The following is a chapter from an upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany. Read more here.
Germans take their reservations seriously. You’re a fool if you go out at night, expecting to just waltz in and grab a table at anything above a decent restaurant. Anyone who does so on a Friday or Saturday night is escorted out and sent immediately to solitary confinement at an asylum to think about what they did.
It’s all just another cog in the machine of order, the foundation of which is built upon the holy value of prior planning. The same applies to train travel. Want a seat? Book one, unless you want to be one of those sorry souls, sweatily working their way up and down the aisles trying to spot a free seat and constantly asking people, “Is anyone sitting there?” This is a question that’s often greeted with a grumble when you’re forcing someone to confine the small apartment’s worth of things they’ve brought on board into the area they’re actually sitting in.
“I mean, I am using that seat for my oversized suitcase, jacket, and dinner wrapped up in a to-go bag, but I suppose I’ll move it all if you insist.”
I used to chance it, wanting to save the €4.50 (€9 roundtrip) for a seat reservation. But then my wife and I started reserving when we’d travel with the dog and I’ve since seen too many trains overcrowded with travelers, people forced to stand in the aisle or sit by the doors like they’re camping out for the next iPhone. They always look miserable, so now I always cough up the extra cash and chalk it up as a contribution to preserving my mental health.
Once I boarded a train for Detmold, a small town you’ve probably never heard of within the same state as Düsseldorf–North Rhine Westphalia. The journey involved one high-speed train to Bielefeld and then a slower, regional train to Detmold. Considering my train left Düsseldorf during rush hour on a Thursday, I was doubly certain to make a seat reservation. And holy balls, was I glad.
I found my seat next to a man already camped out next to the window, busy hammering away on his laptop. There’s a little screen above the seats with the number and the reservation next to it. If there’s a reservation, it’ll say for what part of the journey. For instance, my train started somewhere before Düsseldorf and was ending in Berlin, but my reservation was only from Düsseldorf (where I boarded) to Bielefeld, so that’s what it said above my seat. You follow?
Next to me it said “Dortmund to Hannover.” Dortmund was still to come, so I knew immediately this guy had snagged someone else’s reserved seat. Maybe he was getting off before Dortmund. That’s also how the system is supposed to work. Plus Germans aren’t usually the type to so brazenly disobey a rule. Ordnung muss sein, after all.
I nod off for a bit listening to an audiobook and wake up as the train pulls into Dortmund. The guy is still sitting there, various documents and files open on his screen with no sense of urgency that he’s going to have to move soon.
The train doors slide open and the aisle is instantly clogged with people walking through in both directions, awkwardly and rudely forcing their way through. (Ordnung goes out the window in crowds.) I see one couple get kicked out of their seats by someone with a reservation and I look over at the guy next to me. His eyes are still locked on his screen.
“Maybe he’s treating travelers like the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park,” I thought. “If he doesn’t move, they won’t see him.”
I see a short woman, in her sixties I’d guess, shuffling along as the line in the aisle moves forward. She’s glancing at the seat numbers and checking her printed ticket in her hand.
“This must be her,” i thought, quietly excited to see her kick this rule breaker out of her seat.
The line finally moves enough so she’s standing in the aisle next to me, confirming the match on her ticket.
“That’s fifteen,” she says, shooting her gaze toward his direction. If she weren’t wearing glasses, I’m certain he would’ve felt her stare.
Finally, he looks up. “Yeah, I had a reservation, but on the other train.”
Now the earlier announcement made sense. Just before I dozed off, a woman came over the loudspeaker and said something about wagons thirty-something to thirty-something not being at the station, capping it with glorious ignorance. “I don’t know and I don’t have any other information.” They tried to offer passengers who lost their reservation the opportunity to take another train toward Berlin and collect a coupon but based on the Bonnaroo-sized crowd piling up on one another, nobody was taking them up on the offer.
After the man relays this info, explaining why he’d dare break the rules, she shot him another look that roughly translated to, “Not my fuckin’ problem” punctuated with a shrug. Then again, based on her wholesome grandmother aura, I don’t think she’d go for that kind of language.
“Yeah, but the seat is reserved,” she said, holding up her ticket. The man was defeated.
