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The Eurail Episode

20 Jan 2014

A soft tap on my shoulder awakens me from my nap. I groggily rise from the fetal position I had assumed in the corner of the overcrowded train. Overlooking me is a daunting bearded fellow wearing a black brimmed cap and navy blue uniform. The Sherlock in me concludes he must be the ticket collector. Standing at 6’6” at least, probably German descent.

I dig through my bag for my Eurail pass, a bit nervous as this is my first time using it. When I give him the evidently unopened booklet, the towering man flips through it, eyebrows scrunched. He meets my gaze and states with a hint of sarcasm, “Your pass is not validated. You need to do that before getting on the train.”

He hands me back my pass and points at the bolded line labeled step 1. Oops. I’ve never been good at following directions.

“It’s okay this time, but make sure you validate it at the station before your next trip.”

Now reading the instructions for the first time, I scribble in all my personal information. A blank for end date confuses me. The pass lasts for 2 months so do I put 2 months from now or the last known date I’ll be traveling? I’ll be gone for sure by the end of January, so I figure I’ll be safe if I put that.

When the train arrives at my stop, I immediately head to the ticket office, conveniently located near the entrance of the station. The line in front of me gradually dissipates and I approach the glass pane. I want to get this sorted fast, eager to explore the new city. The lady behind the counter looks to be in her 40s, a redhead with an expressionless demeanor.

“Hi, I didn’t know I had to validate before I used my pass. Can I get it validated now?”

She judgingly shakes her head as she reviews the papers.

“You don’t write end date. I do that.” She states through a thick accent.
“Oh, sorry. The instructions didn’t mention this. Is it a problem?”
“This end date is no good. This is not two months.”
“Yeah it’s less than two months. I won’t be traveling past that date.”
“This is no good. I can’t validate.”
“Uhh can you just write the correct date over it then?”
“No!” She responds incredulous, followed by something in German that I didn’t understand. My vocabulary is unfortunately limited to “sorry” (the first word every Canadian should learn in new languages), “thanks”, and “watermelon”.
“…can you white it out?”
Again, the same response.
“Can I get a new pass with one used on it?”
“No, this is a promotional pass.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Irked at this point as she keeps denying my suggestions without offering a solution.
“When you go on train, maybe conductor will accept pass. I can’t validate.”
“What!?” I’ve lost my patience. “What if I just write over it myself. I don’t see what the problem is.”
Her answer is more fast-spoken German, which I take to mean no from her body language.
“So you’re saying all I can do is hope they let me ride the train. Every single time from now on.”

I bitterly thank her and storm off indignant. As I exit, I step to the side and write over the end date with the right one, using my lap as a makeshift table. I bet if I go again tomorrow, whoever is working then will validate it. That’ll show her.

The following morning I return bright and early. This time I’m greeted by a fuller lady with dark brown hair. Like the other woman she betrays no emotions in her face.

I smugly request, “Hi, I’d like to validate my pass.”
She glances at it and tersely declares, “The end date is written over. No one will validate this.”

I take a moment to let her words settle, stunned speechless, then leave with resignation. Hard to argue with that one.

The rest of the morning I keep thinking back to what happened and counting how many more trains I still have to take. Determined to not let this ruin my holiday, I remind myself that the worst case scenario is I just have to pay more each trip, and push it out of my mind.

My mood picks up through the day. Walking along a lake with mountains in the backdrop is surprisingly uplifting. There’s a serene silence, the only sound being the rhythmic crash of waves. At sunset the colorful sky blends with the shades of the rocks and water, meshing to make one spectacular rainbow.

When I make my way back to my hostel that night, I stop by the train station again. With a better state of mind and the worst case scenario narrowed to a manageable situation, I decide there’s no harm in trying again.

This time a guy in his late 20’s manned the station, a contagious smile across his face.

“Hi! I screwed up and wrote in the end date myself. Can I still get this validated?”

He looks at it and cheerfully tells me it’s not a problem since the start date is unchanged. I just have to make sure I don’t write in the wrong usage days. I beam as he stamps his approval and let out a sigh of relief.

I’m sure there’s a moral here about having a positive attitude, perseverance, or paying better attention, but I think the real lesson here is that good customer service reps are unsung heroes. People all have horror stories about customer service, yet the ones that are greatly helpful are often taken for granted. The power that man granted with a single stamp saved me from days of headache.

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