Getting it wrong. Getting it right.

When I boarded the City Night Line train in Basel Badischer Bahnhof, I was immediately puzzled about where to put both my bicycle and myself.  There are lots of rules in the European train system, but I thought I had mastered most of the basics, at least for Germany and Switzerland.  I was wrong.  A month previously, in Freiburg, I had gone directly to the counter to book my ticket to Hamburg because for this particular train it is necessary to make a separate reservation for one’s bicycle, and this is not possible through the Deutsche Bahn website.  Although the woman at the counter had been very helpful and had helped me to secure a ticket to take me from Switzerland to the north of Germnay for 19 euros, she had neglected one important detail, which I also had overlooked at the time.

Each seat and each bicycle spot on the City Night Line is numbered, and you have to reserve yours before hand.  On the regional trains, this isn’t the case– you just hop on and take a seat.  My tickets had neither a bicycle reservation nor a seat number, althought I had specific that I needed both when I bought the ticktets.  I didn’t check and make sure this had been done because I had already discussed this with the clerk.  I had assumed it was printed on the ticket, and when I boarded the train, I looked for it, but it wasn’t there.

After consulting with another cyclist whose bike number was clearly printed on his ticket, I simply hung my bike on the rack, picked up my luggage and went to go find a train crewperson to ask about my seat.  The following conversation took place in German.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where my seat is located?  I don’t see it on my ticket.

He examined my tickets, glared at me, and muttered, “Do you have a reservation?”

“It should be there.  I couldn’t find it.”  I had known that I needed this in Freiburg.

“There’s no reservation here.  Where exactly do you think you’re going to sit?”

“Anywhere,”  I replied, not caring where I sat.  The clerk in Freiburg had told me that she had reserved a seat for me, rather than a place in a sleeping car.  This is what I had asked for because it was the lowest price.  I expected that a seat number was printed  on the ticket, but had failed to specify which seat number I had.   So I had none.

My answer did not satisfy the train crewman.  “Anywhere?  You can’t just sit anywhere!  You need a reservation!”

“I made a reservation a month ago in Freiburg,” I responded.

“But there is no reservation on your ticket!”  he barked.

“Then the woman at the counter must have made a mistake.”   I shrugged.

“You should have made sure the reservation was made!”

This was starting to get ugly.  I needed a place to sleep for the next nine and a half hours.  I wasn’t going to stand there and deal with this nonsense for long.  Calmly, I replied,  “That’s not my job.  I paid for the tickets.  I told the woman exactly what I needed.  I specified a reservation for myself and my bicycle.  It’s right here.”  I gestured to my tickets.

“Yes, well, there’s no seat reservation.”

“What’s that?”  I pointed to a box with 19 inside it.”

“That’s just a number.”

I might have laughed out loud at this.  “Well, it’s not my responsibility.  I bought the tickets.  The woman at the counter made a mistake.”  It was clear that this man was not going to help me.  I started thinking of how to solve the problem on my own.

“She made a mistake?  You made a mistake!  You don’t go on an airplane without making a seat reservation.  You can’t just sit anywhere!  Do you understand me?”

“I understand you.”

He threw up his hands.  “If you go to buy milk and bread, you make sure that you come home with milk and bread!”

This was starting to feel a little too domestic for me.  I tried one last time, speaking very slowly and looking him right in the eye.  “Where….should….I…sit?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then I should just stand until we reach Hamburg?”

“You made a mistake.  You should have reserved a seat.”

I sighed.  He was repeating himself.  “Then I am going to sleep with my bicycle.”  I turned around and headed back towards the door from which I had come.

He exploded.  “Hey!  You can’t do that!  There is no lying down on the train!  This has to be discussed!

I turned around.  “Have we not just discussed this topic?”

“No, we haven’t.”  And he started to berate me again with all the repetitions.  A colleague of his stepped into the corridor and watched him for a moment while he went on.

I decided to take matters into my own hands.  In my clearest classroom German, I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “We have to make a decision about this.  I’m going to go and find a place that is empty and I’m going  to sit down.”

He threw up his hands dramatically.  “Well, if someone comes in four hours and tells you that you have to get up because it’s their seat, don’t blame me.”

Is that all this was about?  I certainly didn’t mind moving.  That was the first time I had ever been thus encountered on a German train, with this degree of official hostility.  Honestly, I wanted to ask him if he was lacking sleep or under some kind of strain.  It was bizarre.

I ended up finding a place to sit, in a 6-seat sleeping compartment with three young men, two of whom left after the next station. Then the other man and I were soon joined by an older woman, and then a mother with two young boys, somewhere around midnight.  Noises, smoking on the train and other disruptions continued into the night, and I think we stopped for an entire hour in the Mannheim station, just because, with no explanation.  I might have gotten two or three hours of sleep that night.

Hell, it was 19 euros for the ticket.  And I did have a very interesting conversation between 6 and 7:30 in the morning with the older woman who got out in Hannover.   We talked about historical linguistics, Germanic languages and sound patterns, literature, writing, and family.  She was a very sweet old woman, quiet and old-fashioned in her manners, and no one else in the compartment was giving her much attention.

When I got off in Hamburg, I made my way across the Alster to Neuer Jungfernstieg 21 to wait for my carshare.  On my way to the location, I also found a Starbucks and dashed in for a latte, a phone charge, and a little WIFI before I headed on to Kiel.  It was my intention to cycle into Denmark immediately upon my arrival in Flensburg.  There was only so much time.  Nanda had recommended the carshare idea to me, because he had used it with some success in France.  I had made for the arrangements a week previously, and was able to travel quite comfortably from Hamburg to Kiel in a little over an hour for five euros.

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