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Beginning at the Airport
There's not much to say about as SFO. If you've flown out of there, then you know the routine. Truth is all airports are pretty much the same after a while. You wait for planes; you board them. Enough said.
Long. The flight was long. Not much else to add. I was pretty cramped and didn’t sleep much, maybe an hour or two at the most. After takeoff, I usually fare a little better than most in economy. I can move my legs under the seat in front and recline my seat. This time, I also had the window seat. I like the window seat. I can take pictures of the clouds below me. Big white fluffy clouds. Yeah, those will sell well. Who doesn’t have enough cloud photos over her fireplace? Want clouds? I got your clouds right here. (full disclosure: I got NO cloud photos the entire trip)
As the plane lifted off, the glowing night change into an illuminated haze which soon transformed into clearness again as we flew above the foggy metropolis. Patches of the city lights could be seen in breaks between clouds, clouds clinging tightly together as it banding together to keep something in or something out. Nevertheless, I had escaped. I was leaving the Bay Area. I was leaving the country.
It took some time to adjust my new claustrophobic surroundings. I can see how one could easily freak out if one isn't trained early on in life. I imagine if one doesn’t adapt early, it may never happen. Flying can be scary. Need to leave the plane? Sorry. Get used to your new friends for 10 hours.
The video system looked nice, but I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out change the personal menu player from Japanese to English, trying one button after another. Finally, I succeeded. Turns out the correct button was in Japanese. Yes, one had to read Japanese to know how to switch it to English. Those goofy programmers. Always playing tricks.
To keep occupied after that, I watched The Duchess of Devonshire. It was okay, but not great. Since this journal is about my trip and not a movie review I won't get into it too much (then again I'm in a coffee shop right now with four hours to kill until my train arrives, so why not?) Well, the movie just seemed flat for the entire way. As soon as it really got interesting...it ended. I suppose it was worth what I paid for it though.
(Okay that's it for my movie reviews. Three hours and 56 minutes still to kill until the train comes.)
Following that movie, I watched part of some French drama (Oops. Spoke too soon. More movie reviews). It only had two language options: French and German. I knew I wouldn’t be following much of it. And follow it I did not. Soon I was looking for another movie. I couldn't converse with the gentleman next to me as he was sleeping for the longest while.
I did find a German film about a mountain climbing tragedy--I mean, seriously, like they ALL died! This movie had English subtitles, so I understood. It was entertaining if not depressing. It surprises me how many sad movies they show on airplanes, like we want our travels starting off with “life sucks, now go have fun.” But what about the food? Yes, let’s talk about that.
The food was actually good. I had chicken for dinner and some red wine. My German from high school came in handy enough to say small things (“Haben Sie…Red Wine”) and offer small answers, but this of course led to full German phrases spoken back which I completely did not understand. Luckily I could use the good old standby of “ja” and “nein.” Occasionally, I ja’ed when I should have nein’ed and vice versa.
(By the way, the airline was Lufthansa, which probably explains all the German and French--oh and the good food and friendly service. United and American, are you reading this? Please observe that those qualities are GOOD things. You may copy them accordingly.)
After the second movie, it was about 4 a.m. Being about time when I usually start sleeping anyway, I was finally able to rest for about an hour or so.
I awoke a while later to breakfast being served. Fortunately my neighbor stopped the food cart in time for me to get something to eat.
At that point I was finally able to chat with him. His name was Victor. He'd been speaking German to the flight attendants so I figured he was German, but no, he lived in France. Turns out he wasn't French either, he was Czech. He spoke four languages at least and was a physics professor returning home from the San Francisco Bay Area. We spoke about different things and he shared ideas and suggestions of places to visit. It was good conversation. He was excited about Obama and wondered what I thought of Schwarzenegger. That question came up a lot in Austria. For the record, people, I’ve never even met the guy. I’ve only seen his movies, including Commando, which only 18.6 other people have other seen (A tragedy considering it has so many cool one-liners).
Finally, we approached Munich. It was great to see the bird's eye view of this unbeknownst country to me. Patches of snow remained on the ground. Many patches of forest also stood out sharply. I gathered that things might be a little cold in Central Europe. Didn’t they know spring was coming in five days? Shouldn’t someone be removing all that leftover snow? And turn up the heat, darn it!
Landing well, we exited the plane. I only had carry-on luggage, so I did not have to wait for the baggage carousel or worry about anything being missing. I had a smug grin as I passed the folks waiting at the baggage carousel (though it was probably due to the jet-lag and coldness).
Munich is a big airport, but as we covered earlier, big airports are pretty much the same after while so I'll spare any description. Now came the tough part: where to go and how to get there. Perhaps I forgot that airports and city centers aren't usually in the same place. (It's hard to fit a runway in the middle of town.) Well, I was pretty clueless. I just looked for an exit. There was no way I'd be taking a taxi, so I found the bus from the airline. Free? Nope. Nine euros and 50 eurocents. I could live with that. Oh yeah, I guess I’d need some European money for all this traveling. Back inside I went and looked for an ATM. Found one! Back outside I went. The bus remained. I boarded. Soon enough we were moving towards (at least I had hoped) the train station. I wasn’t positive. Finally, I just asked the driver and he confirmed it. (When all else fails, ask questions.)
