Monday, August 20, 2007

Kindness from a German Stranger in the Netherlands

Here is an adventure I had last winter (January 2007).

I was supposed to go to Nijmegen at 9:14am from Düsseldorf via train, change to a local commuter train in Arnhem, then arrive in Nijmegen. Spend the day with our main collaborator there, give a talk outlining our fMRI experiment after lunch, then test our experiment in their scanner that afternoon with me inside playing subject. Then, get a 5pm train home, changing in Arnhem again to get back by 7pm. (Arnhem is just 15 minutes by train from Nijmegen.) This was the idea anyway!

The morning went fine, but on my train ride, my wife called to say she heard from people about some big storm coming, and they warned people to stay home! News to us! (Apparently most countries were not really prepared either, with the chaotic response that ensued...)

Here is the "extratropical cyclone" that hit Europe:


So I worked on my talk on the train, changed trains on schedule in Arnhem, noting that the station there looked really thrown-together and not a real station, then made in to Nijmegen. (Arnhem was constructing a new station at the time.) I caught a bus to the FC Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. I gave my talk after lunch and, after getting some tough questions from nearly every principal investigator, our project was approved. Then we went down to the scanner and tried out our experiment and it seemed to work really well! My colleague decided that, even though the trains were not showing delays, I should take an earlier train to make my connection because the Dutch trains don't necessarily run on time (compared to Amtrak in the US, the German ones do run on schedule fairly well, though I guess Switzerland has even better on-time performance and most expats complain about the delays by German trains!).

So I grabbed the bus (hmm...sure is windy outside), went to the station, and ran to the platforms. They were all packed with people waiting for different trains. I frantically tried to figure out which was the right track, but none of the signs matched. The info-desk person was not there but I found a railway worker wearing day-glow orange and asked if he knew which platform was the Arnhem train, or how I could find out. "Didn't you see the storm outside? No more trains are running from here!"

Umm...did anyone think of telling that to the people waiting on the platforms for trains? Guess not. I asked how I could get there to make my connections and he said there was a bus going there--"it takes about one hour"...and I have about 45 minutes to spare at this point. I check inside and news was that the ICE's (the German express trains between major cities--and my way to get back to Düsseldorf) were still running, so if I can get to Arnhem, I can get home. I ran outside to check the bus stop--and they weren't running extra buses to transport people, just the normal, once an hour bus to Arnhem, and there were about 300 people waiting for it. Not a good sign. So I looked for the taxi stand. A train station has to have one right? Um, no. I find someone inside who tells me where taxis usually park. None there. Bus still not coming. Wind getting really strong (I can lean over at nearly a 45 degree angle at this point and not fall down).

Finally, after running in circles, I find a taxi driving on a different street and catch him. "How much to get to Arnhem?" "About 40 euros" "How long" Üsually 15-20 minutes" Yes! I hop in and we go....and hit traffic. It actually takes about 30 minutes with trees starting to get blown on the freeway, but we make it to the Arnhem train station.

Two minutes to spare! I run out of the cab, no time for a receipt. Sprint in to the "station" straight to the platform (running up and down those stairs they stick between temporary bleachers) and nothing. Did I miss it? Is it late? I overhear something in German that doesn't sound promising. I go upstairs and hear something in English about how no trains are coming from Germany. I finally find at employee who says that nothing is going to Germany either, and they don't know anything else. It is a bit wet in the station because the plywood and corrugated metal walls have a big, 10 foot gap between them and the roof. Interesting design. I notice posters for a new station being built in 2 years on my way to the ticket office.

Now that I am not running, I notice people sitting dejected on the floor everywhere, getting a bit wet with the lack of enclosed walls. I go to ask the ticket agent what I should do when the trains run again. Get a new ticket? Use the old one? He says to use the old one. When might the trains go again? The storm is supposed to be at its worst in 3 hours, so maybe tomorrow morning or afternoon. Hmm...OK. Is there a hotel at the station I can get a room in? No. Are there some nearby? Only a couple but they are full. (This is not making my adrenaline go down yet.) Then man hunched over the counter next to me says "Maybe you can trying calling hotels after I'm done, but I'm not finding any yet." He has a phone book. So I wait behind him and hear him asking in German over and over for a room. Finally it sounds positive and he asks for directions from the clerk (something about no taxis...nice!).

He starts to leave and I stop him. Excuse me, did you find a room? Yes! But I forgot to ask if they had more. The agent said it is just a short walk if you want to come and ask if they have one. Not having anything else to do, I say sure. He mentioned it might be expensive, at least 150 euros, but without a choice, it seems, that was better then sleeping in the rain and wind at the station.

Thirty minutes later...the nearby hotel is seen on a roadway. I guess most Dutch hotels are on roadways rather than at train stations. The German Man who found a room had first walked to the few near the station and found them all booked. Tourist info had closed early. All the taxis decided to go home. Then he had to twist an agent's arm to get a phone book. Great customer service! He explained that the ICE train employees would take care of customers much better in Germany. As we walked we talked about what we did for a living (he did something with IT), where we were from (he lived near Frankfurt, waaay south of where I live), what we were doing (he had a client nearby he met with for a couple of days), etc. We get to the hotel and a few others are checking in. He gets up to the front and says he just called to reserve a room, and there was this other man at the station (me) who was also stranded. Do they have another room? No. Last one went to him.

