“Letzter Halt: Osnabrück“ roars the automatic announcement through the local train. This train ends in Osnabrück. “Halt” can also mean “support”. Osnabrück as our last remaining support? Sceptically we watch the small number of people get off the nearly empty train.
It is not only the local train between Münster and Osnabrück that seems deserted. We are surprised that few people travel by train in Germany, not only during the day but also on evenings and weekends. Regular train tickets have become far too expensive for anyone in their right mind to go to the station and just buy a ticket on a whim. “A flight costs half as much and is twice as fast” our friends tell us. As we have more time than most people, we make use of cheap train offers such as the “Nice Weekend” ticket that allows unlimited travel on local trains for a whole day (only on weekends). This way, the journey from Cologne to Berlin took us 9 hours on 5 different trains, but even the discount airlines can’t beat the price of 33 Euro for both of us.
Our fellow travellers on the local trains are amazingly friendly, considerate, and occasionally even talkative. “That’s 5 Euro, then.” Wolli is standing in the aisle and turning to a passenger wanting to pass through. He and his friends are on a day excursion to the Zoo in Münster. It is 11 o’clock in the morning and they just had a few cups of red wine mixed with Fanta. “I’ll pay on my way back,” the old lady grins and shoves him aside.
We had expected more of a culture shock – Germans having a reputation of being stiff and dull – but our friends remind us that it’s summer, and that people are more relaxed and friendly now.
Relaxed is also the predominant attitude to alcohol. The Rhein-Ruhr Transport Agency has noticed the same. “We want all our customers to feel comfortable in our trains. Alcohol and warm meals are now prohibited on all our trains.” Nevertheless, on Saturday night, half of the tram passengers swing their beer bottles, shouting at each other or their dogs, or fall asleep in their seats, snoring. At town festivals, every overheard order of “another Caipi” makes us cringe. It seems that almost seven months in Islamic countries have made us quite sensitive to the public consumption of alcohol and its unpleasant effects.
We also see more women wearing headscarves, and more men sporting knitted skull-caps and prophet style beards. But perhaps they have always been there, and it is only us who failed to notice them before.
We indulge in German food – quark, white asparagus, poppy seed and nut pastries – and have to browse through every large bookshop. Whereas printed information is available in abundance, we have difficulties to get online for the first time since we left Japan. Public hot-spots are obscenely expensive, and private wireless networks are habitually password-protected. In the Internet cafés, we often search in vain for a USB slot to up- or download information. “We had that for a while, but then people stuck chewing gum into the USB slots, so we gave it up,” an attendant tells us.
Well, if everything fails, we can always return to Osnabrück (with the “Nice Weekend” ticket) to claim that last support.