In my mind this trip went perfectly smoothly and punctually like this: Leave London St Pancras at 10.00 am – arrive in Brussels 1.30 – take the Thalys train to Cologne an hour after that. Spend a few hours in Cologne, get something to eat and see the cathedral before catching the night train to Vienna.
In reality every single train is running late. It means taking a local service from Achen full of people in fancy dress heading to Cologne. The only seat left among the teenagers in furry yellow chicken costumes and women dressed as princes or card sharps is next to a Frau of more than a certain age. I take it and suffer her disappointment on learning I don’t speak German. I suffer my own disappointment on realising this deficiency is going to seriously hamper my eavesdropping habit.
I do know a bit of German, so to make it up to Frau Disappointed I tell her I’m going to Vienna and ask how long it will take to get to Cologne where I have to change trains. ‘Long’ she tells me, rolling her eyes, tutting and generally using the international language of delayed and annoyed travellers.
“What time is your train to Vienna?”
‘Eight’, I say, ‘eight’. I can’t remember how to say o’clock or hour.
In any language, knowing the numbers, hello and thank you get you a long way. She’s so pleased to be able help she risks a smile and reassures me I should make the connection in Cologne. We’ve used about ten actual words repeated in German and French plus a lot of nodding and pointing to communicate all this.
Her jollier contemporaries across the aisle, dressed as harlequins, have been listening in. They’re satisfied with my travel arrangements too. ‘Carnival’ they say. Their destination was already pretty clear from their glittery outfits. They share a packet of glucose sweets with us.
I make the connection in Cologne and bed down on the City Night Line to Vienna.