In a seat near me I heard someone conversing on a cell phone about theater. He sounded very into it, either producing or directing shows, so after he finished the conversation I struck up a conversation of my own with him. We chatted about theater for a long time and it turns out he was from Oakland, California, but now acts and produces in Europe. When he departed, I moved up to the front seat and waited several minutes until we reached the train station.
The station was cold as night was upon us. I got info about the train platform I needed and then went out to it. There was a clock up on a pole and the time said 7:30. What!? I was expecting something closer to 10 p.m. The bus clock had been fast (like 2 hours fast! For the life of me, I am still perplexed on how a BUS clock can be two hours fast. It's a BUS! Don't people like have schedules to keep?!?). I still had over three hours to kill. What to do. What to do.
There... a Starbucks. Not exactly European, but it was warm and had seats and maybe even Internet access. Somehow, some guidebooks seem to think train stations themselves are places to stay warm. Have these writers actually ever been inside a train station? From my experiences in London, Paris, and Germany, I can vouch that no, they are not warm. They’re pretty much the same temperature as outside, which I believe is due to having massive openings where the trains come in and out. True, airports may be warm, but train stations, my friends, are simply not warm. I bought some coffee and found a seat. An affectionate couple sat across from me. They chatted wildly smooched frequently (get a room, kids!). In time, they left and I moved into the prime spot. Soon a young lady asked about the empty chair. I said it was open and to sit. After a short while, I asked if she spoke English (“Sprechen Sie Englisch”) “Not much,” she said but enough to chat a little it turns out. Her name was Steph and she taught breakdancing in Munich (Germany likes hip hop and breakdancing. Who knew!?). We had a fun conversation, teaching words to each other as best we could. When she finally had to leave, another took her place. It was like grand central station! (Only it was Munich HBF, which is different, but probably just as cold.)
This was an older gentleman and I must admit I forgot his name only seconds after hearing it. (Sad, I know. Berate me later.) We chatted about the German language, politics, and the American recession for well over an hour. When he left, another sat in the seat. I wasn't getting much writing done, but nearly wearing out my voice with so much talking. (Perhaps I should do more listening for change.) This lady’s name was Antje and she was an actress returning from Italy. Now we had much to talk about! Topics ranged from more German language chatter to practicing accents from around the world. Her American Southern accent wasn't half bad either. Soon she left as well. It was getting late.
Moments later, Starbucks was closing. I would have nowhere to go to stay warm (SINCE THE STATION ITSELF IS NOT WARM), but no matter; it was almost time to board. I waited a bit and finally saw my night train, just waiting for me. Finding the right car, I entered and chatted with the conductor. Well, I tried. Turns out he spoke only German. Uh-oh. I hoped this would not be a problem since I found out that I needed to transfer trains at 5 a.m. I thought I would get to avoid that.
The Night Train
The sleeping car was small and cozy. Six beds were inside: three on the left and three on the right with an aisle in the middle. I had no issues with the tiny space, but I was surprised that adults could squeeze into such tiny berths. However, most Europeans are pretty thin, so this isn’t much of a problem for them. Tall people, on the other hand, had some issues. Fortunately, I’m not tall or fat, so I fared just fine.
My next trek was to the restroom. There were two compartments at the end of the car. I tried both and they only had sinks inside. I guess I could've made it work, but I wasn't that desperate and it certainly did not seem appropriate. I looked farther down and found the bathroom. I found it locked, so I waited. After waiting long, I knocked. No response. I tried it again. Locked. Hmm. Not good. I waited. Soon I wondered if maybe I was pulling on a door that needed pushing. Very well. I pushed. It opened. (Lesson learned. Always try pushing AND pulling.) Shortly after, I was back on my bunk. All six berths were now full. There was an older German couple, a Japanese traveler, and two Japanese students. Train sleeping is quite social. After everyone got settled, we closed up the compartment, locked it, and killed the light.
Ah more rest. This would be good. Since I only had two hours on the flight, I was in dire need of sleep, but sleep would not come easily. My body was not adjusting quickly to the time change, but heck I'm always needing naps from late nights. Why should this be any different?
Now with six people, you're bound to get some snoring, and yes we did--sometimes two or three people at a time. Still, it wasn't unbearable and I did have earplugs should it become necessary.
Sleep finally did come, albeit lightly. I was in and out of it a lot. And I awoke every time we came to a stop. Once we stopped moving, I stopped sleeping. After one stop, the train never seemed to start up again. I kept wondering if maybe we were indeed moving, but so smoothly that it could not be felt because the delay was about 25 minutes long. Turns out we had not been moving because we finally did start moving after a while. I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. since my transfer was at 5 a.m. That turned out to be unnecessary since I woke up around 4:30. At 4:50, I was dressed and ready to get off, but we didn't stop. Now, I knew for sure that that long pause earlier was unplanned. I wondered if it meant I'd be missing my next train. But we never got to the next train. The conductor came along and said it would be another half hour. Okay back to bed, or at least back to my bunk, for I wasn't able to sleep. Outside, dawn was approaching. On the ground I could make out all the pretty snow. Snow? Snow?!? Not snow! Anything but snow! Well not rain. Better snow than rain. But snow meant cold. And cold meant…well, cold. Cold means cold! Darn it!
Soon the train slowed down. The older gentleman who had also been in my compartment was out and about. He looked at my ticket and offered some advice on where to depart.