Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Konstanz to Bozen, Prologue


Anyone who knows me will tell you I've had some far-out schemes. Like when I bought the condemned four-unit apartment building, or the time I started an ill-fated line of T-shirts imprinted with with suggestive double entendres. Better yet, there was the time I tried to right the fortunes of the erstwhile prince of Madagascar...

Sometimes these schemes paid off, more often they ended in a hasty backpedal. This segment is the first part in a serial that will detail my earliest long-distance trekking adventure. It was this brilliant disaster that led to my obsession with the hiking trails of Europe. I don't know any better way to summarize it, so I'll just tell the story.


I can't really claim that it was my idea. In fact, I can't honestly remember if it was my good friend Charles or I who first suggested it. He was the most committed in the beginning. In fact, I let him test the waters before setting foot myself. That would have been 1997, the year Charles went hiking alone in Europe.

Charles is a tall, lanky guy with round glasses and a superior intellect. He speaks fluent German and is always cooking up some new and interesting project. That first year is really Charles' story. So until I license it from him, I'll stick to my own experiences. What I can say without infringement is that he came back determined that someone else should know the experience first hand. I was his most constant companion so the honor was rightfully mine. And I was also easily led. The idea was a romantic one -- backpacking over the Alps. Although Charles was always painstakingly honest about the hardships involved, I was filled with naïve optimism.

Not only was Charles willing to lead the trip. He was also willing to buy the tickets. Now my reputation as a cheapskate was second only to my reputation as a schemer. So Charles offerred to buy my tickets if I would help him redecorate his apartment. The offer was an extremely generous one on his part. In hindsight, I have to believe that the bargain was partly a ruse to get me on that plane. The ceiling that I patched and the paint that I scraped was hardly worth the price of toilet I cracked with an errant beer bottle, never mind the price of the tickets.

That is how I found myself standing at an unmarked kiosk in the furthest reaches of an unfinished terminal in Boston's Logan airport, guided by vague directions and a dismissive wave of the hand from a bored information clerk. It was only the start of our journey but we were already beginning to wonder whether we had made a tremendous mistake.

We were hitching a flight on a charter airline. Charles had paid $800 for two thin, round-trip vouchers from a company called Airhitch. These vouchers were rumored to be good for seats on this mystery plane. Thirty minutes before liftoff, the staff was still suspiciously absent and the other potential passengers looked as uncertain as we both felt. Ten more minutes passed before two zombie flight-attendants arrived with a slap-on sign that read "Trans-Air" or something equally suspicious. It was exactly the name you would choose for a doomed airline in a 1974 B-grade flick about the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless, we submitted to the humiliation of being unwelcome guests on the shoddiest of carriers. The most important thing was to get to Europe.

I won't detail the horrors of that miserable flight except to say that food and water were scarce, service minimal and legroom almost nil. We arrived in Paris six hours later, kissed the ground and melted into the converging throngs of travellers. Munching on airport croissants we quickly located the SNCF train terminal where we purchased two tickets to Zurich, Switzerland.

It was 10:30 PM when we pulled into the Zurich railway station. A painted, life-sized plasticine cow hung from the ceiling girders. The information booth was vacant and the floors were already mopped clean. The train hissed quietly then fell silent. The other few passengers quickly disappeared out the doors and we were left alone on the deserted platform.

The first indication that things might get complicated was the young men with automatic rifles standing by the doorway. Charles, confident in his German, approached the two men to ask directions to the hostel. They had no interest in speaking with us and no patience for German. Instead they pointed at the door with their guns and, in brusque Switzerdeutsch instructed us to leave the building immediately. No discussion. So much for our welcoming committee.

The streets were as silent and deserted as the station. As the last cars drove off into a spitting mist, we stood on the damp sidewalk and wondered what to do next. The guards leered at us from the doorway and made it clear that we should be moving along quickly. No loitering in Zurich. A taxi stopped and lowered his window. It had been our impression that most Swiss understood German but we were quickly disillusioned of this notion. The driver just shrugged. I tried English with much the same response. We showed him the sheet I had torn out of the Hostelling International book. He shrugged again, rolled up his window and left us on the curb.

It was another tense five minutes before the next taxi arrived. The driver of this one spoke English reasonably well. He drove us to a far corner of town, took the equivalent of $20 in Swiss Francs and dropped us off on a quiet street corner in a residential neighborhood. He had already driven away when we realized that we had no idea where the hostel was.

After a quick scouting of the area we realized that we'd been scammed. We were nowhere near the hostel. So we picked up our bags and started looking for a busier street. It was nearly midnight when our final taxi dropped us off at the doors of the Youth Hostel Zurich, fortunately open all night. The desk clerk rang us in and found us a room. After thirty six hours of hard travelling we were both beyond exhaustion. I fell into the clean white sheets of Switzerland with my boots still on my feet.

Next week
Day 1: Konstanz - Arbon>>


  1. Describing my German as fluent and body, “lanky” (by ’98) is charitable; the rest holds true to memory. Eleven years later I still shudder thinking about that hike. Still, should be a fun read. Thanks for posting this.

  2. I post it the way I remember it. :)


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