As I was widely told, the best way to see Europe is by train. By and large, it's fast, reasonably cheap, and efficient. Of the many Eurail options available to Americans and Austrailians (it's not open to Europeans or anyone else, as far as I can tell), I took the $500, 5-days in 2 month option. That means on five different days I can ride on most any train in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and France. All you do is get on the train, flash the Eurail pass, and you're home free (perks such as sleeper cars are extra, though you do get to ride First Class). All in all, it was a very positive experience. The one glaring exception being Italy.
I go to the Eurail office. I wait in line. Eventually I sit down to talk to the woman behind the counter clearly marked "Eurail Information". Thus, I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to expect that she would know a thing or two about Eurail. Sadly, I was mistaken. I explain to her the route I'd like to take and the rough period of time. She informs me that the only option available is to purchase the two-month, all you can eat, all Europe option, which happens to cost $2000. A bit shocked, I ask if there are alternatives. She confidently informs me that no, there are no other options. I explain that I only intend to take a few trainrides, and that this is far more than I need. I also said that I had heard something about different regions of Europe and being able to get different passes depending on the region. No, she says, there are no regions.
At this I'm a bit dismayed, as I had seriously not anticipated this in my budget.
I ask her if she can help me determine how much it would cost to just purchase the tickets directly, and skip Eurail. She says no, that's not possible. A bit confused, I say "Oh, I need to go someplace else?" No, she says, it's not possible. There is no way to determine the fare between any two points in Europe by train. I ask if there is a website. Phone number. No. Nothing. In this modern age, somehow the train schedule managed to get left out of all forms of communication, and instead is determined by looking at goat entrails and tea leaves.
At this point I start to suspect that she's a complete moron. Out of her infinite helpfulness she says that she can find out the fare from Rome to anywhere, and asks some other man for a book. He asks what for, she explains, and after a bit of questioning he walks over to me -- apparently also deciding she was an idiot and should go direct. I explain my predicament. He gives me a very clear, very obvious piece of paper that is sitting right on her desk (after all, this is the Eurail desk of the Eurail office) that explains all the many options of Eurail. The 5-day, two month fits perfectly, and I take it. I don't know what kind of crack that girl was smoking.
Armed with my Eurail pass, I head to the reservation line. As if out of a movie, I say "Ah, this line isn't so bad," until I realize that I'm in the wrong line. The international reservation line is packed.
Ok. So I get in line and wait. And wait. Now, the line isn't really that long -- twenty or thirty people, max. It takes over two friggin' hours. Everyone is seriously pissed and incredulous at the delay. When I get to the front, I'm just seething with curiousity at what the hell is taking so long.
I walk over to the window and say "Hello, I would like to make a reservation to Interlochen, Switzerland." The man behind the glass does a perfect mime impersonation of looking like he's talking, but there's actually no sound. "Um... excuse me?" I press my ear up to the glass and can make out the rough undulations of his baritone voice. "Could you please speak louder? I can barely hear you." The not unremarkable din of the train station vastly outweighs his Herculean effort at communication, and I quite simply cannot understand a single word that this man says.
At this point I revert to the prehistoric language that all travelers know well, which involves lots of grunts and hand motions. "Me want train. Me go Switzerland. Switzerland good." I speak loud and clear and very slow, but to no avail. Eventually, as my skills in lip reading slowly improve, I discover he is saying the same word again and again. Suspecting that this may be the key, I ask him to write it down. In his cryptic hand on a scrap of paper, I get a word. More grunts and hand motions later, I discover that this secret word is the name of a city -- a city to which I must journey. I squeeze some numbers out of him, which I'm given to believe indicate a time, and I'm ready to roll. In a blazing thirty minutes, I've received the name of a city and a time. Go Italy.
I'm there in the morning, and my train is in the evening, so I come back a half-hour before my train is supposed to leave (there's no security and no lines, indeed you can see the trains from the front door, so a half-hour is normally well more than enough). I stand under the large sign indicating the comings and goings of trains. Try as I might, however, I cannot seem to match the name of the city on my slip of paper against the names on the board. I ask around at other passengers, as I cannot find an official-looking person anywhere, and nobody has a clue what the hell I'm talking about.
With time ticking down, I march to the head of the line International Reservation. The travelers at the front, fully understanding my plight, graciously allow me to skip ahead. At that moment, despite being prime travel time, two of the windows close. Astonished gasps go up from the crowd as angry would-be-passengers prepare their torches and pitchforks, and I eventually make it to the last open Zone of Infinite Silence.
I hold my paper up to the window and try to calmly explain that my train does not exist -- as calmy as one can while yelling through ten inches of bullet-proof glass. The man there, a new and entirely different unhelpful worker, crosses that out and writes a different word. Mistakenly thinking that this word is of any meaning whatsoever, with seconds ticking down, I head back to the trains and the board of information. As to be expected, I was handed yet another red herring as Rome made its final grasp in the vast conspiracy to keep my confined within the city's walls. However, I noticed that one train was indeed going to Switzerland, and at that point it was all the same to me.
I head up to the first attendent. He tells me to go to the end of the train. I go the end, and I'm told I should be near the front. I go back, and eventually find out that the middle is where I'm supposed to be. I don't ask any more questions, and just get on.
I find myself in the sleeper area of the train and wander about trying to figure out what to do. Miraculously, I happen to stumble into a man and his daughter that are going to -- of all places -- Interlochen, Switzerland. Not only that, they have a sleeper car reserved, and they'd happily allow me to take one of the spare beds. I gladly take up the offer, plop down on the seat, and just beam with some sort of devious glee.
David 1, Rome 0.