Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bus to Berlin: Notes from a 20 Hour Journey or Where's My Phone?

Victoria Coach Station is a labyrinth. There are no signs and I wander around for half an hour in the wrong building before being directed to departures. Unhelpful attendants in yellow vests sneer, “Bus to Berlin?” Yeah, air tickets are £150 now and I was too stupid to buy it earlier, sorry for existing. They wave ambiguously to their right. I meander in that direction until I finally find the bus.

This must be the bus. 
The driver wants a boarding pass, which I don't have. He waves ambiguously to his left. So I double back until I find the ticket office. The guy at the counter chastises for being so late. "No one would give me any directions!" I protest. I was about to get New York on his ass but he prints up the boarding pass and dismisses me with a disgusted wave of his hand. 

I go back to the driver, who rips the boarding pass in two and tosses my bag into the belly of the bus. The front seat is taken up with a suitcase so I sit in the next row. My seat mate is a middle-aged black guy in a polo shirt. Across from me are two chatty British girls reading a tabloid that screams, MY BABY WAS KIDNAPPED FROM MY HOTEL ROOM. Behind them is what looks like a lesbian couple and then an enormous Muslim family that takes up half the bus - mom, dad, grandma, aunt, uncle, about six kids from tots to teens.

The bus starts up and we spend two hours winding thru SE London to get on the highway. I had been curious about the route, but I couldn't find anything about it online. Were we headed to the ferry or the tunnel? 

Question is answered. We are going to the tunnel. 
Apparently Shakespeare moves furniture. 

55 miles to tunnel at 5:00.
Fields, lots of transport trucks.
Sign says Paddock Wood, I think it says Haddock World. I must be hungry.

Cannot wait. 

Is this what they do at rest stops in Europe?
At the entrance to the tunnel, there's a rest stop with huge car park and a lawn with families having picnics. The driver opens his window and a car park attendant is heard saying that there’s a 2-hour delay. The driver pulls into the car park and tells us to take a half hour break, there's been an incident in the tunnel. Normally we would be going at 17:50 but now it looks like 18:50. He’s going to talk to the office. We are supposed to meet back at the bus in half an hour to find out if we are able to leave on time.

I get off the bus and hustle to the rest stop. My stomach is rumbling and I need to go the bathroom badly. I'm halfway across the parking lot when I realize that I left the phone in the seat pocket of the bus. After a moment's hesitation, I decide to leave the phone for the moment and come back when I'm not about to faint or pee in my pants.

At the Victor Hugo rest stop, there are the usual suspects like Burger King and Starbucks but also other less evil options. La Gare Bar & CafĂ© had chicken tikka and glass of white wine for £7.80. Not half bad though it needed some vegetables and the rice couldn’t be called kiu, that Taiwanese superlative for perfectly cooked, slightly sticky rice. They sure don’t have anything like this in US rest stops.

Poor Victor Hugo. 
Self-portrait at the Gare Cafe. Please feed me now.  

After scarfing down the food, I go back to bus to fetch the phone. And it's not there. I stick my hand into the seat pocket thinking maybe I'm just hallucinating and my hand comes out the other end. It's open at the bottom. Apparently, it's not a pocket, just a big piece of elastic. And it's empty. I look on floor, nothing. The phone is gone. 
Last known place for my iPhone. Sigh.

I ask bus driver if anyone has given him a phone. I look around the bus some more. The bus driver looks around the floor with me. No phone. I feel it must be somewhere and try not to be too worried. Probably it’s just kicking around somewhere.

The bus driver announces that the bus has been assigned the letter M. When the announcer says that M can depart, then we are going. I wander around for a moment and visit the grassy lawn with picnicking families. I see my seat mate standing on a traffic island looking ahead at nowhere and ask him if he's seen my phone. "Phone?" he replies, "'aven't seen it." I decide that I might as well try to get some writing done and I go back to Victor Hugo. But naturally, the minute that I plug in the computer,  an announcement about M is made.

It says 20:20 for M and it's only 18:00. 

Self-portrait waiting for M. 
We leave the rest stop at 18:42 and drive a short distance to the area where we're supposed to get our passports checked. No one is there. The driver hesitates a moment, then drives by declaring, “Today there is no passport control.”

If it weren’t for my phone being missing, it wouldn’t have been a bad stop.

We didn't get too far though. We stop just in front of the tunnel for yet another hour. A blond guy comes up to the front and asks if the driver could screen a movie. Apparently, there is no movie. There is no music. There is no iPhone. I keep compulsively looking through my bag and on the floor, hoping it would magically re-appear. 

I ask the bus driver to make an announcement about my phone. "It's cracked and has a big piece of tape on the back," I inform him. Reluctantly, he gets on the horn and says, "Anyone who find iPhone, please give to me." That's it. No description, no concern. Then he chastises me for not putting my phone in my pocket. What pocket? There are never any pockets in girls’ clothing.

Everyone in the front of the bus looks on the floor for my phone. Muslims, lesbians and all. Only my seat mate doesn’t move. He looks out the window and at his watch. I wonder if he took my phone out of that elastic thing? Sigh, I guess I’ll never know. There’s a photo I wish I had, but besides that, I guess I can find another phone, though not an iPhone. Can’t afford it.

I'm worried about meeting up with Z in Berlin without a phone. I open my computer to see if there might be internet and of all things, there was. We chat via Facebook. I inform him that my phone is lost and we're at least an hour late.

