It was an early morning on New Year’s Day in Amsterdam, earlier than any scheduled bus, and we had to call a cab to take us to the train station. The roads were quiet and mostly empty, revelers sound asleep after a late night of bubbly sparkling wine and loud fireworks. A light fog had settled in over the IJ, but it couldn’t mask the messy streets of a city hungover. Trash littered the streets outside the train station; broken bottles, the skeletons of last night’s fireworks in the form of frayed and burnt rolls of red paper, and fast food wrappers blanketed the bike paths and sidewalks. Young partiers slept against the concrete building wearing the same clothes from last night. Barely awake ourselves, we wearily climbed aboard our train heading to Germany just as the clock was striking midnight on the Pacific Coast of the US. As we would learn in a few short hours, we didn’t really need to be at the station that early.
My research group hosts and hires students from all over the world. At the end of last summer, an undergraduate from Germany had the chance to study abroad at UCSB, choosing our lab to perform research. When he was here, he wanted to make the most of the warm beaches and learn to surf. I had only been once before, but I offered to go with him, and we spent a few great weekends falling down into the ocean and tiring our shoulders out paddling back to the waves. As soon as Kierstin learned that she was going to Switzerland, I talked to him about playing host for a couple of days during our trip. He agreed, and Kierstin and I were excited for a free night in Germany accompanied by a real local to show us around and pick the best places to wash down heaping platefuls of brats with frothy mugs of sloshing local beers.
Despite the early morning after New Year’s revelry, we enjoyed our train voyage passing through little Dutch towns, soon passing into the German countryside, pocked with skinny trees with green pine needles high above dirt forest floors and dilapidated wooden farmhouses in the middle of sprawling meadows. We each had a novel to read; Kierstin had her mystery thriller and I had my slow-going historical fiction piece. As I became more and more enthralled by my book, I started to feel like Jacob de Zoet, the Dutch clerk in my story who was visiting the foreign island of Japan with its strange language and odd customs. Kierstin and I were trying to adapt, but everything in France and Belgium and the Netherlands was so different from what we were used to, and we were about to run into some German nuances that would weigh down our heads, heavy from frustration, and bring about sore temples in need of rubbing.
We passed through industrial cities and tiny towns, stopping and hopping off at major stations to change cars and switching trains at little single-platform stops that weren’t even manned with the yellow-coat-donning staff. Our destination finally came into view; we were seated on a two-car commuter train rather than the monstrous engines that had powered through Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. It wasn’t even a station; just a place to hop off with the handful of other riders who had drifted into the same town as us. On one side of the track was a spacious meadow with a glassy lake reflecting the bare trees and brown and green grass. On the other side were neglected buildings and quiet streets. The dirty windows of local shops and bars were empty with patrons absent on New Year’s Day; the brick walls had been stained an off-red color by years of sunlight beating down. A single taxi, recognizable by the bright trapezoid on the roof, sat in a parking lot with less than a dozen spaces and all unfilled. There was not much to see and not much to be seen, but our host was not to be found. With daylight was waning above, I turned on the precious international data on Kierstin’s phone and gave him a call.
He told us that there would be a sign right as we got off the train, and we should just follow it. We re-traced our steps to the platform, not a long walk, and questioned how we could have missed anything. It wasn’t there. Nothing was there. Were there multiple train stations in town, I wondered. Just the one, he confirmed. We described the lake, the buildings, the taxi. He seemed perplexed but tried to help us out. He paused mid-sentence as his brother interrupted and spewed something in rapid German on the other end. A sad, pitiful “oh no” escaped his lips and he realized the mistake that we had made.
If you came to visit California, and you wanted to stop at a historical gold rush town, you couldn’t do much better than Eureka, CA, named for the exclamation that legend would have you believe was shouted by California prospectors find their fortune in the mid-19th century. But if English was not your first language, and you heard of Eureka by word-of-mouth, you might type in the phonetically-similar (but geographically distinct) “Yreka” instead. Wikipedia, which specifically notes that Yreka should not be confused with Eureka, says that Yreka does honor its gold mining heritage, so you might be pleased in that regard, but you’d be about 200 miles away from your intended destination. I only bring this up because it’s a tangible analogy for the mistake that we made in Germany. In Germany, homophones were less of a problem for us, but a near-homonym became the biggest mistake that we made on this trip.
