Monday, January 23, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 4: Purgatory

It occurs to me that it's now been a month since the trip I'm writing about--which is CRAZY, I can't believe how fast time is going--so I'm going to try to move this along.

However, that also means I'm halfway through my time in Brest. It's been almost four months since I came to France, which is also crazy. Time flies, I guess. Maybe a little too much for those of us who don't know what we're doing next, or where we're doing it, or when we're going there. Yikes.

I've been kind of homesick lately, which is weird for me. The only times I've ever really experienced homesickness before all involved a boy (other than some time in Ireland when I was homesick for Oberlin, but I was very lonely in Ireland, which is not at all the case here). I've never really been one to actively miss being at home, even though I like being there. I think it's a combination of the lost, what-do-I-do now feeling and the fact that I have, whether it seems like it or not, been gone a really long time. I was in Ireland for exactly four months and one week, which until now was the longest I'd ever been away at a stretch, and obviously at this point in my time there I was getting ready to leave--saying goodbyes and strategizing packing and looking forward to Christmas and family and old friends. This time the things I'm looking forward to are much farther away, and home isn't even on the horizon. Right now I have no idea when or even if I'm going back.*

Anyway, this morning I had the surreal experience of being at a French market talking to my [non-Francophone] friends in French, and then receiving a text message in English from a French person. Irony.

But back to Amsterdam.

After I left the Anne Frank House, I wasn't entirely sure where the nearest tram back to the hostel was, so I just sort of wandered around for a while. It was getting dark, and I got a little lost, but I think it was a good way of decompressing. I just walked, and took pictures of houseboats, and watched swans in the canals.** Eventually, I made my way back to a familiar area and found a tram (and there's a story about that tram ride for another time), and settled down with my computer in the hostel lobby to wait for Sam and Jimena.

The next morning we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which was amazing and deserves its own post, so that's next. That afternoon we took a boat cruise through the canals. In theory, it was a tour, but to hear the tour you had to sit inside and listen to headphones, and that was no fun at all when we could be sitting out on the smoking deck feeling the wind and seeing the city go by all around us instead of just through the weirdly low, smudgy, glare-y windows. So we did not really learn much about Amsterdam or its canals, but we enjoyed the ride.

The next morning we parted ways. I was really upset. A) I did not want to leave Amsterdam, not even to go to other cool places, and B) I had spent almost the entire last week with Sam and Jimena and didn't want to say goodbye, even temporarily. Normally I'm perfectly happy to travel alone, but having had such a marvelous time with them made me really reluctant to go off in a different direction. I had kind of started regretting my decision to go to Prague instead of going to Bruges with them for Christmas.

Within a few hours, "kind of" regretting turned into full-on "Why on earth did I do this to myself?" but we'll get to that.

First, they left that morning, but I was in no hurry to go anywhere, because all I had to do that day was get to a town a couple of hours away, just across the German border, and my night train to Prague wasn't going to get to that town until something like 11 p.m. So I stuffed my luggage into a pay-by-the-hour locker at the hostel and headed around the corner*** to the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is filled with masterpieces of Dutch art, mostly from the Golden Age (17th century-ish). Rembrandt, Cuyp, Vermeer, that guy who painted church interiors. Also sculpture and decorative arts and an enormous model ship. Its crown jewel is an enormous group portrait by Rembrandt called The Night Watch. Apparently it is quite famous, although I was [embarrassingly] not familiar with it and didn't really see what the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, the Rijksmuseum is currently undergoing extensive renovations, and most of it is closed. The selection that is still on display is still pretty substantial, though, so I can only imagine what seeing the entire museum would be like. It must be enormous. According to Wikipedia, its permanent collection comprises a million pieces. Presumably those are never all on display at once, but still. That's more than the Louvre. By a lot.

I spent maybe an hour or two at the museum, and then I retrieved my stuff and went off to catch my first train. My night train reservation was from Wuppertal, Germany, and to get there I had to take short trips on two different regional trains.

And that's where things started going wrong. I got on the wrong train.

I realized it pretty much as soon as the train started moving, which was actually a good thing, because it meant that I was able to hop right back off again at the first stop (which was in Utrecht, not that that matters) and immediately onto a train going in the correct direction. So no harm done, other than adding an extra step to my multi-step journey, but not a good start to my solo travels.

And it got worse!

I got to Wuppertal without further incident. I was going to have several hours of waiting around ahead of me, but I figured I could just hang out in the train station. Unfortunately, it turns out the Wuppertal train station is approximately the saddest place on earth. It's ugly and dirty and shabby and mostly underground. Everything is concrete. Its highlights are a café/bakery and the newsstand. There is literally no place to sit down and wait other than the scattering of benches along the platforms. An enclosed "waiting area" on the far platform contains exactly four chairs and a lot of empty space.

