I try to be a Good Person

So I had a meeting in Brussels.

I'm always concerned, and this time I was concerned about the effect a flight down would have on global warming, so I decided to go by train. As usual, the DB site supplied me with the information on how to get to Brussels from Stockholm. It turns out to be possible to do it in around 20 hours with only two changes. Well then! I booked tickets and noted that in addition it would be about three times as expensive as flying as well. The sacrifices one has to make to save the planet…

Came the day and time, and I went to Stockholm Central Station with my backpack with some wholesome reading, other necessities and a towel. Us passengers were then treated to a Monsieur Hulot moment as we, just a few minutes before the train was due to leave, were directed from platform 11 to platform 10 and then to platform 8. We still managed to get on the right train in time and then we rolled off towards Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen, smoking was of course allowed inside the station, even in the restaurants. I used to think this was because Denmark was where the uncivilized South started but in the last few years smoking prohibitions indoors has become the norm all over Europe (more of which anon), except for Denmark. I believe they make a point of being as obnoxious as possible to prove they are not slaves to political correctness. Interestingly enough, the Danes are supposed to be the happiest people in Europe. Perhaps the secret to happiness is not giving a damn about others…

With time came the night train to Cologne. It was a very long train and the sleeper car turned out to be a double-decker, with my compartment up a few steps. Furthermore I found there was even a shower in the car. While this was good news, I wondered how much of the weight of the car consisted of water and how the changing distribution of that would affect the centre of gravity and the behaviour of the train. I will have to find out. Presently I was joined by a young Australian guy, who was on a Grand Tour of Europe. We had a good trip, the sun setting as we travelled southwards. When time came to go to bed, we couldn't figure out how to get the beds out and had to ask the conductor. The secret was that you had to have a key to unlock the system, but once that was done, we couldn't figure out how to fold back the beds. Magic.

I don't sleep too well on trains, but the bed was OK, even if it might have been too short for some of my taller friends, and I dozed on and off until the conductor banged on the door the next morning. A quick shower and breakfast (even if it was croissant-based) as we rolled further through the Rhine valley. Graffiti like high-water marks on all buildings along the railway. Then Cologne. I cannot understand why, as the cathedral stands there just next to the railway station, the glass roof is merely translucent, so that the cathedral cannot be seen.

The final leg was a Thalys train to Bruxelles Midi/Brussel Zuid and on the way there we passed through the Ardennes, which was the scenic high point of the journey. Finally we passed through Brussels and I found myself in the labyrinthine innards of a large railway station. The food court was just opening for the day and I decided that brunch was in order. I often brag that I've never been disappointed in Belgian food and perhaps I should have sought out a more traditional restaurant because the Sunshine Burger I got at Quick Burger was just pathetic. As I lacked the support of a submachine gun, I didn't argue the matter, but simply vowed never the eat there again. I continued out onto the streets of Brussels, choosing a zigzaggy course towards my afternoon appointment. This took me through the EU quarters, where I could see many a cluster of lobbyists standing outdoors smoking, a clear sign that civilization is steadily encroaching on these parts of the world as well.

I sat in a park outside a big museum and read my book, until I decided to find somewhere to eat. Walking through the museum yard my eye was drawn by a glint of metal through a window, I went closer and by Jove—I had been sitting outside the Musée de l'Air for the last hour or so! I would return…

I had an uneventful lunch at a Sino-Cambodian restaurant. Nothing remarkable, but OK. Perhaps a bit on the expensive side though. I've always wondered about those who spoke so enthusiastically about “EU prices” as an argument for Sweden to join the EU—food prices are not and have not been necessarily much lower outside Sweden and, as in Brussels or Paris, can be considerably higher. I suspect the solution to the puzzle is that it was and is the alcohol prices that ever were the interesting quantities. And while that never has been an issue for me, I think that in the end is what most Swedes consider to be the most important point about belonging to the EU. As the booze price is not affected by your native currency, joining the EMU has in consequence not been a high priority.

