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Trans-Europe Distress

By train from London to Brussels, Brussels to Cologne, Cologne overnight to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Gothenburg and Gothenburg to just outside Oslo[1]. Sounds like a quick trip, doesn’t it? No, wait, not “quick”—what’s the other one?




Normally, obviously, this wouldn’t have been my first choice. When I was telling people this plan, I grew used to them looking at me incredulously and slowly explaining the concept of air travel, which might have been slightly less galling if I didn’t travel by plane on average once a year to the exact same location. This time, though, instead of it being a simple family-related jaunt, the occasion was a family funeral that my mother and I had to get to, sadly at the precise moment when Iceland’s geology shifted grumpily in its sleep and fired a mass of sulphurous ash into the atmosphere.

Late in the week before we would have to set off, we were tracking the ash cloud with mounting concern. If last year taught us anything, it was that the chaos caused by volcano ash didn’t subside when the cloud did—there would be a backlog of annoyed passengers with cricks in their necks from sleeping on airport seats. So we figured that the safest bet would be to book overland and then see how the week panned out. In the event, as we all know, the vast plume of dangerous ash that outdid even the previous year’s eruption instantly plummeted into the sea—or turned out to be a mirage, or something—and held up air traffic for barely a day. (Just to rub this in, my friend L, who lives in the States, said this Friday, “What eruption? Are you sure? There’s been nothing on the news”.) But train tickets have the twin virtues of being really expensive and non-refundable, so, boxed in financially, we found ourselves firmly saddled on the iron horse.

Eurostar was, as usual, unremarkable (although for the prices they charge, you’d like to be able to afford it a higher rating than that). Brussels central station seems designed mainly to confuse first-timers. In French it’s Bruxelles Midi but in Flemish it’s Brussels Zuid (meaning “south”) and the platforms display both names alternately. What’s more, some tickets and timetables refer to it as Brussels Centraal, so you’re feeling uncertain and trepidatious before you even step off the train. We were travelling on the Thalys high-speed train and, out of curiosity, followed the directions to the “Thalys waiting lounge” up on the platform. I’m rather hoping that we didn’t find it, because all we could see was this hilariously dismal pod:


The journey to Cologne was impressively smooth and swift. We agreed to fill in a customer satisfaction questionnaire but were soon regretting this as it turned out to consist of four densely printed pages of questions concerning our journey, our reasons for our journey, how we had planned our journey, how we were travelling before and after our journey, any journeys we planned to make at any point in the future, how we expected our careers to go for the next 10 years, etc etc. Had I somehow not known which country we were heading to, the questionnaire would have clarified this immediately.

On the back of a building just outside Cologne someone had sprayed: “MOST OOPS MOOKS”. For now, until some polyglot explains that this is actually fiery revolutionary rhetoric or upsetting abuse in something Germanic, I’m going to go with chiller’s suggestion that “the battle for the accolade of MOST OOPS MOOKS is Germany’s equivalent of The X-Factor”.

Delays at Cologne meant that we had to wait almost two hours for our next train. Thoroughly exhausted—her age aside, she finished a course of chemotherapy a year ago and, although recovering remarkably, still finds herself affected by it—my mother grabbed her case and made for the first train that came in, and had actually boarded it before I was able to catch up and persuade her that it wasn’t ours. “I didn’t care,” she said afterwards. “I just wanted to get on and sleep.” I’m sure the conductor would have been very understanding.

So we finally got the sleeper train—it felt like trying to sleep in a washing machine on a low spin cycle—and made it to Copenhagen. The next train took us over the impressive Øresund bridge (or Öresund, if you’re Swedish. Wars have been fought over less) between Denmark and Sweden. We passed a huge number of wind farms, which failed to look at all menacing or evil or whatever it is I keep reading about over here.


Gothenburg station was an almost entirely information-free zone. Its ratio of empty calories to train information was higher than at any other European station I have encountered. I began to suspect that if we searched long enough we would come across a cupboard stuffed full of actual rail staff, all stifling their giggles as they watched their bereft and bewildered passengers milling around on CCTV. In the end, we had been on the Oslo train for more than 50 minutes before we saw a member of staff willing to confirm that it actually stopped at the town where my sister lives and was waiting to meet us.

