Last week on the train to Zagreb, Croatia I found that my reserved seat was occupied by an American. I walked past that cabin to discover it wasn’t just the three Americans in “my” cabin, but there was a big group of Americans, apparently all together in this train car. My hopes of some incognito down-time vanished, and I resigned myself to riding in my 6-seat cabin with these touring Americans, albeit not in my window seat.
When Americans travel they become louder. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve observed myself doing it as well. When Americans travel in groups everyone within 50 yards is aware of their presence. Avoiding or ignoring this American group was not going to be possible on this train ride, so I sat down and listened to the conversation while I did some work.
It didn’t take long to learn that this group of Americans was a bunch of high ranking US military officers touring Europe as part of a military academy. In “my” seat was a colonel, and in the seat opposite him was a major. Both were pilots and had been to (or over) Croatia before; just not on a train nor under friendly conditions. After a half hour or so I figured I should let them know I was an American, so I joined their conversation for a while. Really nice guys. Being in a group, they all moved around between cabins, and I met a few more of them as they stopped by.
After an hour or so on the train a few of them starting exploring. They checked out the first class coaches, the dining car and walked the train from end to end. All was well until the first stop just inside Croatia.
The first thing I noticed was the team of four Hungarian border guards walking down the hall of our car. Normally they get off the train at the last stop in Hungary, so something was amiss. A minute later the leader of the American military group was coming down the hall asking if anyone had seen three of their group. (One of the missing was named Vapor, and as soon as I heard the name I knew exactly who it was; tall, blond, flat-top haircut, chiseled upper body, Air Force jet pilot; one of the explorers.) Apparantly three of them got off the train back in Hungary and didn’t get back on. D’oh!
These weren’t just tourists, they were high ranking US military officers traveling in an official government attaché. Losing a few of them without their passports was not an option. The group leader had to call the US Embassy and let them know what was going on, but his phone wouldn’t work. Being just inside the Croatian border, his phone had not yet locked onto a roaming service provider, and he was having trouble knowing which sequence of numbers to dial.
So I saved the day and dialed the embassy for him with my phone.
[Now I don’t want to exaggerate my role in this, but I have to point out that my swift, clear-thinking action averted a certain political disaster. My country could have found itself in an international dilemna of enormous proportions had it not been for my quick phone dialing abilities.]
They finally decided on a course of action, and our train was once again on its way, a mere ten minutes behind schedule. Just before reaching my destination they received word of what happened to these unfortunate military travelers.
Whether they needed to visit a non-moving toilet (the prevailing reason offerred by those who remained on the train) or whether they were attempting to photograph Flat Stanley in an exotic location for their kids (the explanation that found the most amusement) is unclear. What seems clear is that they got off the train and got back on it – only a few cars back from where they got off. As they walked toward their car (inside the train) they discovered that the rest of the train had separated from the car they were in and was pulling away from the station!
“We are never going to hear the end of this,” was the somber conclusion of the major.
Shortly after hearing about the train separation explanation I found myself in a bit of a dilemna, too. For a number of reasons I began to think I should have been on that other section of train that broke away. In the course of the next few minutes I learned that the car I was in was not the car with my reserved seat and that my smug “I’m not an American tourist” attitude might have been dead wrong. (Not to mention how glad I was that I didn’t try to kick the colonel out of a seat that was not really mine either.) Just as I was thinking about how I would navigate my way back to Zagreb we passed a sign that said we had entered the Zagreb area. Whew!