I felt a little bad for him. I, too, have been on the wrong end of attempting to play along with German insistence on planning for the worst case scenario. One morning I had to pick up my dog Moses from the dog sitter. Wanting to make sure to get to the woman’s apartment well before my scheduled pickup, I walked over to the bus stop with plenty of time to kill. The next two scheduled buses never showed up. In the end, I could’ve walked directly over to her apartment had I known from the beginning and been more on time than I was at that point. I texted her to give her a heads up about local public transport failing me and she responds, “We’ll discuss that when you arrive.” Sure enough, she meets me outside of her apartment and proceeds to berate me in monotone about how my tardiness screwed up her schedule for the rest of her clients for the rest of the day. I repeated my apologies, but she wanted to continue verbally flogging me for my tardiness.
“You should’ve planned to be early,” she said, switching to English, which I always–rightly or wrongly–took to be condescending.
“I did,” I explained, sticking with German. “Two buses never showed up. What do you want me to say?”
She just continued to sigh and insist I should’ve planned better because now she has to explain to her clients why she’s late and they won’t care that it’s because two buses failed me. As she explained this, it occurred to me how odd it was to spend the time to berate me for an honest mistake when the crux of her argument was that now she was late. This led me to believe she got some kind of sick satisfaction at making me feel shitty. Then a man came out of her apartment building and Moses barked as he does at almost all men leaving buildings because he’s a rescue dog more than likely abused by a man. My normal human reaction was to try and reassure him that he wasn’t in any danger.
“You’re okay,” I said, positioning my body in between him and the man.
“Don’t tell him he’s okay!” she snapped. “He’s not being okay!”
And that was the straw that broke the camel’s patience.
“Look, I apologized. What do you want me to do? You said you’re late, so I’m going to go.”
I stormed down the sidewalk, furious because I really did plan and still had to put up with that holier than thou bullshit.
On the train, the woman was decent about it, but I’m sure he learned his lesson. “Better buy the train if I really want to get my reservation.”
I stood up, prepared to let the man out and the woman in. She had a black, hard-shelled suitcase about half her size.
“Can I help you with that?” I asked.
“Please,” she muttered as if she didn’t expect anyone to offer and was relieved I had. “That’s very sweet of you,” she repeated a few times.
“No problem” I smiled. “That’s why I’m here!”
This line always gets a smile and that’s precisely why I use it. I’ve long believed that there’s a lower bar to getting a laugh in a foreign language and I’m not afraid to take advantage of that leniency. One of my brightest moments in learning Spanish came in Costa Rica. We were on a shuttle bus at La Paz Waterfall Gardens when a little kid grabbed Melanie by the hand like little kids do when they reach up and assume any hand above them must be their parent’s. Melanie said, “Oh, hello!” and I said, “Hey, she’s my wife!” It’s the kind of dopey joke that would at best get a laugh from a forgiving significant other, but crickets anywhere else in the English-speaking world. But because I was a foreigner and said it in Spanish, the bus shook in uproarious laughter. I felt like I had just accomplished a laudable feat, like winning a marathon or curing a deadly disease. Unfortunately, I’ve since progressed enough in my Spanish to the point where dumb jokes don’t land and I’m still not fluent. Now I know I should’ve kept hovering around basic to intermediate.
Taking her rightful seat, I could sense her relief in having booked a reservation as Hades’ wandering, tortured souls succumbed to the fate of the aisle. We exchanged the usual, friendly travel chatter. She assumes I’m British, as most Germans do when I speak German, and asks where I’m heading. Eventually, I leave her to examine her laminated, full-page printed ticket.
“Adorable! Such a grandma move,” I thought.
Moments later, she tapped me on the shoulder, offering me a piece of chocolate. Her eyes said, “Go ahead. You deserve it. I won’t tell your mother.”
Later, as I was standing to get off at my transfer in Bielefeld, she whipped out another, even larger treat.
“Oh, thank you!” I said.
“Because you’re so nice,” she said.
“Sorry? What’d you say?” I responded, pulling my headphones out.
“Because you’re so nice!” she repeated, her smile even wider and sweeter.
I heard her the first time. I’m glad I reserved that seat.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system.