Our mission was simple: Barcelona to Amsterdam. Two trains. Christmas!
Yes, the train takes longer than flying... but the tickets were so cheap (half price for kids!) and train travel would give us the chance to see the French countryside along the way (with no driving!) while getting to our lovely holiday apartment in The Netherlands. We'd have scrambled eggs for a late dinner, sleep, and wake refreshed and ready to see amazing things. It should have been easy! Fun, even!
"How do you make God laugh?" my friend Viva reminded me once recently. "Tell him your plans."
Two days before we were set to leave, I got an email from our AirBNB host.
"I am so sorry," she wrote. "I've made a mistake. I thought you hadn't reserved the apartment for the 23rd so I didn't block out that date on my calendar, and another group has now booked the apartment until the 24th. I now see you said you are arriving on the 23rd. I am sorry!!! You can check in on the 24th and I will give you money back."
For friends and family that haven't traveled to Amsterdam before... it is an AMAZING city. A BEAUTIFUL city.
It is NOT, however, a cheap city. Finding new accommodations for a family of five, at Christmas, just two days before departure, is neither inexpensive nor easy.
I hurried right home after reading her message and got straight to work. After a lot of searching and some long-distance calling, I managed to secure us two rooms at a decent hotel directly across the street from Centraal Station, the main train station. It would cost a lot of money, but since our train tickets were nonrefundable, we would've lost even more money by trying to rebook the train.
"Do you think this is a sign we aren't supposed to go on the trip?" I asked my husband, thinking of the recent terror attacks in Berlin at the Christmas market.
"No, it's all set. Let's do it! The hotel will be fine."
On the morning of December 23rd we bundled our kids into layers since the day would get progressively colder as we headed north. ("This is my Barcelona layer, and then I have one for France, one for Belgium and one for Amsterdam!" sang Little Angel.) Everyone grabbed two very-full bags. Sweaters and jackets take up a lot of room in luggage and temperatures at night in northern Europe were predicted to be around -2 degrees Celsius, or 28 degrees F.
"Will we have snow mom?" the kids hoped aloud.
"I'm not sure... the forecast doesn't really call for snow this week. But wouldn't that be great?"
"Can we go ice skating?" they begged.
"Sure, if there's a rink!"
"Can we get a tree?" they asked.
"If we can find one tomorrow on Christmas Eve, that sounds perfect. Your dad and I would love to have a tree."
Train stations in Europe at Christmas are much like airports at home during the holidays. When we got to the Barcelona station, we found ourselves flung into swarms of people trying to get to their families and dealing with luggage, traffic, delays and security. The line for security screening wrapped around and around. We saw few smiles. Instead somewhat tense and unsmiling professionals stayed focused on keeping all of their customers safe from accidents or terrorism at the holidays.
"Platform Six!" I barked at the kids, "Don't get lost, we've got this... stay together!" We ducked and dodged people left and right. "Madam!" a station agent called to me. "Not that way!" She directed us into a different lane, one which had not been open until that exact moment.
"What time does the train leave?"
"9:25. What time is it now?"
"Okay... we can do this. Run!"
We made it onto the train, kids in their seats. My husband and I were still sorting out how to store our baggage as the train pulled out of the station. Every seat in the car was full. We were so thankful to have reservations. Phew!
The ride between Barcelona and Paris was actually quite enjoyable for Señor Aventura and I. It turned out that we were seated separately from our kids (just two rows apart). They shared their set of four seats with a lovely college-age French girl living in Barcelona who kindly and patiently made origami with Little Angel and listened to her second grade stories for several hours. (We briefly considered asking her if she babysat.. but... well, she looked exhausted enough by the time they finished the five hour train ride!)
My husband and I shared our set of seats with a Welsh schoolteacher returning home to Wales to celebrate Christmas with his family and two older French women (one of whom was in her eighties and flirtatiously hit on the Welsh schoolteacher much to everyone's delight. She had a real twinkle in her eye, that one...) She also told my husband in French with a giggle that he had very beautiful blue eyes. I translated this for him and wholeheartedly agreed with her!!!
The hours passed swiftly and the ride was lovely. Out the window we could see the snowcapped Pyrenees and endless miles of lovely countryside. I took several blurry pictures (above) to capture the effect of the landscape, even though we were flying past at 200km per hour or more. I also snuck glances at the adorable newborn French baby traveling next to us, sleeping so peacefully in its little carry cot. How amazing to be so trusting and oblivious to the world!
We hit just one little snag. It seemed innocuous enough at first. When we came into the town of Montpellier, we stopped as normal. Passengers got out, passengers entered. We kept talking with our new Welsh friend.
It wasn't for at least ten minutes that I began to notice that the train still wasn't moving. Around twenty minutes, the voice of our train conductor came onto the loudspeaker speaking in rapid French followed by slower Spanish.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a passenger in the front car who is experiencing a health situation that requires emergency care. The train will wait until an ambulance has arrived."
"Oh, poor guy," I murmured, even though we really had no idea who the ill passenger could be. Might have been a woman or a child.
