Words and illustrations by Kieron Black
On a recent trip to Schladingming, Austria, what should have been a meat-and-two-veg type of transfer day goes spectacularly wrong for snowboarder, illustrator, and regular White Lines contributor Kieron Black, his wife Yulia, and their daughter Penny (5).
If messing up an airport transfer sport was an Olympic event, we reckon this effort from Kieron would surely take home the gold medal... and quite possibly the silver and bronze medals as well.
8.50am The Apartment
"Taxi booked for 9.30" says Yulia, "think that’s too early maybe? Our train is at 10.10, and we’ll be at the station in 5 minutes… that’s a lot of hanging around… and it’s cold!"
She is right of course. It is too early, and it’s minus ten with windchill on top. But I’m a man and a dad and I know better. I sigh in a way that some might call patronising, "babe" I say, "it’s always better to allow some extra time on a travel day, just in case the wheels come off, you know?"
The universe hears this, and laughs.
9.35am Schladming Station, Platform 3b
"F#ck you’re right it’s ballfreezing. You girls go and sit in the waiting room and I’ll wait here on the platform with the bags."
"Alright darlin’, you do that, see you in a bit."
A train arrives. An A4 printout on the window reads ‘Salzburg’ and a bunch of stations are listed below. Bonus - it’s early. I think of how warm in will be in the carriage and text Yulia ‘train is here x’. I begin loading the bags. First her skibag, bit of wrestling, get it on the shelf, nae bother. Back for her bootbag, easier than the skis, but the train door hisses shut as I reach it.
"Fear rises inside of me like whitewater surging up a tidal blowhole."
I press the green button, the door opens and I jump out. I grab her bootbag, stick it on the shelf, too easy. Back to the door. It has Star Trek’d itself shut again. I press the green button. Nothing. I press it again and also the red one beside it just in case. Still nothing.
I see the train across the way pull out. I wonder if maybe the door not opening is a security thing, like it won’t open if there’s another moving train close by? These Austrians are very efficient people, after all.
The carriage lurches a little. I have a dim awareness of something being not quite right with the world.
Realisation. Fear rises inside of me like whitewater surging up a tidal blowhole. The train across the way wasn’t moving at all - mine was. THE TRAIN I AM ON HAS LEFT THE STATION.
Panic, my head full of white noise static. A gigantic, super-size-with-fries fuck-up. My head swivels like a pidgeon as I scan the carriage. Impassive Austrians stare back. For no reason at all I take Yulia’s ski bag off the shelf, then put it back again, man-logic telling me that any action is better than no action. What am I doing? And what am I going to do?
I sprint into the corridor, glancing at the emergency stop lever. Should I pull it? Is this an emergency? Of course it’s a fucking emergency. For a second I am distracted by the view out of the window, a smooth, snow-covered plateau spread like a lake lapping at the roots of those beautiful Austrian mountains, hazy-clear in the morning sunshine. Beautiful.
Fuck. What? The lever. Yes, the lever. From somewhere in my childhood I remember a feeling that the lever is only to be pulled should you be being physically torn limb from limb by a moving train, and anyway, we’re now rocketing through some snowy void and stopping in the middle of it would be worse than not stopping at all. I leave the lever, and phone my wife instead.
"Should I pull it? Is this an emergency? Of course it's a fucking emergency."
"Hi. Where are you" she asks, a perfectly reasonable question, "and why are there only five bags here?"
"I’m on the train" I reply.
"But our train isn’t in yet?" I hear her pitch rise a little.
"Not our train. A train."
"A moving train?"
"A moving train."
"You… I can’t… are you… serious? I can’t speak to you right now… I… just get to the airport." She hangs up. I consider the combined weight of the five bags and the five-year-old she is now responsible for.
"How will they get home? How do I get home? The white noise intensifies."
I sit down / collapse into an empty seat and open my browser. What should I search for first I wonder, still fighting the white noise inside my skull; buses… more trains? I vaguely recall a guy in a gondola a couple of days ago telling me he had taken a taxi from Salzburg to Schladming for a paltry €400 as to him time was more important than money.
€400 is a stiff idiot-tax for sure but my girls are alone... and they have my passport. And if they do somehow make the flight without me, it’s my van in the long-stay and the keys are in my pocket. How will they get home? How do I get home? The white noise intensifies. From somewhere inside my head a wee voice suggests a question for me to google, but I don’t like it. The question: ‘What’s wrong with me?’
