Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A trip across the border

I have just returned from visiting dear friends in Alsace, whom I'd been threatening to drop in on since I moved here. It's only a matter of about two and a half hours by car, so I thought it would be reasonably simple to figure out some affordable way of tootling down and bothering them.

It's not quite as simple as that! For a start, I had to ask the man in charge of organising all the music rehearsals if it would be OK to disappear for a few days (as we only know the schedule for any given day at half past one the previous day, this can't be taken for granted). Permission gracefully granted, I had to fill in an absence slip, because I was going further than 50 kilometres from the theatre; this to be signed and double-countersigned...

Relieved I'd got the bureacratic bit over with, I settled down to browse the internet for cunning ways to get from A to B for as little money as possible. I pride myself on being a bit of an internet devil, and certainly, travelling within England and flying from England to various destinations, I've always been able to sniff out the best prices. I wasn't particularly in a hurry this time, and was indifferent to the means of transport.

It totally foxed me! Going by train was pretty blasted expensive, and the Deutsche Bahn (German railway) site had kittens every time I shyly suggested I might want to cross over into France - wouldn't give me timetables, refused to give ticket costs, etc etc. Sure, I could get to Strasbourg, for a hefty fee, but I didn't want to go quite as far as that, and Deutsche Bahn did not wish to help me get anywhere else. Fine, thought I, I'll see about coaches. Nope. Now it's quite possible I'm simply unable to navigate these sites properly as yet, but it would appear that the national coach network is (a) not set up to go the way I really wanted to, and (b) nearly as expensive as the train. They don't appear to have a cheap alternative, as we do in Britain. The expat forums suggest that the only way to travel without shelling out too much is to carshare, and I couldn't find a female driver going anywhere near on the dates I wanted to travel. Much frustration ensued! Eventually I chose the least-worst option and started to book a return to Saarbrücken, being the nearest border town to my friends, they having kindly offered to pick me up.

Well, firstly, the cheaper options available turned out not to be quite as available as I thought, not being available to print out online - they had to be posted and required quite a few days' notice. Hmm. Never mind. I chose the bog-standard return fare and pressed "pay now". It then wanted me to sign up; well, fine, I thought, I'll be making more trips throughout the year - no harm in storing my details. So I did. These included the number of my bank card and my German address, and I tried to proceed to payment. It wasn't playing ball. Despite having taken my debit card details, it also required a credit card for payment. (What?? Why?)

Of course I don't have a credit card in Germany, and if I had put in the details of one of my English ones, gathering dust at the bottom of my handbag and only used for emergencies, the computer would doubtless have jibbed at the mismatching addresses and probably arrested me on the spot. I banged my head hard on the desk and took myself off to the station. The ticket machine there eventually dispensed what I needed, but I resented having to make the unnecessary trip. I did ask one of the helpful ladies at the travel centre why, if the machines at the station would take my money happily from my debit card, the online site would not. If there was a coherent explanation, however, I'm afraid I didn't understand it!!

After all that, of course, I had a lovely time at my friends' place, throwing myself into family life and bottles of light, fresh Gewürtztraminer with a vengeance. I cleaned out rabbit hutches, helped with French homework, was fed royally, reciprocated with a rabbit dish with spätzle (egg noodles) with a tomato sauce thickened with dark chocolate (not the same rabbit, I hasten to add, and I had some nifty lying to do to the younger girls at the last minute...), and generally had a ball. We even managed to fit in a supermarket trip, where I stocked up rather desperately on everything I find lacking in German shops. I returned bent almost double under the weight of my purchases, but it was worth it!

An interesting occurrence in the supermarket - evidently the German is worming its way into my consciousness, but it was jolly embarrassing! We'd bumped into an extremely voluble French friend and her daughter, and had joined them for coffee in the supermarket coffee shop (I was impressed to note the variety of alcohol on offer!). I was happily nattering away in French, and at some point the conversation moved to cross-border travel. I was explaining the above complications, but as soon as I hit the word "Saarbrücken", my tongue flipped immediately into German. I started to apologise - aargh, it was still in German!! I took a deep breath, started again in French - and the same thing happened - TWICE!- when I hit the German place name. I was mortified; the others, naturally, were in stitches...

A last, slightly surreal note. Returning, I realised I could get a train from their village to Saarbrücken (this had not been at all obvious from my internet searches, due to the dratted border being in between). This was an unmanned station, so I went to the ticket machine to buy my ticket. It wouldn't let me buy a ticket to my destination!! I wondered about getting on anyway and buying a ticket from the inspector, but thought it prudent to at least get a ticket for the last station on the French side. French ticket inspectors are notoriously strict about such matters; you have to definitely get their attention before they try to get yours, otherwise you're fined within an inch of your life for trying to travel ticketless.

Not the ones I met!! The first one strolled along, grinned, and said he hoped I didn't have any ticket problems as his mate with the machine thought I was too good-looking to talk to and had skedaddled to the other half of the train. I started to say I hadn't a ticket to my actual destination; he laughed and whistled for the other guard, and I had to explain about the errant ticket machine to a background of toothless flirting on the one side and crimson-faced and silent embarrassment on the other. They had a look at my ticket, then explained that, as they were employed by the Alsace railways, they couldn't issue a ticket for the German bit either. Perplexed, I asked what I needed to do. Oh, said the voluble one, and winked, don't worry love, you're fine. Which I was, thankfully, saving eight euros; but I have to say, I reckon that's a slightly atypical brush with French bureaucracy!!


  1. Sprachkrise!! A common ocurrence, even (particularly?) in one as multi-lingual as yourself. I remember once standing in Berlin with an English-eductated-French-Italian-Russian-speaking German friend. I took a breath to speak. "I-.....". Try again. "W-....." Nope. "Ma-....". Eventually what came out was "Ora wir brauchen premiere floor" at which point we both started laughing so hard we couldn't stop. We dubbed it a "Sprachkrise", and the expression has stuck with me ever since.

    FWIW, apparently the REASON this happens is because all of our learned languages (as opposed to mother tongues and fluent languages) are stored in the same part of the brain, and sometimes it flips to the wrong stack of vocabluary cards!

  2. Nice to know I'm not alone in my idiocy!!

    Sprachkrise. Cool. New words every day... (of course now I'm worried that the bit of my brain that stores new languages is getting full!)