulders. And to pull on my sternum which is held together by metal bands after Bashir - the sawsman on Mr Pugsley's cardiothoracic team - unzipped me sixteen years ago.
The gammy leg and its filigree of op scars is more swollen than ever and one of the scars is starting to show the signs of an infection. I hope there's not another bout of cellulitis in waiting but at least I have some emergency antibiotics with me.
It is good to know that I have tickets through to London but I am now regretting that I did not book a seat to Brussels. Still there is little sign of of stranded types but who knows.

Down to breakfast and the hotel lobby is piled high with suitcases. I am now worrying about the Brussels train.
The breakfast restaurant is piled high with British pensioners. I am now worrying even more about the Brussels train but it turns out that, incredibly, they are going the other way. On a 'no-flight' tour of Europe.
Perhaps they feel vindicated in their decision never to travel by air.
They talk about Knutsford and travel insurance and peace of mind and one of them is telling her table about a new breed of foreign pickpocket who work in twos; the first picks your pocket and the second replaces your wallet or cash with a wad of papers so you don't notice 'til it's too late. You can never be too careful.
I do hope they have a lovely holiday and I'm sure they will but I also wish they would hover a little less over the buffet. Especially the fruit. I need fruit.
For a very long time, one of the senior travellers seems to think he needs some too. But he hesitates. And then hesitates some more. And then some more still. And then he decides fruit is a bit too foreign for breakfast and moves on to the speck and gruyere but I do not imagine he will find what he wants there either.

Now I really wish I'd booked a seat. The platform is crowded and it turns out only half of the train from Frankfurt goes on to Brussels, the rest to Amsterdam. And it is late.
There is nothing else for it. It is down to luck or guesswork or fate or whatever but since luck has been good to me so far - and the harder my family and friends in London have worked on my behalf, the luckier I've been - I am not too despondent.
I pick a place. If the door stops opposite me, I will be fine. If not, well ... There is no chance of moving up or down the platform to chase the door, so this is it.
And what about that. The door stops at the exact spot I am standing. I am first on and find one of the few unreserved seats.
The train fills. And fills. And fills with standing passengers. There is a loud bilingual row at the end of the carriage because someone is sitting in someone else's reserved seat. The line of passengers trying to get on spills out of the door and the guard/conductor makes a long and complicated announcement in German which is the first or second language of about 1% of the train passengers.
It amounts to 'if you don't have a reservation you must get off the train'. This is insane. Everyone thinks so and no one moves. The standing passengers reason that since they are standing two abreast along the entire length of the train, the guard will not be able to check any tickets but they are wrong.
He forces his way into the train and starts checking tickets and throwing people off. Perhaps he really will throw all the standing passengers off.
In the event, he sees sense and leaves the train without having made a huge impact on the number of standing passengers. We depart half an hour late but I am on the train, with a seat and will arrive in Brussels with three hours in which to make sure I can get the ticket I've bought.

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