From Brussels to Oxford

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Our return ferry ride from Belgium to the UK couldn't have been more different from our outgoing ferry ride there.  For starters, leaving in the morning and spending the day traveling is infinitely more enjoyable than making the journey overnight.  Secondly, well...... no -- I think not traveling overnight made all the difference.

We woke up early(ish) Sunday morning, sure that one hour would be enough time to pack up our laundry and go.  Let's just say this plan was.....optimistic at best.  Sometimes when we're hurrying to catch a bus or train or plane, Joe (our official packing coordinator) will wait until the last 10 minutes to start packing and Sunday morning was one of those times.  

I refrained from holding any grudges, however, seeing as how I know a thing or two about procrastination myself.  Although, my expertise in waiting-til-the-last-minute-ness is best exercised in academia: putting off tasks like writing moot court briefs, and drafting mock Supreme Court opinions, and writing moot court briefs.... and did I mention writing moot court briefs?  But that is beside the point. 

I stood in the bedroom doorway as Joe frantically packed, offering helpful reminders like, "Come on, Joe!  You've got 12 minutes!" and "8 minutes left, you can do it!"

Side note: If you're wondering why I wasn't packing, it's because -- like I said -- Joe is the packing coordinator.  There are no ifs ands or buts about it; it physically pains him if things aren't packed just so.  He treats it as a game of Tetris, which I'm cool with.  I prefer to play Tetris on the 1989 gray model of the Gameboy, anyway.

By the time our backpacks and sack lunches were packed, we had to sprint from Christie's house to the metro.  Have you ever sprinted through a major European city (or any city, really) wearing an oversized backpack?  It's kind of the worst.  Although I was spared of the duty this time around (Joe wears the backpack in our relationship), I'm no stranger to the soreness that ensues 2-3 days later, and I can attest to the fact that it's no fun.

Thankfully, Christie was sprinting right alongside us, for she had graciously offered to accompany us to the train station to make sure we found the Eurolines desk in time.  Once we arrived at the metro station, which would take us to the train station, I expected to pause at the ticket machine to buy our metro tickets, even though we had no time for pausing if we wanted to catch our bus.  Sure enough, as I slowed down at the ticket machine, Christie called back to us, "There isn't time for tickets, just get on the metro without them!"

I cannot adequately articulate how much anxiety this caused me, but anyone who has ever lived in Austria or Germany needn't me go any further.

For the sake of anyone who has not lived in Austria or Germany, I will attempt to explain: there is no crime more offensive to Austrians or Germans than the act of schwarzfahring (riding without a ticket).  Surely on the books, the official law states otherwise, but if you've ever lived there, you know the truth.  Thus, when the non-uniformed Verkehrs Polizei step aboard, wait for the bus or metro doors to close, and then reveal their non-civilian identities as they bark "Fahrschein, bitte" or "Fahrkarten, bitte", marching from seat to seat and demanding to see tickets, it's nearly impossible not to feel a wave of panic wash over you, even if you know that your ticket or bus pass is within reach.  And because I've seen one too many unsuspecting tourists get thrown off a bus and subsequently fined (and lectured in the process), I cannot, for the life of me, schwarzfahr -- in any country -- without fearing arrest or deportation, however irrational or baseless the fear may be.

In other words, when Christie instructed us to schwarzfahr and assured us, "No one ever checks for your tickets on the metro", my eyes became saucers, and I froze in place.  And when the metro rolled in to the station, despite the fact that we had to catch that specific metro or else we would definitely miss our bus to the ferry, it nonetheless rebelled against every fiber of my being to step on board, no ticket in hand.  It was a 10-15 minute ride from the metro stop to the train station, but it felt like 10-15 hours (!!!!) because every single time a well-kept looking man stepped aboard, I turned to Christie and panicked.  "It's happening," I would whisper, shaking her arm violently.  "We're going to get kicked off."  

Each time, she calmly assured me that whomever had just stepped aboard the metro was just a normal Belgian man doing whatever normal Belgian men do on Sunday mornings.  And each time, I believed her..... until the next ordinary-looking Belgian man would step aboard and we'd repeat the whole scenario.  One time, we were mid-conversation when I saw a man at the other end of the metro car walking from seat to seat, bending down to talk to each passenger.  I strained my eyes to see if passengers were showing him a ticket in return.  "Christie!", I all but screamed. "We have to get off!  That man is checking tickets!!!!"  In the process of trying (but ultimately failing) to inconspicuously gather my things in the event that I needed to jump off a moving metro train, I dropped my bkr water bottle and it thudded loudly to the ground before rolling away (Joe picked it up).  Christie turned and calmly explained, "Jennifer, that is a homeless man asking for money.  Calm down."

After that, I did calm down (as much as I could), but I still felt indescribable relief when we pulled into the train station and finally stepped off the metro.

