Troubled transport

Beautiful railway station with modern red commuter train at suns

The other day I was working in Mainz, and a colleague on my team asked me if I had “mit der Bahn gekommen”. Indeed I had. But what do Germans mean when they say Bahn? And where do ice trains come from or go to? Come and join me on a railway journey through the land of trrrävelling …

Mainz is about 180 km from Cologne. If I had been asked the exact same question (“Bist du mit der Bahn gekommen?”) on a local job in Cologne, it would have meant local public transport, specifically the U-Bahn (underground trains) and Straßenbahn (trams), and sometimes S-Bahn, which stands for Schnellbahn (urban rail).

To make matters even more confusing, there are quite a few German cities, including Cologne, where underground trains turn into trams and vice versa, and Bahn is universally used to mean either.

When you travel further, however, i.e. regionally or (inter)nationally, die Bahn usually refers to regional or national rail services, the largest provider of which is the formerly state-owned Deutsche Bahn (DB). A synonym for travelling by rail is mit dem Zug fahren, which never refers to trams or underground trains.

You will also hear many Germans talk about specific types of Deutsche Bahn trains they use, the most common ones being ICE, IC and Regionalexpress or Regionalbahn. What do these names denote?

ICE (pronounce individual letters, i.e. [i tse e] – although I have taken quite a liking to the fact that other nationals call it the ‘ice train’ … I picture snowy train roofs, frosted windows with icicles and a steam train puffing through a winter wonderland …) stands for – wait for the rather disappointingly prosaic reality check here – Inter City Express. How unimaginative. Picture me pouting.

It’s supposed to be the fastest German train – a concept that is put into perspective in view of the fact that long-distance trains accounted for most of DB’s over seven years of delays in 2015 alone (cf. Handelsblatt article 3,79 Millionen Minuten Verspätung). Yes, I’m sorry to be the one to break this news to all of you who still believed in the fabled German virtue that is punctuality. Woe is me, that ship has sailed. Or rather, that train has left.

And then we have the IC, which is – who can guess? Yes, ta dahhh! The Icicle Crusher! It, too, is a relatively fast train, relatively being the operative word here.

Finally, you have your Regionalexpress and your Regionalbahn. The former is the train that stops at the larger regional stops, i.e. metropolises including Oer-Erkenschwick and Bad Oeynhausen, while the latter, also referred to as Bummelzug or Bummelbahn, stops an jeder Milchkanne, as we Germans say. Both are 5 minutes late by default. This is because only delays in excess of 5 minutes appear in DB’s delay statistics.

As for the Bummelbahn, though, it can get even bummeliger than that. DB has even sub-regional trains up its sleeve, some of which run on diesel fuel, going where no man has ever gone before. Where no Milchkanne has ever been spotted, even. Picture a poor, lonely, dusty train all alone, tumbleweed, and, in the distance, a stranger playing the harmonica … I digress.

I like trrrävelling viz Deutsche Bahn because, if nothing else, you will always have enough time to finish prepping for the job you’re going to. Or writing blog entries about die Bahn.

The Pommes-Buddha says: Five minutes are zero minutes. (Zero minutes can feel very long.)

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Germans are everywhere

hiking in the mountains

During my time in Australia, some of which I spent travelling around the country, I realised that there’s no escape. I was picturing a secluded part of the world, literally the furthest away from my home country, where I would be left in peace and have a chance to immerse myself into a different culture, completely unfettered by my roots, for a while. But no!

Not only did I not feel secluded at all because, obviously, there was e-mail and Skype – and even people on the telephone in Europe sounded like they were just around the corner. But also, wherever I went, on every last bloody jeep safari into the remotest part of the bush, I would bump into fellow countrymen and women.

Germans do like to travel. The World Tourism Organization UNWTO says that until 2011 Germans were the world champions of travelling, at least based on the money spent in tourism.

Whenever my English husband and I are hiking abroad, he takes mischievous pleasure in a little pastime he calls Spot the German. Having trotted the odd part of the globe, he says you can always recognise Germans by their top-notch, super-organised equipment. And by their Jack Wolfskin coats – which, he assumes, will expand into a fully-equipped tent or ready-to-use canoe at the hassle-free pull of a strap.

I was surprised to hear he’d never heard of Jack Wolfskin before going backpacking. I thought it came from some English-speaking country, but it is actually a German brand.

‘You would never see a German on a hiking trail just wearing a pair of old trainers,’ says Mr K. Yes, we like to be prepared. That makes us feel safe. And when we’re prepared and feel safe, most of us will be in the right mindset to actually let our hair down.

When I went on a trekking tour in Tasmania, I was incredulous at one Irish girl wearing trainers. It did say on the equipment list that rain and mud were to be expected. And this poor girl ended up with very, very, very wet feet, while my feet were nicely dry and snug in my Meindl leather boots. Sometimes it’s nice to be German.

But, oh, what woe if we fall prey to imponderabilities! Imagine … ‘Liebling, I’ve lost my Swiss Army knife. Go, go, you can make it without me!’ – ‘But Schatz, I think we’ll be fine. It’s only the Cologne Zoo cable car.’

Now get your pickaxe, coz next week we’re going on a pub crawl.

The Pommes Buddha says: When in doubt, ask a German. (There’ll probably be one right next to you.)

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