Two minutes later, and I would have been among the Damned.
But I barely managed to get my connecting train - and with it, my seat reservation.
But let's do this from the start. Each year, I take care go back to my hometown for Christmas to visit my parents, my family, as well as old friends, and this year was no exception. Usually, I travel on the weekend before Christmas, but this year I was only able to do it today, on the 23rd.
I knew that the journey was going to be bad - at this time in the year, everyone goes home to visit their families in Germany. The severe snowfalls which the Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) wasn't able to cope with very well caused further delays. And making it worse, lots of flights in Central Europe ended up being canceled as well in the last few days, which added even more passengers to the trains. So I was quite relieved that I had bought a ticket and reserved a seat the previous week. And after a rousing game of Eclipse Phase the previous evening, I started early, finished packing my suitcase (which quickly filled with lots of old gaming books and novels I wanted to sell, and thus was correspondingly heavy - probably about 35 kg or so) and stepped out of the door.
Which is where I encountered my first problem - new snow had fallen overnight. Which is not a good condition to pull a suitcase with tiny little wheels through, especially considering that the snow covered semi-molten ice in many places. The wheels hardly seemed to connect with the ground at times. But when I arrived at the bus station, I saw that the wheels probably did connect to the ground - but what they didn't connect to was my suitcase, as they were gone by that point. The grit some caring people had put on the sidewalks on some places probably hadn't helped, either. Considering how much I still had to walk today from one train to another, this was... not good.
Fortunately, I did get to the train station early enough to catch my first train, a regional train from Aachen to Cologne, as I wanted to have some breathing space and timed it to account for the bad weather - though getting my suitcase to the platform was rather more strenuous than originally planned. But then I discovered that the train was five minutes anyway - but I arrived early enough to get a good spot in the queue that formed when the train arrived, and carried my luggage to the upper floor.
Then, before the very next train stop, the train took an unscheduled break, and there was an announcement that we would have to wait until the bullet train from Bruessels - which was running late - had passed us by. At this point, I started to worry - the train was now ten minutes late, and according to my ticket I had only nine minutes to get my connecting train in Cologne.
That train would take me from Cologne to Nuremberg, and was an Inter-City Express (ICE), the German equivalent of bullet trains - and unlike regional trains, it permits seat reservations. Which is pretty important for a connection which you know will take you four and a half hours, and which you know is going to contain more people than seats, many of whom will have more than one suitcase with them because they want to bring gifts to their relatives. So while I could simply have taken the next bullet train an hour later, I really didn't want to without a seat reservation.
So I checked checked the online status of the train, and the Deutsche Bahn website told me that it was punctual. Punctual! Why today, of all days? I already resigned myself to the purgatory that was sure to await me, but then the conductor told me that the latest news she had heard was that that train was running ten minutes late. 15 minutes prior to our arrival an announcement with connecting trains confirmed that. But five minutes prior to our arrival another announcement with connecting trains in Cologne took place - and this one didn't mention my train. What was going on? Had it already left?
The train arrived at its platform, and I saw the bullet train at a platform parallel to ours. Would I make it in time, or would it leave right before my eyes? I carried my (again, very heavy) suitcase down the stairs as fast as I was able. Then I carried it up again the next set of stairs. No, the train was still there. Where was my seat again? Wagon 25, Seat 21 - right. I had emerged near the end of the train, next to Wagon 21, but there were still quite a few people crowding at the doors, so I walked as quickly as I was able with my suitcase. Wagon 22, Wagon 23... no, better get inside before the train departs. I caught my breath again and then waited for a few minutes until most people had found their seats and stowed away their luggage before I dared venture further. Wagon 24, Wagon... wait, why was the next one the dining wagon? After that, I was in Wagon 27. Where was Wagon 25? I went back to the dining wagon, and asked an attendant - and she told me that there was no Wagon 25! I looked at my ticket again, and realized that my seat was in Wagon 21! So I went back the way I came. Wagon 24, Wagon 23... in Wagon 22 there was a jam as a group of pensioners had apparently been late with finding their seats and still took their time with stowing away their luggage. I waited at the front of the wagon and chatted with another attendant, who had to wait as well because she wanted to be able to walk through the wagon so that she could sell drinks and snacks from her small trolley, and she couldn't push the trolley through the wagon because all those people and suitcases were still in the way.
But eventually the jam cleared, I went to the right wagon, and I found Seat 21 - a window seat at a table, just as ordered. I evicted a young women from it who didn't have a seat reservation, but fortunately there was still another free seat nearby which she vacated to. Gratefully, I sank into my seat and bought something to drink from the attendant with the trolley who had also managed to progress this far by this stage.
The train passed Bonn, Koblenz, and was approachingMainz - a normally extremely scenic route along the river Rhine, but it was too foggy to see much and I was on the wrong side of the train anyway. At that point I belatedly realized something: If I had been confused about the wagon and my seat was in Wagon 21 instead of 25, shouldn't my seat number conversely have been 25 instead of 21? I looked at the ticket which confirmed it - my reserved seat was at the window on the other side... which was currently occupied by a woman holding her one year old baby, with her husband sitting right next to her. Since I mentioned my mistake to the other passengers at my table, the couple became aware of this - but I reassured them that as long as nobody had reserved the seat I was sitting on, everything was fine.
Predictably, a passenger getting on the train at Mainz had done just that. The couple made motions to vacate the seat, but I told them that I would just stand until Frankfurt Main Station (fifteen minutes away), where in my experience lots of seats would open up in this wagon. Then a passenger sitting at the same table as the couple offered me her seat, as she was getting off at the Frankfurt Airport (five minutes away), so I was able to avoid standing. Finally, at Frankfurt itself I suggested switching sides to the couple so that I could have my reserved seat and they could still sit next to each other, which they agreed to. Finally, I had my seat - unlike the more than a dozen people in our wagon alone who were forced to remain standing or sitting on the floor or their suitcases...
As we were approaching Nuremberg, we were running fifteen minutes late - which was regrettable, but not nearly as bad as I had feared in the morning. Still, it meant that I would miss the next regional train from Nuremberg to Erlangen, my final destination. But just before Nuremberg, the train made another unscheduled stop, and it was now running 24 minutes late - which meant that I would miss the second regional train going into the same direction, and if I remembered correctly, the next one would go fifty minutes later.
So instead I simply got onto the next bullet train passing through Erlangen - which I wasn't supposed to, since my ticket only covered a regional train for that direction, but I figured that instead of carrying my heavy suitcase all the way to the so-called "Service Point" and argue with the employee of the Deutsche Bahn there to give me an exception - and likely miss the train due to waiting in line there - I'd just take my chances and argue the point with the conductor in the train should one appear (which didn't happen).
I didn't even bother to look for a seat, since that final leg of the journey only took ten minutes. During that time, I chatted with an older women who also wanted to get out of the train at Erlangen - and, as it turned out, who had lived in the same suburb where my parents live now, and now was about to visit her grown-up children. Once we arrived, she offered me that her son could take me to my parents' house with his car, which I gladly accepted since it meant I didn't have to take the bus - which would likely have been at least as crowded as the trains.
Thanks to them, I finally arrived at my parent's house seven and a half hours after I left my apartment in Aachen - sore, but happy. And I hope that you, too, will be spending the next days with people you care about and who care about you in turn.
So, what tales do you have about your journey home, if you made one?