In 1973, my wife and I were in Germany where I was sent for a few months on an academic programme by the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, where I was a professor. We were mainly in Munich but had a couple of days in Hamburg. We decided to make a short trip to Copenhagen which was close by, across the Baltic Sea. We chose to travel by train, it being cheaper. More importantly, it provided the opportunity to view the countryside on the way. Both of us enjoyed train journeys, even while in India, for the collateral pleasures they held out.
On inquiry at the railway station we were informed that there were several through trains to Copenhagen every day. We had our visas for Denmark already stamped in India. I knew we had to cross a small stretch of ocean on the way. I did not enquire how this was done. I was smug in the belief that once a ticket was issued, the journey was the railway company’s responsibility. Deliberately we did not make any detailed plans. We chose a train which left Hamburg in the morning. The North German countryside was beautiful. The northernmost point on the German side on this route was a town called Puttgarten. Then it was the Baltic Sea. I still had no idea how the crossing was to be done.
What followed was the most wonderful surprise. The train slowed down, but did not stop for long. It chugged itself onto a waiting ferry, the entire train, passengers and all. Once fully tucked up in the ferry, the passengers were asked to alight and go to the upper deck, leaving the luggage, if any, behind. On the passenger deck there were shops and a cafeteria and rows of chairs to lounge and enjoy the sights of the sea, during the nearly one-hour crossing to the Danish side. The weather was nippy but pleasurable.
Once berthed in the Danish ferry-cum-train terminal of Rodby, the passengers were asked to go down to the lower deck and occupy their seats on the train, which then rolled over on rails to terra firma and continue its journey to Copenhagen.
In the city of Copenhagen, we did the obligatory conducted tour. I do not now remember much of the sights and sounds of the city. To me all big cities were much the same, and the journey was always more enjoyable than the destination. To authenticate my story, let me record that we did see the Little Mermaid pensively sitting on a rock, exactly as I had imagined her to be.
We had no plans of staying over in Copenhagen. Late in the evening we came back to the railway station and purchased tickets to Hamburg. We settled in our seats and dozed off. Now, for the twist in the tail.
We were roused from our sleep at Rodby and told to alight. We protested that we were going all the way to Hamburg. We were told that the train did not go to Hamburg and that we were to take the ferry to Puttgarten and take a train starting from there. We hurried out and clambered on to the waiting ferry and were deposited at the ferry-cum-railway station at Puttgarten at 1 a.m. Upon enquiry at the station we learned that the next train was only at 5 a.m.
Searching the internet before writing this piece, I found that Puttgarten today is a spanking modern railway station. But my memory from long back is of a sleepy, nondescript place. The waiting area was deserted except for a group of backpacking students who were also discharged from the same Copenhagen train that we had travelled in. We conversed with them across the language barrier and found that they were more bewildered than we were.
Looking out of the window at the open grounds outside the station, we found that we had for company a herd of well-fed cows placidly chewing the cud. If there were any locals around, they would have wondered at the sight of an Indian couple, the lady dressed in colourful sari, sitting huddled and shivering in their waiting hall.
Nearing dawn, the train came at 5 a.m. with commendable German punctuality and we were on our way back to Hamburg and reached our pensione well in time for breakfast.