“The Other Side” (Basel, CH)

After spending some relaxed, uneventful days in Lyon, I checked on the route to Milan to meet Janet. I wanted to travel overnight on my flexi rail pass, and still use it in Italy the next day, which you can do if you depart the day before after 19h00. The friendly lady at the train station entered a search for trains leaving Lyon after 19h00 and arriving 9 October at about 8h00. There was such a route, from Lyon to Mulhouse to Bale to Milan, arrving at 7h10, leaving me with plenty of time to figure out the way to Malpensa, 50km outside Milan, while Janet’s plane arrived at 7h50, and she went through customs and baggage check and whatnot.

“Where is Bale?”

“I don’t know.”

Bale is what the French call Basel, in Switzerland. I arrived there from Mulhouse at about 23h40, and entered something novel – passport control! How quaint! A border within Europe! The station was actually partitioned – Swiss trains on one side, foreign trains on the other. The International side had a timetable for International trains, and the Swiss side had a timetable for all trains. But where was the 2h00 train for Milan? I asked the passport guy, because he was the only person around. He made a call, and said that the Milan train would be the last of the evening, just go wait on the other side. But the only train I saw scheduled was bound for Paris, and the next train after that was the first of the morning trains, around 6h00.

Passport guy disappeared, leaving the Swiss frontier undefended while I pondered the meaning of “other side.” I saw that there were two Basel stations, and what may very well be the last train of the evening for “the other side”. I re-infiltrated Swiss territory, and while figuring out where the heck the platform was, barely made what I perceived to be the last commuter train for the “other side” to get to Milan.

But the other station had no trains at all on its timetable. Well, until I went back through passport control, and saw exactly one train scheduled – for Milan at 2h30. Wandering around with a confused look on my face, a cop at the passport station that I had previously waltzed through introduced himself by casually asking for my passport. After establishing my identity, I explained to him my mystery. After much research with his Swiss computers, and probably a phonecall or two, I don’t know, because around the same time four cops showed up with a skinny African handcuffed behind his back, whom they proceeded to fingerprint, while my cop explained that the train number I was looking for would be at the other station, but that that train no longer ran. There was a 2h30 night train for Milan, but it would be an hour late, the platform adjacent to the one indicated on the timetable.

I hung out on the platform. It was chilly so I waited in the enclosure. All alone. Freight trains came zipping through the station. At 2h10, the sign on the one platform went flip flip flip and advertized that a Nachtzug was scheduled to arrive at 2h30, bound for Milan. There was also a little red notation that I can no longer recall, that I figured meant “not on schedule”. Around 3h20, a very long train of sleepers and couchettes and night cars from Germany, France, and Italy pulled up on the platform opposite me. It was from Milan, its various cars destined for different cities in Europe. All the same, things were sufficiently weird that I yelled to the conductor for confirmation – yes, this train was coming from Milan, not going to.

Ten minutes later, as that train was resting at the station, its opposite pulled up to my platform, right where the passport guy said it would be, next to where it was scheduled to arrive. I got on, walking through, looking for the conductor. I spent some time reading _Catch 22_ in a cozy conductor’s seat on a fancy German sleeper car. When I finished the chapter, we arrived back at the first Basel station I had arrived at, and I made my way through the train. I ended up in an Italian lounge car, where the conductor, uninterested in any ticket I may or may not have, showed me to a seat in a compartment occupied by a sleeping Italian. The seats slid out and were comfy enough to sleep on, and this is how I spent the night.

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