The guard approaches. He’s young, affable, innocent, and is caught totally off balance by the frantic Irishman who now all but grabs him by the lapels.
"Where is this train going?" I hear the unnatural timbre in my voice. For some reason I mostly focus on his teeth. It’s the adrenalin.
"Where is the train going?" he repeats, just slightly south of incredulous.
"Yes," I’m almost screaming, "where are we going?" I’m thinking of my five year old daughter standing on the platform, crying, "where’s daddy?"
"You don’t know where you are going?" the guard asks.
"NO! I DON’T KNOW WHERE I’M GOING!!"
"Despair clutches at the hem of my jacket. I slap its wrinkled hand away."
A representative of a nation famous for it’s efficiency and routine suddenly finds himself up close and personal with the representative of another entirely different culture, famed only for it’s poetry, alcoholics, and general uselessness. It’s a perfect storm.
"We are going to Graz" he says, as if this is perfectly obvious (which of course to everyone else on the train it is).
"And where the ffffuuu… (calm down Kieron)… where is Graz?"
"Two hours twenty minutes we will be in Graz."
"Two hours twenty… my flight leaves Salzburg at 2.35pm!!!"
"But you are going to Graz" he says, calmly.
I am vibrating at this point, shedding rivets. I slow myself down. "When do we next arrive at a station?"
"Oh. Stainach-Irdning. Ten minutes."
Ten minutes. That’s twenty plus minutes on a train going the wrong direction. With a plane to catch and my family stranded. It’s now 10am.
It’s like a desert, a white desert, with icicles instead of tumbleweed. A platform, no staff, a few huddled passengers, and that wind. How can there be no staff? The info board says next the train to Schladming leaves in fifteen minutes. So, back to Schladming, a resort town, and that means plenty of buses as it’s transfer day… maybe I can blag a seat on a bus? I’ve done that before.
It’s still an hour and a half from there to Salzburg though, which leaves me a window of maybe thirty minutes in Schladming to find a rep/a bus/a clue/some transport and even I know that’s impossible. Despair clutches at the hem of my jacket. I slap its wrinkled hand away.
10.15am Taxi Rank
There’s one taxi number written on a sign and I can’t get a ringtone. I stumble through every prefix I can think of but it only yields the same result.
A man wanders up, gets out his phone and dials the number but has no coverage so he ambles back to the platform. I follow him, croaking ‘Sprechen Sie Englisch?’ on the way. He does. I explain my situation. He makes a face much like that of the guard on the train. "Follow me" he says, and I do, a lost puppy clutching someone else's skis and boots.
"It’s like a desert, a white desert, with icicles instead of tumbleweed."
We go into a tiny tabac I had not seen in my blind panic. My new friend chats with the Frau. There’s that face again. It’s followed by a smile though (but a little too mothering if I’m totally honest). She makes a phone call, talks a while, then shakes her head. She makes another call, takes down a number, hangs up, calls the new number. They talk a while and she hangs up.
After what seems like an eternity she seems to notice me as if for the first time. "Oh, Milo will be here in five minutes" she says, "maybe you’d like to wait outside?" I could kiss her, but settle for buying a coke instead.
10.25am Taxi Rank
Milo pulls up. He’s got that face on but I don’t care. "Kieron? Salzburg?" he asks.
I could cry. I love Austria. I’d pay Milo €1000 at this point.
"Aye, I mean, yes."
"Ok. €100. We go to cashpoint, we make pick up at Pichlarn Schloss, then Salzburg."
Did I mention I love Austria? "100%" I say and melt into the front seat. You could set fire to that car, I’m not getting out.
"They say adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong."
12.55pm Salzburg Airport - Departures
My wife and daughter are there, sharing a sandwich. Yulia is making a very different face to the ones I’ve been seeing all day, but she gives me a hug anyway.
"Why did you get the wrong train daddy?" asks Penny. I’ve no good answer. They say adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong.
"Can I have a bite of your sandwich?" I ask.
Lunchtime, Northern Ireland - Two Days Later
On a whim I phone ÖBB, the Austrian train company. Penalty for pulling the emergency stop handle? €90.