Wednesday, April 21, 2010

From my journal, Saturday, April 17th, 13:37 pm "Volcanic Ash"

Wow – what a 24 hours it has been! 24 hours ago I was winding my way through the little Dutch towns of Udem and Veghel, picturing how different it would have been for the 101st Airborne some 66 years before. Hell’s Highway – I actually drove down the modern version. Crazy. I parked, looked through a grocery store and walked around town looking for a place to eat. I found a little fresh seafood place where you could take stuff home or they would prepare something for you. They made me this delicious plate of fried Tilapia with French fries and two sauces. I chose a mini bottle of Rosè to go with it. Delicious. I spilled half the bottle – but still managed to enjoy the experience. I then wandered back to the car, considered picking up some tulips for Heather but figured they would be destroyed or not permitted on the airplane so opted not to.

It was around 13:00 so I decided to head back to the Dusseldorf-Weeze airport, about an hour away since I needed to check in around 14. The Dutch are meticulous – incredible houses, manicured yards (and trees like I’ve never seen – pruned to grow together in a flat line) and their speed limits and laws are very severe and regulated. As I got on the highway that would take me the last few miles to Weeze, I passed the border back into Germany and before I knew what was going on, a plain brown car flew past me and then got in front of me and put on its breaks. I almost whipped around to pass him but then noticed a little electronic sign in his back window – the kind with scrolling red letters. It read ‘Polizei’ and what I could only guess meant – follow me.

My heart beating madly, I did. I was going between 140 and 150 at the time which isn’t speeding, but I figured I must have missed a sign or something. The car exited and made sure I was following. It pulled off on a little area and I pulled up behind it. Two guys, in plain clothes, jump out and come back toward me very quickly and aggressively. As they do, I notice a second unmarked car pulls up behind me so I can’t get out. Two guys get out of that car as well and stand at either side of my car behind me so I can’t see them. The driver of the front car was standing at my window motioning for me to lower the window. I did and he asked me for my I.D. and license. I told him I didn’t speak German, but was fumbling as I did for my passport. I hesitated before handing it to him, motioning for him to calm down. He flashed his I.D. at me, but it looked worn and I couldn’t really tell it was real.

What was I to do though? Four guys had me pinned. I went along. The two guys from the front car proceed to open both of my front doors and I’m told to shut the car off. I comply. The main guy begins asking me where I’ve been. I mumble and stumble, trying to think of the name of the town. “Uden.” The whole time I’m looking around, watching my things and my passport in his hand.

“Why?” he asks me.

“To eat lunch.”

“Where are you going?”

“To Dusseldorf to catch a flight.”

“And you drove to Uden to eat lunch – of all the places you could go? Did you buy drugs?”

Now it started to make a little sense. The guy on my right grabbed the can of Mountain Dew that was on the floor and check to see if it had a false top or bottom.

He then asked me, “You are nervous, yes?”

Inside I was screaming, ‘Of course I am!’ but I said audibly, “yes.”

I explained that I had been working on an air force base and showed him my pass. I told him that I enjoy reading about World War II history. He asked me if there were historical things to see in Uden. I told him there were.

He then asked me to get out of the car and open the trunk. I did. I opened up the suitcase and showed them the contents. They all looked at each other, shrugged, gave me my passport back and wished me luck. They said that all flights out of Germany were cancelled because of the volcanic ash.

I had checked that morning and my flight was still showing as on time but they insisted that they had all been cancelled as the day went on.

The got back in their cars and sped off to scare the daylights out of some other innocent American who crossed the border to eat some Dutch fish and see the WWII sights. I took a couple of minutes to calm down and then headed on to the airport.

They were right. All flights cancelled. I got in line and waited to get a ticket reissued. The soonest was Monday afternoon – a full three days later. I went ahead and had them issue it and decided to look into the train option. The car rental was still valid for a few hours so I sped off to what the GPS told me was the nearest station.

It took me back across the Dutch border (which is just a few miles away). It took me through a national park, through a little town and as I left the town and went over a little rise, what do I see before me but a wide channel or river with no bridge. A ferry is sitting there with one car already on it. Across the water there are half a dozen cars and several bicycles waiting. I look at the GPS screen which clearly shows the path crossing the water. I gulp and pull the car onto the little boat and pay the guy 1.80 euros. Three minutes later I’m across and back on my way. Five minutes after that, I pull up to a set of train tracks with a sign and a little computer machine to buy tickets – but the tickets are just for little nearby towns.

