Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Vegas to London: German Homecomings

**This was written in Koln on Sunday 18 April - posted later**

Zurich station is not chaos
. It is instead a model of Swiss order.
I know the station well from many trips to Davos both for the WEF and for family skiing holidays.
I am swayed by the guard's advice about Basel ... on the other hand, there are other routes through Germany and perhaps I should be thinking about those too.
Or perhaps Paris.
It is the total ignorance of what lies ahead that is the problem. Even with the SMS lifeline to Mrs Marsh, it is possible only to know so much. Railway routes are no more than serving suggestions, timetables no more than aspirations.
It is three o'clock and walking down the platform to the main concourse, I devise a plan. Well, it is not so much a plan as a decision to let fate decide.
There is a huge board over the main concourse at Zurich station and it lists all the departures for hours ahead. If there is a train to Basel soon, I will take it. If not ... well, I'll look for the first one that seems promising.
There is a train to Basel in an hour and I can buy a ticket from the machine. You can only buy tickets to Swiss destinations from the machines. So that kinda clinches it. Basel.
Decision made and I have an hour to kill. I wander into the Reiseburo. It is packed but they have a ticket system - you take a numbered ticket and when it's your turn, your number flashes over one of the dozen or so windows. The highest number flashing is 413. I take a ticket. It is number 491. I leave.
But by the Reiseburo are the ordinary 'international' windows. This is one of the infuriating things about European trains. There is a fantastic network of wonderful fast trains ... but the ticketing is 19th century.
I have nothing else to do with my fifty minutes before the Basel train so I join one of the, relatively, short queues. They go very slowly but even at ten minutes per customer in front of me, I will be able to reach the window.
At the front of the queue, the Utrecht quartet are negotiating passage to Amsterdam. One of them comes to me at the back of the queue and asks if I want to travel with them. They have a train and it leaves at six in the morning - they will buy a fifth ticket if I want them to.
It is a temptation. It would mean a night in Zurich and then ... then what from Amsterdam? A ferry from the Netherlands, I guess.
But I have the ticket to Basel and perhaps if I have to spend an overnight that would be better and there is still something pulling me more towards Calais rather than Ostende or Rotterdam.
I thank them but stick with the Basel plan.
The young couple in front of me want tickets to Paris. There is nothing until Wednesday they are told; 'you have to have a reservation to travel on the TGVs'. She adds that, of course, the French trains will be affected by strikes.
Again, I wonder whether the true nature of what's happening is fully understood in the chancelleries of Europe ... and the boardrooms of the transport operators.
The young couple are crestfallen; 'My mum is coming over to pick me up in Calais' the young man says, his voice cracking just slightly.
He asks about a coach station but the clerk does not know. They walk slowly away and I do not know what they will do.
It is my turn and I ask for a ticket from Basel to Koln. The clerk is a little shruggy and tells me she can sell me a ticket but doesn't know whether I can get on the train. It is a risk I will take because it means I can at least travel to Basel knowing I have a plan of sorts.
And Koln is within the pick-up zone - a place from which, if all else fails, someone can pick me up in a car.
The train to Basel is about half full and hardly any passengers are stranded types such as me. I have just seven minutes to change trains in Basel but this is Switzerland and I am confident and indeed we pull into the station not early, not late, but exactly on time.
The Mannheim train is busy but a long way from full. There are seats and rouged old ladies with lapdogs who have perhaps been visiting reluctant children and grandchildren. And sad faced young men going home perhaps after a weekend with a girlfriend. And students cramming for the week ahead. People making their way home. But homes in Germany. Again, there are no stranded types.
There is WiFi, though, and I buy an hour's worth hoping that the laptop battery will hold out. The intention is to post a blog or two ... but first I look at trains from Koln to anywhere north, intending to go to Lille which is even more into the pick-up zone.
The Lille trains go through Brussels ... so, with the laptop battery on a shouty shade of red, I take a look at the Eurostar website. Just in case.
And there are trains. From Brussels to London. Tomorrow afternoon. At a ridiculous price, but they are there.
Yesterday, the Eurostar website was teasing with the promise of trains but they could not be booked. The site timed out or refused to accept payment.
I choose the 1459. It lets me. I put in my payment details. It likes them. It tells me I have a seat. It gives me a confirmation code. It thanks me for my purchase. The laptop battery dies.
We speed north up the Rhine valley and it is difficult not to think of it as a tour of WW2 bombing targets, the place names characters in every black and white war movie featuring young men with white scarves and pipes and bouncy dogs with names it would be wrong to use these days.


Sal and Johnny said...

Kevin - an extraordinary journey (and account). Are you home yet?

Kevin Marsh said...

Sal and Johnny ... yes I'm home thank you ... very kind of you to ask.
I am SO glad I didn't sit it out in Vegas ... but like I say, that could never have been an option.
Best wishes.