My friend told us that while we wanted to be in “Münster”, we were actually in “Munster”. For non-German folk, those are two different cities with distinct spelling and pronunciation (along with vastly different locations). Just as if we were in Yreka when we wanted to be in Eureka, we were about 200 miles away from our desired destination. Those two little dots, those tiny, quick strikes of a pen, the couple of extra keystrokes, that umlaut, as it’s called, above the “u” made the difference between three hours on a train and thirteen hours on a train. There were a few options for us, now that we were in a small remote military town rather than the thriving university city where we wanted to be. My friend said that we could still come, but we wouldn’t arrive until 8 PM, leaving us only a few short hours to find good grub and tasty beer. He also recommended Hamburg, the cultural center of northern Germany, where we’d find museums and good food abound. Both of those options weren’t so appealing; it would mean that we would clock over twelve hours on the train in a single day only to board again the next day for a long ride to Switzerland. Instead, we would head to Munich. It was still another 4 hours by train but much closer to Switzerland, giving us time to enjoy the Bavarian capital for a few hours without losing too much daylight on the railways.
It was without a doubt a long ride on those trains. By the end of the day, we were old pros, hopping on and hopping off without small bouts of frantic panic or puzzled looks that normally give tourists away. We knew how to find the right platform, where to board, and how to interact with the conductors despite possible language barriers. Looking back on it now, even though we made a major blunder and wasted an entire day on the train, it doesn’t seem that terrible. The seats were nice and cozy; we had each other and a few good books; and the view out the window gave a taste of rural European life. We might even call it a scenic tour of Germany by rail, if we wanted to embellish the experience. I think it’s especially telling of the amazing trip that we had if this was the worst thing that happened to us. We were pretty fortunate.
Night fell quickly after we left Munster. As we neared Munich, the window panes filled with grassy fields and wooden barns were swapped for thick snow piles and wintery meadows. Little neighborhoods of hovels sat near the road, cozy and quiet with smoke from a woodstove filling the air. Cold blue ponds were frozen over, and timber was stacked neatly near the train tracks, covered in the soft, white snow. Finally, the end of the line came. Double-digit tracks ended in an oversized hangar where people bustled and hurried to find their platform. Our breath condensed in the cold air as we stepped off the train into the partially-enclosed station. With our bags in tow, we set out to find Wifi and scrolled through our phones, comparing hotel prices and walking distances.
Just across the street, a neon green sign shone above a hotel entrance, pulling us in like we were buzzing bugs outside a murky swamp. We checked in and went to bed, happy to just have somewhere to lie down and soft comforters to keep us warm. Breakfast was included in our rate, and while Kierstin was feeling the after-effects of a long, stressful day and wasn’t really hungry in the morning, I went downstairs to check out what delicious nourishment was going to fill my belly. Flaky croissants with soft butter and sweet jams and creamy Nutella; white, red, black, and brown sausages, foreign and familiar; thin-cut deli meats and slices of sharp cheddar, smoked rauchkäse, and holey Swiss; this was no Motel 6 continental breakfast with stale muffins and soggy fruit. I piled multiple plates filled with just about one of everything and devoured my authentic German breakfast. Reenergized and raring for adventure, we set out for the city center.
There were walking tours of Munich, but we had gotten out of bed too slowly to catch any of these. I found some maps online for self-guided walking tours, but you had to pay to navigate through the whole tour. I figured we could try to wing the “Third Reich” tour, which highlighted a few of the monuments that were relevant in Hitler’s rise to power. Kierstin was a history minor in college, with most of her classes being on World War II, and so I thought she would be interested in something like that. We found the first stop; it was hard to miss the New Town Hall with its overbearing spires and detailed grey façade towering over the Marienplatz. The Rathaus-Glockenspiel, a clock tower with carved, mobile figures reenacting historic marriages and legends of dancing barrel makers, chimed above the market. I tried to step into the role of tour guide, reading the short blurbs about each sight. We made it another 100 yards on the tour before we were distracted by an outdoor market and became sidetracked by other attractions. Our walking tour ended quickly, but we managed to enjoy our short day in Germany, which couldn’t have been complete without a tall beer served with weisswurst with sauerkraut and enormous crunchy pretzels with spicy yellow mustard.
It started to drizzle, a little sprinkling that turned into a downpour, and we decided that our time in Germany was coming to an end. There was one final stop on our tour through Europe; we were coming full circle to where we had started. We boarded the train to Switzerland. We headed back to Zurich.