My birthday this year was very special! One of the holidays I booked with my compensation was a railway holiday to Bavaria which enabled me to fulfil my adulthood’s dream to travel across Europe by train and to travel on German I.C.E. trains. I knew I was in for a treat but had no idea just what I was going to experience. In reality my holiday to Bavaria was much more than just a holiday. It turned out to be an immensely healing experience.
I travelled with a group of 21 other people, one of whom was the tour manager called Richard. He was an absolutely phenomenal tour manager and a very caring, thoughtful man. On arrival in Brussels he got us together as a group and had us look around at each other. He told us to remember “these people are the only people you can trust; Brussels is notorious for pick pockets and distraction muggings. Keep an eye out for each other, do not respond when someone you do not know attempts to get your attention. Trust no one except for these 21 other people you see standing here.” It was a sobering moment as we had nearly an hour till we were due out of Brussels. We all looked out for one another and helped each other with our cases, especially when use station toilets. Someone took me to a cafe to buy a drink while her husband looked after my case with their cases. It was overwhelming. I’m so used to just having to cope. Finding myself not having to just cope but being looked after by other people was very moving and challenging.Everyone in the group in was incredibly kind, helpful and hospitable. So many people offered me help on so many occasions during the journeys and throughout the holiday. We helped each other with our cases. One elderly lady came up to me at every change of train, turned her back so I could see her rucksack and asked me “am I zipped up?” I was astounded to be looked upon as someone who could help someone else and also to allow myself to be helped. It challenged “the fiercely independent ‘me’” enormously and frequently brought tears in to my eyes. I amazed myself at how well I responded to those offers and allowed people to help me when I needed help. I so enjoyed helping my fellow travellers in return.
My birthday on the Monday was our first full day in Oberammergau in the southern Bavarian region of Germany. I enjoyed a gentle low key, virtually anonymous birthday pottering round in the snow and the sunshine taking lots of photos. In the morning we had a tour of the village of Oberammergau with a local guide who also took us in to the world famous Passion Play theatre. We had privileged access to all areas of the theatre and were allowed unlimited photography. That was a huge privilege. People who see the Passion Play buy tickets priced between 100 Euros to over 600 Euros and are not permitted to take any photographs at all inside the theatre. So it was privileged access which we got. I even stood on the stage which is the biggest stage in the world, capable of holding 800 actors at one time. What a time I had photographing the theatre and getting a sense of what it must be like when a capacity crowd of 4500 fill it. After the tour the remainder of the day was free time. During my afternoon explorations I kept meeting people from our trip as I pottered round. In the early afternoon I bumped into a lovely elderly couple from our trip who asked me if I’d eaten yet and did I want to join them for a light lunch of apple strudel? I was pleasantly surprised at receiving such an invite and then surprised myself by responding in the affirmative and thinking how lovely that would be. They didn’t know it was my birthday until I told them part way through. I said “it is my birthday and it feels really nice to be eating my birthday cake with them.” It felt so good to say that and they in turn were delighted to hear that. It was a very special moment.
The following day we visited Neuschwanstein Castle which involved a 50 minute walk up the mountain to the castle. The dry cold air was affecting my asthma. I had to take it slowly and gently. Most of the group forged well ahead of me. I would have been quite happy to do the walk alone but I was very touched by one of my party who dropped down the mountain to walk with me. She said “you don’t have to walk up the mountain alone you know!” Also, our tour manager always hung at the back of the group. He said he always goes slower than the pace of the slowest member of the group. So it was a very companionable climb which I thoroughly enjoyed. Lunchtime in the castle was very good to, I was heading to a table alone when a group invited me to their table. I hadn’t expected that and it was lovely to not have to eat alone.
