Kõln Hbf – Leipzig Hbf
12th December 2019
A week in Cologne, almost a year after my first visit there. Since that first visit, strangers had become friends. I was truly rested – hard to come by on the road – and ready for the final leg of the tour.
Seven o’clock start, six hours on the Bummelzug or “Slouch-train”, and five episodes of a pleasant railway comedy drama that is German through-and-through.
Episode 1 I settle into an empty window seat and spread out my morning’s entertainment: novel, notebook, pencil-case, headphones, Christmas cards, phone, camera. Big mistake. The ticket inspector is there within two minutes and makes it very plain, in a headmistress-like tone, that I haven’t made a reservation, that I could and perhaps should have made a reservation, and that those who have done so for this seat will be alighting in Wuppertal. I pack up. Bald-chinned opportunism rarely pays in this country.
Episode 2 A young catering employee appears after Solingen. He wears a neat black beard, a pumpkin orange uniform, and a smirk. He looks into the carriage and says, with sarcasm but not unkindly, ‘What an atmosphere.’ Everyone smiles, which is quite a result in the wake of our brusque conductor. He sells several coffees from his hand-basket.
Episode 3 A handicapped man in an F.C. Köln scarf sits across the aisle from me, chuckling to himself every sixty seconds at whatever is in his earphones. In the next row, a sour-lipped lady in my old window seat tuts into her newspapers and occasionally throws him pious sort of looks. Eventually he moves to the space between compartments; there, he paces restlessly, cackling loudly. When we pull into his final stop, he strolls back in to collect his bags and cries, “Willkommen in dieser ICE nach Dresden Hauptbahnhof! In Kürze erreichen wir Minden Westfalen! Bitte beachten Sie die Lücke zwischen Zug und Bahnsteigkante!” His enjoyment catches on and the whole carriage is smiling again. The catering guy shouts after him as he leaves: ‘Hey, wrong scarf! Forza Leverkusen!’
Episode 4 The ticket inspector passes again. She checks above my new seat and my neighbour’s – no reservation. She frowns and turns away to check-in the sour-lipped lady and her husband. ‘Tickets and reservations please? I see, let me take it out of its cover – yes, yes, all good. Essing has a lovely Christmas market! You’ll be ever so cosy. Well, a wonderful weekend to you both.’ I catch my neighbour’s glance and we stifle a snigger. This may be a republic, but for the price of a reserved seat (€4.50) you can buy royal treatment.
Episode 5 The catering basket comes round again just before Magdeburg, but it’s a different, older man carrying it. I gesture to him.
‘Gerne ein Kaffee, bitte. Where’s the young guy?’
‘We switched in Hannover.’
‘Shame – he was funny’.
‘Yes, I’m funny too. But he didn’t clear up after himself.’
‘Maybe he was too busy thinking up jokes,’ I offer.
‘We all love humour, but he left such a mess. I’m really quite annoyed with him.’ Ray of sunshine, I think to myself.
‘I’ll come back with your order. Mit Salat?’
‘Uh…’ – did he say Sahne, cream? – ‘nein… wie bitte?’
‘Möchtest du Salat mit deinem Döner?’
‘Wait, sorry, I meant to ask for a co-‘ but then I see that he’s grinning at me and I laugh in return. ‘Well played.’
Often in public I retreat into my own thoughts, but sometimes I’m alert to little interactions with neighbours and strangers. I’m beginning to miss these healthy doses of madness during this virus lockdown.