Also, the extent of my German is as follows: I can say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, yes and no. "Good." "I love _____." "God in Heaven." I can count to about twenty. I can say "Do not speak German," but I don't know how to conjugate it properly. I know a couple of swear words and a handful of random other words that aren't terribly useful (schadenfreude, anyone? fernweh? also some slightly more practical ones, but still not anything I'm likely to need in simple conversation). I can sing the first verse or two of "Silent Night".

That's about it. I can often puzzle out more than that if it's in writing, but I can't understand any more than I can speak, which clearly is not enough to get by. For some reason this is far more stressful when one is alone than when one is with others, even if they also do not speak the local language.

I wandered around the station a few times. Then I wandered outside and found a Christmas market in the street next to the station, so I walked and looked for a bit, and eventually bought a sausage in a bun in an awkward "I-do-not-speak-your-language-at-all" sort of exchange. But I was dragging all my stuff with me, and it was getting dark, and I couldn't just walk up and down the street all evening, but I didn't know where else to go (in the grand metropolis of Wuppertal), so I went back into the sad train station. I went to the café and had a coffee, and frustrated the girl at the counter who clearly assumed I spoke German even after I looked blankly at all the signs and asked for the least German thing on the menu (café au lait) without using any other words. I sat there and fiddled with my computer until it looked like they were starting to get ready to close. I went to the newsstand and looked around, and contemplated buying a couple of English-language magazines geared towards foreign language students, in case I could use them for my classes, but they were weirdly expensive. Finally, with nothing left to do and several hours still to go, I parked myself on the ground squarely in front of the departures board to wait for my train to appear on the list.

But apparently, you can't sit by yourself on the floor of a train station without looking like a beggar. And that's when an old man (who I'm actually pretty sure was a beggar himself) approached me holding out a coin.

Ever had to explain to someone that no, you're not homeless, and you really appreciate his kindness, but no, you don't need money, and he's very nice, but honest, you're just waiting for your train? Ever had to try to do that across an enormous language barrier? I have! (It involved a lot of smiling and head shaking and pointing at the departure board.)

So I gathered up my things and went out to wait on the platform in the cold. And when I got too cold and bored, I came back down and stared (standing up) at the departures board for a while. I tried to go to the bathroom and wasn't willing to pay for it. I bought some candy bars from a vending machine. I went to wait on the platform in the cold. I got cold and bored and went back down to stare at the departure board. I went back up to sit on the platform in the cold.

It was the longest two hours of my life.

Also, by that point in the evening, the only other people loitering around the station were men. Vaguely creepy older men by themselves. Raucous young men traveling in packs. Once in a while a family came through, or a few young women, sometimes with boyfriends, but never alone. But they all came shortly before their trains and then vanished, and it was just me, by myself, in the dark, with bunch of non-English-speaking men of varying degrees of sketchiness.

Fun times in Germany, guys.

Finally, at long last, it was eleven o'clock and the train was arriving. I found my car (home of the cheapest available seats). Now, I had never been on a night train before and didn't really know what to expect. I knew I'd bought a seat instead of a place in a sleeper car. I guess I was expecting a typical train car, with rows of seats, maybe a little roomier than usual and hopefully able to recline. Nope. It was a compartment car, and my compartment was full. There were five people already there when I arrived, and my seat was in between two of them. There was nowhere to put my luggage. So I squeezed in, and set my backpack on the floor between my legs, and held my other bag in my lap, and resigned myself to a thoroughly miserable ten hours on top of my already miserable day.

Eventually, the two old ladies across from me shuffled some stuff around and invited me to lift my backpack over them and cram it into a small space on their luggage rack, which was nerve-wracking, because my bag was heavy and I'm short and I was afraid I'd hit one of them somehow, but it worked out. So that helped, because I didn't have to hold it upright anymore, and I could put my smaller bag on the floor instead. There still wasn't really any space. Plus I was tired, but anyone who knows me knows I don't sleep in moving vehicles.**** So that was out. I had imagined being productive during my sleepless night on the train, but I couldn't really maneuver things around, and I didn't really have much with me that wouldn't have required turning on a light. My computer was pretty much dead. I listened to my iPod for a while, but it died, too. So I just sat. Tried to sleep. Mostly sat. Early in the morning, still dark out, the two old ladies got off. The young couple to my right got off in Dresden, a little before dawn. Then me and the remaining guy each took a side of the compartment and stretched out. I managed to sleep for an hour or so that way. Then I sat up and watched the Czech countryside appear out of the lifting darkness. It reminded me weirdly of Pennsylvania, with its wide open fields and distant mountains and rivers wilder than anything I've seen in France so far. That made me start to feel a little bit better about my decision.

I was still pretty determined to find a way NOT to take the night train again on my way back, though.

* OK, that's a little melodramatic; I'm sure I am going back sooner or later. But I really don't have any idea when, or for how long.
** We don't have swans in Brest, and I love them so much.
*** It was literally that close. So was the Van Gogh Museum.
**** If I'm ever on another night train, though, I might shell out for a sleeper car and see if having a bed makes a difference.

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