The third day was an amazing day which gave me the most incredible memories. At breakfast that morning we discussed that it had been pouring snow all night and was still pouring snow. We were talking from the English mentality of everything grinds to a halt the moment it snows in the UK forgetting we were in the Bavarian Alps where life carries on as normal. I had had a very rude awakening that morning at 4.45am when they began snow ploughing the streets!! A small group of 12 of us decided to risk the snow and head to Garmisch-Partenkirchen by bus and see if it was viable to go up the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain. It was still snowing when we arrived at the massive ski resort at the foot of the mountain but we discovered that the train and cable cars are running as normal. So 8 of us intrepid explorers decided to give it a go. We had a delightful ride on the cogwheel railway through snowy meadows gradually getting steeper and steeper as we headed further up the mountain then through a tunnel for the last half hour of the journey to a railway station cut into the mountain at the foot of the Zugsptize glacier. We came out of the tunnel to the mountainside and discovered it had stopped snowing. After 15 hours of non-stop snow the sun was shining and the snow was sparkling in the sunshine. We all walked outside and said “wow” as we hit the bright glare and then saw the view of mountains in front of us!!
We took loads of photos then as a group decided to get the cable car on to the summit which we could see was in cloud. We realised we’d had the best views but the summit was so close it would have been a shame to have not gone on. We got the next cable car up to the summit and went our own ways taking photos and enjoying the experience of being at the highest part of Germany. Occasionally clouds parted to give glimpses of views. There was a high wind chill factor. When I turned into the wind to take photos the tears poured down my face with the intense cold. I was blinded by snow on my glasses as well as the tears pouring down my face so I turned out of the wind to get to a more sheltered spot! I was suddenly aware that a lovely gently elderly lady from my group was running towards me with her arms wide open. I had a split second to think “I think Linda’s just about to give me a massive bear hug” before she threw her arms around me. I was stunned and surprised that I didn’t freeze. Instead I laughed and returned the hug. I enjoyed the hug, I needed it. I don’t know what drove her to do it but I’m glad she did – and that is an amazing thing for me to say! That hug did me a lot of good. I welcomed it, felt it, enjoyed it and stuffed it away in my memory banks cherishing it rather than freezing, panicking, not knowing how to handle it and wishing it hadn’t happened. Oh wow, what healing has happened! Linda asked me if I’d seen the photo corner opposite the summit cross and if I knew how to work it. I responded that I had seen it and had figured out how it worked but hadn’t wanted to do it alone. I was wondering where this was going. She said “well I was thinking that I’d love to have a photo of you, me and Mary together here, Mary’s game if you are.” Mary is another lovely gentle elderly lady on the tour. I surprised myself by responding totally positively and saying “oh yeah, that would be so much fun.”
Again I realised how differently I was responding to how I would have expected. In the past I would have been suspicious and cautious but now I was enjoying being around other people who were enjoying my company and who wanted to be with me and to have a photo memory of it. The fiercely independent ‘me’ is becoming a lot more relaxed with herself and with those around her and not fearing the intent of other people. The fiercely independent ‘me’ found that she thoroughly enjoyed being with other people and doing things with them. That is a MASSIVE change! I was stunned by my capacity to do that. Them wanting to be with me, caring about me and wanting to take a photo of us all together gave me a huge warm feeling inside. I had to do all this processing at breakneck speed as we moved from one side of the summit area to the other. We took our photo and then decided we’d better find everyone else and get some lunch. So we headed in to the summit building together. I broke off to find toilets then made my way to the restaurant. Normally I would seek a table on my own. But I arrived there. The group were sat around a long table and would not hear of me going off on my own but insisted on me joining them. Richard was there too so I asked him to take photos on my camera of the group lunch. I felt, nervous in the social situation but also enjoyed being wanted there by everyone else. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. We had a delicious lunch stayed as a group for the remainder of the journey down the mountain. We headed to the cable car area via the shop to collect print-outs of our photos which cost only 3 Euros and are also on the Zugspitze website.