The meeting went well, I think, and when it was over I walked with rapid steps back to the aviation museum. Entrance was free but I would have less than two hours in which to go through it. As I entered the large hall I was just dumbstruck. All these rare planes, not all Belgian, and lots of loose bits and pieces, dug out of the ground or found in workshops and warehouses, some under restoration, some just shown as they were. Wonderful! Wandering about in there was worth the entire trip for me. Such feelings of joy and buoyancy are seldom long-lived, so perhaps having to leave so shortly afterwards was optimal. I'm looking forward to returning, though.

While I had been in the museum, it had started raining and I realised that strolling around the city, as I had planned to do, was going to be a rather wet affair. Instead I took the metro to the city centre, wandered about a bit in the Princess' Gallery and then didn't quite know what to do. I noticed with some surprise that the bookstores I found, while gloriously stocked in comics, art and philosophy, did not seem to have any technical literature. Perhaps that is reserved for special bookstores out in the suburbs. Another matter to investigate.

In the end I just sat down, resting my legs and was befriended by (at least someone claiming to be) a homeless Palestinian, who told me of his adventures with the asylum system and the way the “first country” rule is enforced. It will be a surprise to absolutely no-one that I'm a soft touch, but really, I wish I could have done more than just tide him over a couple of days, and yet he didn't get more than I soon spent on dinner in a nearby restaurant.

After dinner I couldn't come up with anything better than getting myself back to the railway station and wait five hours for my train. It is often complained that airports are alienating and inhuman, but I'll say this: they are indoors and warm. Railway stations on the other hand are not necessarily either: one of my worst experiences was in Gävle, where I once had to wait four hours for a train in the middle of the night because SJ no longer can be bothered to run night trains from Stockholm. I had had a book with me, so I had feared no more than uncomfortable benches, but little did I expect the evil of privatisation. No sooner had I sat down, before a guard politely asked me to leave, as it was 22:00 and the station would close for the night. What? But I had a train to wait for! That, as it transpired, was no concern of Jernhusen who only operated the station and didn't give a damn about any trains. So there I ended up on the streets of Gävle, and let me tell you, by 02:00 the charm of the little town was rather absent. Luckily it was a warm spring, or I might have been found dead in a snow drift the next morning. Anyway, Bruxelles Midi did not actually close for the night, but nor was it very warm and inviting. In particular benches were difficult to find. I can (barely) understand it if fear of IRA bombs causes the removal of waste paper baskets even from the railway station in Needham Market, but why limit the number of benches? In the end I found somewhere to sit; coincidentally, next to a young Swedish girl. We had a long and pleasant talk, though I fear I as usual might have done the majority of talking, until she had to leave for home (in Brussels, that is). I still had a couple of hours before my train would come in, but read on in my book.

Finally I got on my train, not in a double-decker car this time, but a more traditional one. In the morning I found that we were running late; we arrived about an hour late in Hamburg and I had missed my connecting train. This seems to be a constant problem with Deutsche Bahn, they are always late and they're always a lot late. This time it wasn't too much of a problem as I got rebooked on a later train and would have enough slack in Copenhagen that I should not have any problems getting on my train to Stockholm. The railway station turned out to have a quite large bookstore and I spent some time browsing the shelves there. Here they definitely did have lots of nice books from Motorbuch Verlag, but I decided I didn't need any more books right then.

The next train was DSB-operated and therefore on the dot. To my pleased surprise this train got on the ferry from Puttgarden to Rødby, so I got a boat trip in the bargain. I got up on deck and stood in the sunshine watching enormous amounts of jellyfish in the sea. Is this normal for these waters or yet another sign of global warming?

In Copenhagen I got to the platform for the Stockholm train early and was alone, except for a junkie who was furtively struggling with finding a vein. I didn't quite know what to do but keep an eye on him. In the end he apparently got his fix and as he made his way away, I realised he was wearing painter's clothes, so possibly he worked at a construction site nearby. That is a bit worrying.

Anyway, I got on the train and later in the evening I got home, after three days on the road. Indeed it would have been cheaper and faster to fly, but lowering one's standards is probably going to be necessary for long-term survival, so perhaps I should get used to travelling by train. London can be reached in 30 hours or so, but is probably going to be horribly expensive. On the third hand, not travelling at all is of course the most environmentally conscious.

1 comment:

Purshottam said...

nice writeup .