Belgium, man, Belgium!

Stockholm C, Monday morning 08:20. Sleet. Cold outside, cold in my head, cold in my heart. I crave solitude but the X2000 to Malmö is all but full.

Östergötland and Småland have a snow cover. Listlessly I try to read documents in preparation for my meeting.

Malmö C, 12:50. The sun shines over the chilly city. I grab a Whopper Meal (sorry, we're out of orange juice) and try to make phone calls. No reply.

København H, 14:40. The main hall feels even colder than outside. I wander around aimlessly rather than freeze on a bench. The benches are anyway taken over by addicts, some joyously high, most silently sunken in on themselves. Finally, the IC3 train to Hamburg. A happy baby gurgling and giggling somewhere behind me, a pair of German girls in front of me, reading thrillers and eating fruit they've brought with them in sensible plastic containers. The sun has set and Zeeland is dark. I have electricity but no Internet, so I can't reach the file server. I return the laptop to my backpack.

Ferry from Rødby to Puttgarden. I refrain from going up on deck, curl up and read about homogeneous transform matrices, erratic bits staying in my mind.

Hamburg Hbf, 20:30. Cold and dark, I have two and a half hours to spend. I am disoriented at first but find the food court after a bit of spinning around. Three slices pan pizza later I am less hungry and cold, but still tired. The book store beckons. Motorbuch Verlag offers thick volumes in German, but I don't want to lug any more luggage and anyway I already have enough reading material.

Fretting, I loaf around the station, watching various shops clean up and close down. The train arrives. Classic sleeper car, no need to fold out the beds. For a couple of seconds I think I will have the compartment to myself, but I am soon joined by a polite elderly gentleman. His accent gives him away as a Swede. The train judders away into the night, I sleep fitfully and when the wake-up alarm by my head goes off I am grateful for the official end of the night.

On my return from the shower a very upset man harangues the car attendant, who tries to pass me my breakfast. I cannot follow all the rapid German, but gather that somebody has attempted to enter the man's compartment pretending to be a train employee. While I gulp my morning tea and croissant, two burly men in DB uniforms come through the corridor. The train stands outside Brussels for a long time, but I do not know how the story ends.

Bruxelles Midi, 06:30. Rain, cold. Not fancying a walk through the city I find my way into the Métro system. The PA system plays pop classics, but the sound quality is awful, the music fading in and out as from a bad AM station.

At the hotel I have plenty of time before my meeting. I try to write postcards, struggling to find the right non-committal but vaguely cheerful phrases.

In meeting, I try to make incisive points and intelligent comments but I notice myself nodding off every time I blink.

When the meeting is over, I still have seven hours before my train back home leaves. I take over a sofa in the hotel lobby and sit and read.

Bruxelles Midi, 23:10. When ennui gives way to annoyance. It's easy to find my train on the info board, it burns in bright red with the comment supprimé/afgeschaft. What? The station is mostly empty, so it is easy to find the queue of upset travellers besieging the lone Belgian railways employee to find out what has happened and how to continue on their respective journeys. The SNCB person has his opinion clear, this is all our own fault, since the railway strike in France has been publicly announced. (That I just arrived in the country the same morning and don't expect strikes in France to affect a train from Belgium to Germany doesn't matter.) However, out of the goodness of his heart he writes out and stamps a form that in essence amounts to a Note from Mum: “This person has missed a train due to circumstances outside his control, please let him have a seat on your train.” and adds an itinerary to Stockholm for me for the next morning. Right, and where am I supposed to sleep tonight? Not his problem, but out of the kindness of the heart of the Eurostar management we are allowed to sleep on the lobby floor of the Eurostar hotel. Sheesh, I'm too old for this kind of shit! A likewise annoyed Brit and I strike out along Rue de l'Angleterre to find a hotel with free rooms.

Hotel Continental, 00:10. I have stayed in seedier places, but not by a wide margin and not for the price of 150 EUR a night. On the other hand, by virtue of having gotten the last room in the hotel my dominion for the night is a giant room-and-a-half with no less than seven beds to choose from. They are all uncomfortable. The room is rather cold, which turns out to be due to the French windows not closing properly. On the other hand it means that the room is well aired out. And then there is the railway right outside. I prop a chair in front of the rickety door and then I fall asleep.

Bruxelles Midi, 08:00. Brilliant sunshine over chilly Brussels. I try to argue a bit more with the SNCB staff to at least get reservations for the trains I have to take—in particular I'd like a sleeping car reservation for the night train from Malmö—but their computer system does not see bookings and, anyway, it's not their problem.

Bruxelles Midi, 08:30. The electronic information boards stop working.

Bruxelles Midi, 10:22. Against all expectation the THALYS train to Cologne leaves on time. To my surprise the Note from Mum is accepted without comment by the conductor. The Ardennes are as beautiful as ever.

Köln Hbf, 13:20. The train to Hamburg is late. I am anxious, I don't have much time for train change in Hamburg.

Hamburg Hbf, 17:26. The train driver has managed to regain lost time and I dash to the next platform to catch the Copenhagen train. I end up across a young Finnish couple (young enough that I have to keep myself from asking them why they aren't in school) who have been Interrailing around Germany and the Netherlands for the last month and now finally are on their way home to Tampere. We play cards and chat for the rest of the journey.

København H, 22:23. They must be practicing to turn the station into a skating rink. I catch the train to Malmö.

Malmö C, 23:08. Out of the goodness of his heart the conductor allows me aboard the train, but no sleeping place for tramps. I find that they do not dim the lights in the cars just because it is night and everybody would like to sleep. I must have slept though, because I wake up around Linköping.

Stockholm C, 05:45. Fuzzily, muzzily I stumble home, soak myself in the tub and then in bed.

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