Innsbruck had been great, but I was excited to finally be leaving Austria.
Of course, I had never planned on traveling this far south. The plan from the beginning was to putt around German-speaking Europe for 3-5 months and fly back home after I had learned a bit of the language. But after the couple renting my apartment back in the States had canceled on me prematurely, I was forced to find a new renter and this, in turn, freed me up an additional four months of travel.
“Where am I going to go now?” I thought to myself. But I already knew. I would head south – toward Greece.
Accompanied only by a small red folding bicycle and four waterproof bags, which contained all my worldly possessions, I needed to take two separate trains in order reach Slovenia, the first of many stops on my quest into the Balkans.
The train from Innsbruck had gone by without a hitch. There were few passengers on-board and even though the Zug (that’s “train” in German) was not equipped for bicycle transport, the fact that I had a folding bike had kept the conductors from booting me off or fining me along the way.
But somewhere in the mountains of southern Austria I had to change trains. The name of the city escapes me, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d be there for less than ten minutes as my first train left the station and my second one pulled in soon thereafter.
Traveling alone isn’t usually all that difficult. But boarding a train with a bicycle and four loaded panniers can be tough.
However, I had developed a system by this point in time. This would be the 33rd train I had taken in the last three months, so I had the process down. As the train pulled into the station I would lift all four panniers in my arms and carry them inside the nearest car, quickly placing them in an overhead compartment and then rushing back out to the platform to haul my folded bicycle inside while the rest of the passengers took their seats. It had been working like a charm and I had never had any problems… until now.
As the train to Slovenia pulled into the station, the passengers scrambled to be the first on-board. I too pushed myself through the herd of people and quickly found an open compartment in which to store my gear. In my very best German I explained to the gray-haired woman sitting beneath by bags that I’d be back in just a moment. She nodded and gave me a wry look, as though she weren’t too pleased with the information I had just given her.
I didn’t have time to dwell however. I ran down the narrow isle of the train, jumped out the door, and landed on the platform.
My bicycle was the only thing left in the area and I quickly scooped it up in my arms and ran for the door.
But then, just as I was about to step on board, the door slammed shut – right in my face.
“Shit!” I said out loud. I wiggled one on my hands free and tried pressing the green button near the door. No luck. It didn’t work.
Then I heard it. A whistle, from down the platform. At first I just ignored it, running from one door to the next, trying to find a way in before the train pulled away with everything I owned already on board. But the whistles kept getting louder and I quickly realized they were aimed at me.
Down the platform, about four cars up, was a short, stalky conductor in a dark blue uniform. He was leaning out an open door, a whistle is his hand, looking directly at me, his brows furrowed.
Looking at the man I motioned with my eyes, “Let me in.” But he wasn’t going to have it.
“No bicycles!” he yelled back at me.
“You gotta be kidding.” I thought to myself.
He was four cars down and I could barely see him, let alone talk to him, so I started to run. Carrying my bicycle the entire way, I reached him in a sweat.
“No bicycles!” he screamed at me again. I could tell he didn’t speak English and that these two words were all he likely knew of my native language.
It had taken me nearly thirty seconds to run down the platform to speak to the conductor and by this time several of the passengers were starring out the window at me as I held my little red bike in my arms, like a dying soldier about to take his last breath.
“Please,” I said. “The woman at the desk said it wouldn’t be a problem.” But he failed to understand.
With evil in his eyes, he stepped inside the door of the train and slammed it shut. From where I stood, I swear I saw him smile.
“Holy crap!” my brain raced. “He’s going to leave me here!”
I looked around in a panic, trying to find someone else to help me, but there was no on else around.
Milliseconds later, the train started rolling down the track. Slowly at first, but then quickly gaining speed. For a moment I ran along side, yelling in my best German at the conductor behind the thick glass, “Please, my bags are on the train! My computer is on the train! Everything I own is already on the train.” But he wasn’t having it.
I was running now and the bike was weighing me down. Not thinking about anything but getting on that train, I chucked my bike and it crashed into the concrete platform, but I just kept running. At a full sprint now, dozens of passengers were gazing out at me in horror through open windows as I pounded my first up against the glass door where the conductor stood.
Struggling to think of the correct German expressions, the only words that came to mind were four lettered words known pretty much everywhere in the world.
There was only about 50 meters of platform left now as I sprinted on my toes and used my weary eyes to plead with the cold-stone conductor.
“My computer is gone.” I thought to myself. “My wallet, my passport, everything. Gone.” I had given up. There were only a few more feet of platform left and this train was leaving without me… or was it?
Just as I had given up all hope, an older man wearing a matching blue conductors uniform stepped into the car. He said a few words to the man who had failed to let me board and then pressed a big red button on the wall near the door.
The brakes of the train screeched to a halt and in an instant my mood changed. They were stopping!
As the train slid to a stop just inches outside the station, the door opened up and the stalky conductor stepped outside.
“Get on,” he said, waving me in like it was suddenly no big deal.
But by now my bike was a hundred meters back and in pieces on the floor of the train station. I ran back for it, sprinting really, dripping sweat, astounded by what had just taken place.
Picking up the bike I tried entering the nearest door, but it didn’t budge. A familiar whistle blew in the distance and again I could see the conductor leaning out his command post four cars down.
“Hier!” he shouted at me, an astounded look on his face – as though he thought it unfathomable that I might want to get on the train where all my bags were.
“Whatever…” I mouthed to myself as I ran, bike in hand, toward the angry conductor.
As I approached he gave me what my mother refers to as “The Evil Eye” and waved me into the train.
“All the way in the back!” he commanded, pointing with a strong finger toward the back of the train.
“Okay,” I said sheepishly. “Thank you.”
At some time during the ordeal I had cut my hand. I was bleeding now and covered in grease and sweat. I carried my bike, over passenger heads and through the dining car, though eight different wagons before finally reaching the back of the train. My arms now shaking with exhaustion (and a little bit of fear) I slowly made my way back to my things, still sitting in the cabin with the gray-haired woman, four cars up.
“I’m back,” I said, dripping with sweat, as I entered the cabin.
There was an empty seat by the door and I fell into it, no longer caring what the people around me might think. I had made it… and in an hour, I’d be in Slovenia.