Trains, Planes and Automobiles: a Christmas Ferry-tale


Susann Landefeld on her epic journey home, through chaotic snowy conditions, from Scotland to Germany…

Ever since I decided to study in the UK, a romantic image of a Harry-Potter-esque journey through a beautiful British winter wonderland has been on my list of things to experience as a St Andrews student. Well, to say I’m glad to cross that off is an understatement, after the nightmare journey home for Christmas this year.

On Saturday 18th December, my sister and I left Dundee on an overnight bus to London – probably the only way to get out of Scotland at that point, since most trains had stopped operating due to the all-too-familiar “adverse weather conditions.” Reaching Victoria Coach Station in London 2.5 hours late on Sunday morning, we were informed that all direct buses to the airport were no longer in service. To avoid the city’s chaotic traffic situation, the tube seemed like the fastest way to get to Heathrow Airport. My attempt to use Scottish bank notes for the purchase of tickets, however, earned me an incredulous look. “You cannot use those here! We don’t accept foreign currency”, I was told with a frown, as if I had just offered to trade in a camel. It might be time to polish up my geography; I hadn’t been aware that I’d entered a new country already. Maybe the longed-for Scottish independence is more accepted in England after all.

Despite these minor incidents, we arrived joyfully at Terminal 1, pleased to have made it well in time for our flight and in anticipation to be home in a mere few hours, only to be denied entry: Heathrow had just shut down in its entirety and was not expected to open up again for the rest of the day. The only remotely helpful assistance provided by the airport personnel was a list of telephone hotlines. Not much of a help if your airline is notoriously occupied. Thank you for telling me to try again later, when I am freezing with absolutely nowhere to go. There were no alternative flights scheduled, the Eurostar train was completely booked out, and most National Express buses to Europe were no longer operating. All prospects of making it home for Christmas were shattered.

On top of the hopelessness of the situation, it felt surreally like being at the center of a war scene, watching innumerable people stream out of the terminals from both sides, while security staff shut the metal gates back to the tube station to prevent the platform from overflowing. A poor attempt to gain control over the enraged masses trapped in no-man’s-land, somewhere between the entrances to Terminal 1, 2 and 3 and the tube station.

Left with no alternative but to look elsewhere, we eventually found ourselves at St Pancras International. In the middle of the mayhem of the station concourse, crowded with people having been waiting desperately to leave the country for days, we were told that “there’s no point in coming back for tickets before Tuesday but you could always try the ferry.” Yeah right, we’ll cross the Channel on a boat to embark upon an unsure trek half way across Europe? What seemed ridiculous at that time, turned out to be a rather lucrative option once Monday dawned. With a choice between waiting helplessly in London for an uncertain period of time, not knowing whether to wait for another few days or to finally get moving again, we opted for the latter. Never mind my seasickness – desperate times call for desperate measures.
In this way, the next train south was ours; through the wintery English countryside, past sleepy places like “Snowdown”, we headed to Dover to catch a ferry to Calais. Anything to leave this island and reach mainland Europe. Our whole trip had started to bear a perverse resemblance to a reverse version of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. There was a lot more to come though. Thank goodness for the Schengen Agreement; visa requirements and multiple border controls would have severely hindered our upcoming middle-of-the-night-country-hopping and thus further delayed this already lengthy business. Instead, we arrived in Calais without any difficulties.

Who could have expected such local hospitality? Any previously mentioned issues of the British and their multiple versions of a single national currency, however, seem laughable in the light of our experience in France. As one of the co-founders of the European Union, I cannot find a rational explanation for the French to still print the cost of a journey in French Franc on a train ticket. Let me remind you, it is the end of 2010 – almost a decade after the introduction of the Euro in the Economic and Monetary Union. But that is not the only curiosity we encountered in this very peculiar country that is France. At the so-called “international” train station, Calais-Fréthun, it seemed nobody was able, or rather willing, to speak English. It was impossible to find a bite to eat on a late Monday afternoon, but at least plenty of police officers armed with machine guns were on patrol. Priorities, anyone? As we got onto our train to Lille, the weirdness continued. There was barely enough time to marvel at a guy painting a giant oil canvas, when our attention was drawn to a pair of bright yellow eyes staring down from the seat in front of us – the lady had decided to use her living cat as a neck rest.

Once in Lille, the food situation didn’t improve, nor did our mood regarding the 3-hour delay of the train to Brussels. It was going to be another long night. Whilst waiting, a group of men walked by, carrying various license plates in their hands and visibly sticking out of jacket pockets. Not your usual luggage now, is it? The opportunity to get a little bit of rest in spite of such inevitable distractions, however, vanished abruptly with the French loudspeaker announcement, informing us 15 minutes before our train’s departure that the TGV to Brussels would actually arrive at another train station in Lille. But even a late-night sprint across the icy roads of a foreign city with each two heavy suitcases in tow did not yet qualify for the ‘cherry on the cake’ of this French adventure. That was the request to switch trains again, after several hundred passengers had finally stored away their suitcases and exhaustedly taken a seat.

Having never visited Brussels, the Belgium capital as the next destination sounded quite exciting. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time to enjoy it. The very last train scheduled for the day was to depart at 12:01 am, which gave us no more than 4 minutes to catch it. In a wave of desperation, I ran to the only manned service desk called “luggage claim”, to breathlessly exclaim that “I don’t have a ticket but I need to get to Germany NOW!” With a makeshift travel permission in hand, my sister and I thus jumped onto the next train to Welkenraedt – not having a clue of how long we were going to travel or where we were, in fact, going. Maybe a map of Europe would have been a good idea for Christmas? It could go into my survival kit for the next flight via Heathrow Airport, along with a stack of Bank of England notes, flat shoes and a Europe round-trip train ticket.

At least every single person we met during our short time in Belgium was incredibly friendly and helpful. The conductors on the train went out of their way to ensure that my sister and I survived the icy night. It had started snowing heavily again and the train station in Welkenraedt was supposed to be closed during our four-hour layover there. Instead of leaving us out in the cold, they made a call prior to arrival to guarantee us entry into the warm station concourse.

As a result, we were exactly on time to hop onto the first train to Aachen at the break of day on Tuesday. Back in Germany at last – home was so near and yet so far! As we arrived in Cologne with Iess than five minutes to change to Berlin, an exceptionally qualified conductor advised us to take the next train just coming into the platform. Needless to say, we weren’t pleased to find a seat on a train headed for Düsseldorf – exactly the opposite direction from which we’d come from.

It’s remarkable how snow and ice can turn a single country, especially one as large as Germany, into an obstacle course. With numerous further delays and detours via Hannover, Halle and Leipzig, we were eventually reunited with the family on Tuesday night. It only took four days, 11 trains, six buses, six tubes, a taxi and a ferry to finally get there. Oh, the joys of going home for Christmas!


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