The cable car trip down was so much fun. We were joined by several skiers and snowboarders. Every time we jolted over a pylon everyone went “woooohooooooo”. It was like kids on a school outing and it was SO much fun. We laughed and whooped and had a great time on that freezing journey down the mountain. The top part of the journey was in white out conditions. It was amazing travelling through silent whiteness like that, the wind occasionally buffeting the cable car and then we began to see trees, frozen lakes and the visibility was perfect for photography. It was delightful and so much fun. I felt like a little kid again. And I realised that little kid was having so much fun – fun was not part of my childhood! It was an incredible feeling!!! Ten minutes found us at the cable car station to connect with the train down the rest of the mountain. We had nearly an hour to wait so were not in a hurry. We waited until all the skiers and snowboarders left. I went to follow them out of the building when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see Richard. He said quietly “don’t go, we’re doing group photos, I’m taking everyone’s cameras to do them, please come and be in them”. I turned and saw the group standing waiting for me with a whole mixture of thoughts, feelings and emotions. I did remember to give him my camera. We had a delightful few minutes taking several photos. It was overwhelming to be part of that. It felt very special. It felt amazing. I enjoyed it! I enjoyed the feeling of belonging! I enjoyed being appreciated by other people. Not so long ago I would not have been able to cope with such a situation and would have shied away. We made our way down the mountain on the train after that and reached Garmisch in time for the 4pm bus. I wanted to photograph the Olympic Stadium which was only 5-minutes walk away and asked the group and Richard if they minded. They were quite happy for me to go off on my own just as they would have been happy for me to get the bus back with them. I checked the time of the next bus with Richard who was happy I had enough German to get back on the bus and then left the group.
As I did so I experienced a very strange feeling of detachment and loss. It felt very odd to be walking away from the group and doing something alone. It struck me that I don’t blink an eye at going off doing all sorts of things alone because I’ve always had to but here I felt at a loss. It was weird. I wanted to run after them and tell them I was coming with them after all!!! But once I reached my goal and began taking photos and walking around the outside of the stadium I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I got loads of photos and was so happy to have had that opportunity. It felt very strange being on the bus back alone and I was glad to arrive back in to Oberammergau. I arrived just as the light was fading. Shops and houses were lighting up and the lights twinkling on the snow were delightful. I had a delightful slow wander back to the hotel taking photos, taking in and enjoying all I was seeing and experiencing as I photographed that walk.
It was lovely to reunite with the party the next day as we headed in to Munich by train for the day. We arrived in to Munich in time for the Glockenspiel display at 12 noon. The Glockenspiel is world famous. It is a clock in the main square in Munich which has figures which dance and act out a story every day at 12 noon. I remained with the group for the event. It was delightful to watch and photograph, hearing the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crowd around me. After that we all went our separate ways with just under four hours to explore. I spent the next hour and a half frantically going from shop to shop seeking a new case. The wheels had come off my case on the journey to Oberammergau and I had to buy something to replace it. I couldn’t believe the prices of cases and holdalls. The search was very frantic and fraught as I went from shop to shop and came away empty handed because the prices were beyond my budget. By this time I’d exhausted the main shopping street and turned into a side street. I was feeling very anxious and wondering what on earth I was going to do when I looked across the road and saw a massive 4-storey sports department store. This was my last chance to find anything!
On the top floor I found loads of big holdalls on wheels with trolley handles, basically they were holdall cases. What’s more I found some within my budget. I was overcome with relief and tears filled my eyes!! I suddenly heard a lady behind me addressing me in German asking if I needed any help. I quickly pulled myself together responding in German saying my case was broken and I needed a new one. I asked if she spoke English as I knew I didn’t have all the vocabulary for this situation. She replied in German that she speaks English but “not so good”. I responded in German that my German is “also not so good”. I deliberately put the ‘also’ in the right part of the sentence and was surprised when she responded that my German was good - I think she said that because of my correct use of the ‘also’ in the sentence. Anyway, between her broken English and my broken German we managed to examine the holdall, check its size and capacity and worked out that it was what I’d been looking for. Half an hour after walking into the shop in total desperation I happily walked out with a lovely shiny new holdall case immensely relieved.
