19 December 2009

London-Vienna by Coach or: European Odyssey

It's a coach journey. Of course there's inconveniences about it but I had two, actually three very good reasons not to take the plane as usual:

  1. Privacy gets so invaded, that I am getting more and more freaked out about security checks on UK airports. Sometimes, they take pictures of you when you enter the duty free area and scan your ticket along with it, so they can check both again when you enter the gate. No visible notice whatsoever was in Gatwick airport about what the hell that was about and how it is legally justified and whether and if so, for how long your picture will be held on record.

    In the summer, they also introduced new legislation that you are only allowed one single item of cabin luggage per person which means that the laptop I used to take with me suddenly became was categorised as an extra item without any warning (the airline you're flying with could notify you that regulations had changed, as a lot of people won't be following the UK news if THEY ARE ON HOLIDAY ABROAD). Also, it is totally ridiculous, as in one of the busiest airport hubs in the world, Frankfurt, they too manage to scan all your cabin luggage AND let you into your plane in time. It's about technology but then the British were never good at engineering, now were they? Also, if I was to refer anybody taking my picture to the ECHR Article 8, they would probably refuse me entry AND get the police to subject me to a Section 44. Seriously, I'm not joking. Although Article 8 does accommodate exceptions in the interest of national security, I think the way this “loophole” is used shows that the UK is not trying hard enough to find other ways in order to upheld people's liberty by interpreting the Article in spirit and thereby accommodating civil rights. If the UK turns into an authoritarian police state, in which ways does it then differ from those states it goes on war against? The latest clou was also, that in Manchester airport the “x-ray machine for humans” is already on trial!!! If Orson Wells was still alive, he'd probably be an enemy of the state. Who knows, in a parallel universe, the population of a peaceful democratic state of Burma would probably stand up in solidarity, waving “Support the civil rights defenders' protest in the UK!” signs into the global cameras...

  1. Climate change needs to be taken seriously. Since a person I know from Switzerland tends to take the train from London to Geneva, I thought: Vienna is not that much further and it would be cool to set an example for my friends and family that it is indeed feasible. The train does it too, folks! Except I did not get affordable tickets for the Eurostar at Christmas anymore. Then again, that turned out to be a good thing for as soon as I arrived in Vienna, I saw the reports on TV that the Eurostar was stuck for 15 hours without anybody making announcements at all.

  2. It is good value as well. Often when I told people I was taking the coach, the first thing they say is, “But taking the plane is so much cheaper!!!” meaning why pay £70 if you could pay £45 and arrive so much faster. That's a typical response in the UK where mostly, everything is about profit and personal gain. How selfish. And it also shows how dominant low-fare flying is in people's consciousness and way of life. After the recession, savings went “back” to investing in gold, bonds and storing cash at home. Wait until the planet's climate gets really bad. Then the people who today smirk at (smart) people who believe climate change requires minor adjustments in the domestic sphere that benefit us all, will suddenly take the train and ferry from London to Mallorca.

But let me tell me about my (rather adventurous!) coach journey!

6.30am GMT I left the house, the sky skill dark. It had started to snow just two days before in London, to the glee of many a Londoner. I was happy too but already wondered what it would mean for my coach journey, as if it is a British bus, it is unlikely it will have winter tyres.

The new Kings Cross underground passageway on the Pentonville Road side is beautiful, especially as the ad signs are empty yet and no idiots have vandalised the white, marble-like tiled walls yet. The floor tiles are like those in St Pancras, a light grey and the whole place well-lit by some minimalistic neon-lights in simple but stylish long suspenders. Finally, some architects used space as part of their design and there even is a piece of art embedded into a wall. Probably best about it is that there now is brand-new escalator on the Pentonville Road end of the Piccadilly platform, so that finally, the people heading for Victoria “only” have to carry their suitcases down a short flight of stairs to the Victoria line platform anymore whenever they change. The whole thing really is more friendly towards people with trolleys or wheelchairs. The only annoying thing is that at the moment, it is also the only link to the Northern line, as due to engineering works moving on to it, you now have to walk through half of central London underground only to change to the Northern line!

