IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Got Stranded in the Austrian Alps with No ID, Money or Phone

The train left the station without warning — and without my boyfriend, who was holding both of our passports and all of our remaining money.
Publish date:
June 3, 2016

Aaron and I are among the weirdest, wildest academics at the International Hemingway Society's biennial conferences. The paper I presented in Lausanne, Switzerland one summer — "The Unbearable Blondness of Being: Hair and Hair Dye, Gender, and Sexual Identity in Ernest Hemingway's The Garden of Eden" — combined with our new-wave hairdos probably would have been enough to earn us that designation, but the story of how we got to that conference totally seals the deal.

By the time my paper proposal for the 14th International Hemingway Society Conference was accepted, the fact that the conference was being held halfway across the world in Lausanne, Switzerland, was hardly a deterrent. Despite only knowing me for a few tumultuous months, Aaron took out a huge loan with the help of his mentor and our friend. And just like that, we were off to Europe for a month with a pair of rail passes in hand.

Well, not "just like that."

The few days leading up to our departure were probably a recipe for disaster. When I got home from my last day of work as a door-to-door environmental canvasser before embarking on our adventure, we moved the contents of our cabin into a friend's garage. After unloading our car, we drove straight to Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, where we danced in-between volunteer recycling fairy shifts. We left Bonnaroo sleep-deprived and drove back to Woodstock, New York, to find that Aaron's passport had not arrived in time for our trip as promised. We did laundry and everything we could think of (including Facebooking President Obama; I'm ridiculous) to get his passport.

Somehow, we made our flight. Soon enough we were touching down in Dublin and suddenly sick. He was puking, and I was a feverish, over-exhausted mess.

Aaron recovered quickly and whisked us both off to Nice, where I tossed and turned in a sweaty, bedridden fit, throwing off our itinerary off. We were supposed to present papers at Ezra Pound's Brunnenburg Castle before heading to the Hemingway conference, but by the time we made it to Italy, it was pretty much too late to bother heading all the way to South Tirol.

I had reached out to my parents because I thought my sinus infection-of-sorts would kill me, and they mailed me antibiotics to a hotel we never made it to. While online I noticed that Crystal Castles — our hands-down favorite duo in 2010 — was playing "just a few train stops away" in Katowice, Poland. So obviously, we went there next.

We got into our train-riding groove while en route to Katowice, scoring de facto upgrades by taking over empty sleeper compartments and immediately nesting and spreading our things about. I was still putting the finishing touches on my paper, and he was taking summer courses online, so we had a lot of books with us. Because there was no way on earth we'd ever in a million years get separated while riding express trains across entire countries, we started taking turns as Keeper of the Passports, just in case.

In Katowice, we found the most affordable hotel room of the trip on a street that eerily shared my name. I danced so hard during Crystal Castles' performance that I accidentally broke Aaron's nose. Afterwards, we partied with Alice Glass and Ethan Kath, who felt like old friends; it was nice having a fellow oddball girl to giggle in fluent North American English with while practicing the club bathroom buddy system that night.

We caught the next night train out of Katowice with more than enough time to get to the conference before any panels popped off. The following morning, I discovered that, despite locking our compartment from the inside before going to sleep, my pack had been ransacked and my wallet containing my driver's license, library card, and an uncashed paycheck was missing. Nothing could be done, so we carried on, despite being down the $1500 that we had planned the remainder of our trip around.

I lost myself in writing on the next series of trains through Bohemian wildflower fields and forests straight out of the Grimm Brothers' fairytales. With my headphones on, my only distraction from my not-yet-finished paper was the view outside my window.

When the train paused at a train station somewhere in Austria, Aaron hopped off for a smoke and to grab me an energy drink from a machine on the platform. The train left the station without warning — and without Aaron, who was holding both of our passports and all of our remaining money.

We didn't bring our phones abroad; it's not like his prepaid flip-phone or my Blackberry had great service at home back then anyway. I couldn't text him to make a plan.

As the train sped towards the next station I politely freaked out on the conductor in an amalgam of Czech and German. Soon thereafter, he sternly kicked me off the train in Landeck, Austria.

I forced myself out of my shell and tried to talk to passersby as I dragged my burdensome baggage towards the ticket line and quickly learned that the mountain town had nothing to offer a traveler in my position. No restaurants, no hotel rooms, no well-lit places, not even the train station would remain open late. Helpful strangers also advised against hitchhiking; traffic was sparse in summer.

The clerk at the window wasn't able to help me (probably because I wasn't sure of what I was even asking for help with). A memorably attractive conductor walked over and offered to have announcements made on the train Aaron was still riding, instructing him to turn back and meet me at Landeck-Zams. He told me it'd be alright, that he was surely on his way.

