Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Journey & the Destination on a Delayed German Train

Sometimes when people ask me why the hell I exchanged living in a country with beautiful landscape and fun people for living in Germany, I like to answer that it's because in Germany the trains run on time. But this is not always the case…
And when German trains run late they do it properly. One of my favourite obstacles in getting to work is arriving at the platform and reading 'train cancelled'. In fact, it makes me feel that the Germans are becoming a tad Irish. Just like that - train cancelled. Oh, ok. And now? Well you wait for the next one, which, depending upon the reason for the cancellation may also be cancelled, and the one after it.
My record in cancelled trains was 4 in a row - with an hour wait between each one. It meant I ended up arriving to the back arse of nowhere in the former East Germany at a late enough hour not to challenge the neo-nazis on the train when they did the Hitler salute (it's banned in Germany). But when you are already running 5 hours late and sitting in a carriage with two drunk Russians and three neo-nazis, it is not a good idea to go over to them and suggest in a foreign accent that maybe they should not do that, as it is 'polizeilich verboten' as the Germans like to say - legally forbidden. Forbidden is a word that the Germans love. I love it too, but in a different way.
So this week was not so bad. I arrived to the platform to find an announcement that the train would not be leaving from that platform after all, or, indeed, from that station. No, today the train will start at Augsburg instead of Munich. Ok, so I get another train to Augsburg on the trail of my missing train.
Yes, it's leaving from Augsburg, but has a 50 minute delay. The delay is due to what the Germans describe as 'human damage on the line', in other words, a tragic human accident.
This is when it gets interesting. As Germans don't like making conversation with strangers, their way of communicating with other people on the train is to call their friends and shout into the phone so that the whole carriage hears it. In general, they are just not amused.
And even if I agree that anyone who decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train, should not do so at rush hour, I am shocked at the attitude. An ugly woman in her 20's loudly makes a call:
'Hi, can you pick me up a bit later because some total idiot threw themselves in front of the train.'
Again, I use my better judgement not to go over and ask her to please help me understand what a total idiot looks and sounds like if it is not you, because you are in the train, not under it. No, I stay put on my seat, trapped between my handbag and a box of Dunkin' Donuts that I have bought my kids in order to make up to them for not remembering what their mother looks like anymore since I started travelling so much for work.
I understand that one late train sparks off a whole load of missed connections, but hey, somebody, somewhere, is getting the news that they have lost a loved one. Somewhere right now there are people whose lives are falling apart, and somebody has been the victim of a tragic accident. I call it that, because nobody in their right mind is likely to jump in front of a train. Yes, they are strangers to me, and tragedies happen every day, but surely just the tiniest bit of respect is called for in these situations. Just a little twinge of human empathy. No?
In an attempt to understand the mindset of my fellow passengers, I decide that they are even more traumatised than I am, and in order to cope, they need to complain and act as if only their little lives were all that mattered. Except for the guy sitting beside me that is. He doesn't seem to understand German, English or the fact that it's really not kosher to keep letting his head fall onto my shoulder every time he dozes off.
We finally get to Stuttgart, where I can get my connection back home in ten minutes. I go to platform 9: '40 minutes delay due to technical problems on the line.' Technical. I want to become German and call home to loudly shout into the phone that they should know better than to have some stupid hitch delaying the train, even if it's now well past rush hour and the Dunkin' Donuts will be hard by the time I get to peep into the darkened bedroom where my offspring will be sleeping.
But I don't. I sit on the cold metal seat on the platform, plug in my earphones and listen to Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing and feel thankful that there is always something good to come home to. Then I  pass the rest of the time looking at all the angry people on the platform, and wonder if they are in a hurry to get home for the same reason that I am...