07 September 2009

9:50 to Munich, via Kafka

First, a quick history lesson:

There are three main things that opened up European travel for the average American in the late 1950s: Europe on Five Dollars a Day, affordable plane tickets, and Eurail passes.

(There was also the evolving postwar psyche of optimism, freedom, and increasing amounts of leisure time. That's probably the most important piece of the puzzle, but it's a hell of a lot less tangible and I should probably not try to tackle it in a hastily-written blog post composed on a crowded train about to arrive in Munich.)

E5D came along in 1957, giving travelers an easy-to-follow recipe for travel. Jumbo jets and economy-class plane tickets began in 1959, along with the Eurail pass; these, of course, were the ingredients. Extending the cooking metaphor, the result was that European travel became as easy as pie.

One of the wonderful things about a Eurail pass is that you just step onto the trains. No additional ticket required. If you miss one, get the next. If you impulsively decide you'd like to stop in Nuremberg on your way to Munich, you can. Eurail tickets are sold by countries and days; as long as you stay within those constraints, you can take as many trains as you like. (I have a five-country pass for eight travel days, to be used in two months.) In some cases you need to make reservations for trains, but in most cases you don't.

And now, back to the present.

It's 9:45 this morning, and we step onto a train headed for Munich. Technically, Eurail passes are first-class tickets (livin' large, baby!), but we prefer to be with the Great Unwashed Masses--that is, the more interesting, less stuffy normal people. We choose a random second-class car, push our way through the scrum by the door, and take a couple of adjacent seats.

We soon discover that, in fact, some seats are reserved. For example, ours. Just as we get settled, a middle-aged man says something mildly stern to us in German. It could be "Pardon me, good sirs, you seem to be occupying the seats that I have reserved. I really don't mean to be a bother, but I'd be ever so grateful if you wouldn't mind finding another place to sit." But it wasn't that long, and certainly not that polite. More likely: "Scräm, türists." (Gratuitous umlauts are funny. You're going to have to put up with them until I'm out of Germany.)

We apologize and move. At the moment our rears hit the upholstery of our new seats, it happens again. You can't be here, you must go somewhere else! But in a language we don't speak.

This goes on for a good half-hour. It becomes mildly Kafkaesque. We pinball around the car, apologizing at every bounce. We hope that this will not continue for the entirety of the six-hour journey. We also wonder why these people keep appearing with reservations in hand, even though the train has been moving for a while. Where have they been all this time? Waiting for us to take their seats so that they can practice their comedic timing on these hapless, easily-flustered, oh-so-amusing Americans?

After an hour or so, the train starts going backwards. As in: opposite from the direction we want to travel. As in: What the hell? Did we really, actually joined the Kafka Day Tour? I don't recall signing up for such an excursion, but then again, given the nature of the thing, I suppose you wouldn't be given the option.

So this will be our fate: to travel the same expanse of countryside over and over, all day, all night, an endless loop. But on the train, nothing will repeat, nothing will be settled. We'll never sit in the same spot for more than a minute. For the rest of days, we will be bounced around a train to nowhere, a train called Tourism As Existential Crisis.

At one point, I find a table with three seats occupied; a fourth, on the aisle, is free. I take it. My table-mates are all reading German newspapers, which they have spread over the table, leaving no room for my laptop. All of my reading material is in my backpack, down on the other end of the train, where Lee is, presumably, guarding it with his life. What the hell am I going to do here for the next four or five hours?

I try sleeping, but I'm afraid of being awoken by a swift umbrella-slap to the face by an angry German. I try staring off into space, letting my mind wander, but a toddler starts glaring at me from across the aisle, annoyed at my apparent sloth and lack of German devotion to productivity. (The kid is creepy--he's glaring non-stop, with an utterly unsettling gaze, for a good five or ten minutes. I'm not lying. Very Children of the Corn.)

So I pull out my pocket-sized notebook; it will have to keep me busy. For four hours. With only eight blank pages left.

Well, you will be happy to know that I have put those pages--and a good ten whole minutes--to use composing a limerick for you:

There once was a man from Berlin
Who believed that to smile was to sin
At the sight of a tourist
He grew über-boorish
And growled, "Das est mein seat you're in!"

1 comment:

  1. There once was a man on a train
    Who found seat selection a pain
    It was his confusion
    I found so amusin'
    I'll surely be reading again!


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