I journaled and listened to a playlist featuring mostly Warren Zevon and Simon & Garfunkel while waiting for my boyfriend to appear on the platform. I watched silhouettes hang-glide up and down the Alps. I kept my post at the rail-side cafe for a few hours; I held steady.

The conductor eventually approached my timeworn table and asked if I wanted to use a phone. He suggested I speak with the U.S. consulate in Vienna, and I obliged. I told my stupid story to the voice on the line, who offered to connect me with my parents. I was like, "I'm not sure if they've been following my travel blog."

Without a passport — or any form of ID whatsoever — I couldn't get money wired to me. Without money I couldn't just get a new ticket (not that I could've traveled far without ID anyway). I couldn't get a place to stay. I couldn't call anyone. I couldn't use the internet. I couldn't even use the coin-operated restroom.

I hung up with the consulate and handed the conductor his phone. He went back to doing his job and later returned with a ticket to Innsbruck, where I'd have a better shot at reconnecting with my lover. The conductor helped me carry my myriad belongings back out to the platform. He waited with me until my train came.

Innsbruck was further from Lausanne than Landeck, but it was busier. The station there had carts for luggage and was home to a roster of characters a bit more akin to NYC's Port Authority Bus Terminal late-night crowd. Within minutes of arriving a woman gave me a Euro coin so I could finally pee.

I paced between the platform and the information booth and pushed my cart outdoors to check the circles of travelers that buzzed around ashtrays each time a new train came in from points west. Eventually, a friendly conductor asked me if I was lost.

I told him my story; he relayed my woes into a walkie talkie. He reassured me that announcements had been made and suggested that maybe my boyfriend had already arrived in Innsbruck.

I pushed my luggage cart through the cobblestone street in the shadow of snowy peaks in search of Aaron. A bartender down the block swore she saw the tall American hipster I described head towards the red light district-of-sorts. I looked, but she was mistaken. He wasn't anywhere.

Back at the station the conductor noticed my sparkle was fading. I was getting pretty loopy; I hadn't eaten anything since a hungover brunch in Poland a few days earlier.

The dear old man locked my stuff in a fancy glass-enclosed VIP waiting area and led me to a nearby Burger-King-as-internet cafe where he bought me a veggie burger and 30 minutes online. Finally, I sent out an S.O.S. via Facebook and email.

I returned to the station in better spirits to find the conductor set aside a candy dish of gummies and some bubbly mineral water for me. It was time to make another plan. I went through the pack I was carrying and pulled receipts from the pockets. Most countries we had visited didn't have the same consumer protection laws that New York lawmakers champion, so I pieced together his credit card number with the pile of receipts.

With a newfound sense of resolve, I left a note regarding my plans with the conductor and headed to the nearest hotel. The front desk was clerked by university-aged kindred spirits who were sympathetic to my story and allowed me to check into a room without a passport or physical credit card on hand. As the hotel readied my room, the bartender hooked me up with some apple strudel and a double whiskey on house.

Once I settled into a space of my own, I sat frozen in front of my laptop. I couldn't draw myself a bath or work on my paper or anything until I heard back from my lover, or anyone for the matter.

Finally, the frantic replies came via Facebook messenger. Aaron had overestimated my border-hopping abilities and wasn't able to access the internet until he had checked-in at our hotel in Lausanne. I gave him my coordinates, and he started his trek back to Austria.

I checked out before the first trains rolled in, but Aaron never appeared on the platform. I literally could not even at that point. I checked into another room in the same hotel that afternoon, took a hot bath, set Aaron's tiny glow-in-the-dark Buddha on the windowsill, turned-up my Simon & Garfunkel playlist, and tried to focus on my paper. The view from my window was too beautiful to care.

Twilight in Innsbruck eludes the constructs of time as experienced at home in the Shawangunks. On that particular June day, the sun lingered behind a looming crag for most of the afternoon, then burst through a crevice between the North Chain and the Serles to light up the evening before setting sometime after nine. Even after the sun had set, the snowy peaks to the north still glowed.

I was listening to "Cecilia" and having a weird moment with my reflection in the full-length mirror as I pinned up my hotel-shampoo-scented dreadlocks when the door swung open. Aaron strode in, ecstatically grasping a bottle of red wine and two glasses.We got tipsy and took turns sharing stories while we made out and changed outfits before hitting up a beer garden in the city center. A few drinks and slivers of strudel later, the sun was somehow still setting. We stumbled upon a playground by the river and moved on from commiserating over being separated to our usual mode of talking shit and making plans while we finished off another bottle on a merry-go-round before crashing.

One week down, three to go.