A few days ago I was comparing notes with my friend about our travels in Europe. I've been many times, including after graduating college when I had a month-long Eurail pass. I milked it for all it was worth, heading as far south as Rome and as far north as Narvik; west to London and east to St. Petersburg. I generally took night trains, as it seemed most cost effective and time efficient to take care of sleeping and traveling at the same time. I traveled by myself for the most part and had no problems doing so at all (contrary to the skepical comments I received from people I met there who couldn't imagine doing the same.) In fact, the whole trip went swimmingly with just two minor exceptions in Rome and Madrid.
On the one hand, with train travel in Europe, you want to be somewhat prepared before beginning. It's good to know where the trains go, when they go, which destinations are reached by night trains (if that's what you plan to take), and consequently to have some sense of the places you want to visit. On the other hand, you don't want to over-plan and end up forcing yourself to miss out on unanticipated adventures while you catch your pre-booked train. Like many other things in life it's all about balance. I had a general idea of the places I wanted to visit and carried around xeroxed train schedules so that as I decided where I wanted to go I could easily figure out how to get there. Generally I would book my reservations a day or two in advance as my plans firmed up, trading off a wild adventure that might crop up in the current city for the certainty that I'd have a berth on the train I wanted. (The Eurail pass covers the ticket portion of most trains - the part that pays for the distance traveled - but not sleeping berths which are good to have if you plan on taking a night train and want to be in any way well-rested upon arrival at the next city.)
By the time I got to Salzburg I knew what night I wanted to go to Venice. I also knew that the following night I wanted to go to Rome, and the night after that to Nice. The clerk in the Salzburg station spoke English well so it was a good place to get organized, but for reasons he couldn't explain he could only book me to Venice. This seemed odd because elsewhere in Europe I'd been able to book for any other train anywhere else. I decided to take my chances and go to Venice anyway, figuring it would be easier to sort out the Italian trains once I was in Italy. My hunch seemed to pay off when in Venice I was able to reserve the night train to Rome, but still no luck with the train to Nice. Ah well, it worked out with this train, so I'll go to Rome and take my chances.
Unfortunately, no one in Rome could book me on the train out that night, nor explain what the problem was. In fact they could not explain whether there just wouldn't be sleeping cars, or if there was to be no train at all. So I had a problem. I could wait around and try to catch the hypothetical train, but I ran the risk of being stuck at the train station at 11:30 at night if it didn't materialize. I still wasn't sure what to do when I bumped into an American woman who invited me to join her on her trip to Florence in 2 hours. I decided it would be better to start heading north so I agreed to join her. "It's too bad, though," I said, "Because after studying all that Latin I really wanted to see some ruins." So we jumped on the metro, took it two stops, hopped out at the Coliseum and took pictures, then got back on the metro and caught the next train to Florence. Where I spent a few hours in the lobby of her hotel wiping honey off of everything in my daypack (the jar I was carrying had leaked) before wandering around the city, trying out Florentine Chinese food for dinner, and then catching a midnight train to Nice, as planned.
Sometimes the misses end up the best stories but, as I told my friend the other day, I was having trouble construing my minor mishap in Madrid positively. Earlier in my trip I had met my sister in Paris and we went to Spain together, first stopping in Madrid. At mealtime things got interesting. She's a vegetarian, and a picky one at that. And we were both poor students. So choosing a restaurant required extensive studying of menus to strategize the best offerings of tapas for our budget and tastes. (It had to be tapas, because boorish Americans that we were, we got hungry well before most Spaniards began to consider eating dinner.)
We found a nice place, we thought, on the Plaza Major. A waiter caught our eye and sat us down at an outdoor table. But then he disappeared for a while, which was too bad because the table was dirty. We caught another waiter's eye and we told him about the table. "Sucio," I mumbled in my long-forgotten Spanish. So he moved us to a different table. His table. As opposed to the other waiter's table. In the U.S. this kind of move would be no big deal, but judging by the argument the two waiters got into I think it was a very big deal in Spain. From what I gather, each waiter is sort of an entrepreneur for his tables. The second waiter, with our ignorant help, had essentially stolen the first one's customers. The manager emerged to sort out the scuffle and apologized to us, and eventually one of the waiters came to take our order.
We carefully pointed out which things we wanted. Many of the dishes came in two sizes, and cheapskates that we were, we ordered the smaller plates. When the order came out we thought one plate looked larger than we expected but after discussing it, we decided that it was reasonable and assumed that the waiter had gotten it right. He hadn't, which we discovered to our horror when we got the bill. This led to another discussion with the manager, this time much less pleasant. My Spanish skills were taxed to their limit and beyond - I had to use entire sentences and consequently conjugate on the fly - as I made our case (which was much more convincing than I've articulated here, now 8 years later and fuzzy on the details). I won the argument but it was clear that we wouldn't be welcome in these parts again. I was fine with that, for a few reasons. For one, I felt conned. We had been clear, and the waiter had either screwed up or pulled a fast one. But even beyond the sense of justification, I also felt mortified. To the extent that the trouble was my fault, particularly in failing to account for cultural differences, I was embarrassed and not eager to show my face there again. Until this week, I was happy to steer clear of Madrid altogether.
In the few days since telling my friend that story, everything changed, including my antipathy toward Madrid. It now seems petty and small, and I feel more compelled to visit again as a show of solidarity. The location of the bombing – at the train station – was particularly significant to me. I took a lot of trains in Europe, including in Madrid. I even remember having noted then how Spanish train stations in 1996 showed the most obvious signs of security. I frequently checked my luggage in lockers before heading out for the day (necessary when taking night train after night train) and Spain was the only country that required passing all bags through an x-ray machine. "Because of the bombings," I remember thinking to myself. Pretty similarly to what I also thought to myself in June 2001, when passing through the lobby of the World Trade Center and seeing all the security apparatus. "Because of the terrorism." This nonsense has got to stop; I'm tired of these bitter ironic thoughts.