8.15am GMT We're scheduled to leave Victoria Station, I'm so glad that the two mothers with babies who arrived panting at the bus at the last minute, actually mistook our bus for theirs. I sit in the very first row and get to enjoy the great view all on my own. The driver, a perhaps 50-odd Flemish no-nonsense down-to-earth continental man and really relaxed, keeps telling people running to our bus to “take it easy”. He radiates calm efficiency and will prove all his qualities later for he managed to keep everyone's spirit up despite the snow chaos on the streets we don't yet know anything about.

Having napped only three hours that night, the rhythmic movements of the bus quickly put me to sleep after the initial hour and a half it takes to drive out of London and which I used to admire the sights along the Thames, St. James, Westminster, the City, Canary Wharf, Tower Hamlets. I wake up a little bit later, to see that we were stuck in a really. slow. traffic jam. on the snowy highway. From my pole position, I could hear the frequent radio announcements. That there are severe delays on the M20 near Leeds, due to three trucks having an accident. We hardly ever moved AT ALL. The traffic jam was EPIC. I picked out my mobile Facebook and posted just that to pass the time, checking out our position on my phone GPS. It was already noon and we were only halfway to Dover!!! At one point, I even saw a girl getting out of the car and making a snow man!!! In the end, we arrived in Dover, at last and entered the Eurotunnel site. There are like, ten lanes open with booths on either side, depending if the driver's seat is on the left or on the right. For some reason, our bus driver always took the lane with the booth's window facing the continental car's door on the right, so he had to climb out of his seat every time. At every step, he would mention that he already had three hours delay and we must make it onto the next train as the next two would not take any buses. The people giving us the letter of our train are friendly and put us straight onto the next one. The bus driver says (among other things), “We have finally managed to get here and the French let us onto the next train, at 2.50pm. Late is late and I thought I give you the opportunity to stretch your legs, have some fresh air and get something to eat, buy something to drink. Therefore, we will stop at the Eurotunnel shopping centre, please everyone be back in 20min at 2.30pm so we can get onto our train. Please do not be late.” Since we were all longing for refreshments, having not rested at all on the highway to my knowledge, it was really great to have that break and buy some water, use the loo and breathe some fresh air actually. I look onto my watch. Five and a half hours from London to Dover, can you believe it!!! 20min later, we follow the huge sign “France”, freshly inserted by three contractors who look unhappy with the sign, to get out of the parking lot and across to the ramps. The sign is askew, and the guys wave at us as if to say, “Nooo! Don't follow this sign” while we were halfway past it already. The driver breaks and reverses. We all laugh, me thinking the sign was wrong. Turns out, we nearly forgot two English people. A Dutch Sri Lankan guy said he saw them eating and would go run and get them but as soon as he was out of the bus, the two came from around the shopping centre and apologised to everyone in the bus for being late. We move on to the border for passport control. The French policeman collecting all our passports was helpful, hurried up and just returned the passports onto the dashboard for the bus driver said, he would try and return them to us later, as we really needed to get onto that train. Next was a security inspection of the bus. A (naturally) British young girl (perhaps about 18) turns up and rudely orders him, “Sir, I need you to turn off your engine, step out of the vehicle and open the luggage compartments for me”. If the average population does not have common sense then yes, you need to overdo it in order to appear assertive and gain authority. Then again, an 18 year old ordering a collaborative man who could be her young grandfather around in that tone, unprovoked, seems rather badly raised indeed. He hadn't even said anything about the three hours delay yet. So, he climbs out of the car, in come the people searching for traces of whatever. Next stop is luggage inspection. The driver tells us to wait inside just now, he will try and talk to see if “the French” will perhaps let us skip the part. “It is all up to the French now”. Well, the French lad says, definitively but civilly that he has to do his job. “Is there anything you can do, we are already missing this train and the next two don't take any buses. This means we have to wait until five for the next train to take us!” - “Sorry, but I can't do anything” - “I understand, you have to do your job”. The border police lad stays outside while we're waiting for some police officers to arrive and prepare the hut for us to enter. The Flemish driver gets back into the bus, takes the microphone, explains what just happened and can't help but add, “France: Beautiful country, full of the wrong people”. I'm sure the guy must have heard. And so, eventually we have to undergo an inspection of our luggage, we enter the hut, there are only four tables, six officers and no machines. Indeed, it is going to be an old-fashioned manual check. Of course, the French policeman doesn't speak English and won't even attempt to converse with my broken French (at least I'm trying!). Instead, he gets a folder, goes to the German page and lets me read: “Have you got anything to declare? Are you carrying more than 10 000 Euros in cash?” I grin and tell him sarcastically, “No, I wish”. While waiting for the rest to finish, I sit in the bus, overhearing a phone call the driver got from somebody and them both speaking in Flemish about the fact that yes, he is still in Dover. And then sth about the French... After half an hour with everyone back inside the coach, the driver announces that “thanks to the French”, we missed the train and will have to wait until 5pm now. We drive on, expecting to spend two more hours on a car park. The handsome Eurostar guy with the Santa hat who stood on the road and distributed everyone onto different ramps looked at our windshield tag, cocked a comical eyebrow and then looked at his watch in mock surprise when he saw the letter M printed on it (trains had moved on to R) and our driver grunted humoured and shrugged his shoulders in reply as if to say, “I know, tell me about it!”. Against all odds, we get waved onto a ramp after all, “apparently, they changed the programme”. Indeed, there are other buses in front of us on the ramp. The one on the platform right in front of us for example of course does not know how to properly drive into an open carriage. I don't have a license and even I can see he started at the wrong angle or perhaps he was doing this for the first time. Even the sun sets faster than that! It takes him 10 minutes (!) in the end, our driver gets really impatient and the young woman from Eurotunnel supervising the loading, grins at our driver, sharing amusement about the bus in front of us while reporting on her walkie talkie that it's taking a bit longer on her side. Eventually, hallelujah, we make it onto the train. Now it's all about trying to catch up some time to Brussels from where many people were expecting to transfer onto another service, including me. There was the option of going straight but I thought it very smart to book the one with 45min break in Brussels, considering the amount of time spent sitting. Very smart.

