The last leg of my quick and brief journey around Europe was to leave the beautiful countryside of Lake Bled in Slovenia on the Thursday to get to Munich, from where I had a couchette booked on the night train to Paris. Arriving there on the Friday morning, I would have a few hours to meet up with my Paris-based sister-in-law until catching the 2pm Eurostar back to Kings Cross. Then a short walk across the station to the Northern Line, the tube back up to Archway I'd be home by 5pm to collect my daughter from after school club. A lot of trains. It turned out to include a few buses too.
Whilst in Berlin, I had made use of the English speaking staff at the huge main train station and had reserved seats on some of the busier trains I was going to be using over the coming weeks. Even having a Euro rail pass doesn't always mean you can travel on any train, some Express ones require a reservation as well. One train I wanted to reserve was the one from Lesce Bled to Munich. A long journey and an all important one for me to catch as I couldn't afford to miss the connection to Paris. However, the Berlin train guy couldn't bring up a reservation for me, and apologetically told me he thought it would be fine to just board on the day.
All my other journeys had gone as planned, (although running through Prague to eventually catch the sleeper train to Budapest with 3 minutes to spare wasn't brilliant -though it was probably my favourite journey on the trip). I'd arrived at Lake Bled on the Wednesday from Ljubljana, the small but lovely capital of Slovenia. I'd walked to the station from the hostel and had 20 minutes to spare before my train left. This was fortunate, as I took the time to ask again about reserving a seat for the Munich bound train at the international ticket kiosk which amazingly had no queue. There, the kind woman told me in good English that it wasn't possible to reserve seats on the train I needed as there was engineering work taking place in Austria. This meant that there would be a bus part way and possible delays. Even if the train ran to schedule, I'd only left myself an hour in Munich before the sleeper train departed. So, armed with this information, I checked my European train timetable which I had brought with me, and worked out that the only other train to Munich would leave a whole 7 hours earlier. I had to go for it though, I couldn't risk not getting the sleeper.
In Bled, I stayed at the really lovely Travellers' Haven hostel, and come Thursday morning I was up before any of my room mates, or indeed anyone else from the place. I'd brought in some breakfast the night before which I ate quickly in the kitchen and then before leaving, virtually ran down to the perfect picture-postcard lake with my camera for some early morning shots. I was hoping to get mist over the water but it was pretty clear, and I suppose not that early really, it was about 8am. Getting back, I grabbed my bag, said my farewells to the few that were now up, and got the bus to the train station a couple of miles away. I was the only passenger.
It is a tiny station, in the middle of nowhere but had a tourist information office manned by a friendly guy. He'd helped me the day before in giving me directions to the right bus stop and showed me on a map he'd given me where to walk to at the other end to get to my hostel. So there I was at 9.30am on a sunny Thursday morning waiting with about four others for the 10.10 train to Munich, the penultimate day of my trip. The tourist info guy spotted me, waved and came and sat with me at the station cafe where I was having a needed coffee, asked me where I was off to and assured me that the delays were major and that it was definitely worth this effort of getting the earlier train.
The train arrived on time. I got in an empty compartment before being joined by some German bloke. He didn't speak English and my German is atrocious so we tried a bit of conversation but all got a bit lost in translation. The guard came in at one point to tell us that the train would be terminating at Villach, a border town in Austria. He didn't seem to know anything about other trains or buses we would need to help us on our way. The German passenger was very frustrated, arms in the air stuff, but at least I felt prepared, relaxed about it.
Once at Villach, it transpired that we would have an hour and a half to wait for a train to take us to a place called Bockstein. This information was garnered by the fact that I studiously befriended a couple of matriarchal looking German women who spoke a bit of English and who you could tell were natural born organisers. They sorted everyone out. By this time, the whole platform was full of passengers, the original train having started in Zagreb in Croatia. I spoke and nodded to Croatians, Italians, Austrians and Germans. I was the only English person. It was whilst waiting at Villach that I encountered an old German guy. I had managed to get a seat on the platform; it was going to be a long wait. This guy tottered up to the bench, wheeling his small suitcase behind him. He plonked himself next to me and spoke to me in German. I apologised and said I only spoke English. He offered me a few English words but then, undeterred, continued to talk in German to (or at) me. At the time, I was writing my journal and listening to my ipod. By this time it was about midday. A packet of biscuits, a small bar of Green and Blacks dark chocolate together with some water was the only food I had. I offered him some but he declined. He then intimated that he was off to find some proper food. Up he got and slowly made it down the platform and disappeared down the stairs.
