I have no idea what language that is, or what country I’m in. All I know is that I have had nowhere near enough sleep, and ignoring the voice doesn’t seem to be working. I see a man in uniform staring at me from the door to my compartment. He sees that I still don’t understand so he repeats himself in english. “Do you always sleep with with your shoes on?”
He chuckles to himself, and I don’t join him in his chuckle. Even the accent isn’t funny. I lock the door behind him. Then I realise that the sun is up, and we’re in the countryside. This is either West Germany or Austria, and probably Austria if that was a Border officer. I know that the year in 1989, and the border between West Germany and Austria actually means something. They use Deutschmarks on one side and Schillings on the other.
And I see something that I’ve never seen before – snow as far as I can see. That wasn’t there last night. And the churches are completely different. Yesterday was 26 November 1989, and I was in Paris. My Eurail pass is valid through to the border with East Germany and I have bought my onwards ticket from Helmstedt to Berlin. The Berlin wall has been broken about two weeks ago, so tourists are flocking to Germany to enjoy the party and grab their own piece of Wall.
But something goes wrong. I leave it too late to get across Paris to the Gare du Nord, and I miss my train. I’m told that there is a train to Frankfurt from the Gare de l’Est leaving soon, and I can get a connection tonight to Berlin. Magnifique! I race there, catch the train to Frankfurt, and all is well. This is my first time in Germany, and I’m quite enjoying watching these towns go by – Forbach, Saarbrücken, Kaiserslautern, Mannheim…momentary glances of West Germans doing whatever West Germans do on a Sunday night in 1989.
And again, something goes wrong. I get to Frankfurt and find that there is no train to Berlin that night. So I have options of wandering through the Frankfurt rain looking for a Hotel (next option please), waiting in this freezing station for the morning train to Berlin (that’s better than staying in Frankfurt), or taking a train somewhere else. The Eurail pass is valid pretty much anywhere, meaning that there’s no ticket to buy. So I find myself under a Departures board at 11.15pm in Frankfurt with a long list of European capitals presenting themselves as possible destinations. This isn’t so bad really.
I choose Vienna, because that leaves soon (actually it left late, but I wasn’t to know that) and arrives in Vienna just after 8am. Perfect.
This is my first night train in Europe, and I’m not exactly sure of the sleeping arrangements. I know that my wallet and passport are staying in my pocket, and everyone’s looking a little dodgy. I go from compartment to compartment looking for a spare seat and realise that I should have reserved one. I see some compartments have seats folded down and pulled out to the middle, making a comfortable looking bed. Lucky for some. I end up with a chair in the aisle, and the only way I can see sleep coming is if I’m knocked unconscious by the people constantly bumping me with suitcases as they make their way to their comfortable compartments. I guess that’s what happens when you’re trying to sleep in a corridor.
After a few hours of trying to sleep while being aware that I’m completely awake, and watching Würzburg, Nürnberg, and Regensburg in turn go flying by, I see someone leave their compartment. A bed! I grab that, not quite sure if I’m going to be fined by some official for not having a reservation, but this is worth the risk.
And one by one, each of the other five seats are vacated. I pull the curtain to the compartment, because I’m not sharing this. I now have six seats that I can pull down, stretch out, and apart from a gap in the middle, I have a double bed! For maybe three hours – but that’s better than nothing.
It seems like only five minutes later that I am wakened by the man with that voice. But I have had my first night train in Europe, and waking up to a completely different European countryside to last night is a very rewarding feeling. Very serene. The train continues through the Austrian snow for a couple of hours and I see locals outside, dressed as if they get snow every year. I then realise that I’m dressed quite differently. That could be a problem… The train arrives at 8.15, exactly on time. This won’t be the last time I set my watch by a German train.
I have a very enjoyable day taking in the highlights of Vienna, but next time I’ll come in summer. It’s a beautiful city, as expected. What I didn’t expect was hearing the Mad Butcher’s unmistakable tones in the square outside St Stephens Cathedral. In 1989 he was a radio voice, not a TV celebrity, so he seems chuffed that I’ve recognized him. I even get a hug. That wouldn’t have happened in Berlin.
I only have the one day in Vienna, and I make sure I reserve a couchette ( I know what those folding seat beds are called now) for the trip back to Paris. After Paris, I head back to Bordeaux where I am staying with friends. They find it quite amusing that the highlight of my trip to Berlin was Vienna, and tell all their vistors, changing the story each time to make me sound like a complete idiot. It probably didn’t help that when they asked me about the train, I told them that I have seen a lot of Austria. Or rather that’s what I meant to say – “J’ai vu beaucoup d’Autriche”. Sadly what I did say was “J’ai vu beaucoup d’austriches” – I saw a lot of ostriches. More laughter.
But I was now hooked on European night trains. On future trains I would meet a Hungarian pianist, Rebecca the Argentinian clarinet player, my first ever Russian, an ex-Nazi German priest; I’d share hours of conversation with a French-Spanish girl called Chantal watching unexplained fireworks just outside of Venice; and I’d get fed unpronounceable free food in Norway. Very tasty it was too.
Waking up in a new country or city for the first time is always one of my favourite travel moments. Waking in a hotel and hearing a city already alive with people going about their routines is a very satisfying feeling. It’s just as satisfying waking in a train, seeing new and unexpected landscapes for the first time, and even better if you’ve booked the couchette and don’t have to sleep in your shoes.