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Monday, 2 November 2015

MY EUROPEAN TRAIN HORROR STORY




Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, February-March 2008

The clear sky allowed me to see the Danube separating hilly Buda from Pest, the long bridges and the green Margaret Island. It was the morning of the 24th of February 2008, when I landed at Budapest International Airport. I exchanged Euro for 50,000 Hungarian Forint and I took a taxi to my 4-star hotel a few minutes walk from the underground station of Déli Pályaudvar. It was a mild winter morning in the Magyar capital and as it was my only day off during my Hungarian stay, I took the chance to walk around the city. From the castle, which dominates the hill of Buda, I had a spectacular view of the Danube and of Pest. After a short break I walked down the hill and I crossed the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to reach Pest. The city on the other side of the river had also lots to offer, the remarkable Hungarian parliament building, the Basilica of Saint Stephen and Heroes Square. In the evening the lights on the bridges and monuments made the city even more magic, I had dinner and before going to bed I had a relaxing swim in the pool of the hotel, a long working week was waiting for me.

***

The bus was late and I decided to run from Batthyány tér along the Danube to the Obuda centre, where the Team Supervisor was waiting for me at 9am. When I reached the office it was 9:05am. The automatic door of the building opened and I was drying my sweaty forehead with a handkerchief, when a red-haired woman on her forties came to welcome me: “Hi, my name is Anita. You must be Mattia. I am the supervisor, how do you do?” My duties were training and coaching 16 new employees for a week and making sure that they would be ready to pass their final test. I worked everyday from 9am till 5pm and every evening I visited different districts of the city. Sjors flew to Spain on the 27th of February and on the 28th of February, while I was having a relaxing swim, he called me on my mobile phone to let me know that he had got a job as a customer service representative and he had to be in Barcelona on the 9th of March.

“Oh my God! And how do we do with the furniture in Berlin? I am still in Hungary! Are you sure?  We don’t have a flat in Barcelona yet! How sure are you? Is it a permanent job? How much do they pay? When do you have to be there again?” I panicked.

***

On Friday the 29th of February, I was informed that my flight had been cancelled due to the hurricane that was devastating eastern Europe and I could not reach Berlin by plane. I was nervous, I had to go back to Berlin to hand in the notice to my employer and I surely could not let a hurricane break my plans. As a travel alternative on Friday evening I went to Budapest station and for about 29,000 Forint I bought a train ticket Budapest-Bratislava-Prague-Berlin leaving on the following morning.

***

The train left Budapest on time, I sat comfortable, I took out my Japanese book and I started reading and copying the kanji I did not know on a piece of paper. A hillier region around Bratislava interrupted the monotonous landscape of the flat countryside, similar to that of Lombardy. When we reached the tiny station of the capital of Slovakia, a twenty-something girl entered my compartment and sat next to me.  The train left, but shortly after, as we reached Zohor, it stopped again. Suddenly a Czech ticket collector came to my compartment and he said something I could not understand. Luckily the girl, who happened to understand Czech, translated it for me. “There are some ehm… strom… ehm… trees … on the rail…track…” Her English was not perfect but I could understand that we had to wait until the track was clear. It was 1pm, I was hungry, I ate my sandwiches and I tried to concentrate on my Japanese book. Six hours later, while I was hoping against hope, the train moved. “They said that the track is free in the Czech Republic” translated the girl for me. At 8pm just before Prague, the train engine broke and they took about an hour to change the locomotive. Sadly when the girl got off in the Czech capital, it was already 9pm and she had missed her appointment, which, she said, it was the only reason why she was travelling there. As I was alone in my compartment, I locked the door, I turned off the lights and I laid down.

“Hello… Hello Sir…” I woke up and I opened the door to the ticket collector, who could speak some English after all. “I am sorry Sir, this train does not go to Berlin… You have to leave the train.” Said the man. “Excuse me??? How do you expect me to leave the train here? We are in the middle of nowhere, it’s dark and I don’t have water! Why didn’t you tell me in Prague??? I could have gone to a hotel!” I protested. “I am going to ask.” Said the man and he disappeared in the other car. I packed the stuff I had taken out and I went walking through the train, looking for other people. The second car was empty, so was the third one and when I pressed the button to open the door to the fourth car, the light went off and some smoke started coming out from an electricity box. I called Sjors and I just managed to tell him I had no water and I was asked to leave the train somewhere in the Czech Republic when my battery died. When I returned hopeless to my compartment, the ticket collector was there and he agreed I could sleep on the train. I laid down again and I was so exhausted that my eyes closed shortly after.

***


“Hallo… Hallo… Aufwachen!” Shouted a German lady in uniform. “Gott sei Dank” I said as I saw the Deutsche Bahn badge on her jacket. The woman, employee of the German Railway asked me to get ready as a taxi would have take me from the Czech Republic to Dresden with the other three people who were left on the train. The car drove in the dark night along the river, the hurricane had already been there and there were broken trees on both sides of the road. When we arrived in Dresden it was 4am and there was no one in the station but two drunken teenagers. As I needed to urinate, but I had no euro coins with me, I crawled under the gate of the toilet to reach the urinals. Eventually at 7am I took the first train to Berlin, which arrived at 10am in the German capital.