The chatty girls in the row across from me start up a conversation with the bus driver. He's from Bilbao. I learn later that he is indeed Basque. The girls have never heard of Bilbao or Basque Land so he fills them in a little. I find it interesting that the Basques were famous for being at the helm of ships throughout the age of exploration and here's this Basque guy who seems to be following in those footsteps in a 21st century way. He's about to quit his job as a bus driver and enroll in a course on the logistics of transporting things.

The bus is finally given a green light and we start moving again, but we don't go through the tunnel in any usual way. Instead, the bus squeezes inside a train, which transports it through the tunnel. Ahead of us is a small car filled with a lifetime supply of toilet paper.

The bus somehow squeezes into this transport train to go through the tunnel.

Basque bus driver taking a break inside the tunnel train.  

Selfie inside the tunnel train. 
We have half an hour to kill and I spend it talking to the bus driver and the chatty girls (one is from Essex, the other from Norwich). The bus driver tells me that normally there would be a 15 minute stop after the tunnel, 15 minutes at Lille and Brussels, but we're so late, there won't be any stops. "This is coach. Not Ferrari," he states. I'm a little disappointed, but no, the bus doesn't seem remotely like a sports car.  After a while, we emerge from the tunnel and three guys who had been smoking a cigarette in the first car of the train stride past shouting, "Vive la France!" 

Let me guess. We must be in France. 
Bus emerging from the train. 
The train stops and it opens up like a spaceship. The top retracts vrooo, the sides go down zweee and we're in the open air. A worker in yellow overalls removes the wheel stops, the bus turns left, and voila, we're on the highway. In France. It's dusk and the sky is pink. I wished I had my phone to look at a map of where we are. I think I must have read too many 19th century books - that crossing from England to France instantly conjures up The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo. I have ridiculously romantic associations with Dover and Calais. 

For the next several hours I doze on and off. Little farms zoom by too quickly for me to take pictures. Small cottages with pointed roofs. 

At 23:00 we stop at Lille and immediately leave again with no break. It looks very industrial.

Sometime after midnight, we arrive in Brussels and all the Muslims get off the bus. I had no idea there was a huge Muslim community in Brussels. I guess I don't know anything about Belgium except it's where pommes frites come from. And Brussels sprouts, I suppose. The area where the bus stops is very run-down and working-class, not at all what I would imagine for Belgium. 

We don't stop for long in Brussels but somewhere deep in the middle of the night, there is a long break along the highway. I think we are still in Belgium but we might be in Germany. 

Edward Hopper-esque rest stop in Belgium. 
The guy behind the counter of the shop along the highway is very Cockney British and has a huge handle-bar mustache. He looks like he should be wearing a unitard and boxing in the 1920s. I wanted to get his life story. How did he end up in a minimalist rest-stop in Belgium or Germany or wherever we were? What's up with that mustache? 

After getting on the bus, I fall asleep again. 
Wake up and notice that the lesbians are curled up together like a yin yang.
Wake up and see that the Basque driver is leaving and a new driver is taking his place. 
Wake up as new driver announces that there's a 15 minute stop. It's about 4AM and I can't bear to get up. All I see is that we're behind some trucks.
Wake up as the sun rises above a golden farm field with hay rolled up in balls. 
The next time I'm conscious, it's bright outside and the new driver announces that we're stopping for 15 minutes. 

Dawn on the bus, chatty girls are sleepy. 
We are in Braunchsweig, somewhere in Germany, on a horrible little transportation circle, with no decent food or bathroom to be found. Across the street is a Subway sandwich shop of all things. It's 10AM and I'm grumpy and jealous of the butch lesbian who has managed to find a cup of coffee somewhere. The new bus driver is German and way too cheery. "Chiz!" he keeps twittering. An older woman asks me if I've found my phone. She surmises that it must have fallen on the floor and someone picked it up. My phone, ugh. I have another look through all my things and get down once again on the floor to scour the corners of the bus. No dice. 

We get back on board the bus and I start wondering if my seat mate took the phone. He hasn't said a word to me the entire trip. I surmised that he was black British only from him saying, "Phone? 'aven't seen it."  I watch him eat a few crackers and wonder if he would have the gall to pinch the phone of someone he would be sitting next to for 20 hours. He reaches into his bag, fishes out a safety pin and picks his teeth with it. Nah, he couldn't have swiped my phone. Suddenly, I remember that iPhones can be tracked. I actually blurted this out to no one in particular, "Hey! My phone can be tracked through iCloud!" My seat mate doesn't respond but he looks at me sideways. He probably thinks I'm insane. My computer is dead though and there's no place to plug in. 

We arrive in Berlin at 11:45, an hour and a half late. Z is nowhere to be found. I ask the cheery German bus driver about my phone. "Oh, I have phone for you," he says and hands me empty air. Thanks, buster, you are seriously helping the situation. I ask him if I can leave my email in case it's found. He points toward the Euroline office, but no one is interested in taking down my information there either. Disappointed, I go find myself a seat in the waiting area to fish out my computer cord and see if I can figure out where my phone is. Just as I am zipping my bag shut, I see Z making a beeline through the station looking rather sweaty and distressed. "Z!" I shout. 

I'm here in Berlin. It's Friday afternoon and I'm back with Z for the weekend. 

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