I admit it: Europe is a weird patchwork of big, smaller, mini countries. Landscapes may vary or look bafflingly similar. Languages and dialects do not stick to national borders. Moreover, the EU pretends national borders no longer exist.
I myself am very vague about the geography of other continents. So I’m never surprised when non-Europeans mix up countries, towns, people here. It may be unfair, but I expect more of fellow Europeans. I’m an optimist.
I was on my way from one EU mini blob to the next one. Like other passengers, I had boarded in Brussels. The train had pulled out of intercity stations and crossed borders, when two conductors finally started checking tickets and identities in my carriage.
Suddenly, a few benches behind me, one exploded in front of a group of Spanish tourists. In bad English, which the whole carriage was treated to, she shouted “You should come to me in Antwerp!”
We had passed through that city several stations ago. The Spanish were in trouble. Heads craned back to watch the entertainment.
The group muttered among themselves in excellent Spanish. The conductor tried several other languages. The group spoke nothing but Spanish. She did not. A spokesperson and she settled on bad English.
“We announce every station,” she stated, “told you in Brussels, come to me before Antwerp. Anvers? Antwerp? Antwerpen?”
“We announce station in French, Dutch, English, German!”
“We passed Antwerp! Told you in Brussels how many stations: one, two, three. We past six now!”
“No, we go to Rotterdam.”
Mumble and Spanish chattering.
“We wait in Roosendaal 15 minutes, 15 minutes! Roosendaal?”
Mumble, followed by Spanish trial versions of Rotterdam, Roosendaal.
“You had 15 minutes to find me!”
“No, ROOSENDAAL. First Antwerp, then Roosendaal. Now ROT-TER-DAM!”
Mumble and Spanish questions.
“You have tickets to Antwerp, Belgium. You are now in the Netherlands. Holland. Your tickets not valid!”
Shocked Spanish; conductor wonders: “You want Amsterdam, or Antwerp?”
Passengers started to puff up, turn in their seats.
If this turned nasty for the tourists, help was at hand.
“You get off at Rotterdam. There get on train back to Antwerp. Do-you-un-der-stand?”
No, they did not.
The conductor spent another ten minutes trying to explain where the group was heading for, where to get off, how to get back to Antwerp. Unsuccessfully.
Exasperated, she said: “No, this train is on its way to The Hague. Then Amsterdam.”
Shocked Spanish exclamations and mumbles.
The conductor laughed her head off: “No The Hague, La Haye, Den Haag is NOT in DENMARK, lovies!”
She gave up on geography and them. She wrote out new tickets.
She told them, she wasn’t going to charge them extra tickets, nor fine them.
No, she would make sure her colleagues on the train to Belgium would accept the group had gotten lost and needed to get back to Antwerp – on free tickets.
Her colleague contacted the other train, while she wrote out departure time and platform in Rotterdam.
She tried again to explain how many stations to Antwerp. She stayed right next to the group. In Rotterdam, she helped them remove their luggage. She pointed out the right platform.
When she returned, she shook her head and told us: “Don’t think those kids will ever end up in Antwerp. Speak no English, no French, no German, no Flemish, no Dutch, can’t count, and think The Hague lies in Scandinavia.”