The train from Poland to Hungary was perfectly pleasant, once I moved out of the car with the busted A/C. I ate a lunch I’d packed wrote in my journal. Judging by these empties found in the bathroom sink onboard, other passengers were passing the time differently.
Then I got to Budapest and saw an elderly woman holding up a “rooms for rent” sign negotiating price with a mohawked man, and a woman in a spangly shirt sweeping out the train, presumably before going clubbing. I liked it right away.
I talk so much about the travel I’ve done and the travel I plan to do that I think there’s an assumption I’m travel-savvy at all times. Not true! I make plenty of travel blunders, and sometimes even repeat the same mistakes I’ve vowed to learn from.
Take a couple weeks ago, for example: it was the week before Christmas and I was going down to the south side of Chicago for dinner with my aunts and uncles. My dad was in town and would pick me up from the commuter train station, and we’d meet up with everyone else for dinner. The next day, Dad and I would drive up to Michigan together for holiday festivities. A simple plan. Hard to get it wrong. And yet…
It was a combination of factors. I had the day off of work, so I simultaneously over- and under-planned. I planned to fit too much stuff into the day–see my out-of-town friend! pack! run errands! all after a generous lie-in!–and then under-planned the time each one of those would take. So by the time my friend and I hugged goodbye, I had nothing packed and was supposed to leave my apartment ten minutes prior. I rushed around my house, tossing into a suitcase more clothes than I’d need and jewelry I knew I’d never wear. (Poor planning leads to poor packing, y’all.)
Then out the door, dash to the el, get off at La Salle, up the escalator, to the ticket booth, turn around and face the several trains awaiting passengers. Dearest fellow travelers, here is where I made the fatal mistake. Each train berth is headed up by an electronic sign detailing the time the train would depart and the stations it would call at. I glanced at the signs, found the soonest departure time, and walked confidently to that train. I seated myself, tucked my suitcase on the floor next to me, and turned the music up on my headphones. Note that at no point did I check the sign to see where I was going.
Next thing I knew, the train was in motion and the conductor came around to collect tickets. I handed him mine and he said, “Where are you going?” “99th Street,” I replied. “We’re not!” he said cheerily. Wait, what?
Yup, I’d got on an express train. It skipped right past 99th Street, past all the stops I recognized, and went on to a town I’d never heard of–Midlothian. Sounded like a villain from the Bible. I could get off at Midlothian to turn back, but the next train back to Chicago wouldn’t be for another 45 minutes and it was pretty cold out. Not only that, I’d got on a quiet car, where cell phones are forbidden, so I couldn’t even call my dad without stumbling over my suitcase and walking to the vestibule between cars. I stayed in my seat and texted madly, my face hot with embarrassment and my eyes prickling with tears (which only frustrated me more–this wasn’t so bad that I needed to cry about it! good grief).
It all worked out, of course. Dad kindly offered to pick me up in this mythical Midlothian, and we weren’t even late for dinner. Everyone ragged on me a little, which is only fair, after which the whole affair faded as we dug into our food.
But you’d better believe I was a little shaken; if I can’t even navigate a train system I’m familiar with, in my hometown, how on earth am I going to make it in cities with schedules written in non-Roman script and train staff not speaking English? With a lot more planning and a lot less rushing about, that’s how.
So take heart. If you’re an inexperienced traveler, know that no one has it perfect, so there’s no reason for the possibility of making mistakes to hold you back from heading out the door. And if you’re a more experienced traveler and never make such elementary mistakes, well, you sound about as mythical as Midlothian.