Joe and I quickly hugged Christie goodbye to, ran to the Eurolines desk just beneath/outside the train station (passing a lovely pile of train station vomit on our way), showed our passports, and jumped onto the bus with five whole minutes to spare!  

The bus was nearly empty -- which is always a good sight to behold when you know you are about to be on that bus for the better part of seven hours -- and we took our seats next to an elderly American couple.  The couple asked us some questions about their visas, which I happily answered, being the visa expert that I am.  As we pulled out of Brussels, Joe and I couldn't help but overhear the elderly couple commenting on every. single. quasi-noteworthy thing we passed.  "Look at that billboard!"... "Ohhh, I wonder how you pronounce that word." .... "Did you see that billboard?" .... "Oh my, what an interesting looking sidewalk."  

After a few minutes, Joe turned to me and said, "Are they kidding me right now?  I can't do this.  Let's just swim back to London."  Obviously, he was kidding, but I tried to offer some perspective anyway.  "Joe, that could be us someday.  And hey, at least they're traveling?"  Joe agreed on both accounts but added the afterthought, "Well, if that is us someday, we will at least have the courtesy to tone down the constant stream of unnecessary commentary."  And then he promptly fell asleep.

Eventually the elderly couple fell asleep too, and I enjoyed a quiet and peaceful ride to the border.  We went through the first customs without issue, got our passports stamped, and were herded through the line to second customs.  I asked Joe before we approached the customs agent, "You have all your papers and forms from Oxford, right?"  "Yes," he assured me.  "Of course I have them."  I apologized for doubting him.

We stepped up to the customs desk and the officer greeted us before asking to see our papers and forms verifying our student status.  Joe took a quick look through his bag and then conclusively announced, "I don't have them.  I must have left them at Oxford."  

I smiled at the officer and shrugged, as if I expected him to respond, "Oh well, thanks for trying!  Go on about your day now", and dismiss us.  Instead, he asked us, "Do you have any other forms or papers proving your student status at the University of Oxford?"  Joe looked through his bag once more and then announced, "I have some notes on the English legal system."

"That will not do," the agent heartlessly replied.

Joe remembered that we'd taken a screen shot of all of our .pdf forms before we'd boarded our plane in D.C. and he produced his phone to scroll through the screen-grabs for the agent.  To our surprise and delight, the agent accepted this as satisfactory, despite the fact that the forms bore neither of our names -- a mistake we hadn't noticed until standing before the customs agent.  Miraculously, we were admitted to pass.  Once we re-boarded the bus, and then boarded the ferry, we reveled in our sheer luck, along with the fact that, unlike last time, it was not 4:00 A.M.  

As we made our way into the ferry's dining hall, however, I was overcome with a weird sense of deja vu.  Am I back at Gymnasium Eckental?, I wondered.  Everywhere I looked, there were unruly teenagers swarming about.  German ones, Italian ones, English ones.  And worse, they were all unsupervised.  This made for a very trying 20 minutes, as I stood in line to get our plates of food (we had split up so I could get lunch and Joe could find us a table).  Surrounded by a group of 12-year-old Italian boys, I took deep and measured breaths as they shoved and pushed and teased their way from the start of the line to the buffet. Ten minutes later, having reached the end of my rope, when one of them bumped against me -- rather carelessly and obliviously -- I turned abruptly, narrowed my eyes, and stared deeply into the souls of each one of them.  I felt terrifying and maternal and powerful and downright middle-aged; the pushing and shoving came to a screeching halt and I was able to get my fish and chips and mashed peas and vegetable cornish pastie and beans and potatoes in peace and solitude, just as it should have been.

When I returned to find Joe sitting at the table he'd claimed for us, I proudly set down our trays and told him, "You better appreciate those 2 ketchups -- they cost me 40 pence."

Quick summary on the food: fish and chips were good, everything else was TERRIBLE.  We played Tick and tried to reconcile the fact that we'd just spent, like, 30 GBP on a meal not fit for human consumption. 

By the time we'd reached London, it was raining, and we also had no idea where the Oxford Tube even picked us up.  So we did what any sensible traveler would do: we waited until we saw an Oxford Tube drive by and then chased after it.  Once aboard, we reached 2 important agreements: (1) we should go back to Belgium again someday soon and spend more time with Christie and Mathieu and (2) we should never, ever, ever go there by ferry again.

Mrs. Aa said...

enjoy reading ur post


Emily S (Em Busy Living) said...

Oh gosh... I had a similar time crunch / no ticket experience on the transit in Vancouver last winter and just could not believe that no one checked for a ticket from me! Thanks goodness though, because flights wait for no (wo)man.

Jan said...

Christie is such a good friend!!!! I think I should read the end of each post first so I'll know that everything turns out ok. Then I won't worry so much while reading it!!!!!!!!!!!

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