Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Overnight Train, Vienna

It’s hot, it’s cramped and I'm laying on one of six bunks in a compartment the size of a bathroom. There's maybe a foot and a half between my head and the bunk above me. When I lay flat staring up, it's hard not to imagine the bunk above you to come toppling down on top of you. Length wise, there is around 6'5", which leaves my toes brushing up against wall. Yes, welcome to the night train. I actually upgraded my ticket to a sleeping car for this trip, there was a seated option as well.

The jolly conductor stopped by a few minutes ago to offer a complimentary cup of “café” for tomorrow morning, as if that'll compensate for the presumed lack of sleep we'll be getting. Oh and a free mini water bottle as well, compliments of the very reliable, TrenItalia. Just a few days ago I was telling someone how much I enjoyed riding the trains throughout Europe. Space, space was one thing I harped on, the seats were comfortable! Well, now it looks like I'm going eat those words. But the night train is not for luxury, it's for convenience. 

My bunk
On one hand, the speed trains in Europe are 21st century, they have Wi-Fi and they have pleasant seats alongside a table space for each passenger. You sit comfortably, with ample leg space as the countryside whisks past you at a couple hundred miles per hour. This was the expectation I had in mind for the night train. Why should it be any different? Let’s have a lounge area and a bar that’s open all night serving cold drinks. How about Wi-Fi so I can prepare for my interview tomorrow, a comfortable bunk so I can get some sleep. That mindset was completely shattered as soon as I saw the train pull into the station, well rather lurch into the station. You can immediately spot the difference between a speed train and any sort of regional train here in Europe. Bullet trains look the part, riding well into the station, the front of the train looks like the front of a Boeing 767, ready to break through the air, just like the nickname says, like a bullet. There's a certain swagger about the speed trains. The latter is a run down, "Thomas the Tank Engine" looking train that crawls into the station, seemingly content on having made it to it's next stop. These are the trains that were in the VHS train movies showcasing passenger train travel from 20-30 years ago. Well, night trains fit into the regional train category. Then again, what's the rush, I get to wake up to Vienna.

So it’s four of us in this cell;, first, an older gentleman who has kept to himself, reading a book to pass the time. Another I struck up a conversation with, a man from Rome going to Vienna for the first time. He has to be in his 30s and speaks very good English. We spoke about the differences between America and Europe, everything from healthcare, the role of the private sector and the public sector, education costs for university students, roads, bicycles, drinking outside with no consequence, and the concept of American consumerism. He was certainly pro European and, in a sense, slightly anti-American. For instance, he found it astonishing; as do many Europeans that the US has insurance for health care and that there are people who aren't covered, that the private sector places such a big role. Of course his sense of the American system was a demeaning one, insisting the European system is more humane. 

            The bunk itself is about 6 ½ feet long, and maybe 2 feet wide. Not the best living conditions, it seems they modeled it after the way Navy bunks would be. Let's not harp on the lack of space though, it's enough space to sleep and that's all that matters. I may not be able to sleep much though, as I'm quite excited for my trip. The only thing keeping my eagerness and adventure spirit in check is my interview schedule for 4pm tomorrow. It presents a few problems, one of which is preparation. As I said above, I really thought I would have free Wi-Fi on the train and be able to do my research on Stryker and prepare some notes. Well unfortunately that’s not the case. Another problem is going to be finding a quiet space in Vienna. I’m staying in a hostel and booked a bed in an 8 person room. Chances are it won’t be too quiet in there, but I may have to roll the dice. Furthermore, wherever I go tomorrow, I have to be back at the hostel at some point for this interview. The entire day when I am going around now, I will have to check the time and keep my whereabouts in my mind better. It limits my ability to go get lost in the city, to roam free, to discover what’s not on the guides. So I’ll have to go visit a few museums in the morning, get breakfast and lunch. And then prepare for the interview back at the hostel. So here’s to the night train situation, here’s to hoping for some hours of sleep, and here’s to a weekend in Vienna. Let’s get it on.

Morning:

A knock on the door. Roll over and ignore it for a few minutes. Another knock on the door. I look out and there is some light creeping under the curtains, it’s day time already? Here I was complaining about this train and it looks like I ended up sleeping well into morning. Although I woke up a few times here and there throughout the night, mostly due to the heat, on the whole it wasn’t a horrible night of sleep. The knock is the conductor for our car, and it’s 7am. It’s breakfast time, which is really just two rolls with butter and jelly to put on. Oh, and how could I forget the “café”. Looks like I’m a coffee drinker now. I thought I’d give it a try and it’s not as bad as I remember. It’s my first coffee in many years and I’m always making fun of coffee drinkers for being addicted to their cup of joe every morning. But here I was, a perpetually tired man in the mornings, and this coffee is like a miracle. Half the cup gone and now I’m feeling awake, alert, and ready to tackle Vienna. I can't complain about getting up too early anyway, we turned the lights out quarter to midnight. For the past hour these magnificent forests have been going by my window. So green and vast, it reminds me a bit of going through Switzerland, there are small villages tucked into the countryside, closely knit and seemingly orderly. Every now and then you can see an abandoned castle up on a hilltop, a memory of the older history of Austria. I have a feeling I am going to enjoy this weekend, interview and all. Now that the anxiousness of the night train is behind me. Can't forget a  goodbye to my compartment mates! My cup of coffee now finished.... Viena awaits me. Ciao.