Suffice to say, by the time we reached Brussels, the transfer coach to Vienna had already left. At least the streets of Belgium were functioning without problem. Good to be back on the continent where life doesn't stop at the slightest whiff of snow. What to do now? The Eurolines guys were totally efficient and two taxis were already waiting to take those of us who were going to Vienna to Aachen, to chase our bus. Wait, is there an Aachen in Belgium? They can't possibly mean Aachen in Germany – or can they? The taxi driver confirms that indeed, we're going to drive all the way to Germany and meet the bus there! Wow, adventurous! SatNav switched on, we embark on another leg on Belgium's infinitely straight autoroutes and after some 30-45min reach Aachen. The girl whom I share the taxi with and I start a conversation. Turns out she's black Austrian who studies in Warwick. We both are looking forward to the Christkindlmarkt and living decently for two weeks. I told her about my sleeping conditions in the virtual shack I'm living in (you can't call that a house!) and how freezing it is in there despite full heating and that I haven't slept deeply for months. She knows what I'm talking about and bitches too about housing in the UK, how everything is so expensive, how in Austria, even if the heating's not on, the house is warm because they build proper houses. How she told her tutor that in Austria, council houses don't smell. They're really nice, clean and kept in order and sometimes are more value for money than other houses. He didn't believe her! Eventually, we reach Aachen and drive off the highway and through a narrow residential street at 30km/h. I wasn't sure if this was the right way. It was also 11pm at night and it was a bit weird. Then we reached an abandoned parking lot, no lights, only a single sign pointing into the far corner, lit by our headlights, saying, “Krematorium”. Hm. Final destination?!

