Thursday, January 13, 2005

Sauerkraut (Lunch Portion)

Been doing a lot of running around, both on the Net and on my feet, this week, trying to set up this trip to Montpellier on the 24th. On Monday, I walked down to Friedrichstr. station to buy the Berlin-Paris ticket, and as I walked into the so-called "service center," I noted that there were about 15 people in line. In the 20 minutes it took me to get to the head of the line, that number increased to 27. As always, there were four counters, but you'll never find all four open at the same time.

Anyway, I drew an old woman who seemed to be the epitome of German civil service: bored, slow, and inefficient. Hearing that I wanted to go to Paris, she disappeared into the back room for a while and came out with a huge loose-leaf book that she spent a long time consulting. It took her 25 minutes to write up my ticket, and the woman next to her handled seven customers while she fiddled.

Since I was two weeks out from the trip, I figured I'd be saving some money, especially since I have a 25% off Bahn Card with Rail Plus, a mysterious add-on that's supposed to save money in other countries on trips booked from Germany. She took my credit card, and I swear I heard her say €119 as the price, which seemed low, but not worth bothering to check. It wasn't until I got home that I looked at the receipt and saw that it was €319. That's over $400.

I was on a couple of deadlines, but I took to the Internet as soon as I could. Deutsche Bahn has a very weird interface, and it took me a couple of days to figure out how to order an imaginary ticket to Paris and back, only to get to the very last step, at which point I was going to abort, and discover that they would take my credit card and mail me a ticket -- but were forbidden to tell me how much that ticket cost!

Someone suggested I do it in reverse, so I went to the French railroad site and ordered a ticket to Berlin. This, with no discounts, cost €163. That did it: I'd paid too much.

So this afternoon I walked back down to Friedrichstr. and stood in line for another twenty minutes (but with fewer people, because this time there were even fewer windows open) and watched a young woman ahead of me completely lose it, screaming about how she was missing work and why couldn't they staff this place right, and, when they finally opened another window, breaking down in huge sobs while the guy at the desk waited impassively for her to stop.

When I finally got to the window, I explained that I was pretty sure I'd been overcharged. The woman looked at my ticket, and expressed concern, then fiddled with the computer for a few minutes. Then she disappeared into the back room, and came out again. "Sorry, it all looks correct." Really? With the discounts and everything? "It is correct." The last time I went it was a hundred Euros cheaper. "Well, you probably were taking advantage of a sale or something. This is correct." This is very expensive, I told her. Next time I guess I'll have to fly. She shrugged her shoulders.

Now, I knew she wouldn't care if I liked what she had to say or not. I'm used to that in Germany: the customer is always wrong, and, moreover, is a pain in the butt. But she offered no advice ("If you took a later train..." or something) and offered no explanation. Her job was to get me to go away.

And, having searched the great Mobissimo, I've found that even at this late date, I could book a flight on EasyJet for €209.98 that's both later in the day and cheaper.

And next time I will, most likely. But I've been looking forward to the long journey for too long, looking forward to reading a stack of magazines that have piled up, watching the scenery -- such as it is -- out the window, and listening to some CDs of radio shows David Gans sent me (no, they are not Grateful Dead shows!). Is that worth a hundred Euros? No, but it's worth a hundred Euros not to have to go back down to Friedrichstr., stand on line yet again, cancel the ticket, wait for the cancellation to show up on the card, and then pray that EasyJet still has a fare that cheap. I have my entire passage to Montpellier in my hand, I have an e-mail from the guy whose house I'm staying with that gives me directions ("When leaving the station, take the large avenue (lined with palm trees and where the streetcar runs) up to the main square..." Whoa! Palm trees?), and I have a week to do liner notes for the forthcoming Best of Son Volt CD for Rhino and maybe one or two other things before I go.

Sometimes you just learn your lesson and cut your losses.

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