There’s good reason to remember a day in June 1999. My husband and I were in the process of graduating from being green Antipodean tourists let loose with Eurail cards, to seasoned travellers who know that all the questions you ask are often one too few.
Several days before we were due to meet my Hamburg penpal and stay at her home, she faxed us where we were and said that when we arrived at Hamburg station on the Friday, we should wait for her outside Pizza Hut. “You can see it from inside the station,” she wrote.
Yeah, we thought: piece-of-cake. I phoned to confirm, speaking clearly into her answerphone. Pizza Hut it would be.
Our train that day was on time. We stepped out into a vast Hamburg station, which was three storeys high with two shopping arcades stretching over the tracks. It was incredibly noisy: most attempts at a message over the speaker system, English or otherwise, were unintelligible.
But what did it matter? After a week on the Eurail trains we’d got the hang of deciphering last-minute changes of platforms. Even a six-minute change from one train to another, scheduled in deplorable naivety, was a breeze — but only because the second train was late.
We found Pizza Hut and waited…and waited. After 45 minutes I wondered: did the wording of the fax suggest there would be a Pizza Hut just outside the station, visible from inside?
But from which exit? With all our luggage, we trudged around the complete perimeter of the station. The cobblestones claimed one wheel of a suitcase and our tempers were fraying at the edges. Our jaunt however left us none the wiser.
We re-entered the station and found…
…a different Pizza Hut. So that was the problem! I waited there while my husband searched for the station’s information office to try to send a fax. Cellphones were not yet in common use! I listened hard for any message over the speakers, and searched the crowd for any likely match to the photos I had of a penpal I’d never met.
My husband returned to say the office didn’t send faxes.Instead we got a taxi to her home. She and her children stared, aghast: there were two Pizza Huts at the station? Oh yes, she’d sent a message over the station’s loud-speaker but it must have been while we were outside the station. She’d returned home, presuming we’d missed the train and expecting that we would have sent a fax.
We used their house as a centre for forages into south-eastern Germany by train, and left for Brussels to take the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel — all the time thinking, we have a tale to tell and so has she.
And all the time feeling wiser. Older and bolder, they say.