A couple of Norwegian police got on at the Sweden/Norway border. One of them checked our passports and started asking where in south London we were from. Thinking he knew the city, my mother started to describe the area, but when he said, “Is it near Crystal Palace?”, I could see why he was inquisitive and said, “I live near Millwall”. His face lit up. “I have heard of Millwall!” he said with glee. “I love English football!” I’ve had the English football conversation with strangers at least once per trip to Norway since I was a kid—it’s the ultimate icebreaker and cuts across all boundaries; I swear I could probably get out of being arrested over there if I mentioned David Beckham—but this one set a new record by taking place 30 seconds after I’d entered the country. To beat that, someone is going to have to actually rugby-tackle me as I physically cross the border to ask me whether I think Leeds might be going down this season.

So we finally arrived at about nine in the evening, and then had to be up at lark-belch the next morning for the funeral. My sleep deprivation could have spiced things up for anyone minded to start betting: while he’s stood at the altar, will he topple backwards into the candles? Will he drop the coffin? In the end, though, it went fine. The day itself was beautiful, the service was just right, and even the detail that the organist was a bit shit and audibly kept speeding up for the easier passages but pausing before, and then going slowly through, the more complex ones—sometimes all in the same bar—couldn’t dent the proceedings, as the deceased himself would have found it extremely amusing.

We had given ourselves Thursday off, so Friday saw us embarking on the return journey. The Oslo-Gothenburg train ran fine. So did the Gothenburg-Copenhagen train, right up to the moment when it stopped outside Malmö (still in Sweden) and they announced that there was a complete power outage on the suddenly less impressive Øresund bridge. Nothing would be travelling between Sweden and Denmark for the foreseeable. The more the train had slowed down and made unscheduled stops, the more my mother had been worrying, but, now that we had completely missed our connections and everything had definitely gone wrong, she was able to relax and all but float through the hour’s wait at Malmö station and the journey on the packed first train across the bridge. (There were scuffles as hundreds of people tried to board at the stop before the crossing, and in the end two whole other trains were attached to the back of ours; at 240 metres long, we were as long as a goods train.)

It was only once we were in Copenhagen that we discovered we had missed our one and only train the hell out of Copenhagen. A quick explore through the city’s cheerfully drunken Friday night crowds[2] led us eventually to the only hotel that wasn’t fully booked by cruise ship tourists and/or available by the hour.



About 60 per cent of what you need to know about Denmark can be gleaned
from the choice of cover star of the hotel’s complimentary magazine.

The next day it became clear that any attempt to continue by land would add at least another 24 hours to our journey. This was not an option so we threw money at the problem and booked a couple of rather expensive flights home. We didn't have enough time to explore the city but were just able to squeeze in a brief The Killing-related visit to the crossing outside City Hall where that guy gets run over.



My mother on the crossing outside City Hall where that guy gets run over.

After that it was a straightforward flight back to the UK, my mum tumbled into a cab home and I returned to my flat to discover that earlier that afternoon a French workman upstairs had accidentally put his foot through my living room ceiling. I think we can safely say that Europe has won this round.



«C'est comment on dit 'Bonjour' en mon pays.»



[1] The estimable Seat 61 travel website provided the route and excellent advice. Back

[2] They weren’t really any more drunk than anyone else’s Friday night crowds but, as the Danish language contains at least two vowels that sound as if the speaker is being physically sick, they’re already a bit ahead of the curve.  Back

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
chiller
Jun. 6th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Not good. Very glad you made it back in one piece. For a while there, while it was all ongoing, I imagined it would be easier if you just resigned yourself to it and started looking for a job in Copenhagen.

Has Martin Brygmann soiled himself?
webofevil
Jun. 6th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
Thats certainly the best explanation I've seen for why he has removed his trousers.
chiller
Jun. 6th, 2011 06:03 pm (UTC)
It that or - you know - he liked the photographer.
(Anonymous)
Jun. 13th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
L here
Very poignant...
For me I could write an equally long screed about why I am always delayed on flights going home to the beloveds but never, ever, ever have I been delayed flying to an interminable meeting with clients about toilet paper.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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