Personal Journey: A Swiss miss: Follies of getting home

Al Weigand sits in a compartment of a European train, smiling before the last trial of the journey. Little did he know the adventure that lay ahead.
Al Weigand sits in a compartment of a European train, smiling before the last trial of the journey. Little did he know the adventure that lay ahead. (SALLY WEIGAND)
Posted: September 02, 2013

A spectacular Swiss vacation soured on the last day. The downward spiral began at the Basel train station.

When we asked which platform our train would arrive on, a clerk directed us verbally and with hand gestures toward a door. A construction project had brought temporary walls and unmarked doorways to the station, creating a confusing setting. We went through a door to a platform and waited until the arrival time had passed. Since European express trains are rarely late, a feeling of impending doom descended on us.

Another inquiry to station personnel produced the same results, so we dubiously returned to the platform. As time ticked away, we paced, peering anxiously into the distance. A half hour after the scheduled departure time, full-blown alarm set in. A third inquiry, this time to an attendant who spoke English, brought us the terrible news that the train had been on time. We should have gone through the Customs door, then to the correct platform.

What to do now? Possible solutions came to mind. Would the next train get us to Luxembourg in time for the flight home? Would renting a car and driving to the airport do it? Was there a plane that could whisk us there? After racing to a car rental, a travel agent, and the train ticket window, we turned up zeroes for all means of transportation to make it to our flight. We then faced the dreaded phone call to inform the babysitting grandparents that we were forced to spend an additional day in Switzerland. As an added insult, the first rain in our 10 sun-filled days poured down.

By late afternoon we sat in a comfortable compartment on the next train to Luxembourg. Feeling dismal, we hoped a meal in the dining car would cheer us up. "No," we were told. "The dining car is not serving meals anymore." A beer and crackers had to suffice. Not even food for solace. Walking back to our compartment we miscounted the number of cars to reach our seats. After we stepped onto a connecting platform to the next car, a locked door confronted us. We had reached the mail car, always kept locked. The door behind us had clicked closed, also locked. We were trapped in a miniature jail with swaying walls that resembled an accordion.

Banging on the door to the car behind proved useless. A passenger tried unsuccessfully to open it, threw up his hands, and walked away muttering in French. A few others looked at us, shook their heads, commented in French, and continued about their business. Evening descended. The air, reaching us through a multitude of tiny openings, grew cool. Weaving back and forth, the train rolled on. In near-panic we wondered where in Europe would we be released, and how long would we be imprisoned here.

At last the train began to slow down. Relief passed over us like soothing water. Surprised trainmen opened the door to add mail and we were set free.

To our horror, we thought it was where we had to get off. Running frantically to our compartment, we grabbed the luggage, struggled and bumped our way to the door, and jumped off. As the train inched away from the platform we realized it was not our stop. Aided by a high level of adrenaline, we ran to the nearest steps and propelled ourselves back onto the moving train. Fear glued us to the seats until we reached our correct destination.

Finally arriving in Luxembourg, we chose a small hotel convenient to transportation to the airport so nothing else would interfere. It turned out to be in the red-light district. I was afraid to walk down the hallway to the bathroom, so my husband had to escort me. Laughter, talking, and other expressive sounds seeped through the thin walls, adding to the all-night traffic noise in the halls. Even a refreshing night's rest was denied us.

Fortunately, when the night ended, so did the bad dream. We reached the United States with no further mishaps. Reliving the incident we laugh, and it makes a good story. This nightmare could have been avoided had one of us learned some French. I promised to never again visit a foreign country without knowing enough of the language to at least get around.

Sally Weigand writes from Downingtown.