Last night, I slept in a train station. By station, I mean platform in the middle of small-town Belgium.
I will start from the beginning. One of my coworkers, Manuel, invited me to come to Brussels, where he lives, for drinks. In Luxembourgplein, right in front of EU parliament, there is a big happy hour in the square every Thursday. It was packed. It seemed like everyone between the ages of 25 and 35 was in the square, drinking Belgian beers and socializing. Manuel and I had some beer, randomly ran into some of his friends from a previous job, and had a grand time.
One side note: they had kriek (cherry lambic (sour-ish fruit beer)) on tap. Where else in the world do people drink kriek in relatively large quantities at a party? In the States, this would have been a Bud Light event. Here, all bets are off.
Back to my story. Manuel and I hung around until about 10, when I knew I had to catch a train back home to have a conference call with my cofounders. Manuel walked me to Luxembourg train station, we bid our farewells, and I headed in to buy a ticket and catch my train, which I knew was likely going to take me to Brussels Nord station, and I would change trains to Leuven. In the station, I went to the electronic ticket machine, punched in my destination, and frustratingly had my non-chip-and-pin American credit card rejected repeatedly. None of the machines took coin or cash. It turns out you can buy tickets on the trains themselves — lesson learned. I finally decided to roll the dice and get on without a ticket.
I walked down to the platform and had a massive stroke of luck*! There was a train, clearly marked, destined for Louvain. Louvain is the French spelling of Leuven, so this train was taking me home directly. Perfect! I got on the train, it pulled away from the platform, and I was on my way. A few minutes into the journey, I took out my phone and checked my blue dot on the map. I was surprisingly far south, but maybe the train took a circuitous route. As the dot moved further and further in the wrong direction never making that left turn I was hoping for, I had a panicked sinking feeling that this was not my train to Leuven. I sunk even further when I saw the pinwheel of death as my phone’s battery called it quits. As the conductor walked by, I stopped him and confirmed my two worst fears: this was not going to Leuven, and this is the last train of the night. This train was going to Louvain La Neuve — and according to my coworkers and numerous internet postings, I am not the first to have this happen. I just happened to not have a way back.
My mind started racing, and I decided that I needed to get off the train. Now. I didn’t want to get any further from Brussels. So at the next stop, I hopped off. My logic was this: I wanted to be in bed, and the whole country is only a few hundred miles wide. Things just aren’t that far apart. I could just spend the 100 euros or whatever it would take get a taxi to compensate for my idiocy in getting on the wrong train.
As the train pulled away, I had a sinking feeling. It was awfully quiet around here. Not only was there not a taxi stand, there were no people. There were no sounds. I walked briefly into the nearby “town”, and the whole place appeared to be closed down. No hotels. No taxis. No way home.
I thought for sure that somehow this situation would fix itself. I don’t know why I thought that, but it didn’t. The one nice thing about no one being around (and I mean I did not see another human at any point from when I got off the train to when I finally escaped) is that there wasn’t any real danger. Belgium seems to be quite safe, at least in small towns, so I was lucky in that. I went and sat in the little glass windbreak where you wait for trains and realized that the next train would be there in the morning, so I curled up in the corner of the windbreak and fell asleep.
The cold woke me up. I was wearing my work clothes, so I wasn’t ready for a night in the 50s. It was about 3:45. I had gotten a bit more than 3 hours of fitful sleep. I took out my iPad, used the last 3% of its battery reading to kill time, then curled up again to try to stay warm. All the while I couldn’t help but feel like a big idiot. An hour later, at 5:02am, a glorious train pulled up. I was able to take it to Brussels Nord, change trains, and get to Leuven. On both trains, I confirmed with the conductor at least twice that the train was going to the correct place.
When I got to my hotel, I absolutely needed more sleep. I emailed my coworker and told him that I slept on a train platform in the middle of nowhere and that I would be in late. We would have to push our meeting to 10:30. It was one of the more awkward meeting reschedule emails I’ve ever had to write, and we all had many good hard laughs about it when I finally got into the office. I have no doubt that this story will come up in some AB InBev intern lore in the future. Apparently his response upon getting it was to go to Manuel and ask “What did you do to him?”
It was quite an experience. It was a miserable night. I was safe. I am fine. I was not happy during that time. But it was a funny life experience I guess. I am going to bed early tonight and going to savor sheets and warmth.
A few notes:
1. One of my coworkers is convinced that they mark the trains this way on purpose because it is the only reason someone would go to the “other Louvain”.
2. It is completely ridiculous that it is not more clearly marked.
3. Lesson learned — at least get off at a station where there is a roof and walls. That leaves a shred of hope that there might be actual services there.
4. Charge my phone.
*not a stroke of luck