Nordic precision

(From around May 27)

I step into Berlin’s main station hoping to somehow secure a bed reservation to Malmo within 45 minutes.  So far, I’ve always been able to pay for a bed right on the train.  But the general feeling of having-it-togetherness that Berlin’s glittering 5-story modern masterpiece of a train station impressed upon me was concerning.  Perhaps, as the neatly ordered schedules advertised, the Scandinavian express night train really was by reservation only.

The station is surprisingly easy to navigate, filled with detailed maps color-coded by floor.  And after a month of attempting to navigate worlds printed in Polish, Croatian, Czech, Serbian, and Greek, German just looks like an endearingly syllable-heavy version of English.

The automated ticket kiosks, however–where a very kindly older German man tries his hardest to help me–tell me it’s too late to buy a ticket for a train that leaves in 30 minutes.  So I head down to the track.  While waiting for the conductor, a bustling but friendly-looking lanky man in his early 30s, I rack my brain to determine if I know enough German words to string together a relevant sentence.  When I finally approach him with my carefully prepared, “Eischuldengenzie, ich habe das…pass…aber nicht ein couchette….ich kannst jetzt…(hold up Euros)?” I get about as far as “ich habe” before he says in English, “You need a place?  Sure, car number 201, bed 13.”

When I find the car in question, however, I feel my heart sink, because there is no way I can possibly afford this kind of luxury.  Rather than the usual six-bed, crammed-like-sardines couchette, these cars are filled with “sleeper” rooms of just two beds each.  The top bunk is even fenced in by a quarter-meter-high piece of mesh, as a sort of privacy barrier, but since this section of the train is virtually empty, all of these will be private rooms for this ride.  I haven’t slept in a room like this in weeks: beds roomy enough that you can sit up in them, a shallow closet by the window fitted with actual clothes hangers, a strip with two electric outlets, and–oh glory Hallelujah–a private bathroom that is so clean it glistens.

Clearly this will be a luxury I cannot afford, but in my head I start trying to decide how much I’d be willing to pay for this versus crowding into one of the cattle cars with the horde of Swedish teens I saw climbing on board.  When the conductor comes around, however, he says, “No, they’re the same price,” with a smile to indicate that’s perhaps just because this section is mostly empty, and charges me 19 euros, but takes 17.50 when it turns out I don’t have change.  That’s about $24.  He shows me a small holder next to the door where there are two punch-hole style keycards–this door locks from both the inside and out.

He leaves and I open the bathroom door to take stock: a brand new pink shower curtain, a showerhead, five different towels, six tiny vials of body wash and shampoo, and five neatly wrapped bars of “vegetable soap,” all alongside, incredibly, a working hair dryer.  (Never mind that it resembles a vacuum cleaner hose.)  Along the top shelf next to the mirror, there are four foil-wrapped cups that slosh when I shake them.

“No way,” I say aloud.  Yes: since the water from the faucet is not potable, guests are provided with another source of water: H2O in Dixie cups.  I peel back a tinfoil lid and gulp thirstily, feeling a warm wave of affection for the entire German and Swedish nations and all their clever, detail-oriented people.

It turns out my shower doesn’t work, but no worries, my conductor tells me after 20 minutes of attempted repairs, there’s another shower up the hall.  This is also a private shower, actually, since I’m the only one in a stretch of two cars.  It has an actual door, made of glass, a small wooden drop-down bench to hold your belongings, and more packets of vegetable soap and vials of shampoo, along with a large liquid soap dispenser on the tiled wall.

It’s a magical sort of journey–the train hurtles along through northern Germany, hardly stopping, and I wake early in the morning to the light slapping sounds of water on hulls.  We’re on a ferry: the train is sitting on a special section of track inside a huge boat, making its way across the water to Sweden.  I squint out the window and can only see the inside of a boat hold.  The next time I wake up, there are solid, square red and gray buildings dotting spacious fields of yellow flowers.

It occurs to me at some point that the relief and delight I feel at this kind of First World luxury is not the best feeling to cultivate a few days before heading off to rural India for a month.  But I decide it’s a nice kind of last hurrah, a final indulgence before abandoning all pretense of worldly comfort.  Besides, I’ve only slept for about 7 hours, but this is the most well-rested I’ve felt in days.


Later, on arriving in Lund, Sweden, I decide to drop my bags off and explore, a somewhat bold manuever considering I haven’t the foggiest where I am nor a map to show me, have none of the local currency and can only guess at the exchange rate, and can’t say so much as “excuse me” in Swedish.  Feeling bold, I find an ATM and baggage lockers and take out 500 Swedish crowns, based on the fact that a bottle of water costs 20 crowns and a locker 50, and also that the ATM will only give me money in denominations greater than 500.

Inside, the lockers are a high-tech affair, with a computerized, automated central system controlling a bank of 15 lockers via a system of push-codes rather than a standard lock-and-key system.  I put in my large backpack, along with this computer and a few books, lock it shut by feeding money into a main slot, and wait for the machine to print out a promised receipt with the code I need to reopen the locker.


I wait a few more moments, trying not to betray any signs of American impatience lest I cause a fuss among the decidedly unfussy Swedes.

Still nothing.

Feeling an edge of panic, I press a few buttons at random on the screen, trying to get it to produce a receipt or maybe an error message or perhaps an apology.  Nothing.  I ask a cashier at the ticket office for help, and she tells me I need to call the number listed on the machine.  I do so and reach a person who tells me he’ll call me back.  An hour passes.  I wander around and buy a muffin whose price I don’t understand, increasingly panicky.  Finally a group of Swedes appears, apparently cursed by the same problem.  They call the same number and manage to secure a promise that someone will come to release our bags from bondage.  Which they do, 30 minutes later.

Curse these Swedes and their technology and their precision!


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