Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Battle of the Bruges

So far, all of my blog entries have been written looking for the humor in a situation. Some situations have been funny even while we were in them and others didn’t seem to have a funny side until long after they had ended. My trip home from Belgium last week was not funny in any way and it remains void of humor today. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon so I will write about the trip as I experienced and remember it.

My family and I traveled to Bruges, Belgium for the weekend. We had a wonderful time exploring the old town, quaint shops, churches, a museum, and my favorite destination, the gelato stands. We left the city at 6:00pm, pulling luggage behind us and preparing ourselves for the challenge of taking 3 different trains to get back to Eindhoven. We took the first train which arrived in Antwerp at 7:35, plenty of time to catch our 8:00 train to Dordrecht. The Antwerp train station is a cathedral-like building with ornate architecture and four different levels of tracks. We found our platform and waited for the train, surprised that there weren’t more people waiting with us. The digital sign read “trein”, Dutch for train, and then a 12 letter word that we didn’t recognize.  We went back upstairs to the ticket office to ask for a translation and learned that the word meant cancelled and we would have to wait until the next train at 9:00. We used our extra hour to eat dinner and return downstairs to the platform. Because the 9:00 train would be carrying the 8:00 and 9:00 passengers, the platform had already become very crowded with anxious, disgruntled, weekend travelers. Jim and I took charge of the suitcases and kept Grace and Katie ahead of us in line so they could get into the train car quickly and find seats, hopefully together. 

When the train pulled into the station, we were amazed to see that the train was already full. People on the platform began to push and crowd together to be first in line to board the train. As soon as the doors opened, people shoved and pushed, trying to get what little standing room was left. As instructed, the girls jumped into the corridor between the 2 cars and disappeared. Jim stood in the corridor with our 2 suitcases and I began searching for the girls. I guessed they had gone into the car on the right so I opened the metal and glass door to find a sea of faces, totally packing the seats and aisles.  Luggage, as well as people, filled the aisles, making it impossible to take one step forward. I told the person closest to me that I needed to get by to look for my children. I was told no, because there was no way I could walk in the aisle. I could hear Jim behind me in the corridor, yelling that we had children we couldn’t find. My mother adrenalin kicked in and I began pushing people out of my way, stepping on whatever got in my path. I began yelling the girls’ names at the top of my lungs, panicked that the train would be leaving in 2 minutes and I didn’t even know if they were actually on board. A woman standing in the aisle said, “Tell us their names and we will call down the row.” Like a bucket brigade of words, people began yelling down the line of people who passed it on to the next group, all the way down the car. No girls answered. I turned to retrace my steps, pushing luggage into people, stepping on feet, whatever it took to get back to where I had started. The only other place to look was the car to the left of the corridor. I began pushing through the passengers in the hall, passing Jim and yelling the girls’ names again. I got almost to the door of the other car and saw a little hand waving in the air and a voice yelling, “Mom! We’re here!” I could just make out the top of Grace’s head in the sea of people. I told her to stay right where she was and not move anywhere. I went back to Jim and our luggage and straddled one of the suitcases since there was no more floor space to stand. 

All of the passengers in the enclosed room stood front to back and shoulder to shoulder, trying to hold on to family members and belongings. Some were speaking French, some Dutch and others English. One woman standing almost nose-to-nose with me had a tiny daughter with her who was getting anxious, standing among the mass of legs and rising temperature.  The mother picked her up and stood her on top of one of our suitcases. Most of the trip, the little girl stood with one foot on our luggage and the other against my black pants, pushing with her foot to keep her balance.

 I knew our station was the third or fourth stop but I didn’t know how long we had to travel. An hour? Forty minutes?  Twenty?  I closed my eyes and began saying the alphabet slowly, just to pass the time. People began defending any personal space they had by pushing arms and elbows into whoever stood closest to them. Others gave stern glares if their floor space was invaded. Touching someone’s foot meant they could step on yours. One man leaned his body against the back door so hard, we knew he would fly out if it opened just a crack. A woman standing with her back to the front door kept searching each passengers face while everyone else chose not to make eye contact since we were standing so close. The room grew hotter and all of the windows in the doors fogged over, making it impossible to read station signs. Finally, the train began going slower and slower, coming to a stop even though we had not reached a station.  Silence.  We stood and waited.  Then, a woman made an announcement in Dutch on the PA system and the train started moving again. A man who spoke Dutch and English  translated for us and said the next stop would be the terminus and everyone would have to leave the train and get on another one. As we traveled to the next station, I couldn’t help but think of the people who were forced into freight cars during World War II, totally out of control, no space to sit down, not enough air, and no idea how long their train ride would be or what was going to happen to them. My situation was so minor but it gave me such an appreciation for the words and images I had seen on a history page.

At the next station, the car doors opened and people streamed out, racing to the edge of the next platform, trying to be first in line. We were now going to add all of these people to another train full of passengers. When that train pulled into the station, people began running for its doors. I was afraid we would get separated from the girls again but they stayed by Jim’s side and I constantly scanned the crowd for his red coat. The new train was a double decker which gave us more space. Again, we ended up in one of the corridors between cars but it held a set of stairs to the second level. Every step held a passenger and their belongings. Jim and I stood with the girls at the bottom of the stairs. A woman outside of the door struggled with a bicycle, trying to lift it up into the walkway. A conductor walked by the train car and told her she couldn’t get in because there was no room for her bike. She continued to struggle and push the bike, determined to somehow get on board. Jim reached down and helped lift the bike inside. I watched him and wasn’t sure if I should be proud of him or irritated that now we would share our limited space with a rusty bicycle and basket. I decided he was noble.

We arrived in Dordrecht station and all four of us climbed down from the train, so glad to be out of the mass of people and heat. The air felt so good. We waited for our last transfer, sitting on the platform bench and discussing our adventure of the last 90 minutes. I was so thankful for a place to sit, some personal space, my family safe and together, and the freedom to go wherever I pleased.