Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Curse of the German Asterisk

I often find myself flipping through my passport and I usually catch myself pausing at one particular stamp. I remember the events of the day that the ink was fresh quite clearly. This is the story of that stamp and that day.

I had wrapped up my first visit to Germany, a quick repair visit in Konstanz, and I had to catch a plane in Zurich the following day. This left me the better part of a day to take a train from the South of Germany, wander around some grocery stores, buy some chocolate and be ready to leave in the morning. I figured this was going to be another easy day; I was mistaken.

I caught a taxi to the train station from my hotel near the university that I was working at and made it to the train station, or bahnhof. Oddly enough bahnhof is one of the few German phrases I figured was important enough to dedicate to memory prior to my trip to Germany. Other phrases that made the list included:

Sprechen Sie Englisch? - Do you speak English?

Ein bitte - One please (handy for buying things like food)

Danke - Thank you

With this minimal amount of German I embarked on my journey home. At the train station I purchased my ticket, they talked to be briefly at me about my journey -in German- and I went through to passport control. I was surprised to find that the stamp had a train on it. I have other stamps with the image of a plane but I never went through a customs station that wasn't in an airport; I thought it was neat.

I quickly found myself on a train whisking along the countryside of Switzerland and my attention was soon drawn to a letter that I had been meaning to write. Every now and then the train would stop at a station, people would shuffle about and then we would continue. There was another such stop and I paid it no mind, the train didn't continue. After another few minutes the train started to move again but this time much more slowly and the car interior got slightly darker. This was the moment that I figured something had gone wrong.

I got up out of my seat and looked around to see that everyone aside from myself had left and the train had half pulled into a large building that is used for washing trains. It was kind of like an automated car wash only much larger. I came across a man that was cleaning the inside of the train and he was quite startled by my presence. He tried to tell me that I shouldn't be there in German while I tried to tell him that I shouldn't be there English but we weren't connecting very well. At last we both decided that we each knew I shouldn't be there and we could move forward.

We managed to figure that I should get off the train for starters so he helped me jump down the 6 feet or so down to the gravel and he helped me with my bags. He then proceeded to explain to me where the bahnhof was with the power of mime. Roughly I had to go back the way the train came, under a bridge and it would be on the right, easy enough. I thanked the man and began to drag my bags to more level ground.

As I was making my way from the train the yard foreman came up to me and started yelling at me in German. I'd never been yelled at in German before but it didn't seem as bad as I had thought it would be. He gestured with three fingers and I stopped him and asked if he spoke English. He said that he did speak English and then he started to yell at me in English. This was a little better since I could get some useful information out of him now.

It turns out that the three fingers were for the three times that the announcement was made that everyone needed to leave the train...IN GERMAN. The yard foreman continued to yell at me for a while but I decided since he wasn't being constructive I was better off following the nice man's instructions to find the train station, which I did find after a short walk.

After taking a look at my itinerary I discovered a little asterisk that was supposed to let me know about the train change. There was only 3 minutes in the schedule to make the connection though so I would have missed it anyway being that I had two large bags to deal with.


It's a funny thing those German asterisks, they are always quite important. I once stood in the rain during a thunderstorm for an hour because of a misinterpreted German asterisk. If you ever run into one of these while traveling in a German speaking country please do yourself a favor and get clarification, it could save you a lot of trouble.

Do you have any good train or asterisk stories?

If you've enjoyed this post please consider subscribing to the RSS feed.

Coming Soon: Travel Gear- Shaving Soap Leaves


  1. Dieses ist gut. Danke. Ich habe eine gute Zuggeschichte. I have one good German train story. We were going to the Christmas Market in Nürnberg and took the outbound train instead of the inbound train. We figured it out that we were on the wrong train about 20 seconds before the doors closed. It was a quick mass and panicked exodus! But we all made it, kids strollers and all.

  2. Robin Sue: The German train system is efficient and ruthless. You're lucky you were able to get out of there in time. I once injured my shoulder pretty bad making sure I was out of the train before it left the station again, fun times.

    I think the efficiency makes it even harder on those that don't read German to figure it out.

  3. That's odd that a simple little asterisk could be so important.