Monday, 3 November 2008

In Germany, Without Reservation…


The Germans have many reputations. One that most often comes up is thrifty. After a weekend of riding German trains, I can thoroughly admit that were you to open a case study on German thriftiness, trains might be an interesting place to start.

Why, you might ask?

It’s quite simple. After hours of trying to purchase a Bahncard (and no, I was not disappointed by the amount of paperwork or things I had to upload to prove my identity) and a railway ticket, I was given the option to place a seat reservation for 2 €.

2€, that’s $2.54 for you Americans, and £1.58 for those of you residing in the United Kingdom. In my mind, it’s worth the peace of mind, that should something go wrong, you have a seat that you can prove is yours. If logic prevails it seems pretty logical that such a small amount of money is worth giving out. Logic, right?

Wrong.

On All Hallow’s Eve, I boarded several trains, the first was a commuter train (obviously irrelevant since there are no assigned seats on commuter trains, thankfully), the second an ICE (high-speed German train) was full. Luckily, I had reserved a seat and had no problems during this leg aside from the fact that the seat pillow was broken, and my compartment fellows odd.

Next leg: TGV (French high-speed train) from Stuttgart to Paris. Already in panic mode due to the fact that I have exactly 6 minutes to make my connection, I get on board at the first possible opportunity. BAD DECISION! The mixing of both Germans and French (in this case Parisians) as well as a Japanese tour group proves disastrous for navigating the aisle (bear in mind those of you that know me, that I had no luggage aside from my laptop bag and purse). During this time, I try to locate my seat, get sent to Car 16, then back to 15. Finally I ask an exhausted (the journey is just starting!) SNCF woman where my seat is. She points to the dining car. How logical. Of course, everyone would know that if your seat isn’t in Car 15, it’s in the dining car. I arrive to find a woman, German, in my seat. I politely (but with my French impression of authority) inform her that I reserved this seat (what I really wanted to say was, “Can’t you read the white slip of paper on the window that says reserved?!?”) She grabbed her things, stalked off and sat close by, glaring at me until she found another place to steal…I mean sit. I eventually arrived in Paris, after what the driver called “an out of ordinary stop” in Saverne for no apparent reason.

Flash-forward to today. I get up, am ready on time, and take a taxi to the train station. My father and I contemplate if I’m going to have a German ICE or French TGV because the ICE (and most German trains it seems) have very little if no room for luggage. There is no way in the world that my suitcase is going to fit in an over-head rack. No way. The train arrives and I’m pleasantly surprised to find the train empty, the seat next to me, empty. The one luggage rack has enough room for my suitcase. It’s a good trip. I fall asleep, get woken up by the conductor (embarrassing, mostly because I was really deeply asleep and jumped about a mile, then had to speak French to one, and German to the other after such a quick wake-up!) This tranquillity quickly disappeared once over the German border. No one really got on in Lorraine, or Forbach, but Saarbrücken…was…chaos. We pull into the station and I immediately notice hordes of people getting ready to jump on. I notice that no one is getting off. I wonder what could possible happen next.

What proceeds is a stampede of Germans, desperate to find the holy grail of trains, an empty seat (you can forget the window option). Everyone ask, or bemoans the fact that everything is full. They travel from car to car, wheeling impossibly large and unwieldy pieces of luggage, or carrying the ever-popular hiking backpack. Will they find a seat? Will they be able to sit together? Will they have to stand?

Perhaps they like the chaos of it all.

In the midst of this entry even, I’ve had to switch trains. The woman who gratefully took the empty seat next to me (when she thanked me before) wouldn’t stand up to let me out, and as I left, she merely placed her bags on my now vacant seat. This seemed to be a trend as everyone I encountered refused to give way or help, or to even move their limbs out of the aisle while I tried to manoeuvre my normal-sized suitcase towards my seat. It continued when I arrived at my next reserved seat to find a man with his bags occupying said reserved seat. I motioned towards the seat (since he looked like he would rather die than speak to me) and he moved his bags. When we arrived in Stuttgart, he moved, only to have to share his new seat with a woman who had more bags than I did. What can I say? Karma is a bitch.

As I sit here now, the train continues on towards Munich, full of luggage that there is no room for, and couples that can’t sit together because of principle. It seems like something Germans should be upset about, then again they aren’t the French (hence the lack of outcry and strikes) and they are the land of bureaucracy and paperwork. Perhaps it’s a way of acting out against administrative fees, a kind of “Take that! I don’t have to pay the 2€ fee if I don’t want to!” The only problem with that idea is that if that is in fact the case you shouldn’t be allowed to complain. No matter what the reason, I find it all rather baffling.

Perhaps it’s the American in me, or perhaps, I’m not as German as I thought, but personally, I’d rather pay the two Euros…

2 comments:

Susanne said...

I would rather pay the fee as well and I am German. Alas I may have been in the US for too long, I concede and value the convenience, meaning I have been corrupted. Never will THEY be able to reintegrate me. But seriously, the way you described it was very funny and so very true, unfortunately. What helps is to have sharp elbows and an equally sharp tongue ;) Love Mami

Russell said...

I appreciate your humorous stories of transit. And I would have to go with consensus and say that 2 Euro is a small price to pay for comfort and peace of mind. Good post. : )