Trains are the veins and arteries of Europe. They crisscross cities, suburbs, and countryside. David and I didn't have to take a taxi, or ride a bus the entire time. We hopped on streetcars, subways, high speed, and low speed trains. I put so much trust in this immense, impressive train system that I made a stupid mistake. We were in Stuttgart, and wanted to take an overnight to Rome. I booked it, or so I thought, and David and I got onboard at 9pm that night.
The train was raucous and full; high school students crowded the halls. I imagined drunks, stoners, body odor and smelly feet. I imagined laughter into the depths of the night.
"Good thing we have a reservation," David said, as we warily eyed the packed cattle cars. "Sometimes if you don't, conductors will just throw you off the train at some remote city in the middle of Austria. I've seen passengeres beg to stay onboard."
"Good thing," I agreed.
I pushed and picked my way to our couchette to find a couple already sitting on our beds. We compared tickets, each had reservations for that car. Perplexed, David and I went to find a conductor.
"Someone's in our car," we told the slender, stony faced German. He pursed his lips, furrowed his eyebrows, and read the fine print. The print I should have read to begin with.
"Wrong date." He pointed, raised his eyebrows, and walked away. David and I spend the next hour and a half hunting down conductors. We found them in the hallways, near the bathrooms, in a cramped office in the front of a car. Each said the same thing in halting English.
"Train's full. Sorry. You're out of luck."
The aisles, even the car with bicycles were already full. People slept on the ground with their backpacks as pillows. David and I went to the back of the train and found a spot to sleep. On the ground. Near the restroom. Then we went and bought beer: life's elixir.
We stayed on that lonely floor for two hours as Germany, Austria, and Italy rushed by. I cracked the large window, and breathed in the cold mountain air. Tiny towns peppered the hillside, mountains were lumbering beasts in the silvery moonlight. I wondered how people here lived, if they could see the Alps during the daytime. David and I almost got off the train in the middle of Austria, but waited it out.
I was still peeking out that window when Italy rolled into view. David was laying on the ground, listening to his audiobook. I thought about all the grime and dust beneath our clean clothes.
"David," I whispered. "Welcome to Italy."
It was then that I saw the conductor, walking briskly down the hall toward us. Images flashed through my head: David and I sleeping on hard, cold cement. David and I wandering around for 6 hours until morning. Shoot, I thought, he's going to kick us off the train.
"I have a room for you," he said. It was the same stony-faced German, but this time, he was smiling.
I'd never heard such beautiful, pure, luxuriant words. We have a room for you.
We followed the German, dazed, into our tiny couchette. REAL BEDS! REAL SHEETS. It was past midnight, and David and I couldn't stop grinning as we folded our bodies onto the tiny bunks. It was the best sleep of my life, and I woke up in Rome refreshed and happy.
The moral to the story: read the fine print.