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Driving home for Christmas

Usually, I take the car to get back home, which is more than 1000 kilometers from where I live now. As this is a rather tiring drive, I then usually stay for at least two weeks before I head back. When I cannot stay long, I take the plane. But of course, this is not the most sustainable option. This year I could not stay long over Christmas and thus, the car was no option. To go for the sustainable option, I booked train tickets instead of plane tickets. I did so, not knowing what I would get into.


To get to my home country I have to travel through Germany. While I love Germany for motorway sections without speed limits, I embarked on this train journey with reservations (no pun intended). Over the years Germany has become famous for its unreliable train system. Delays are a daily constant, it seems. That made me worry, as I had to change trains four times to reach my destination.


A week before embarking on my journey, I asked a friend who regularly travels to Germany by train about her experiences and coping strategies. When asked if she ever reached her destination without issues, she had to think long. She provided me with some short examples of what regularly happens when travelling by train. She also recommended an app that should help me find my way when stranded at some train station. Finally, she optimistically told me that somehow, I would get to my destination.


Knowing that travelling by train with a suitcase is a hassle, I packed my big backpack and got on my journey. To enjoy more comfort, I booked first class. Apart from comfort, I was hoping that this would allow me to work on the train. The first train was a regional train connecting me with a bigger city and thus train station. I enjoyed my first-class seat during this ten-minute ride. From there the first longer trip started. Arriving at the platform I was a bit shocked, given the crowd of people convening there. Though, with a big enough train, that should not be an issue. I also thought that I had my first class ticked, so I would for sure not have an issue. I was a bit flabbergasted when the train arrived. It had so few wagons, that hardly half of the platform could be served. The masses moved towards the train, causing congestion at the entrances. I walked along the whole train, trying to find a wagon with some space. But all were cramped with people. I stepped into one of the wagons. Even more people were behind me, also trying to enter the wagon. They pushed me into the train. Well, they pushed me into other people. I was standing there somewhere between the two doors, with my big backpack on my back, having nothing to hold on to, no space to find some balance as I had hardly space to stand. We were all like dominos stacked together. If one person would fall, we would all fall. And that motion would only be stopped, by the train doors people were pushed against. Whenever the train changed speed, it was a balancing act to not fall back or forward. It quickly got hot on the train. Windows could not be opened. Every time the door opened, I would stretch my neck to grasp some fresh air. I got terribly hot in my thick winter coat. But there would be no possibility of taking it off. I thought of animal transports or the deportation trains. For sure my destiny was not that dire. But psychologically this was difficult. No wonder that a few people decided to leave the train. Hard to imagine how one would feel if one had to stay on such a train for a whole day or even more. It was luckily only a two-hour train ride. I told myself, that this shall pass too. I tried to focus on something positive and use the time to stretch my neck. About half an hour from the final destination, another wagon was added. However, that did not change the situation much. At some point, indeed this train ride was over. As the train was overly full, each stop took longer, thus we arrived with a delay of about 30 minutes. Luckily, I had quite some time scheduled between this and the next trip. I was now in Düsseldorf and had to get to Nürnberg.


Exhausted I arrived at the next platform. I sat down and finally had my breakfast, which I had planned to eat on the previous train. The indications on the platform showed that my next train would be 20 minutes delayed. That made me worry as, I would only have 30 minutes to catch the final connecting train to Vienna. It was quite cold. Now I felt blessed with my thick winter coat. After, 40 minutes delay the train finally arrived. I got on it and got comfy on my first-class seat. As planned, I got my laptop out and started working. I was happy. I was sitting next to a friendly old lady who enjoyed her quiz book. She told me she had to get to Nürnberg from where she would get picked up.


I knew that I would not get my next train, but after the warnings from my friend, I was expecting that to happen. The train should have left at 12.19. It had arrived around 13.00. Sitting on the train, it became clear that it would not leave soon, as there was an incident on the train tracks. The lady next to me got nervous as she did not know what arrival time to tell her family who would pick her up. I started to check which train options I would have, to still get to Vienna.


What followed was a sequence of announcements. At 15.00 we were still on the train and had not moved a millimeter. Whenever the train staff had new information, she would let us know. We were hopeful, that the tracks would get cleared and we could start the journey. Then, the display on the train stated: Aufwiedersehen! Der Zug endet hier. If you understand German, you know that this was not a good omen. The next announcement started with staff stating that she would not have good news. The train got cancelled and we all had to leave the train. The lady next to me and I were not sure what to do. Luckily a friendly gentleman heard us talking and helped us find the next possible connections. There would be another train in the same direction at 15.22 and another one at 15.27. To avoid another overly full train, we decided to get the one at 15.27, as everyone wanted to get the earlier train. Anyway, they would all depart from the same platform.


