Wednesday, August 09, 2006

At Budapest Keleti Station I Ran Around and Cried; Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Utah

The trains between Berlin and Prague and Prague and Budapest had been completely effortless. They were comfortable, largely on time and figuring out where you were supposed to go was all very simple. Budapest is not Berlin or Prague. For a start, when I had bought my ticket at the station, rather than getting a nice printout with my train numbers listed on it like I had everywhere else, I got a handwritten ticket with the names only of my connections. I wasn't concerned... I would find the information I needed from the departures board. I arrived at the station a little after 6 in the morning for my 6:50 train. Nothing past 6:30 was yet listed. So I stood around thinking my connection would appear. A few minutes later, I was starting to get concerned, other trains were starting to get listed, but nothing that appeared to be mine. I was to connect in Breclaw. The Polish town of Wroclaw is referred to as Breslau by the Germans (the 'c' sounding sort of like an 's' and all that) and so I assumed that was where I was headed. A little knowledge (Wroclaw/Breslau) is a dangerous thing. No trains listed were headed to Poland or anywhere in that general direction that I could see. I needed to ask someone. All of the information booths were closed. I am now running around the station trying to find anyone who can help me. Nope. No one speaks English and anyone who does has no clue. Finally, I find a ticket booth that is open. I am supposed to be headed to Hamburg. The train is now about to leave. The tracks are not in any sort of order that would suggest that their counting system originated on planet earth. I figure out where I am supposed to be and run across the station to face a wall of people getting off my train. I am at this point a clearly panicked girl all on her own screaming "excuse me" but these people are Europeans and they are not about to move just because I am having a bad morning. They have centuries of history to be moody about and human decency isn't their thing. The train starts to move and it is now obvious that I am not going to be making this train.

I return to the desk to ask if there is another train to Krakow. Not until 22:00 (have I mentioned yet that I hate the 24 hour clock?). Now I am worried, I have a hotel booked in Krakow and I really don't want to give up a day in Poland as I have so little time there as it is. I am upset and I am crying (with the perspective of time, I will acknowledge that there was never any danger, it was always going to get sorted out, but I was tired, alone in a foreign city and no one was being in any way helpful....). There is no internet cafe open in the station and the tourist offices aren't open yet either. I call my mummy (who is of course very worried to be woken up at 1 a.m.). She is trying to find bus information on the internet (unfortunately, her Hungarian is not as strong as it could be), I am trying to call the bus company (the person who answered the phone responded "I am not tourist info, hello, goodbye" in a way that suggested either she worked for the bus company but not in reservations, or she had no relationship with the bus company and her phone number had been listed in the tourist book by mistake and I wasn't the first person who had called asking). Now, by this point, I had largely resigned myself to taking the overnight train, but I was really not happy about it. I had barely slept the night before as it was, and I really wanted to get to Krakow.

Time passes and eventually the hostel office with the internet cafe opens. I start looking for possible connections to Krakow. There is a train at 10:50. Basically the same route except one extra connection in Katowice. This one stops in Breclaw too. Breclaw, Czech Republic (aka Breclav, Czech Republic). It seems I was always supposed to be headed that way, which would explain the whole Hamburg thing. I return to the same woman at the ticket booth. "Hello, it seems that there is a train after ten with connections to Krakow". "Yes, it is at 10:50, it stops in Breclaw and Katowice." She says without looking it up. Now, at no point in my earlier conversation with her had she said. "Well, there is a train, but you're going to have to make two transfers." Cos if she had, I would have heard it. Yes, my ticket would work, it will appear as the train to Berlin. The fact that I now had my problem solved made me happy enough that it overrode my murderous rage and so I am not writing this from a prison in Budapest.

Relieved that I now have to just sit around for a while, I go find something to eat. Everything is meaty. People are eating shwarma and drinking beer at 8 o'clock in the morning. I find pastries. Plain croissants. Can't go wrong with plain croissants. I order two. I find a the one space on the floor of the station that isn't covered in pigeon shit and sit down(there were two benches in the whole station and they were occupied). I tear into the first, chew eat the pastry-y goodness, look down and see that there is a hot dog in the middle of my croissant. Why? Who wants this? And what is wrong with these people? All of a sudden, there are no homeless people around to give food to. So I go back and get some with jam instead, I'll have to just trust that there was no meat in the jam.

My train finally arrives, I'm going to be in Krakow too late to do anything, but at least I'll get a good night's sleep. A porter looks at my ticket and directs me to a seat (usually I would have avoided him, but the thought of having someone help me with my bag was too good to pass up at that point in time). Nothing appeared unusual about my seat. I am enjoying my ride (although passport came by twice within a five minute period... no wonder these people have so many wars!). The guy comes by to check my ticket and it appears I was put into first class by my helpful (well compensated) porter. So I move. Seriously people, don't pay for first class, it's the same (I suppose if you are tall, there is a little bit more leg room).

Next station, all is well (clean, computerized departures board). I went and bought some snacks and there were two American women in store behind me who I thought I recognized from my train. As I am sat eating my sandwich I see one of them approach the exchange office because they didn't have any koruna to pay for their food. I can hear that the woman is having problems and the guy will only convert larger bills. I try to interject that I have quite a few koruna left and can probably help. She doesn't hear me so it was too late, but her sister heard my accent and came over. She had seen me on the train when the ticket guy made me move, we started to chat. She is clearly very relieved to hear an English speaker. She and her sister (travelling from Utah) have also had a fun morning. They were on our train only to discover that the travel agents had screwed up their tickets. Although their itineraries were correct, the tickets themselves were for Moscow. They were about to get kicked off the train (the ticket guy just kept telling them to "go back to Budapest"), despite having offered to buy the tickets on board, when a Czech passenger intervened and resolved the situation. So they were now waiting for their transfer too. We decided to stick together (they were now nervous about train travel, I was just so glad to talk to friendly people with no obvious historical chip on their shoulder). They were also planning to go to Auschwitz, so lots to talk about. I share my booklet from the Torture House (they missed it), they teach me Sudoku tricks.... all is right with the world.

Our train is delayed by 5 minutes. Then ten. At our next transfer we had about 20 minutes, so provided everything goes smoothly from that point on we would be okay. We arrive at Katowice with a couple of minutes until our connection arrives. But which track to be on? We find the connection from the printout on the wall and start to go down the stairs to get to the other platform when I notice that the train is pulling into the station. Apparently at this point I yell "Oh my God, it's here!!!!" in a particularly loud voice (I have no recollection of doing so, but I have to admit it sounds like me). We start to run and make it to the train just in time. The people in the station clearly think we are mad as we are now laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of our day. We are North Americans, we have a new emotion. It is called happiness.


Alex said...

Salt Lake City here we come!

Anonymous said...

"passport came by twice within a five minute period... no wonder these people have so many wars"

Not like you peace loving American's eh dear...