Our Welsh travel companion began to tap his feet very rapidly on the floor of the compartment. "I have a very tight connection in Paris," he explained. "Eurostar sent me an email yesterday asking us to be at least an hour early for Chunnel security. This is really quite a stressful situation." His foot tapped more and more quickly as he began to send irritated texts to his parents and girlfriend.
"We have a pretty tight connection too," I mentioned quietly to my husband. "We were supposed to have 85 minutes but in that time we have to get from the Gare du Lyon on one side of Paris to Gare du Nord on the other side. It's a 30 minute taxi ride."
"Why don't we take the metro? I'll bet it will be a lot faster." Señor Aventura suggested.
"With all of our baggage? And the kids? Okay. Can you figure it out?"
By the time the train restarted, we were officially running 25 minutes late. I tried to look on the bright side. "I hope that passenger gets well and can have a Merry Christmas with his/her family!"
Our Welsh seatmate looked pained, as though he wanted to feel sympathetic but really couldn't muster any sympathy at that moment. We still had two hours left of our ride toward Paris and he was already frowning and wringing his hands, clearly very worried about missing his connection.
As the train raced north through the countryside, the sky began to grow gray and the landscape to seem a bit more wintery. "Have we just said goodbye to the sun for two weeks?" asked my husband with a grin.
Meanwhile our seatmate grew more and more agitated... checking his phone for the time and packing his backpack well before our arrival. When we finally stopped in Paris, he darted off the train.
"Nice to meet you!" he headed quickly toward the doors.
"Merry Christmas and good luck!" we called after him and then began to gather our belongings and our family.
The Aventura children were hungry. They began to squabble as we waited for my husband to study the Metro map. True to his word, Señor Aventura figured out the French Metro rail system in just a few minutes, even though he speaks no French (my husband is amazing!). So despite the hunger and squabble, we managed to get three children, two adults, nine pieces of luggage and one bag of food out of Gare du Lyon and onto the right platform to wait for the RER Line D train to Paris Nord. The metro journey was estimated to take less than ten minutes.
The train arrived quickly and we all jumped on in a flurry of action. "Count the bags!" I reminded the kids.
Great! However, after two stops on the train we noticed something.
"Where is the food bag?" (This bag had been filled with all of our bread, fruit, ham, cheeses, pasta... all the gluten free stuff too. Travel snacks.)
Señor Aventura looked at me with chagrin.
"Oh man. Hon, I may have left the bag of food on the platform where we were sitting."
"Oh dear. Really?"
"I'd go back for it," he said, "but we're so late already."
"No, we need to push forward and try to make our next train. Oh well. I hope someone on that platform likes gluten free pasta!"
"But daddy," whined Little Angel, "I'm hungry!"
"We've got to keep going, we'll eat as soon as we can."
Soon we arrived hopefully at Gare du Nord (or Paris Nord)... but were completely unprepared for what lay before us.
Not only were there swarms of holiday travelers, but this time there were also swarms of men loitering. They were clearly NOT traveling. It's hard to explain what this looked like for people who haven't been in the situation... but imagine going to the mall and seeing male teenagers just hanging out all around the mall, carefully watching everyone pass.
Some of these men were teenagers and others were quite a bit older. They were mainly standing with their backs against the walls, watching travelers pass. It was the way they watched us... this close watching... that felt immediately uncomfortable.
We began to move through them on our way to the other side of the station, yet entirely blind as to where we were headed.
Suddenly someone smacked into me from behind and pushed forward. I felt light a tug on my jacket pocket as he passed, and instinctively glared at the man as he turned backward and mumbled a half apology while continuing forward and fumbling with his backpack. I knew without being told that he had just tried to pick my pocket. Happily, I also knew that there had been absolutely nothing in that jacket pocket. He literally came out empty handed.
"Where's your wallet, hon?" asked my husband who had been walking just behind me and saw the whole thing happen.
"Safe," I smiled, secure in the knowledge that our valuables were carefully zipped away and almost impossible to grab quickly in passing. Sometimes it pays to be 41 years old and a seasoned traveler.
Time was running out and we still didn't know where to go to catch our Thalys train to Amsterdam. "It's 5:05, Mom!" exclaimed Soccer Dude. "We're going to miss our train!"
Paris Nord is actually quite big. By the time we'd crossed from one end to the other, with me encouraging our daughter as we walked, my husband and sons were briefly out of sight. Grabbing onto Little Angel's hand, I pushed forward and loudly called Señor Aventura's name. Five young men turned around from the wall where they were loitering and studied my daughter and me. Surely they sized us up immediately. A dishevelled, slightly anxious American woman alone with a little girl and four bags. Lost.
I felt myself begin to sweat.
"Fuerza! Hon! Over here!" Suddenly I heard my husband call to me from up ahead to the far left. I let out a sigh of relief when I saw him with our boys.
We scurried to catch up. As I walked forward one of the men loitering stopped me in our path and began to speak in English.
"Do you need help?"