I started getting that "sinking" feeling (maybe it was that Perfect Storm brewing outside). I figured I would wait until he checked in and then I would ask the desk clerk to help me find a room somewhere, and maybe a taxi to get there. If there was somewhere. And if there was a taxi.

German Man then asks them how big the room is and they say it is a double. He turns to me "Want to share my room?" I asked if he was, Serious? Yes, it is better than the station, and I already called a dozen hotels before this one and they all had no room. OK! They say it has two beds, so that works. I pull out my wallet and he says not to worry about it, he would take care of it and, as he was there on business, just account for the room as for his stay. Wow. What do we do now? It is almost 7pm, and I am starving (I eat light when I give a talk) so I ask if I can buy him dinner as a thank you for sharing the room. So we go upstairs to drop our stuff. Let's see...I have a computer and paper. Fortunately I also had a toothbrush as I like to brush my teeth before talks--helps with having that feeling of confidence, rather than onion-smelling nervousness. No contact lens cleaning solution, but I have a roof over my head--and it's connected to the walls unlike the station! The room appeared to have one large bed instead of two but then the German Man noticed it was actually two beds that we could push apart.

We head down to the pricey restaurant and German Man asks for a "really big beer" and I'll have one too. He had already eaten Burger King as he hunted for a hotel, unsure if he'd have another opportunity. So he just gets a salad (more meat than green, with parma ham on it) and I get "tandoori salmon" which is basically sushi--raw salmon with some sauce and noodles, potatoes and salad. I was starving though so it went down quick. We talked in more detail about work, family, politics, cultures, play "who in the restaurant really wants to be here, and who is stuck like us?", etc. Just hang out there for a few hours with nothing else to do. Head up to get some much needed sleep at 10pm, with a plan to get up early and to the station in case the first scheduled train is running again.

Breakfast at the hotel. Beautiful view of the Rhine (or Rijn, in Netherlands, like Rembrandt von Rijn), then walk back to the station, straight to the platform, as the TVs all show the normal schedule. Ha! Finally they announce that there are local trains, but no international ones, please go to the travel desk. So we go, and stand in super-long line.

As we are waiting I notice the German Man's luggage tags. Hmm...maybe I should find out his name? Especially after sharing a hotel room together the night before. "Umm, I just realized I never introduced myself! I'm Michael." He starts laughing. Nice to meet you! Again! And he tells me his name is Martin. Somehow we went a whole night without that little formality. We finally talk to the ticket agent. Martin asks why they don't have buses running to transport people. The agent notes that is an interesting idea. Then says that the trains might run again sometime tomorrow--goodbye!

So Martin calls his coworkers and ask if they can find a rental car--there is no office for one at the "station." If they find one he'll drop me near Düsseldorf on his way to Frankfurt to go home. So we go to find coffee and sit down and wait. En route we see that the taxis came back! A bit late. We venture into Arnhem, find coffee and his coworkers call back in about an hour. A car! They had trouble finding a rental office, but finally found a reservation for one available at 2pm. They give the address and phone number. Martin calls and the person seems a bit confused, but says 2pm is right. So we walk around Arnhem, look at some stores, the market, then look for lunch...all the restaurants seem closed. Just the wrong time to be in Arhem, or maybe it is always a bad time to be there?

My boss calls while we walk around and asks "where are you?" Umm, Arnhem. But don't worry, I met a great German man who is willing to rent a car and drop me off in D-dorf. "Why aren't you on a train on your way here yet?" Umm, didn't you hear about this storm thing? No trains? A smoky bar/cafe is open, so we lunch there then go get a cab to the car rental.

The taxi drives, and drives, and...I'm almost back in Nijmegen! We are in the middle of nowhere, and he stops at a Home Depot-looking place. Martin confirms the address is right, so the taxi drops us off with a "good luck!" We go in and see they rent drills, chain saws, buckets...no cars. We ask an employee who at first confirms this but says he'll make a call. Person on the phone confirms that a car is supposed to be there for us from a big rental company, but they just partner with them. "Come back in an hour." Ok--where can we go for an hour around here? (Remember--we are here to rent a car!) "Nowhere around here." We are in the middle of nowhere. So we go for a long walk doing nothing, come back, and the car is there. Only problem is they don't know how to rent it to us. After about 15 minutes of calls, they get the company to fax them the rental forms, Martin signs them, and we go (noting that the forms do not say which car we are taking--hope it is the right one!).

A little over an hour later Martin drops me off at the Düsseldorf airport and hurries off before I can get his card or something--hoping I could thank him again somehow. Eventually I find my way home. My wife was happy to see me home after wondering where I was (my phone ran out of credit about halfway through all of this), who I was sharing a room with, and if I'd ever make it back.

Then I had to go back to Nijmegen again the next weekend!

A nice ending is that Martin found me on the internet, using my first name, city and work, and emailed me, so I was able to send him a proper thank-you. It was really amazing how he was just automatically sharing like that (his room, his car, etc.); many Germans I tell this story to keep saying that is a rare thing here. Even outside of Germany that level of generosity is uncommon.

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3 comments:

Matt said...

Great story, Mike! Though it makes me wish for rain... And January...

Oh, well. Flagstaff this weekend, which should be great........

udigrudi said...

Hey German Contact, what's happened to the blog?

Job hunting going ok? Afraid of revealing anything at this critical time?

Kerensa said...

This is a great story, you pulled me in....like a facinating short in the New Yorker or something! I am certain that your wonderful nature contributed to the things that went "right" for you on this day!