About ten minutes before the train was due, he returned and sat back next to me. I said hello and smiled and he continued to talk in a Deutsche monologue. I'd worried about my ipod running down on this long journey but now felt I had to turn it off and nod and try and converse. He clearly wasn't going to let me away. We boarded the train, which was already quite packed, but I found a seat for him and myself. He chatted away to the woman next to me, who kept looking at me and smiling. She then translated that he had told her that he was looking after me, that I was alone and that he'd never seen anyone write so fast. The guard checked tickets and explained that we needed to get off at Bockstein then get a bus which would be waiting to take us to Schwarzach-St Weit. From there the 15.05 train would get us to Salzburg.
There was a bit of a walk from the train to the waiting buses. I resisted the urge to rush on ahead, instead walked at a slow pace alongside my new friend to make sure he didn't get left behind. The matriarchal German Fraus were up ahead, rallying everyone else. I again found us a seat where he gratefully rested next to me. All the while he was talking in German, but slowly and in a way that I could just about grasp what he was trying to convey. I uttered the odd response but really my German is way too rusty so it was just the odd word rather than a sentence.
The scenery throughout the whole journey was overwhelmingly beautiful. I have two cameras, a SLR and a compact. I was using both and he was very curious why I was taking so many photographs. I managed to explain that I was an artist. He nodded knowingly. Once we got onto the next train on route to Salzburg, he decided that he would share my chocolate after all. In front of us were two women from the original train - by that time there was a certain camaraderie. He spoke to them in what he subsequently told me was Croatian. I then worked out that he was originally from Croatia, moved to Germany in 1960. He was 77. His son used to live and study in England, speaks many languages and is a teacher now in Germany. Charlotte - who I took to be his grand daughter - is a great musician and dancer but can no longer dance well as she injured her hip. He had visited England in the past and liked it. Wars are unjust, something about Ghenghis Khan, bayonets, Jews and fascism and people being killed needlessly. By this time, he was leaning right into me, his elbow on my arm, and I produced my rail map which I love looking at, to ask him where he lived and about different places. He found Rosenheim. That's where he lives now. He showed me rivers and various towns, all had a story which I couldn't always grasp. By now, we were heading into Salzburg and another change of train for the final leg to Munich - or, for him, Rosenheim. The time was 3pm. I'd been talked to for going on 3 hours.
The next train left at 15.05 from platform 22. By the time we got off the train there was a bit of a surge going on. It transpired that platform 22 was at the other end of the station.There was a bit of anxiety going on all over the place. I tried not to rush in an effort to keep him calm and unflustered. I was clocking the platform directions and was heading straight on. I kept slowing down, looking round to make sure he was okay. He was, he kept nodding and pointing, intimating that I get on my way. Next time I looked round, he'd disappeared. I stopped and went back. I saw the back of him tottering off behind the matriarchs who had diverted left. Now he was looking round for me. I went my original direction and made it to platform 22 before anyone else. It was 15.04. I could see the train was packed, but I waited at a door to make sure he would get on and not miss it. I spotted him coming around the corner onto the platform, and waved. His arm went up in recognition. I got on the train, a huge double-decker and amazingly found a free double seat right near the door. I left my rucksack on the seat and went to look for him. I couldn't see him. Then, I saw the matriarchs bundling him thorough another door into a crowded carriage. I turned back to where a nun was now hovering around my seat with 2 cases. I heaved my rucksack onto the rack and let her sit down next to me. She smiled but didn't utter a word. The train left punctually and as we eased gradually through the city of Salzburg, my imaginary internal ipod was gratingly stuck on the Sound of Music. I would have preferred a slow, deliberate German monologue.
Just before arriving at Munich, 9 hours after I'd left Lake Bled, we came into the station of Rosenheim at 6pm. I was by the window and I strained to see. And there he was, picking his way carefully along the platform, a pause and a look. I waved. He didn't see me. He was looking for me though. I waved in that big way you do. He stood and studied the train. He didn't see me. He then picked up his case and chugged off through the gate. At Rosenheim station. Mein Herr Rosenheim. I didn't even know his name.