It was then I realised it was nearly 2pm and that I desperately needed food. Opposite the sports shop I saw a sign for a cafe down a side street. So I found the cafe and ordered myself a pizza. When it arrived I realised I should have ordered a salami pizza rather than a pepperoni pizza. A pepperoni pizza in Bavaria is a pizza covered in green peppers not Italian pepperoni. The peppers were whole however so I was able to remove them off the pizza. I thoroughly enjoyed the pizza and the peace and quiet of the cafe enabled me to calm down. The pizza was absolutely delicious with a very light dough. After that I relaxed and enjoyed my last hour and a half wandering round taking loads of photos. I found a “Ferrari” shop and saw through the window a full size Formula 1 racing car. I couldn’t believe my eyes and had to go into the shop to check I was seeing what I thought I was. Sure enough it was an F1 Ferrari car. I was allowed to photograph it to my heart’s content and I bought a small Ferrari bear as a memory of that incredible find!! I discovered a delightful market in the old town area and finished off my day in Munich with a gorgeous warming Gluhwein which took away all the stress and anxiety still hanging around from my prolonged desperate search for a new case!
The next day was the beginning of our journey back, travelling so far as Mannheim for the overnight stop. We started in the same travelling conditions as yesterday, boarded the same kind of train as we did to Munich yesterday but this time I had a very close call with disaster. I came very close to being killed due to ice on the train steps. As I boarded the train one of my feet caught the ice and I fell backwards out of the train down between the train and the platform. It all happened in the blink of an eye. When I found myself dangling in mid air jammed in between the train and the platform by my rucksack. Richard was hanging on to my shoulder. I was flailing around trying to free myself and only managed to jam myself even further. I knew I was in a very dangerous situation and knew I couldn’t get myself out. It was very frightening and was a precarious situation.
Across my panic came Richard’s very calm level voice “stop panicking, stop trying to do anything for yourself and “go limp” we will pull you out”. I had to literally put my life into the hands of three men which was very vulnerable and massive for me! Richard grabbed my arm in a solid grasp and told me to grab his arm in the same way, I felt hands under my armpits and then I was being carried into the train, the doors closed and the train moved before anyone got their breath. Richard bent over me and asked if everything was moving ok. He was convinced my hips must have been broken by the impact. I was already checking and stammered that my hips and pelvis were fine but I’d be very bruised, stiff and sore. My right shin was already turning black from knee to ankle and my left shin was also bruising. Someone gave me a tube of arnica and insisted on me keeping it which was very kind of them. I couldn’t sit down for the journey to Munich as the tops of my legs underneath my buttocks had taken a huge impact as well.
The remainder of the journey to Mannheim went smoothly! However my experience boarding that train had traumatised me. I was very anxious boarding and alighting trains for the rest of the journey home. On changing trains in Munich I hung back as everyone piled on to the train causing Richard to look at me in concern. I told him that what had happened earlier had “scared the shit out of me and there was no way I was putting one foot in that train until I could clearly see my entire route on to the train.” Tears filled my eyes and nearly ran down my face as I spoke. Richard quietly said “give me your case, for the rest of the journey to London I will get your case on and off the train so all you have to concentrate on is getting yourself safely on and off.” I was stunned by such kindness and understanding from a man.
I was mightily relieved to safely get to the hotel that evening and grab an early night after an absolutely delicious final dinner with my companions. But before bed time another special moment occurred. As I hobbled across the restaurant to where our group was gathering for dinner I was wondering what I was going to do and preparing to sit alone. I saw Linda look up and see me. I watched her lift her bag off the chair next to her and signal to me to sit there. I could have cried. To have someone save a seat for me and want me to sit with them was just incredible for me.
