Monday, July 30, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 1: Trains

Things are winding down here at GTL. Finals are being taken (albeit not taken seriously), 6:45 am train reservations to get to Paris are in place, and plans have been made to go to the most ghetto McDonalds in Hartsfield-Jackson airport, order a large Coke, dump it down the drain for the hell of it, and get a free refill. Oh yeah. I don't know of anyone who isn't glad to be getting back to the US of A, even the most stridently progressive worldly-minded among us.

At this point, I think I have the experience to consider myself a reasonably experienced European rail traveler. I've taken trains in eight different countries, ranging from the crappiest regional Belgian train between Namur and Charleroi to the state-of-the-art German high-speed "tilting" train from Kaiserslautern to Munich. I've exercised my Eurail pass literally past the breaking point--I've had to apply at least three remedial staples to keep it attached to its cover. And I have but one more train trip to take before I can get to the airport and fly home. First, a few comments on the Eurail pass.

You might be surprised at what the Eurail Pass doesn't do for you. Clearly, it doesn't just let you hop an overnight train. You're going to have to pay a premium for those--20 Euro for a couchette bed seems to be the going rate. It might be a few less or a few more depending on who's operating the train and where the destination is. Is a couchette worth it? Generally if you're going to be getting what you deem a good night's rest, then yes. They're a little small, and the pillows suck, but you at least get a bed and a blanket. Often you'll get amenities too: a bottle of water is common, and if you're especially lucky you might get breakfast upon arrival. Oh, and don't be freaked out when the Italian train guy says "I take-a your pass-a-port." He's protecting you from it getting robbed over the night.

The other thing it doesn't do for you is get you on many high-speed trains. Germany's ICEs are free. In Italy, it costs a whopping 15 Euros for the exact same service. And everywhere else is anywhere in between.

On the other hand, you might be pleasantly surprised at what the Eurail pass does do for you. At one point, it became necessary to take a bus to the middle of nowhere, France, to a little town that doesn't have rail service. We observed other people showing their train tickets to get onto the bus for free, so we figured why not? The first person in my group to get on the bus showed his Eurail pass, and after several minutes of scrutiny, the driver said what I believe to be the French equivalent of "I don't know what this is, but I think it's okay." A few weeks later, in Geneva, we were welcomed aboard a Lake Geneva ferry with a hearty "bonjour!" by showing the Eurail pass. The German subways in every city are part of the Deutsche Bahn system, so they're covered too.

A big question is what sort of rail pass to get. In relation to the GTL program, it might be tempting to get one of those flex pass things, because after all, you're not going to be traveling by train every day of the summer. That only works, though, if you're sure you're only going to be traveling on whatever dates you set. Miss a train and have to try again the next day? Out of luck. It's possible to time the two month pass exactly right and only have to buy one additional train ticket, but it's a lot easier just to go with the three month, I think.

And finally, all trains are not created equal. German trains are remarkably efficient, and all of them are covered by the Eurail pass. They're clean and spacious, and every once in a while you're lucky enough to get an announcement in English too. Italian trains, on the other hand, are often the better part of an hour late (at one point, more than half the trains coming into Naples were delayed at least 15 minutes). They're not awful quality, except that you pay out your nose if you want to get anywhere remotely close to quickly. French and Belgian trains are unremarkable.

If you want service, though, Germany and Austria are the best places to go. Here's an anecdote illustrating the superiority of the Austrian train system over the French. A few friends and I wanted to book an overnight train from Strasbourg, France to Salzburg, Austria. We go down to the train station to do this, because there's no way that anyone can figure out to do anything online. My friend asks, "Parlez-vous anglais?" The woman responds "un peu." Things are looking up, because this is a lot more anglais than most French train people parle. "We would like to book a couchette from Strasbourg to Salzburg," my friend continues. The woman types "Stras" for the departure and double-clicks the arrival. Then she types in... "De" and brings up Germany? "No, Salzburg is in Austria," I volunteer. "Autriche."

The woman boredly hits backspace a few times, and puts in "As." Now, if I had to guess a country code for Austria, I think "As" would be a fine guess. This woman, though, should not be making a guess. This is her job. Eventually, she figures out that "At" is the right code. She looks at it for a while before declaring "No, it's not possible. All full." To be fair, this is reasonable. It's Tuesday, and we're looking to travel Friday night. Maybe it is full. "How about another way to get to Salzburg?" asks my friend. The woman says "No, the only way." I give her the benefit of the doubt and think that she understood the question as "are there any other overnight trains." So I clarify, "Are there any trains during the day on Saturday?" She doesn't input anything, but tells me "No, all full."

Things are starting to seem a bit fishy. She's telling us that the only way to get to Austria at all on Friday or Saturday is on an overnight train that's full? We already know that's not true: we have a last-ditch itinerary worked out that involves taking ICEs across Germany and getting into Salzburg around 10 hours after we left Metz. That sucks, but it's at least a way to get there. My friend and I have a quick sidebar in English. We'd really like to go somewhere East, and we're not entirely set on Austria. The guy I'm with then asks the woman, "How about Budapest?" She considers typing in "Romania" and both of us automatically respond "Hungary." That's full too.

Another English sidebar, and we decide that we might as well resign ourselves to trains all day Saturday, but at least we might be able to get one for the way back. That's a Monday night, almost a week away, and during the middle of the business week. No way that's full, right? Alas, "It's not possible." At that point, my friend and I are forced to just punt and walk out. Now it's looking like we're going to have to travel all day Saturday and all day Monday, leaving only Sunday to see all of Vienna and Salzburg. We enact out last-ditch itinerary of "travel all day Saturday" and immediately upon arriving in Austria, we ask the OBB guy if we can reserve the couchette on the way back.

"3 beds?" he asks. "60 Euros total."

Currently listening: "Benzin" from Rosenrot, Rammstein

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