I am not normally a rude person, but I know enough not to get involved talking to a complete stranger lingering in a train station. "NO, thank you," I responded briskly and pulled Little Angel quickly forward toward my husband. He saw we were part of a group and went back to his loitering friends.
An older female traveler had noticed this exchange and politely approached my husband and I. "Where do you need to go?" she asked us.
"We need the Thalys train," my husband explained.
"Go upstairs two floors," she directed us. "You will see it on the left."
By the time we finally made it to the security line for the Thalys train, it wrapped around and around. "The train leaves in 10 minutes! Will they wait for us to get through security?"
"Look at all of these people," my husband assured me. "They all have tickets, the attendants aren't going to turn away hundreds of passengers at once. We are okay."
Happily he was right and by the time the Thalys train pulled out of Paris Nord we were safely in our seats. Exhausted, sweaty, disheveled, a little grimy... but sitting together with all nine of our bags aboard.
A kindly Parisian woman traveling with her two children to Rotterdam took pity on us and handed out snacks to our children, who were very hungry. "I cannot stand to see hungry children," she declared after hearing the story of how we'd lost our food bag. "It breaks my heart." She gave The Scientist, Soccer Dude and Little Angel individually wrapped packages of sweet cakes and apples.
Since the night around us was pitch black, and there was no WIFI, we had little to do but read and doze. In a very short time we'd passed through Belgium and entered The Netherlands.
"Nearly there now!" We started to beam with excitement and a new burst of energy.
Sadly though, we were not nearly there. Not at all!
Long story short, an accident occurred on the tracks where our train was traveling. Just outside of Amsterdam we were informed of this and dropped unceremoniously at the Schipol Airport. There, we were told by a security officer in a red cap that we would need to take another train and transfer to a metro to get to Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam (where we were originally supposed to arrive).
Honestly, this is where our family just sort of lost our cool for twenty or thirty minutes. It ended up taking us an extra hour or more to get to our hotel. We got stuck in the metro station, couldn't figure out how to buy metro cards, couldn't leave the station and at some point even my typically calm and relaxed husband got frustrated and began muttering about telling the security guards off. Little Angel was near tears and the boys were openly squabbling. I felt overwhelmed and found myself taking deep breaths and chanting little encouraging mantras quietly. "Everything is going to be alright. We'll get through this."
Random passersby stared at us. In retrospect we must have been quite a bedraggled, comical sight.
We finally found our way onto a Metro headed toward the right station. A man and woman seated near us overheard our stressed conversation and children bickering, and spoke to my husband in English asking if we needed anything. When he explained the scenario with the trains, they encouraged us warmly.
"You have had bad luck tonight," the couple said... "but you will love Amsterdam. Things will get better now."
At long, long last we arrived by metro in front of Centraal Station and glimpsed the Plaza Park Hotel Victoria. "Oh thank heaven," I sighed. "It's just across the street now, kids. Four more minutes!!!"
Just as I said this, it started to pour rain. Not just a light sprinkle, but a heavy pelting rain. Little Angel's hood kept flipping backward in the wind, she couldn't get the zipper on her jacket up, and she finally lost it. "I hate the rain! I'm hungry! I can't do this!!!!" she started to cry and sobbed as the cold rain cascaded onto her face.
"We're nearly there!" my husband and I encouraged her, but then just one second later I had to reach out and grab Soccer Dude out of the path of an oncoming motorcycle.
Just when it seemed as though we had truly lost for the day, we trudged through the welcoming and warm doors of the hotel. Right in the revolving door there was a brightly lit Christmas tree, and the entire lobby was full of sparkling lights, decorations and the scent of pine needles.
"Our restaurant closes in just fifteen minutes," said the woman at the front desk. "Why don't you leave your bags here and go have a nice dinner? We can take them to your rooms for you. Welcome to Amsterdam!" She smiled at us so warmly and with such compassion, I suddenly felt stronger and greatly relieved. I led the children into the hotel's beautiful restaurant. What we saw made our mouths drop open.
It was magical!
This is how, at 9:45pm on December 23rd our family at last found Christmas. It was waiting for us here in Amsterdam!
An hour later after two glasses of wine, I found myself laughing genuinely with my husband and smiling into the glowing fireplace in the restaurant.
The food was delicious and here in the cozy atmosphere our entire day had begun to seem funny. "It will make a great story tomorrow," we all agreed.
We had lucked out with an extremely thoughtful server who brought us many thoughtful 'extras' just "to make up for the terrible evening you've had," she told us several times.
The restaurant manager also came over and talked with us for a while about his love for Barcelona, and how he took his sons to see FC Barcelona play live the last time he visited. "You have a great city there," he nodded. Of course, everyone spoke in perfect English as the Dutch tend to do.
We felt sated and grateful. "I LOVE THIS PLACE!" exclaimed Little Angel before she curled up into my side.
Our long journey was at last over and we were all more than ready to sleep deeply.
In just one hour, it would be December 24th... Christmas Eve in Amsterdam!