Living in a country where you are unfamiliar with both the language and the culture forces a person to slow down. Gone are the days of quick, precise decision making—that is a luxury reserved for those who are comfortable with their surroundings. Instead, you learn to watch and then act, to read signs twice, to concentrate very hard when other people speak. You make deliberate, calculated movements meant to conceal your foreignness. And you always, always have a back-up plan.
Of course, try as you might to stay one step ahead of the game, there may come a moment when you are standing all alone in the middle of a huge, crowded train station wondering what the hell you were thinking when you got out of bed this morning…
To be perfectly honest, I probably wasn’t thinking when I got out of bed this morning. This past week was a rough one for me—I worked several very long days, struggled to keep up in my German class and had a mini budget meltdown—so when I woke up with a free Saturday and the world at my fingertips, my first instinct was to get dressed and head down to the train station where I caught the first train to Hamburg.
Now, when I say “train to Hamburg” I should probably make one thing clear: the trains that run between Stade and Hamburg are commuter trains. They are small, efficient and painfully easy to use. The track goes in two directions. If the train is going west it’s on its way to Hamburg. If it’s going east it’s headed to Cuxhaven. Stade is in the middle. It’s that simple.
|Schweriner Schloss (Schwerin Castle)|
So getting to Hamburg was no problem at all. Once I got to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Hamburg’s main train station) I decided that I wanted to catch a train to a town called Schwerin. Schwerin is the capital of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and its main attraction is Schweriner Schloss (Schwerin Castle), which sits on an island and houses the state congress to this day.
With my heart set on the island castle, I walked upstairs to where the hardcore trains are kept. Now, Hamburg is one of the largest cities in Germany and its train station houses dozens of tracks with hundreds of departures and arrivals every day. It’s big and loud and smells like excitement and looks like chaos.
Certain I could conquer these German trains, I walked over to the arrival and departure board and, after nearly ten minutes of staring at the board deep in thought, I found the train I wanted to buy a ticket for. Then I went to the Fahrkartenautomat (automatic ticket machine) and bought a ticket to Schwerin… well, actually, I cheated and changed the machine to English and then bought my ticket. I probably could have done it in German but visions of ending up on the other side of the country with no way home and no idea how I got there freaked me out. I think the foreign language gods will forgive me just this once.
Once I found my train and got settled in, the rest was a piece of cake. The trains in Germany are clean, fast and extremely punctual. Even the overhead announcements are so slow and clear that I can understand them (which is really saying something). By the time I got to Schwerin I was feeling like a rock star at a sold-out venue.
The rest of the afternoon was spent inside of a beautiful old church (I accidentally joined a tour group), exploring the castle ( I learned that the duke's famous library has been missing since WWII... I'm going to start hunting for it), taking a boat trip around the lake (they served me ice cream!) and having fun at a street fair I stumbled upon. I even ate some real German food (Currywurst and French fries followed by a chocolate covered apple) and caught a brief glimpse of blue sky amidst all the clouds. All in all, it was the perfect end to a less than perfect week.
|Inside the castle|
By the time I boarded the train back to Hamburg I was exhausted and slept most of the way there. Then, after a quick sprint across the train station, I found myself onboard a very crowded commuter train on its way back to Stade and that’s where my day took a turn toward the bizarre.
I was one of the first people on the train and so I grabbed the nearest empty seat I saw and sat down. About ten minutes into the trip I realized I had chosen the crazy seat. You know the one—it’s the seat that’s surrounded by all of the less than sane people who help to give public transportation its stellar reputation.
|The Throne Room|
Behind me sat a group of men who were openly passing around bottles of booze and singing what sounded like sea shanties. In front of me were a mother and daughter who were loudly arguing about a boyfriend. Across the aisle was a middle-aged couple who seriously needed to get a room. On the seat to my right was a man who smelled like pickles and was eating ketchup packets (I can’t make this stuff up) and to my left was (thank God) a window, which I became very cozy with during the first 30 minutes of the trip.
Then, halfway between Hamburg and Stade the train stopped and we were all loaded into a smaller commuter train that smelled like body odor. Since the previous train was already crowded and this train was even smaller we were crammed in so tightly that it didn’t even matter that I didn’t have a hand rail to hang on to because no one was going anywhere.
Somehow, amidst all the confusion of the transfer and re-boarding, I ended up standing in between the amorous middle-aged couple, who had decided that they could only endure their separation by making kissy faces over my head.
|Using the self-timer like all the cool kids do|
Now, maybe I was giddy with pride over having actually conquered the train system, or maybe I was just tired, but suddenly, the situation I found myself in seemed hilarious. I started out with just a few smiles, but somewhere around Fischbek the snickering began and by the time we reached Buxtehude I couldn’t stop myself. Snickering became belly laughs that would have done Santa Claus proud and when I caught the eye of the teenager standing next to me, looking too cool with his iPod and designer jeans, and I saw that he was laughing too, I knew there was no hope for regaining my composure and so, I didn’t bother to try. I just let myself laugh as the kissing couple made out over my head and the ketchup man licked his fingers next to me. And by the time I got back to my little apartment in Stade, all was right in my world once again.