The following day started off ok but quickly deteriorated into chaos. We were travelling on the German rail network which is not known for serious delays, travelling on a futuristic I.C.E. train at very high speeds. We didn’t expect anything to go wrong. But within under an hour of leaving Mannheim it became clear we weren’t going to make our connection at Cologne which meant our connection at Brussels for London was gone too. There was a bomb scare at Frankfurt Airport which closed the airport train station. We were held until the station reopened. Richard hoped to get us off the train onto the one we would have caught in Cologne but all trains were seriously delayed which ruled that option out. We eventually arrived in a station just outside of Cologne and had to run to make connections but then had a sudden platform change which caused total chaos. I had a massive asthma/panic attack in the middle of it all and had to accept help from my travelling companions. I was overwhelmed by the support and kindness shown to me at a time when everyone was under severe stress. By the time we arrived in Cologne a few minutes later I could breathe ok and reclaimed my luggage from my helpers. We were well over an hour late by now and had no idea when we would get out of Cologne. Richard had to leave us to negotiate our onward travel and told us to go to a certain platform, to stay together as a group and look out for each other in a station renowned for pickpockets. On the journey down there was an attempt to pick the bag of one of our group as we boarded a train at Cologne. Richard intervened and the attempt failed. So we were all on full alert. We discovered half an hour later why he had sent us to that platform. There was a Thalys train to Brussels due to leave at 12.43pm. He must have had a hunch what Deutschebahn would do! We stood there for nearly 40 minutes when suddenly Richard came haring up the steps to the platform. The poor man could not speak when he got to us with the stress he was under. The Thalys train was due to leave in less than 5 minutes and was closing boarding. He told us that Deutschebahn had refused us onward travel. They accepted that the train was over an hour late but because they had not caused the delay but rather it had been because of police action due to a security alert they were not responsible and had no obligation to carry us. In short Deutschebahn refused us travel.
Richard told us he said “I don’t think so, you cannot strand 22 people at Cologne who have onward connections via Brussels to London and beyond.” So in the end Deutschebahn agreed to validate our tickets for onward travel as long as we didn’t attempt to travel with them. This is where the Thalys train came in. A Belgian company run Thalys trains. Richard now had to negotiate with the driver to get us on this train saying “if I cannot get you on this train there is not another train for 3 hours and that means we will not be getting back to the UK today.” By now the train should have left, it had completed boarding. Richard vanished up the train to negotiate with the train driver. We stood looking at one another anxiously seeing 1pm come and go and with a sinking feeling that we were stuck at Cologne. All of a sudden we heard someone bellow down the platform. We all turned to see Richard hanging out of the driver’s cab “you have 30-seconds to get on this train, anyone not on this train in 30-seconds time will be left at Cologne, you are only allowed into the end carriage.” We all looked at each other and dived for the tiny door, we all helped the person behind us, the person in front of us at the same time as handling our own luggage. I don’t think any of us know how we did it, but as the last person squeezed in the doors slid shut and the train moved. We then spent a good quarter of an hour trying to find places to stow luggage before we settled down to realising our carriage was freezing cold. Richard appeared to tell us that the only reason we got on the train was because that carriage was empty – the reason it was empty is that the heating had failed in it – the rest of the train was heated but we were not permitted to sit in a heated part of the train. None of us cared, we were all quite jovial about it to Richard’s surprise. Our response “well we’d rather be sitting in the freezing cold in a train that’s moving and heading towards Brussels than be sitting in the freezing cold for 3-hours in Cologne hoping we’d get out on the next train.”
The rest of the journey to Brussels passed in a haze. Before we realised it we were arriving in to Brussels with only 12 minutes until our Eurostar train was due to leave from the terminal on the other side of the station. We did not expect to be on it. As we went to leave the train I discovered the gap to the platform was massive. I froze when I saw the gap then heard Richard’s voice asking for my case. He took my case off me then reached up and grabbed me and pulled me over the gap. Richard told us exact directions to the Eurostar terminal and told us to go straight there and wait for him to arrange our onward journey hopefully on the next train.
