In the beginning, it seemed like a good idea. Eight days, eight cities, eight nights spent sleeping on a train on a whirlwind European tour.
We'd save time by traveling at night. We'd save money by not having to stay in hotels. We'd have fun! assured my friend Ken, who had devised the hit-and-run itinerary.
It would be an exercise in perpetual motion; travel at its most basic. It took about two minutes of hindsight to come to the realization that this was travel at its most absurd.
Ken, a former colleague who lives in Texas, met me at the appointed spot in the Gare du Nord station in Paris. To my surprise, he'd brought along two friends, whom I'll call Butch and Skip.
Butch, a beefy Texan, was a standout in a modified Superman get-up--red gym shorts worn over skintight blue sweat pants and a T-shirt straining over his considerable girth that read "Live Oak Ranch Nudist Resort." This outfit was the staple of his travel wardrobe.
Skip was a sweet but nervous type who kept running off to make transatlantic phone calls to his bookie.
Ken was the self-appointed tour leader, whose tastes in travel ranged from the offbeat to the bizarre. That first afternoon in the train station, he gathered us around and announced the plan. We would arrive in each new city in the early morning, stash our bags at the train station, get a general orientation by taking a bus tour and then seek out a civic oddity or two before re-boarding another train and hurtling toward yet another city.
Forget the Louvre. Forget the Champs-Elysees. Forget Paris. The boys voted to spend our one afternoon in France riding the mechanical bull at Disneyland Paris 20 miles away. And so it continued through seven subsequent countries. In Amsterdam, the boys spent most of the day wandering through the red-light district, where bored-looking prostitutes advertised themselves in windows. I found myself actually looking forward to our next stop, the Museum of Torture.
The porno theme continued in Denmark, where the boys eagerly explored the Museum Erotica, where an entire room was dedicated to the history of condoms.
In Berlin, the itinerary went down the toilet, so to speak. After the obligatory motor-coach tour, Ken led us to a watering hole called Klo--that's German slang for toilet. The place was part fun house, part truck stop. "This place would make a million in Texas," said Butch, guzzling beer from a liter glass shaped like a urine specimen bottle.
Nights were spent crammed in six-bunk couchettes sleeping with strangers. Strangers who snored. Strangers who smoked. Strangers who smelled. Strangers you wouldn't want to meet in your worst nightmare.
Dining out degenerated into a culinary tour of McDonald's in Many Lands. (They're all the same, by the way.) If the boys were feeling particularly adventurous they'd seek out a pizza joint.
Warsaw brought bad weather and worse luck. Within minutes of arriving, the four of us found ourselves arguing with a public transit official whose only English consisted of "Police!"
Exiting the train station into a gloomy rain, we had hopped on the first passing streetcar. A transit cop caught us red-handed without tickets, threw us off at the next stop and demanded 1 million zlotys--which sounded like an awfully steep fine for simply snitching a free ride. We paid up and re-boarded a crowded tram--tickets firmly in hand this time. Minutes later, Skip let out a scream as if he'd had his pocket picked. Which he had. The thief got away with $650 in cash, credit cards and his Continental frequent-flier card.
"Look at the bright side," Ken said. "If the thief flies Continental, at least you'll get his frequent-flier miles."
In Prague, Ken promised an extra special treat. Prague Castle? St. Vitus Cathedral? I asked, perking up.
On this itinerary? Not a chance.
Instead, we headed out to Laundry Kings, which claims to be Eastern Europe's first coin-operated laundry. Having run out of clean clothes a couple of countries back (the watchwords of travel on the fly are "pack light"), I admit that I was cheered by the prospect of unloading the fermenting contents of my suitcase.
The train compartment from Prague to Munich was unheated and the seat pitched forward, making the possibility of sleep ludicrous.
Kaputt , said the conductor, with a perfunctory slam of the door, when I complained about the cold.
By morning, I was wearing almost every article of clothing I had brought. I looked like a bag lady, but I fit right in with the crowd at the Munich train station on this final beer-soaked weekend of Oktoberfest. Beaten bodies attempting to rebound from a rough night of revelry littered the station.
The boys and I parted ways in Munich. Ken was anxious to move on to the next stop on his itinerary: a section of Hamburg known as the world's most wicked mile. Butch and Skip were with him all the way.
I, on the other hand, had had enough of this strange trip. I boarded a train back to Prague hoping to see a castle, a cathedral, anything mainstream and touristy.
Inside, the compartment was empty. It was warm, I slept.