“Push, push!” My mother yelled.
I pushed obediently, as she pulled.
Many European subway networks that we had encountered in the past had deemed our suitcases “children”, meriting a legitimate child’s metro ticket (Traveller’s Tip #1: illegitimate suitcases are offered no concessions). The German rail network was not one of them, and our suitcases had not taken kindly to this. Determined to utilize their commendable method-acting skills to prove that age is just a number, they had internalized the qualities of any ordinary child. They were annoying and stubborn and fell over a lot.
With an unintelligent thud, the suitcases fell face first into the Bahn – the Deutsche Bahn if one wanted to make it abundantly clear that the impending four-hour train journey from Berlin to Prague was a munificent return gift from the Fatherland. Two more unintelligent thuds graced our own elegant ascent into the train, face first. Those genes are potent.
Standing up, I gingerly hauled up my suitcase and looked around. As fate would have it, the restaurant car was right next to ours, nice! The washrooms looked spacious too, in case I decided to faint there. I admired the perspicacity and foresight of German coach building for a few minutes until I was politely ushered along by some nice people shouting at me in German, and my mother, shouting at me in English.
We are small people, and Europeans are kind, which meant that we were amongst the first in the train, and the first to find seats. We collapsed into our seats, strapped in Alejandro and Alice – that is what I shall refer to our suitcases from now on – and I was halfway through my first Oreo when it happened.
Like Moses parting the Red sea, the coach door opened.
And They walked in. The People. So many People. I have never seen more People in my life.
The train screeched into motion.
The mob fell forward, face first, with an unintelligent thud. I had to hold Alejandro and Alice close to me to protect them, and to keep them from bursting into tears. All right, it was more to keep me from bursting into tears. What was happening?
“That’s my seat.” I looked up to see a young woman standing next to me. “That’s my seat,” she repeated.
I was confused, so I did what any sane, well-adjusted person would do – I said “Huhhh…?” and a little bit of drool pooled around the corner of my lips.
She looked at my mother and said, “I’m very sorry, but this is my seat. I have a ticket right here, and it says that this seat is reserved. By me.” My mother was confused too, but she is better than me in crisis situations, so she looked over the ticket and realized that the woman was right. “But they told us it was free seating!” she exclaimed.
Traveller’s Tip #2: There is no such thing as a free seat.
Up and down the aisle, people like us, all victims of the free seating scam, were relinquishing their seats. Rosa Parks would be disappointed. I was shoved into the two-foot wide aisle, Alejandro and Alice in my arms, with about twenty others, all clutching terrified suitcases. The lucky ones had managed to find fold out seats – another example of the foresight of German coach building – and were clinging to them for their dear life. Literally.
Because that’s when The People started to move.
As it turns out, some people with reserved seats had ended up on the wrong end of the aisle and now had to push their way through us, the free seating scapegoats with suitcases, to get to their seats. And get to their seats they would, even if killed them. Which it probably would.
I have romantic notions of myself being a misanthrope, like Dr. House, making the occasional sarcastic comment about mortals and mortality from the confines of my bedroom. But honestly, you’ve never truly hated people until you’ve been smashed up against a window with your face in their posterior region and their carbon dioxide in your oxygen.
After plenty of pushing, shoving and some cries of “Schwein!” (all from me), it seemed like everybody had found their place. We were still packed in the aisle, but at least no one was moving. My mother even found a fold out seat for herself, while I – and it pains me to admit this – sat on Alejandro.
Then Jesus arrived.
A two hundred pound American with tattoos and a bandana and a Jesus beard, the type who looks like he carries a surfboard to the grocery store (the American, not Jesus) had somehow found himself on the wrong side of the train. He appeared to take immense pride in this achievement. Hauling his backpack over his head, he recited joyfully “Two hundred pound American coming through!” “Make way for the two hundred pound American!”
And then he pulled the emergency brake.
To quote the astute Australian backpacker next to me, “He did not just do that [mate].”
The train screeched to a halt.
The aisle groaned. The American grinned. “It was my backpack,” he informed us proudly.
Overhead, the speakers began crackling and a German announcer began rapping in either Klingon or Sub-Saharan click language – it was hard to tell, because the sound system kept breaking down. I was a little worried that the sound would disturb the man in the foldout seat next to me, a thirty-year-old German who had survived the countless posteriors, the turmoil of the previous hour and the resurrection of Christ by taking refuge in a seemingly exhilarating Mickey Mouse comic book. But my fears were unfounded; he remained completely unfazed, burying himself deeper into the turbulent romance of Donald and Daisy.
The inspectors arrived. They were exactly how I’d imagined them – rotund, big moustaches, and thoroughly confused. They walked across the coach seeking out signs of any potential crisis situation. They stopped at my thirty-year-old German for a moment, and I thought they might be contemplating whether he was the one who pulled the brake. But then they saw that he was reading Mickey Mouse, which is a perfectly normal thing for a middle-aged man to do, and moved on.
Nobody tattled on Mr. Two-Hundred-Pound-American-Coming-Through, who was standing in the aisle sheepishly, having realized that accidentally pulling the emergency brake on the Deutsche Bahn wasn’t exactly something he could put on his resume. I would have told them, but my reasonably average math skills told me that that two hundred pounds of American means at least twenty pounds of posterior.
So we stayed quiet, united in our silence, until the inspectors decided that they too would rather be reading Mickey Mouse. They gave the all-clear sign and left, the train screeched into motion for the second time, and our entire coach breathed a collective sigh of relief at having been left scot-free.
But we were not scotch-free.
The conveniently positioned restaurant car, which at one point was the highlight of my life, now turned into the bane of my existence. Just as those of us in the aisle had become reasonably comfortable and had reconciled ourselves to sitting on our children, the people in the seats became twitchy. Taking a cue from emergency brake Jesus, our seated co-travellers decided that water would have to be replaced with wine and, because it was Germany, beer.
Every time somebody on the far side of the aisle decided that they needed quenching, all of us, content on our suitcases, would have to stand up to make way – like very, very dysfunctional dominoes. And then they’d come back with their bottles, and we’d have to stand up again, and try very hard not to trip them on purpose. The people flowed up the aisle. The beer flowed down the aisle. I switched between Alejandro and Alice.
Beer on the bahn had certain consequences. It made the uninhibited even more uninhibited, and through clever eavesdropping, I was able to learn of the Australian gentleman’s failures with the opposite sex (“I don’t remember what I said to her, mate, but she ran away”). It made the magical more magical – one American backpacker attempted to perform a particularly raucous magic trick requiring playing cards. He did not actually have playing cards, but the British spectators were awestruck regardless. Worse of all, however, beer made the small-bladdered even smaller-bladdered, triggering another wave of trips down the aisle.
I don’t know how I survived the journey. It was all a blur – figuratively and literally. I think I got a glimpse of a few trees. Maybe a river? I don’t know, but apparently the scenery was nice.
Finally we arrived at Prague. The train drew slowly into the station. My mother and I looked at each other – WE HAD MADE IT! And we were in the aisle already, which meant we’d be the first to get out of Nightmare Express. Waiting for the moment that we’d be able to throw ourselves back into the clutches of civilization, we hauled up our suitcases.
Alejandro didn’t make it.