Europe Without a Car
The bus stopped and the driver was yelling something at me. I looked up from my tablet that I had been using to read a book on the way home after seeing a movie downtown in the large German city where I lived.
I looked around and saw nothing but darkness. Oops! I missed my stop by being too deep into my story and the driver is telling me that this is the last stop and for me to get out of the bus.
I tried to tell him what had happened and asked if I could not ride back to my stop on his way back to town. After all, I had a monthly pass, so it would not cost more. Even if it had, I had absolutely no idea where we were, other than in some sort of subdivision.
He finally made me understand that this bus was now officially out of service and that he was forbidden to allow anyone to ride with him when he was out of service. Now, the odds that anyone would ever know that he had broken the rules were infinitesimal, but he was German and had nothing to gain by helping me and there was the possibility of a reprimand, regardless of how remote the possibility, if he did.
I was ejected--and dejected. It was late at night and cold, I was lost, 76 years old and spoke German very poorly.
This was a few years ago. If I had a map app on my phone then, I was not aware of it. All I knew was the general part of town I was in and hoped that I wasn’t more than an hour’s walk from my stop, assuming that I headed in the right direction. The sky shine was too general to guess the direction of the city and all the houses appeared to be buttoned up for the night, with the rolladen (steel shutters) down.
I couldn’t call a cab, because I didn’t know where to send them. I couldn’t call the police, for similar reasons. I could either head out on foot, following my nose and common sense, or I could sit and wait eight hours or so. There would be another bus tomorrow.
Passive acceptance has never been one of my strong suits and it was getting colder, so I headed out, if for no other reason than a sense of not being a helpless victim of my failure to pay attention and also to keep my heart beating faster, to provide some body heating.
Even if the bus only averages 20 MPH, that is about ten times faster than I walk, so if I read through two or three stops, it could easily have been 10-20 minutes of inattention. That length of time could require three hours walking--if I could keep up the pace and made few errors.
I wasn’t happy with the choices, but took the one with which I was least uncomfortable. I started walking.
At every intersection, I stopped and examined the option of left, right or stright ahead. I favored larger streets over smaller ones and chose directions that seemed to be the inverse of the general direction in which the bus was headed on my line.
I have no way of knowing if I took any wrong turns, but after half an hour or so, I reached a main thoroughfare that I recognized and was able to get home within about an hour after starting out.
I don’t know if this experience taught me any lessons other than to pay better attention when riding buses, because many of them do not stop unless there is somebody wanting to get on or get off. Apparently, that is what happened to me.
As more survival tools have become available for my phone, I have adopted them quickly. I now have Google maps on my phone so I can at least know where I am, and | also spend more time memorizing maps of areas in which I plan to travel. It can’t hurt.
Some years before this experience, I had set out on vacation from the same German city, with the general goal of perhaps stopping by Le Mans to watch at least some of the famous 24 hour race, then on to England and Wales, visiting Stonehenge on the way, then heading on over to Ireland. I wanted to kiss the Blarney Stone.
I don’t like to make reservations when I travel for fun. The tension involved in making a fixed appointment really decreases my enjoyment. Those few times my lack of reservations has come back to haunt me are more than balanced by the freedom to stop and enjoy unexpected pleasures and delights along the way, as well as eliminating the stress of a missed reservation.
I set out from Karlsruhe on the Orient Express train, which passes through Karlsruhe at midnight. My plan was to catch up on sleep on the way to Paris, but there was a full moon and I was so enthralled by the moonlit landscape I arrived in Paris with little or no sleep.
The Le Mans race was starting later that day and was quite a way across France, so I jumped on the high speed TGV and headed for Le Mans, with the intention of getting a room there and a little shut eye before going out to the track.
Silly, silly me. The “Train Grand Vitesse” is so fast, it only took an hour to reach Le Mans. Arriving there, it soon became apparent that only a fool would expect to find a hotel room in Le Mans on the weekend of the big race. Duhhh!
Never one to give up, I grabbed a city bus to the track, hoping that I could find a quiet corner in the stands to catch a few zzzzs.
Nope. The stands were sold out, at prices that I might not have been willing to pay even if they had been half empty. It was starting to rain, I had been up for nearly 30 hours by this time and had little patience for dealing with more difficulty, so I grabbed a bus back to the station and took the next train toward Cherbourg and the ferry across the English Channel.
As the milk train we were on crept across France at a speed guaranteed to spare the life of any sleeping critters on the tracks, I tried once again to get some rest.
Unfortunately, there were about a dozen school teachers from South Carolina across the aisle, engaging in what American women do when in unknown, possibly hostile situations. They were all talking simultaneously, at very high levels, mixed with howls of laughter. A muder of crows comes to mind.
No rest for the wicked here. Eventually, one of them approached me very timidly and attempted to ask me, in French, when the train would arrive in Cherbourg.
They were all apparently so relieved at finding a fellow American that it seemed to have a calming effect on them and they quieted down considerably. I didn’t get any sleep, but at least I got some rest.
After arriving in Cherbourg around dinnertime, I learned that the ferry only ran every other day, so I could either stay up and take tonight’s ferry or get a hotel and wait two days for the next one. At the time, there was more I wanted to do on the other side of the channel than in Cherbourg, so I elected to go that night. The ferry left at 11PM, over 40 hours since I last slept, and arrived in Folkestone the next morning around seven. I had drowsed a bit, but about the way you sleep on a plane. Now we are up to around 48 hours with no real sleep. I was a zombie.
There was nothing open on Sunday morning in Folkestone. I suppose that tourists are either supposed to bring their own food or go hungry. I chose hungry.
Then I learned another great lesson. This was an even more important lesson that keeping up with stops on a city bus.