What irony! The other taxi comes up from behind us; the two drivers debate across the window, “Tu pense que la station est ici? Ils disaient Aachen Chapelle mais je ne vois pas de chapelle, mais il y a seulement un Krematorium.” Both snort in amusement. “Il y a pas de bus ici mais demandons l'homme-là”. A young man who is standing in the light of what looks like a taxi stand or a sausage stall. Indeed, a tiny unlit sign says it's Eurolines. The drivers throw each other a glance and grin again at the stupidity of such an unreadable sign below eye-level somewhere in the outskirts of Aachen next to a Krematorium. Well, the German guy is waiting alright, but for his bus to London. Our driver jokes to us, London, is that where you want to go maybe? It was hilarious. So we park for 10-15min as we can't reach anyone on the phone. Eventually, we get through to the Brussels Office we just came from which gave us the number of the bus driver we're supposed to chase after. The taxi driver then rings the bus driver who is Hungarian, speaks good German but no English. The taxi driver though, speaks little German but good English. So for about ten minutes they try to find out from each other where they are and if they had already left or are still coming. I can't believe this, it is beyond hilarious. Eventually, the taxi driver answers my thoughts, “Est-ce qu'il y a qn. de vous qui peut parler allemand?”, he asks us at the back. “Oui, je peux” and grab the phone right out of his hands, tell the bus driver we are five people and we were delayed three hours due to the snow. The bus driver is very understanding and adds that he too, is three hours delayed and that he waited 10-15min but nobody came so he left because he has three hours delay himself AND the same bus needs to go back to London within the next 24 hours. I ask him where he is, he says he is already after Cologne, direction Frankfurt or Siessburg whatever at a gasoline station. I translate it back, totally boggled by this acute nocturnal translation job.

I hang up. It looks like a dead end, like we're going to spend the night on a dark deserted parking lot somewhere in Germany next to a Krematorium while it is snowing or we accompany the drivers back to the Gare du Sud and wait there for the next bus (probably sometime next day). Taxi driver calls Brussels again who give permission to continue to Cologne. As we turn back into the autoroute, I ask the driver if by any chance he has Vienna on his SatNav as by now the taxi ride must be more expensive than the whole coach journey. Now that we're on the way to Cologne, we might as well go all the way! He finds it funny. We have a great time! Passing Cologne, he suggests I call again to let the bus driver know we're nearly there. The bus driver at last budges and agrees to do a 30min break but tells us to please hurry. At last, we make it. Hallelujah! I thank both drivers profusely on behalf of all the passengers and then, as I am the first person onto the bus, the passengers for waiting, with a short explanation about the snow in London. I think people even if frustrated were generally understanding.

I sat down next to an Eastern European woman who I later realised was seriously ill. She slept a lot, wiped her nose, must have had a sore throat by the sound of her occasional cough, moved very slowly with hunched shoulders and stiffly as if she had a stomach ache (or bug). When she was on the phone, she barely moved her lips and hence spoke in an unintelligible shallow-breathed slur. She seemed very weak and went to the toilet a lot, even asked me to change seat with her, so she could sit next to the aisle. The steps down to the toilet were right next to us. She looked miserable and I was kind of concerned she might eventually collapse entirely.

Several hours later, I awoke to the sight of onion-shaped church towers – Bavaria. There were a lot of cars too on the road, it was fluent. I saw at least five snow clearance vehicles spread out along the way and driving fast, two or three German police vans and/or tow trucks but unlike in the UK, traffic stays in motion throughout, no jams whatsoever. We get a 15min stop at a restaurant and it's so typical German. Double-glazing, thick window and door frames. Solid structure. Even floor tiles. I look for the loo. It's high-tech. I get a ticket with a holograph strip (!) and bar code to say I've paid 50c. I can later have it refunded in the restaurant if I buy anything (which I don't as the WC is cheaper than the Semmel). The toilet cleans itself. The hand-dryers are the same as the new ones at SOAS, the air jet ones. You would never find a rest stop like this in the UK!

15.19 MET Eventually, we reach Austria. What an odyssey!

It is only now that I find out that people were actually stuck in the Eurostar for 15 hours. Guess I'm glad I did not get an affordable train ticket after all...

Pictures from my phone following later!

1 courageous comments!:

kungpow kimchi said...

Hey Heidi!

Happy Holidays Malaysia compatriot! I'm in nyc fattening up for the last two months of winter ahead. Sorry abt your transit horror stories-yeah...my family was stuck on train for a 17 hrs during blizzard (with 50 homesick US Army soldiers)= totally know how u feel. Hope your trip back goes well, esp. given recent airplane terror stuff *sigh* keep strong jahn.

much luv,
P.S. yeah, changed my id name cuz i finally had to cave to a blog-more explanation on blog page