Back in the car, I head back to the airport and realize it is taking me back to the same highway where I got pulled over so I try to retrace my steps and find the little ferry guy who takes me across. I race back to Weeze, where I had stayed the night and park outside the hotel where I stayed, getting just a sliver of their free WiFi. I used it to call back to the States to see if Heather’s dad’s office can help me find out about the train. It seems all of Europe is rushing to the train stations to get home. I decide to back to the airport to see what I can find out there after Heidi, who was online, saw something about a train that left from there.

Back to the airport. The lady at the information desk tells me my best bet is to pay the 12 euros for the 30 minute shuttle to Duisburg where I can catch more trains. I consider my options, throw the rental car key on the desk and rush off to catch the shuttle. It’s me, a businessman and the German driver – a tall, lanky Scrappy-kind-of guy. We’re in this huge van and he takes off like a madman. Not only that, but I’m sitting directly behind him and I start to observe that, as he’s speeding down the autobahn, he’s either falling asleep and jerking back awake or he’s got some pretty unnerving ticks and shakes. One of the longest, scariest 30 minutes of my life. The businessman was either busy reading or trying to ignore it.

In the end, he gets us to Duisburg safely and I race into the train station to look for the ticket office. I find it easily after rearranging my wallet and phone – pretty scary place. When I get up to the desk, the guy is not hopeful – saying everyone is buying tickets and that to get all the way to Ancona was not likely. I told him any combination would work.

He found a combination that included seven separate trains with six changes over 18 hours that would take me across Germany, through Switzerland back into Italy. I booked it and grabbed a tuna Subway (not what I ordered, but was in a hurry) and found my platform. I stood in a sea of people waiting for the train – in the 30 minutes I stood there, eating, waiting, five trains came and went on my track – I had to pay close attention. So many colorful characters including a guy in a full-length black robe, big black boots. Around his neck hung a goat’s horn. He wore studded black leather greaves on his arm and at his waist hung a long, silver dagger. The crowd spread out to let he and his similarly-dressed girl companion get through. Finally, my train came.

Duisburg – Mannheim. (2 hours) I got lucky and picked a seat that was reserved for someone else but when we got to Koln, they didn’t show up so I got to sit the whole time.

Mannheim – Basel. (2+ hours) I honestly, as I write this in a tired haze, can’t remember a single thing about this train.

Basel – Olten. (30 minutes) Into Switzerland. This train is filled with teenagers and I doze off and wake in time to get off. 45 minutes to kill at the station here. I got a cappuccino to wake me and then stood in the cold, grateful I had thrown in my long-johns and sweatshirt just in case.

Olten – Bern. (30 minutes) Quick, comfortable ride. The train station, however, was scary. Friday night at 2 a.m. in Bern – not my place to be. People shouting, fighting, stumbling around drunk. I walked around nervously. I didn’t have any Francs to pay to use the bathroom so wandered, looking for a hotel I could rent a room for the four hour layover. I found only one and they wanted 110 euros. I held it. As I walked back to the station, I ran into one of the guys that was on the last couple of trains with me and he said several of the Italians had gotten onto the train that we would be taking at 6 a.m. to sleep. I headed that way. Sure enough, there was a nice, big train sitting there and I could see a few people inside sleeping. I found someone else that was getting on and asked if this was the right train or if this one was going somewhere else earlier. I DID NOT want to wake up with the train heading off who knows where. Instead, he made me a proposal. He said he had found a taxi that would drive him to Milan immediately. He had already found 5 guys and needed a sixth. Price: 80 euros. I declined and decided to risk sleeping on the train. I made sure no one was looking and got on, found a nice little corner on the upstairs part (it was a double decker train). The bathroom was locked and I needed to go. I had just finished a liter and a half bottle of cranberry juice. I’ll save you the details – but tried to refill the empty bottle but chickened out. Again, I held it and camped out, fastening my bags to my clothes, hiding my shoes. I slept in fits, woke up every time someone else got on the train. At six, the regular passengers got on and we were off.

Bern – Brig (1 hour) I slept through this ride although I woke at one point to see the Alps through the fog as the sun was rising. Crazy. At the Brig station I had 30 minutes so grabbed another cappuccino and an incredible cream-cherry pastry. I thought the next train would be kind of empty. I was wrong.

Brig – Milan (2.5 hours) I stood the entire time by the door. A poor lady in a wheelchair was stuck next to me because she couldn’t fit down the aisle to her spot. Breathtaking scenery though – Google Image ‘Stresa’ for a glimpse. Crossed the border into Italy and I could now begin using my phone without paying extra.

Milan – Ancona (4 hours) I had 15 minutes to run to my train in Milan. Television crews were there to capture the madness – it actually wasn’t that bad though. Fortunately I had a reserved seat on this train and am now sitting with five others in my little room as we head East and South toward Ancona, toward home…Jenova started walking while I was gone…it figures!