By Miranda Metheny
When everything goes right, I can disappear into the Netzwerk. I can walk outside, catch a bus, transfer, transfer, transfer, and, like magic, resurface precisely where I meant to. It’s a fundamentally different sensation than driving in a car – it’s this sense of true freedom and total weightlessness, this riding on something much greater than myself.
The trains fly in and out of the stations at perfectly ordered times, like clockwork, and don’t notice or care when a little girl from the other side of the world jumps on in one place, takes refuge inside for a little while, and then lightly hops off again, further down the tracks. It takes a certain amount of skill to ride them well, to know the most efficient routes, to transfer with confidence. Nothing makes me feel more independent and worldly than when I get it just right. And nothing makes me feel more like a snotty-nosed, country-bumpkin of a failure than when I make some silly mistake.
Verkehrsmittel – Public Transportation – may be the single biggest difference between my everyday life here in Germany and back home in Missouri. I had a taste of getting around by bus during my semester in Spain, but here the idea has been taken to another level entirely. Using the Buss und Bahn Netzwerk (Bus and Train Network) is so essential that, as a student, I have a card entitling me to free transportation within Bonn city limits… and from April on, it will extend to the borders of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
North Rhine -Westphalia is Germany’s most populous state, and the network here uses dozens of different train, subway, streetcar, and city bus systems to seamlessly interconnect the 18 million people who live in the state’s 30 cities.
It’s complicated. I’ve had to dedicate an entire pocket of my purse to schedules and network maps.
It’s powerful. If I take the right trains, I can go direct to Vienna, or reach the Netherlands without paying a dime.
It’s liberating. Alone, without a car, in a strange country, I can go anywhere I desire. If I do everything right…
Lessons in German Transportation:
On my second day in Bonn, after a long day of trying to find my way around downtown and buy the essentials for my dorm room, I climbed exhausted onto what I assumed was the bus home. After all, it was the right number! At this point my knowledge of the city was so poor that it took me half an hour before I was forced to conclude that I’d made one of the most elementary public transportation mistakes – I’d taken the right line, in the wrong direction!
While this was definitely a hassle, I had nowhere I needed to be, and fixing the problem was a simple matter of getting off at the next stop and waiting for the bus to come back around. My friend Kaleb made the exact same mistake a day later… but he did so at night, and ended up on the wrong side of town! Although he doesn’t speak any German, he managed to communicate his mistake and unease to the bus driver, who let Kaleb sit on the locked bus during his break before heading back to the city center. Whew!
Lesson #1 – For the first few days, give yourself a lot of time to get places. Never be in a hurry, and don’t try new things at night.
On my way to visit my friend Esther for Karneval weekend, I managed to turn what should have been an easy, 40-minute commute into a 4-hour adventure saga. First, unfamiliar with the various options that could get me from Point A to Point B, I managed to pick the absolute slowest – the over-street metro that connects Bonn to Cologne and stops approximately every two minutes along the way. But what really threw me off was when, just after entering Cologne city limits, the metro stopped and everyone was ordered off without any clear explanation. When I asked around, someone turned to me with this shocked expression and said simply, “We have Karneval now!” as if that explained everything.
It turns out that the parade route went directly over the metro tracks. I had to cover the remaining distance to the Hauptbahnhof on foot, which meant four miles of picking my way through broken glass, confetti, and crowds in various stages of intoxication. At first, I was a little bit annoyed about the situation, especially when I had to wait for an opportunity to spring across the parade itself. That’s when it hit me – here I was in Cologne, Germany for Karneval… and I’d accidentally stumbled into the main parade route… and I was annoyed about it? I decided it was time to adjust my attitude, took out my camera for a picture of some of the passing clowns, and broke into a smile. Suddenly, one of the parade marchers came right over to me and handed me a lovely flower! The day might not have gone according to plan, but I couldn’t really regret it after that.
Lesson #2 – Try to be flexible, and even find the silver-lining in disturbances.
When I was going to Vienna, Austria to visit my friend Lea, she emailed me a detailed itinerary with train numbers, platforms, and departure times. I was a little bit confused about where she’d gotten the information, and for some reason seemed to remember booking a direct ticket. Then again, it seemed to good to be true that there would be a direct train from Bonn to Vienna, and I was sure Lea knew better than I did! I was on the first train when the man came around to check tickets. There was something wrong with mine, though – I was on the wrong train! I showed him the itinerary that Lea had given me, and he became quite confused.
Apparently, the train that I would be catching two connections later in Frankfurt had actually gone through Bonn, and I could have caught it just a few minutes earlier than the train I was on now! Luckily, the ticket master on this train didn’t do anything about it, and the one on the next train didn’t even look closely enough at the ticket to notice. In the end, I got to Vienna without any major problems – but between the unnecessary transfers and the confusion, the mistakes sure added a fair helping of stress to the whole affair. Lea was so embarrassed, even though everything worked out fine and I could easily understand how she’d gotten confused. But next time, I’m going to trust my ticket.
Lesson #3 – Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Even natives get it wrong sometimes!