Saturday, June 18, 2011

The midnight train to Berlin

I don't know if we will ever update this blog with details of the rest of our trip. Reliable internet can be hard to find for cheap people!

I thought the least that I could do was post this rambling document written at 3 am on the train from Amsterdam to Berlin. I am not responsible for the spelling/grammar/judgement errors resulting from sleep deprivation.

- Heather

Written at 3 am on the overnight train from Amsterdam to Berlin, Saturday 05/28/11.
There is nothing romantic about overnight train travel. Or, there's nothing romantic about budget overnight train travel. It's possible that first class passengers find the trip quaint and relaxing. Maybe they feel like they're roughing it. They're not. Sure, economy train travel doesn't compare to the experience of the jig-dancing working class passengers on long haul steam ships or the railcar hopping hobos of the Depression, but the fact remains that traveling overnight by train is not pleasant. For one, there's less Dickensian fun involved. Whatever misguided conclusions you may have drawn about train travel from Russian literature as a child are ridiculous and naive.
First, you may think that you have booked a bunk. You haven't. That hypothesis based on prolonged Internet searches after several failed attempts to translate whatever foreign language the train ticket is written in was falsified in a major way. Not only are you apparently not as good at googling as you've always thought, you do not have a bed. You are sharing a six seat cabin with five irritable, snoring, and farting thrifty travelers, all of whom speak different languages and have varying concepts of personal space.
Second, you probably forgot to bring any water and couldn't bring yourself to buy any mayonnaise soaked pre-made sandwiches at the train station in Amsterdam. You will be hungry and cranky, especially if you're the world's least responsible hypoglycemic.
Third, all of your electronics will most likely become drained over the course of the nine and a half hour journey. Since it's too dark to read a book, you will entertain yourself by desperately observing any lighted up place or object you pass. Sometimes you will glance over at the gape-mouthed faces of your fellow travelers, but mostly this will make you feel awkward and you'll look out the window.
Finally, you are not the last stop. There are many uncomfortable methods of traveling overnight, it's true. Eight hour bus rides from point A to point B are miserable and cold, and overnight planes are claustrophobic and disconcerting. More often than not, however, your destination on these modes of travel is the last stop. That is not the case on a train. You are not the last stop. Sure, you could set an alarm. You could trust your keen sense of time and your surroundings and assume that you'll wake up just as the train pulls into your stop. You can also decide that it is necessary to remain awake and vigilant, spending the night in sleepy terror about the possibility that you will sleep through your 4:30 am stop in Berlin and end up somewhere else, like the last stop in Moscow. As there is still some lingering doubt that you are on the correct train, and stops last two minutes on average, you will most likely chose this option.
The forced vigilance is by far the worst part of the trip. The rest is manageable for a (more or less) experienced traveler, already hardened and exhausted from a couple weeks of European city hopping and a heavy backpack. With the prospect of four more cities and yet more train journeys ahead, messing things up now is not on the top of your to-do list. A day of zombie-like wandering and a furtive nap when you can check-in to your hostel the following afternoon seems like a small price to pay for a successfully completed train journey.
The only thing left to worry about in your final hour and a half (beyond staying awake at all costs, obviously) is how you will retrieve your backpack from over the heads of your sleeping companions without dropping it on one of the them, waking the lot, and most likely missing your stop due to the ensuing argument.

Things I saw on the cityline overnight from Amsterdam to Berlin:
1) A metro car full of middle-aged women wearing all white with gold embellishments
2) Three windmills
3) One (probable) meth house
4) A baby alpaca playing with a foal
5) A field full of rabbits and a single cat with no interest in any of them
6) Uninspired graffiti
7) What I assume is the largest parking lot in Germany (empty)
8) Passenger trains, cargo trains, and empty trains, but mostly no trains
9) An orange crescent moon
10) Endless countryside
11) Abandoned German train stations for towns and cities I've never heard of
12) A Toys 'R Us
13) Multiple people in leather jackets loitering outside of our train car
14) A river with extensive docks but no boats
15) An long section of track with flashing lights pointed directly at my eyes
16) A 4 story car park with no walls to stop cars from driving off the edge
17) Multiple train officials, none of which checked our tickets


  1. Rick Steves could not have offered a more lucid or captivating description of the experience.