“There was nothing much to see there,” my wife said bluntly. “Just a big ski jump I recall, and that’s pretty much it—made it to their postage stamp,” she added as her singular takeaway from visiting Innsbruck, many years before, when she was a young backpacking Eurail explorer. Not that strange really, I thought: a city famous for a ski jump. Today, a single image or logo can characterize a city or country, even a continent. Fridge magnets epitomize our highly competitive sightseeing world. I can’t imagine visiting a place that doesn’t have its own fridge magnet.
As we chatted, our train pressed on smoothly at speeds over 150 kmph. It was clean, comfortable, fast and eerily empty. We were, apparently, the only folks sitting up in the stylish leather-seated first class carriage as most of the other travelers had gotten off at Linz, on this Budapest to Munich OBB Railjet train. OBB, the Austrian intercity train service, is delightfully pronounced “ooh baabaay,” eliciting little smiles every time there is an announcement in any language. Certainly we laughed audibly every time. Probably gets old for the Austrians I guess.
I’ve always loved trains, with the notable exception of required daily commuting into London many years ago, when I was subjected to the comical vagaries and inconveniences of British Rail. Apart from that, rail travel throughout Europe is, for the most part, highly enjoyable for me. Even with the crowded Austrian and Hungarian stations this fall, with floors and aisles crammed with helpless migrants fleeing Syria, train travel easily bests air travel throughout Europe in terms of convenience.
I do feel intense sorrow and utter helplessness regarding the plight of the migrants. Yes I give to various charities to help, and I dutifully handed small amounts of cash to migrants in various train stations as they begged for food or to buy rail tickets. Nonetheless I feel dwarfed and ultimately powerless at the sheer scale of this humanitarian problem. My feeling of helplessness is almost like waiting passively for a huge storm to make landfall or watching a volcano erupt, although it really shouldn’t be. In German and Austrian cities I would confuse the homeless with the refugees, although they all genuinely need our help. In Vienna, I saw a man wake up two days in a row in a bus shelter, fold his meager belongings into a scruffy backpack and then walk off towards a nearby park. When I talked with him and gave him money for a few meals, turns out he was a homeless Austrian. A similar situation occurred in Salzburg. Strangely, the migrant situation seemed to heighten my general awareness of those less fortunate lurking in the shadows and doorways.
After her Innsbruck ruminations, my wife went on to tell to me about an article she had read in the Washington Post just the previous day. It had said, according to my fact-absorbing companion, that Germany had cancelled all direct intercity trains from Salzburg to Munich because of the refugee problem. According to some guy in a Washington DC basement, Bona fide travelers had to take 300-euro taxi rides between nearby Austrian and German cities. “I don’t believe it,” I retorted, because I thought the Post intern was maybe recounting and parlaying some isolated incident into a thematic storyline. “They couldn’t do something so interruptive to European commerce,” I reasoned.
However, some time after leaving Linz, we noticed the electronic signage in the railway carriage no longer indicated that the train was going all the way to Munich, but was apparently terminating earlier at Salzburg. Strange, we thought, and my wife again brought up the Post article with rational fact-finding demeanor. We were on our way to Salzburg, but would be continuing on to Munich in two days time, so the overall continuity of rail service had relevance.
Then the Austrian Ooh Baby conductor cut our musings short. “Tickets please,” I assume he called out in German as he walked slowly and deliberatively up the aisle of the empty carriage. “Does this train go to Munich?” I inquired while showing my tickets. “No, you must get off in Salzburg,” he replied mechanically. “You are going to Munich?” he then probed with robot-like surprise. “Yes, but not today. Today we are going to Innsbruck,” I answered matter-of-factly only to be promptly corrected by my wife. While Ooh Baby was trying to explain that this train was not going to Innsbruck my wife, still correcting me, said that we were getting off at Salzburg. “Oh yes, we are going to Salzburg, not Innsbruck and not Munich” I said to him. Even though we were first class foreigners and the only passengers on the train this little melee was apparently mucho agitato for Ooh Baby. He threw up his hands muttering something in German and disappeared into some little hidden conductor compartment in the next carriage along. About ten minutes later he proceeded to inform the train via the public address system that we were soon arriving in Salzburg and everyone should get off the train here, and he continued to provide detailed instructions for anyone wishing to navigate onward to Innsbruck by train.