The sequence of announcements continued on the platform. The 15.22 train got cancelled, just like the 15.27 train. I was stranded. I had checked the connecting trains. The only option might be a train from Munich to Vienna at one o'clock in the morning, arriving in Vienna at 6 a.m. But given that the tracks were not clearing, I was not sure if I even managed to catch this train. So, should I continue waiting at the train station, or should return to the Netherlands? I was tired and I had lost hope. I called my family, telling them that I won’t make it. I went to the ticket machine and bought a ticket back. I had some time left for my train to arrive, so I decided to have a coffee. I sat down in a cafe next to the entrance to my platform and opposite the travel info center. There was a long queue in front of the info center, as many people needed an alternative train. I was quite stressed and tired at this moment. I sat in the little cafe, crying quietly and drinking my coffee. My train was about to arrive when I decided to queue at the info center. A little later a gentleman from the German Railway told me, that I would not get to my home country today, but that I could take the next train to Munich and that staff at that train station in Munich would help me further. In Munich, they would help me with a hotel room if there was no train option, he told me. So I decided to give it a shot. I had to hurry up, as the train was about to leave.


I hopped on the train leaving at 17.22. I was lucky and got a seat in the first class. My seat reservation was no longer valid and of course, trains were packed. So the seat could have been claimed by a person with a reservation at any time. But I was lucky, no one had reserved this seat. A friendly chatty gentleman sat next to me. I was so tired that I continued to get watery eyes. However, the chatty gentleman next to me started telling me stories from his life and after a bit, I felt better. He was a well-traveled German lawyer, who liked to discover the world by bike and who enjoyed his study time in Italy. The train moved towards Munich. Though we also got delayed as there were more problems on the train tracks. This time some issue with a track switch. Tired and with quite some headache I arrived at Munich at 21.30. Upon arrival, the train staff announced that due to the storm, no trains to Salzburg would depart. Though, I would have to get to Vienna, not Salzburg. Thus, I was hopeful.


The next train I could take would leave at 1 am. To be sure I queued at the info center again. As the queue in front of the info center got longer, the German Railways staff approached people in the queue, asking how they could help. A gentleman in front of me stated that he would need to get to Salzburg. He was informed that there would be no trains to Salzburg today and that he should get a hotel room. Then the gentleman followed the staff to get a voucher for a hotel. I stayed in the queue to tell another staff member that I had to get to Vienna. I asked whether the train at 1 am would operate. The staff member reacted with surprise as he was not aware that there was a train at 1 am. After showing him that there sure was a train, he stated that he could not provide more information, as he did not know if the tracks would get cleared on time. I tried to figure out if it was better to get a hotel room or to wait for the train at 1 am. The Railway staff told me that it was not sure if I could get on a train towards Austria the next day either as the weather forecast remained bad and as he was not sure if the tracks would get cleared by tomorrow. Further, it was not clear if I would get a hotel room as it was the 23rd of December, with many stranded tourists trying to find a room in a city that is anyway full of tourists.


Suddenly, I was approached by the gentleman who previously queued in front of me, who had to go to Salzburg. He asked if I was travelling to Salzburg. I was not, but Salzburg would already bring me a little bit closer to my destination. He stated that the German Railway would pay a collective taxi, but that we would need to be a group of 6 people. Quickly we started to look for others who were heading in the same direction. We managed to get a group of 6 people. After some time, staff told us that we had to be 8 people. So we were hunting for more. At some point, we had enough people for the taxi and the staff member disappeared to organize the taxi. While waiting we exchanged our stories. We all experienced a tough travel day. One gentleman had to wait on a train for 5 hours. At some point, staff told passengers that the heating would stop operating and the toilets too. About 20 minutes later the Railway staff member returned to tell us that it was not possible to organize a taxi. Stranded again.


Another gentleman in our group had called his family. When he told them that the taxi option would not work, they got in their car to pick him up. His family had to drive all the way from Salzburg to Munich (150 kilometers). The gentleman stated that they could take two more people to Salzburg. I was hoping they could take me along, but he argued that the others in the group had a destination closer to Salzburg, so he would give the others priority. I started looking for another alternative. Maybe a train via Passau could bring me to Vienna. That train would leave in an hour. Then I could take a train around 4 am to get to Vienna. Suddenly, the others in our group found other options and I got a place in the car. Together we waited until his family arrived to pick us up. We exchanged stories. The gentleman who was stuck on the train for 5 hours, was a cook who then switched careers to become archaeologist. What a plot twist.


Getting in this car felt like a miracle. But well, the whole trip was quite surrealistic. After a comfortable car ride, I arrived in Salzburg at 3 am. The train station was quiet. Though the waiting hall was full of sleeping people, who were waiting for the first trains to come. At 3.11 a train heading to Vienna was scheduled. However, that one got delayed as well. I went to the bathroom and looked at my tired face and my braid that was disintegrating. To feel like a human again, I washed my face and my teeth and made a new braid. As all the chairs in the waiting area were taken, I sat down on the floor waiting for the train to arrive. I was very tired, cold, and light-headed. Shortly after 3.30 am the train arrived. I took a seat in the first class. The train was not very busy. After a bit, I decided to take a short nap. I placed my head on the table in front of me. Suddenly, someone tapped on my shoulder and told me to wake up. A gentleman on the train warned me that someone tried to steal my bag. A man went through the train to rob people. Unfortunately, the lady sitting behind me had her phone and wallet stolen by that man.


At 6.30 am I arrived in Vienna. It was quiet, the city was about to wake up. One coffee shop was open. I got myself a nice warm coffee. From there all was easy. I got on the tram, then on the regional train. At 7.30 I disembarked and stepped on the platform. I looked to the left, then to the right. There she was, my little sister who came to pick me up after her night shift. The journey ended with a long-awaited hug.

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