We arrived in the Eurostar terminal a few minutes later. Richard told us he’d been informed that the two remaining trains of the day were fully booked so they were holding this train and were going to rush us through otherwise we weren’t going to get back to the UK that day. It was a mad scramble through check in and security. I got held at security when the metal detector came off. I had done exactly the same as I did leaving London and was flabbergasted when the alarm sounded. I was aware the rest of the group were vanishing through passport control while I was held for a further search. They ran a hand-held metal detector over me and decided in the end it was either my watch or ear rings that had set it off and let me through. I ran through French passport control without incident then got stopped at UK passport control. I was held and asked what my real name was. “'...' is not a real name, you must be travelling under an assumed name, come on tell us your real name.” I couldn’t believe my ears and was aware of Richard on the other side of the terminal going through UK passport control. He was standing obviously not going to leave me behind. I calmly stated “my real name is '..'” kicking myself that I was not carrying a copy of my deed poll document to prove it as I hadn’t experienced this problem at passport controls since changing my name. Suddenly he changed tack noticing my football shirt and football scarf and engaged me in a conversation about football. Thinking this was getting ridiculous I was losing patience with him but calmly said “look we haven’t got time for this, they are holding the train for us, I am part of a tour and have been travelling in my name of '...' as my luggage tags will show you, my real name is '...' and you’re just going to have to believe me.” “So, your real name is '...?” “Yes it is.” Silence... then he looked at me again, reached for a stamp and immigration stamped my ticket and let me through. I stopped to put my belt on as I’d had to take it off to get through security and it literally holds my trousers up. A voice behind me said “you haven’t time for that, grab your belt, grab your passport, grab your ticket, grab your fleece, grab your jacket, take your case and run like hell.” I ran and could see Richard running too. My trousers were falling down, my rucksack was trying to fall off my back. I had to stop for a moment a rescue my trousers and then came out of the terminal to an area with escalators left and right. I asked two French police officers standing there where to go and was told to take the right escalator. As it was a moving escalator I stopped to catch my breath and rescue my trousers again. The police officer yelled “why have you stopped? Run.” So I run up the very steep escalator, got to the top, saw a train at the left hand platform, an open door and threw luggage and myself in after it, without even checking it was the right train, I just hoped it was. Then we were on the move and once I’d sorted myself out I decided to try to find my party as I was completely separated from them and it didn’t feel good. So I began to walk down the train and met the train manager in the vestibule. He asked me who I was and who I was looking for so I told him. His reply was that Richard had sent him looking for me and I had to walk down another three carriages to find them. So I continued dragging me and my luggage down through the train till I got to the one with my group in. I stopped in the doorway and saw Richard standing in the centre of the carriage looking very worried then he looked up and saw me. The worried look turned to a grin of pure delight and he gave me a big thumbs up which I returned. It was the first time in my life I’d seen someone so utterly delighted to see me and was very moved! I stowed my case then as casually as I could walked down the carriage to where the group was and calmly and nonchalantly said “I’m here”. I was rapturously received by everyone. I was totally overwhelmed by that welcome.
We eventually arrived in London just half an hour late. Saying goodbye to Richard and everyone else at St Pancras was emotional on all sorts of levels. I went to say goodbye to Linda and she gave me a massive bear hug again which I hadn’t expected but appreciated and needed too. Mary thanked me for all my assistance and wished me well as did others. I had experienced something very special during that week. For one week I had been with a group who became a small “family”. I had been cared for, looked out for, accepted, included, wanted, appreciated and helped by that family throughout the week. I had experienced a sense of belonging which I’d longed for all my life. It had been immensely challenging for me but also immensely healing.
As I left St Pancras to get a tube train to Paddington I made the decision that if I could make the 1706 train I would. Emotionally I couldn’t face hanging around Paddington on my own for an hour; I needed to be immediately travelling home. I did catch that train by the skin of my teeth and the rest of my journey home was gentle and uneventful. On arrival in Exeter I went to use the lift and who was standing there? Richard. We looked at each other, laughed and simultaneously said “how on earth did you manage to catch the 1706?” We got the lift then walked together to the ticket barriers, he left me then as he lives in Exeter. It felt fantastic to part with him shaking hands, smiling and laughing. It was a total contrast to the emotion and totally fraught situation at St Pancras. It’s fantastic for me to have that memory.
And so my holiday ended.
The month that was passed since has been a month during which I’ve discussed in counselling and therapy all the experiences and how I was affected on so many levels. It wasn’t just a holiday it was an experience that was deeply healing in many ways and which gave me a very strong indicator of the progress I’ve made so far. I feel privileged to have had such an experience and I know I am not the same for it. My relationship with Richard was a deeply healing affirming one. I feel very privileged to have met him.
How appropriate it is that something which came out of my compensation was so incredibly healing!!!