DON’T EVER TRY TO TRAVEL ON ENGLISH TRAINS ON A SUNDAY. They are bad enough on other days. Sunday is the day when they send crews to work on the much-needed repairs of their 17th century rail system.
The other lesson was equally important. NEVER TRY TO TAKE BRITISH RAIL FROM FOLKESTONE DIRECTLY TO CARDIFF, WALES. Britain is not alone in this one, but it would have been handy if the ticket agent had offered a bit of advice.
I was to learn that I could have taken a much faster train halfway across England to London, then a similar faster train from London to Cardiff and would have arrived several hours quicker, having traveled hundred of miles out of the way.
As it was, I took a succession of slower and slower milk trains attempting to wend my way directly toward Stonehenge, then on to Cardiff.
Each train would chug off as if it were not really certain this was the proper direction, then would stop after a bit, due to “repairs” on the tracks. “Brit-ish Rail apologise for any delay”. If I never hear that smarmy bit of insincere gloss again, it will be soon enough. It ranks right up there with, “We are sorry. We are experiencing an unusually high volumes of calls today. Please stay on line. Your call is very important to us.” Only a fool would believe that.
On two or three occasions, all passengers were required to disembark and board busses to take us around the construction site to the next segment of antique track. The Roman roads in England are in better shape than their pathetic railway system.
At this point, I am somewhere around 50 hours without real sleep and have a very low tolerance for insincere protestations of regret for the inexcusable state of train travel in a country that claims to be first-world caliber. (Claiming is a lot cheaper than accomplishing.)
The instance that rankled the most was when our bus pulled into Bath, England, after a 45 minute ride instead of the 15 minutes the train was supposed to have taken. I was one of the first off the bus and ran inside to see if my connection had left. As I ran up to the side of the first train and looked up to the dispatch board to see what track my connection was on, the train I was standing beside began moving. A second or two later, it became clear that this was my connecting train and that there would be at least a two hour delay before the next train to Cardiff. I was not amused.
Then I learned another smarmy little trick. If the 3:15 train was ten minutes late, the announcement was made that the 3:25 train would be leaving soon, right on time. Bahh!
After twelve hours, fighting this incredibly inept system, I arrived in Cardiff, barely able to function, having gone without real sleep for 60 hours or so. I managed to check into a hotel and collapse, having completely missed any opportunity to visit Stonehenge.
The next morning, I bought a ticket to Holyhead, to take the ferry to Dublin. I explained very carefully to the ticket agent that I wanted to take the route all the way through Wales from Cardiff to Holyhead, rather than the faster way through England.
By the time the train got to the first stop, it was clear that he had put me on the specific train I had requested to avoid. We immediately crossed back over into England and back through country I knew well, rather than the path through the countryside of Wales that I had so looked forward to experiencing.
The ferry ride across the Irish Sea was uneventful, other than my conversation with an Irish nun, beside whom I happened to be sitting. She asked if this was my first visit and what was the purpose of the visit. I told her that I mainly wanted to see the country and also to check out my Irish ancestry.
At the time, I was under the mistaken impression that my Cobb ancestors came from Ireland. She told me that it was very lucky for me to have sat beside her because she was probably the only person in Ireland who knew that the town of Cobh (pronounced “cove”) was the original spelling of the name Cobb and that this is where I should go.
Since that time, I have learned that she was more likely to have told me that as a huge joke on the stupid American than as an error in her knowledge.
At any rate, I loved the beautiful little port of Cobh and found a very reasonably priced B&B on the waterfront. Cobh was the last port of call for the Titanic and is a lovely town, with the skyline dominated by a huge cathedral. I could hardly wait to get to the library and start checking on my ancestors.
However, the library was already closed for that day. The next day dawned bright and clear, but I really wanted to make sure I got to Blarney Castle and had no idea how long that trip would take, so I decided to head for the Blarney Stone first, then check out the library later.
The Blarney Stone was a huge surprise, but a wonderful experience. I had read that the stone was situated in a position that was difficult to get to, but if you could actually kiss it, you would be given “the gift of gab”. Having been a relatively shy guy my entire life, I thought this was something I should do.
For some reason, I had gotten the impression that the stone was in a cellar, but situated in a crevice of some sort that was hard to get to.
But no-o-o-o-o. The Blarney Stone is situated in the bottom of an extension from the wall at the top of a tower that is somewhere around 65 feet off the ground. To kiss the Stone, it is necessary to lie on your back with your upper body suspended over the chasm, trusting to the mercy and reliability of strangers to hold your legs. If they don’t perform properly, you are a dead man. “Don’t fart”, I kept telling myself.
What a thrill. Luckily, I managed to hang onto enough presence of mind to move everything from my shirt pocket to my pants pockets, so that the contents weren’t spread all over the ground way down below, along with the stuff from previous kissers who did not think ahead.
All in all, it was a great experience. I have no way to know whether this act had anything to do with my emergence as a blabbermouth who won’t stop talking or whether I simply outgrew my shyness, but since that period in my life, it has been harder to shut me up than to get me to speak.
Of course, the day drug on and the library in Cobh was closed by the time I returned, so I was at the library bright and early when they opened the next day. When I told the librarian I was there to research my Cobb ancestors, he acted as if I had given him a mortal insult. “There has never been any person named Cobb in this town since the dawn of record keeping!”, he shouted at me. I wondered if he would hit me. His spittle hung like a cloud between us. I apologized and left.
Many years later, I learned that the Cobb family was Scottish, but never understood what appeared to be actual hate in the librarians’s denunciation. Then again, most Americans don’t even realize that Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland are now two separate countries. For all I know, the librarian may have belonged to a different religion than that of the Cobbs.
I just don’t know. In any case, I later learned that my Irish ancestors were actually the Vikings that settled Waterford. The librarian may have been upset by Vikings, as well.
I just don’t know.
True Story /