Six European Train Tales

Destination Manqui
By Denise Berger Abouaf

It was Friday morning and the week was winding down to its close. Sixteen of us, all students in an intense French language course, were starting to wonder what adventures were in store for the coming weekend. This was our way of life for those few months the summer between my junior and senior years of college: During the week, we studied grammar and vocabulary at a chateau in France's Loire Valley. On Fridays, classes let out in time for us to catch the 1:20 p.m. train into Paris. From there, we would break off into smaller groups and venture out to see where our Eurailpasses would take us. Our only limitation was that we had to be back at the chateau in time for breakfast Monday morning.

Our destinations varied: Some of us loved to sleep on the trains and would choose any destination that meant that we didn't have to pay for a hotel; some of us would just stay in Paris and soak up all it had to offer in the late spring and early summer. The fun of it was that when we left the chateau Friday after classes, none of us knew where we would end up, but by the time we had made the two-hour train ride to Paris, we all had destinations in mind.

Some of the longer train rides could be an adventure in themselves. We would pass the time by talking; but the golden rule was that we had to speak in French no matter where we were. We would get to know each other a little better, as much as you can with a limited French vocabulary. When we tired of talking among ourselves, we would walk up and down the cars trying to meet other students who could give us tips on where we might stay once we reached our destinations. Invariably, we roamed the trains in pairs. There was something comforting about being with someone else; it was a little less intimidating trying to begin a conversation when there were two of you. Our language skills were still very elementary. We could get the basics down: We knew how to order food from a menu, make a hotel reservation, and ask for directions. But if we found ourselves in the middle of an ordinary conversation we would easily get lost.

One particular weekend, twelve of us decided to head toward Frankfurt where we had friends. In Paris, we hopped on a train whose destination was listed as"Frankfurt and others." The train was full, so all twelve of us crammed into a compartment that normally sits eight. To get some breathing room, a friend and I wandered up to the snack car, where we met an American couple. Before we knew it, we had been invited to sit with our new buddies in a compartment that had only four people — which meant that we could actually sit on a seat, and not on one of our fellow student's laps. As we got up to move to our new compartment, we saw one of the guys from our group and told him where we were going. We would meet up with him and the others once we got to Frankfurt, and would he mind watching our suitcases? No problem, he said. He understood that we were doing the other ten people in our group a favor by making the compartment slightly less overcrowded.

The rest of the train ride was a blur. The conductor came in once or twice to announce the next stop, we supposed, although no one in our compartment understood exactly what he was saying. I dozed for a while, and when I awoke, I was hungry. So my friend and I decided to go back to the snack bar and get something else to eat.

Unfortunately, the snack car was no longer there! And neither was the rest of the train! Apparently, what the conductor had been saying was that at the next stop, the train was splitting. The front of the train (containing the snack car, the rest of our group, and our luggage) was going to Frankfurt. The back of the train (where we were) was headed, we learned, to Amsterdam.

In an instant, our plans had changed. Not a problem, we decided: Amsterdam sounded like a wonderful place to visit. So, armed with nothing more than our purses, and, thankfully, our Eurailpasses and passports, we set off to explore our new destination. We figured we would meet up with our group on Sunday night in Paris, in time to get the last train back to the chateau. As it turned out, our misadventure turned into a wonderful weekend.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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