Train travel in Germany nothing to sneeze at


Since it’s a sure bet someone, somewhere is in the throes of an allergy season, this seems as good a time as any to tell a sneezing story. It’s an old one, but has retained its timeliness.

It doesn’t start out a sneezing story. It starts out a story of the only time I’ve ever known a German train to get off schedule. Not merely late – an unthinkable eventuality – but off the schedule altogether, then, just as mysteriously, back on.

I was traveling from Gelsenkirchen to Cologne last March, from Mary and Rainer’s home base to the city where Mary was under contract for a season, and they had carefully schooled me about which train to look for and on which platform to wait.

I was really proud of how well I was learning to negotiate the vast and complex system of public transportation in my daughter’s adopted country. And you know what pride goeth before.

German trains are punctual to within 30 seconds or so, and absolutely dependable. As one train pulls out of the station, the next one is announced by a quickly changing information board over the Gleis, or platform, where it is due. Information includes the number of the train, the time it will leave, and the main city toward which it is heading.

The 11:10 arrived and departed, and the sign announced that the next train was the one I wanted for Köln, due to leave at 11:16. My hands were damp despite the cold: I was always terrified of getting on the wrong train and having to extricate myself from an awkward situation with my pathetically few phrases of German.
It was 11:15 and no train had pulled in under the 11:16 sign. I looked around and noticed that a dozen or so other passengers were on their feet looking up the tracks, down at their watches, and up to the sign which was offering no further information.

A brisk exchange in rapid-fire German ensued between a passenger and the uniformed railroad agent on the Gleis. He was attempting to be soothing, but whipped out a cell phone and argued briefly with some unseen authority.

When he finished, he walked from one group of passengers to another advising them on what they needed to do to continue their journeys. I, of course, understood not a word that either he or the echoing public address system was saying.

And the board flipped to the next train, the 11:20, which pulled into the station and out again with no one noticing except a few passengers who could use its alternative destination.

Panicky now, I beseeched the official with gesture and the repetition of “Köln, bitte?” and he nodded grimly and pointed to the board which now said that the train I wanted would be leaving at 11:25.

It did. Neither I nor Mary, who heard the story later, had ever heard of a German train not coming, and then arriving out of its order among all the other trains that clog the most rail-intensive region of Germany, the Ruhr Valley.

Two or three stops later (each of which I assessed carefully to be sure I was still on the Köln route) a woman entered my compartment and asked if the seats were free. Seemed obvious to me: There were six seats and only one passenger, but that’s how you do in Germany.

She said something perhaps related to the confusion over the train, and I gave a noncommittal smile and a shrug, then avoided eye contact. I studied a train schedule I’d found, and she studied me, looking very disapproving. They can always tell you’re a foreigner.

After about 10 minutes of this, I blew my nose twice, thinking, Now she has something to disapprove, being shut up in this compartment with a foreigner who has a cold.

I trashed the damp tissues, resumed watching the gray scenery, when suddenly I sneezed. Caught it just in time with a tissue, then a second huge sneeze – and brightly, she cried out, “Gesundheit!” and favored me with a brilliant smile. I “Danke’d” her and she said something to which I returned my carefully rehearsed German, “I don’t understand.” She wavered a bit, but seemed determined to be friendly, so I continued with my scraps of information: “My daughter lives in Köln, plays piano for the opera company,” and my new friend appeared very interested. She asked me something about my daughter. I looked puzzled, and she tried again, and somehow I understood that she wondered how often I see my daughter and for how long, and my response stuck a sympathetic chord:   She was a mother too.

Was I from the Netherlands, she asked, and I wondered how on earth my awful German could sound Dutch. When I told her I was an Amerikanerin, her smile remained just as warm and welcoming.

Then there was a station announcement and she got ready to leave, smiling encouragement, and I apologized again for my little German (fingers held a centimeter apart) and she said her English was just as little and I pointed to my face and conveyed that a smile was language enough.

She nodded a cheery, “Auf Wiedersehen,” and was gone.