The perils of overconfidence

By Stephen Addison
This item appears on page 21 of the April 2021 issue.
Our Germany trip’s first train ride passed by Burg Stahleck (now a hostel), overlooking the town of Bacharach, but this shot was taken from a ferry on the Rhine days later. Photos by Stephen Addison

A trip to Germany and Luxembourg that my wife, Paula Owens, and I made in May 2005 was a journey of four firsts: our first visit to continental Europe on our own (instead of with travel-savvy friends), our first international flight with only carry-on luggage (thank you, Rick Steves), our first rail pass, and our first big train travel blunder. Only three of these firsts were planned.

Our flight from Charlotte arrived in Frankfurt around 7 a.m., and we found our way to the Deutsche Bahn Reisezentrum (German Rail travel center), near the airport’s train stations. After getting our rail passes validated by an agent, we proceeded downstairs to the platforms of the Fernbahnhof, the station for the long-distance trains, to begin a pair of incredibly scenic train rides.

Our plan was to take a high-speed train northwest along the Rhine River to Koblenz, then transfer to a regional express train heading southwest along the Moselle River to the day’s destination, Luxembourg City.

Our first train was beginning a route that originated at the Frankfurt airport, so it was waiting at the platform when we arrived. We enjoyed a leisurely boarding, and several minutes passed before the train left the station.

Having made it this far exactly to plan, we were feeling proud of ourselves. All of our previous trips to Europe, including two to Germany, included train travel. We were pros. We settled into our seats, which were side by side at a table for four.

A friendly, English-speaking German businesswoman sat across the table from us and prepared to work. We chatted with her, bragging a little about our travels. She probably was bemused when we began dashing from one side of the train to the other to view the many castles, situated almost every mile or so along the Rhine between Bingen and Koblenz.

The magnificent scenery made it easy to ignore a simmering dispute a young couple was having nearby. The male half had some sort of problem with his legs. He had custom metal crutches, and when he walked, the crutches were splayed apart and blocked the aisle.

The young couple’s dispute escalated, and the young woman locked herself in the WC. Soon after, the train pulled into Koblenz. Only after the train had completely stopped did we say our goodbyes to the businesswoman and begin to gather our luggage.

Our Germany trip's first train ride passed by Burg Katz (construction completed in 1371), but this shot was taken days later from across the river in St. Goar.

At that moment, the young man realized that Koblenz was also his stop. He lurched up and slowly made his way to the WC while shouting at the young woman to get moving. She didn’t. We had planned to exit through the door near the WC, but now that route was blocked, so we headed to the car’s other door.

By this time, new passengers were boarding. We struggled past them and arrived at the door.

At this point, it was becoming clear that our train’s relatively leisurely departure from the Fernbahnhof, along with jet lag and overconfidence, had led us to overlook the fact that the train would pause for only two minutes in Koblenz — the typical duration of a station stop for German trains.

This is where it gets weird.

A nun with a white cane and a bag appeared on the platform at the door. I moved aside and let her board. Then another nun appeared, also blind. I let her board.

An alert sounded. I lunged toward the door one last time, but a third nun began to board, also blind, of course. As soon as she cleared the door, it closed and the train was under way. Next stop, Bonn, 30 to 40 minutes away.

Paula and I returned to our seats and glanced sheepishly at the businesswoman. She knew what happened. The “seasoned world travelers” had made a rookie mistake. The quarreling young couple didn’t make it off the train either.

As our train approached the station in Bonn, we were standing at the doors holding our luggage. Fortunately, we were using rail passes instead of tickets. That allowed us to avoid the embarrassment of buying tickets from Bonn to Koblenz.

Our return to Koblenz was uneventful, and we arrived in Luxembourg City two to three hours later than planned. We still had a great trip.

Now, whenever I feel myself acting a bit overconfident in, or bragging about, my travel skills, I stop as soon as I think of the three blind nuns.

Charlotte, NC