When I was 18, I spent 8 hours lost and terrified in a train station in Amsterdam. I alternately assuaged and ignited my panic with story.
Somehow I had talked my way into a trip overseas for my high school graduation gift. It was uncharacteristic of me to ask for anything, especially such a big ticket item. (This was the beginning of my Marxist stage—another story.) But my older sister had been given a used VW Beetle for her graduation, so I assumed that I would be getting something comparable. When I found out that she was going to go to Europe with a college group to study architecture, I decided I wanted to go.
I have no recollection of how I wrangled my way into the group. I wouldn’t be receiving any college credit, but the professor who was leading the group granted me permission to tag along. Of course, my sister was horrified. The professor, his girlfriend, six college students, and I, the recent high school graduate, set out for two weeks to ostensibly to study architecture.
As naïve as I was, it didn’t take me long to figure out, the professor just wanted a paid vacation. This was a relief.
As fate would have it, around the same time my then boyfriend, who was a year younger, was going to be traveling in Europe for a couple of weeks with a church group. As my trip was ending, his was beginning. We somehow convinced our parents and his church leaders to allow him to split off from his group and meet up with me in Amsterdam.
My boyfriend and I had made plans before we left the States to meet in Amsterdam at the main train station on a specific date. Those were our plans. Period.
I was already in Amsterdam but had checked out of my hotel when the group I had been traveling with checked out. The group, including my sister, headed back to the States.
My boyfriend and I had not chosen a hotel where we would be staying. We had not set a specific time that he would be arriving. We had no idea what train he would be coming in on. All I knew was that he was coming in from Germany on that day. I didn’t even know which German city he would be arriving from. For that matter, I didn’t even know which cities on the reader board were German other than Frankfurt , Hamburg, and Heidelberg. And the only reason I knew of Heidelberg is because my group had gone there.
The absurdity of the plan didn’t hit until I was alone in the train station waiting for a train to arrive from Germany. Imagine standing in the middle of Grand Central Station hoping you’d happen upon your friend on a Wednesday without arranging a specific time or specific area in the train station to meet.
About the third hour into dragging my bags from one track to another to any train that was coming in from any German city hoping I would spot him in the crowd, the panic became palpable. I had a backpack and a suitcase on ridiculous wheels that kept flipping over. This was pre-collapsible handles. Eventually I gave up attempting to steer the monster and lugged it all over the station.
The women manning the traveler’s aid center were well aware of my panic. At first they were amused by it. But as the hours passed and shifts ended, they were getting equally concerned. They were kind enough not to lecture me. They did what they could to inform me of arriving German trains, but there wasn’t much else they could do to help me.
To entertain myself and distract myself, I began to make up stories about the people around me who scurried here and there. As they moved about with such purpose, kissed hello, kissed goodbye, had children in tow, carried briefcases and looked intent on this or that, they all seemed to have more substance than I. I felt empty. I had no purpose. I was no one. I had no identity other than a lost and frightened teenager who had no idea what to do next. I was invisible yet venerable.
I was waiting for Godot.
I began to wish I were someone, anyone other than who I was at that moment.
If only I were that mother caring for that infant while the husband handled the bags. Or that old man with the cane who looked like he had lived a life of purpose and meaning. Or that happy-go-lucky little girl who was so very excited about riding on a train. Or that policeman who ignored me and seemed not to see my overriding fear. Or that priest who walked with a steady, peaceful gate. Or back in a tour group with someone else to read the map and worry over hotels and tickets.
Oh, let me be somebody of substance.
Into the eighth hour as I desperately stared at the flipping cities on the reader board indicating trains come and gone and new ones scheduled to arrive, total panic set in. The next train from Germany would not be until 1 am. Fighting back the tears, I worked my way back to the traveler’s aid counter. I just couldn’t sleep in the station.
The latest employee had only been on the clock for less than an hour, but already she knew of me and my story. My arms aching, my stomach growling, and blood leaving my face, I sat trying to come up with a plan. If I went to a hotel, how would he know where I was? He would end up sitting in the station for hours waiting for me, if he was even coming. Maybe I had the wrong day, the wrong city, the wrong year.
Exhausted, I made the decision to get a hotel room and at least be rid of my bags. As I was asking the traveler’s aid to help me get a hotel room, her phone rang. She picked it up and began carrying on an excited conversation. Annoyed I waited. Then she turned back to me phone still in hand, “You want Hotel Utopia? You have friend in Hotel Utopia?” I have no flipping idea which hotel I wanted and of course I have no friends in Amsterdam. Would I have spent 8 hours of torture in this train station if I had a friend in Amsterdam.
As she repeated the questions, my fear was transforming into rage. I was relieved. I was tired of the fear.
The questions seemed to excite her which angered me even more. What a moron! What the hell was she talking about Utopia?
Suddenly she thrust the phone at me, “Your friend!”
He had arrived hours ago and had not been able to find me so went ahead and got a hotel room. He reasoned that when I realized I had missed his train, I would be able to figure out that he was in Hotel Utopia. After all, we were two teenage sweethearts alone in Amsterdam. It was so obvious to him.
As relieved as I was to finally have hooked up, Amsterdam had proven to be no Utopia for me. One had to have a sense of self, a purpose, a dream to recognize Utopia. I discovered I had no identity outside my external attachments. Welcome to Hotel Hell.