German transportation hates me.
I don’t know why it took me so long to come to that obvious conclusion, but as I stood there, withering under the gimlet gaze of the German customs agent, it occurred to me that I shouldn’t have ignored previous signs of dislike.
The First Clue
The first clue that anything at all was wrong occurred in the summer of 2005. I had just graduated from college and was on my first solo trip to Germany to visit my sister, who had gotten herself a science internship in Rostock, a small seaside town near the Baltic. My arrival in Hamburg was smooth, with nary a sign of trouble. My sketchy German was good enough that I knew where I needed to go and what to do, and bad enough that most people took pity on the poor tourist and spoke English to me.
Trouble ensued however, after I got on the train in Hamburg heading out to the quaint seaside town of Rostock. Halfway through the journey, the train suddenly stopped at what seemed like a random train station. We were herded out of the trains like so much cattle and sent to wait in a long, long line for… something. Buses, or so my sketchy German made out. We were bussed out from the dinky small-town station to another dinky small-town station about an hour or two away. I was to find out later that brutal windstorms the night before had caused a minor landslide, and trees toppled over the railroad tracks, resulting in utterly unheard of delays in the otherwise punctual German transportation system.
What this meant for me was that I was not going to make the appointed meet-up time with my sister that day. We were supposed to meet at around 4 or 5pm that evening so she could take me to her dorm room where she was staying. Compounding this fiasco was the fact that 1) I had no cell phone, 2) she had no cell phone, 3) she wasn’t waiting at the station (not that I was expecting her to hang out there waiting for me for 4 hours). I hung around for about an hour, but with night time coming on and no internet cafes at the Rostock Hauptbahnhof (the main train station), I needed to figure something out asap, so I left in search of an internet cafe and potential way to get in touch with my sister. This meant that I spent the night at a hostel, after sending a frantic and somewhat incoherent email to my sister.
We met up the next day, and nobody died, but I figured that it was just Murphy’s Law. Freak weather leads to unheard of delays in German transportation system. That’s fine. It literally takes an Act of God for the system to fail. Can’t blame them there!
The Second Clue
On that very same trip, I was to spend one week in Sweden. My planned itinerary for my travel day was to take the train from Berlin to Copenhagen, where I would switch lines from the German train system, the Deutschebahn, to the Scandinavian train system, the SJ. From there, I would take the SJ on the ~5 hour trip from Copenhagen to Stockholm, with a planned arrival time of 6pm.
I attempted to purchase tickets for this trip from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof the day I arrived in Berlin, that is to say, three days before my planned trip. With a combination of the internet and complex train timetables, I had figured out my planned itinerary, and conveyed it in a mix of German and English to the lady at the ticket counter. She proceeded to book me the trip from Berlin to Copenhagen, and then told me that it was impossible for her to book me from Copenhagen to Stockholm, and that I’d have to do it when I got in on the travel day. She assured me that it was impossible for the train to be booked up, as I would be travelling on Monday.
If I had been a more savvy traveller, I would never have fallen for that particular trick.
The train ride from Berlin-to-Copenhagen was uneventful and punctual, as per usual German standards. Booking the seat from Copenhagen to Stockholm, however, was another kettle of fish. The train that would never get booked up was booked up. So instead of arriving in a city where I spoke none of the language at an acceptable time with oodles of daylight left for me to find my way to my hostel, I would arrive in Stockholm at 11:30pm at night, just after all public transportation shut down for the night.
The Danish ticket agent was horribly confused that I had not booked the entire trip from Berlin-to-Stockholm at the same time. When I explained that the German ticket lady had assured me that it was impossible and that nobody did that ever, she looked even more baffled. “But people do it every day!” she exclaimed.
Really, that at least should have clued me in, but it didn’t. I’m a little slow on the uptake, sometimes.
The Third Clue
So now, here I was, summer of 2012 transiting through the Frankfurt Airport, ultimate destination: Geneva, where I was meant to be on a short fellowship at Unnamed International Organization. Barring my way was a gimlet-eyed customs agent demanding to know why I didn’t have a proper work visa if I was supposed to go work in Geneva.
“But I’m covered under Schengen!” I said.
“Not if you’re working!” she replied. (Okay, fine, I’ll give her that, I guess.)
“…but Unnamed International Organization said that they’d issue me a proper legitimation card after I arrived in Geneva!”
She stared at me grimly. I swear, I thought I was about to be taken into an interrogation room à la Jason Bourne.
“I have the email where they invited me on fellowship!” I told her, while frantically flipping through a sheaf of documentation that had everything I didn’t need, and nothing I actually needed.
She stared at me more.
“I really am on fellowship with Unnamed International Organization! They don’t give work visas, they do the legitimation card thing! That’s what they told me!”
I probably sweated through three layers of clothes praying she’d even let me through customs. She did, but not before I got a 10 minute lecture on irresponsibility and border crossings. I still shudder thinking about it today.
The Fourth Clue, or Getting Beaten Over the Head with a 2×4
When I finally got out of customs, shaking with relief, I checked the monitors for my flight—which did not exist. Wait. What?! I was supposed to arrive in Geneva that afternoon. I was flying Lufthansa the whole way through from New York to Frankfurt to Geneva. Something wasn’t right.
Something wasn’t right, all right. While I slumbered peacefully somewhere over the Atlantic, German flight attendants and pilots working for Lufthansa had decided to go on strike. On the very day I was arriving in Germany. I was stranded at the Frankfurt Airport with thousands of other passengers, and no way to contact my Swiss landlady to let her know that I wasn’t flying into Geneva that afternoon at all.
Visions of the train trip to Rostock floated in my head. Would I have to spend the night at a random hostel?! Why did German transportation, much-vaunted for its reliability, always screw me over? It took me hours in lines to get re-booked on a flight to Geneva. The strike apparently had a planned end time, which meant I didn’t arrive in Geneva at 4pm like I had planned, but at almost midnight. This, of course, brought up visions of my midnight journey through the darkened streets of Stockholm as I sought out my hostel. The déjà vu was strong on this trip, and not in a good way.
Believe me, I don’t trust German transportation any more. I can buy a clue. Apparently it works for everybody else, just not me.