Here’s a little challenge I like to call “The Eurostar Biathlon.”
My journey from London to Amsterdam via Brussels had been easy and relaxing, so I wrongly expected the same for the return.
Tuesday morning I made my way to Amsterdam Central Station in plenty of time for my InterCity train to Brussels. And it’s a good thing, because my caution was the only reason that 40 minutes before my train was scheduled to leave I was already standing at the track. A rail worker came up to me and asked if I was going to Brussels. I confirmed that I was. She told me that my train had been canceled, and I had to take a different train — leaving in five minutes from a different track — to Rotterdam, and from there transfer to Brussels.
No problem, I thought. I carried my heavy luggage (both professional and casual clothes for two weeks in one huge case, a variety of electronics and carry-on necessities in a smaller one) down one set of stairs, rolled them to the stairs leading to the platform for the new train, and carried my luggage back up.
I boarded the train and set out for Rotterdam. A short while later I was in the Rotterdam station, where I met some fellow travelers: a woman from Argentina, also headed to London, a small group of Argentinian students who didn’t speak English, and a man from North Africa who only spoke French and Arabic. We worked out a system whereby I listened for announcements in English. Then I relayed them slowly and clearly to the woman from Argentina, who translated for the students, while I translated for the French speaker.
What we were translating and conveying was the growing delay of the train from Rotterdam to Brussels. At first it was on time. Then 10 minutes late. Then 20. Then 30.
The Eurostar demands check-in 30 minutes in advance, and I only had 1:15 scheduled to connect in Brussels. By the time we left, that had been cut to — at best — 45 minutes. Enough, but barely.
The train ran slowly, though. Because of our increasing time pressure in Brussels, the woman from Argentina asked a rail worker exactly where we go in Brussels. (Down the stairs, left, then left again, it turns out.)
We rolled into Brussels 29 minutes before the Eurostar was to leave. We would surely miss the 30 minute check-in window, but not by much, if we ran.
As we prepared to leave the train, I had a feeling that we were in the wrong place, because of a vague jet-lagged recollection that the Eurostar doesn’t use the main Brussels station but rather the south one. Unfortunately, I had no way to confirm that, because my ticket only listed “Holland” and “London,” not the all-important stop in the middle. But we had been given very detailed instructions, so I followed the woman from Argentina.
I followed her off the the train and into the wrong station.
It took us only four minutes to confirm that we were in the wrong place, and another five to learn how to get to the right station. Following instructions, we ran to platform 4 and waited for a train. We watched in agony as the train plodded into the station, groaning. But three minutes later we were in Brussels South.
We had less than 15 before the Eurostar left, which is where Stage One of the Eurostar Biathlon begins. I lifted my heavy suitcases and ran down the stairs with them, and then ran with them rolling behind me, carefully weighing the benefits of sprinting against the dual dangers of missing an important sign and getting a heart attack.
I bolted though the Eurostar gate 12 minutes before the train was going to leave.
Then I had to go through security. Coins out of my pockets. Off with the belt. (“I have to take my belt off?” I asked. “Everything goes through,” the officer said, and then added in a rare bit of humor, “belts, coins, grenades, everything.”)
Seven minutes. I might make it, though at this point my belt had been stuffed hastily into my carry-on because I didn’t have time to put it back on.
One final hurdle. British border control. I ran up, handed over my passport and made a show of looking at my watch. “Trains were running late from Amsterdam,” I explained, panting.
“Where’s your landing card?” the border-control agent asked.
“You need a landing card.”
Six minutes. “I don’t have one.”
“You can fill one out over there,” she said, pointing.
This is Stage Two of the Eurostar Biathlon. After sprinting up and down stairs and through corridors with two heavy suitcases, you have to find the fine motor control to write clearly in block letters on a government form.
I wasn’t going to make it. The form needed all sorts of details. My name (which I knew by heart, but, at this point, barely), but also obscure details like the train number and my address in London. There was no way.
“Come back here,” the border-control agent told me. “I’ll help you.”
And she did. She told me what to fill in, where to sign, and then she filled in the rest.
I sped up a platform and boarded the train three minutes before it left.
And that’s how I made it to London in time to teach Tuesday night.
In the end, I don’t know. Is getting help from a British border-control agent during the Eurostar Biathlon cheating?