Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Austria Ain’t Italy

A rude response can sour our mood but three mean-spirited brush-offs in a row turn a good day bad. Our hostel duvet cushioned our entry to Innsbruck but insolent, unaccommodating staff at the ÖBB marred our exit. The one-night stopover in the Alp-ringed outdoor sports town in western Austria allowed us to split the long train ride from Bolzano to Vienna into two. We enjoyed an overcast afternoon wandering the town center and along the river that runs through it (Innsbruck means bridge over the River Inns) and then an evening meal in a beer hall with typical Austrian fare (schnitzel, wursts, potato salad and red cabbage). The next morning dawned drab with a chilly, soaking rain as we tackled the two blocks to the Hauptbanhof. The five-hour ride on a warm train to Vienna was a welcomed prospect on such a dreary day although the low clouds were likely to obscure any dramatic views of the snow-topped mountains. Just one simple obstacle stood between us and two comfy, upholstered seats on the train: a one-page printout of our RailJet ticket voucher. Such a seemingly simple task turned out to be a formidable opponent, which left me in tears of anger and frustration.

The national railway system of Austria, the ÖBB, needs a customer service makeover. There are certain people who simply shouldn’t be in the client services industry as we confirmed firsthand. How can some people be so darned good at being helpful and others just downright awful? For three months in Italy, we’d been able to either print the ticket at a station kiosk or simply provide our confirmation number (the almighty PNR), which we dutifully wrote down on a post-it note to hand to the train conductor on every journey. If the Italian system for train travel can handle electronic tickets, certainly the all-efficient Austrians must be up-to-date with online technology, right? Wrong! We arrived at the train station an hour early with plenty of time to spare. Just in case hard copies were required and to hedge our ticket printing bets, we headed to the automatic ticket dispenser to see if we could get it to spit out our vouchers. “Nein,” responded the machine, ever so definitively. Not willing to take the word of a machine, our next stop was the information office to confirm exactly what we needed on board. When our turn came up, we received another “Nein,” this time from the officious clerk behind the counter, “You must print the ticket.” But of course, he couldn’t help us. We were down to 45 minutes until departure.

Joe crossed the main station hall to the ticket office given the printing verdict and was rudely and summarily told that he could either pay five euros to have them print the ticket or go upstairs to the Internet Point and print it himself. He came out to me with the choices, furious that the ÖBB representative had been so abrupt. The only Internet access we’d seen had been outside the station and not wanting to once again brave the rain, I decided to go back into the ticket office to try my luck with a different agent. It would have taken much more than luck and my best, imploring smile to elicit a kind word or gesture from behind that counter. The woman I approached turned out to be even worse than the stout, stern-faced matron Joe had encountered. My adversary confirmed the five-euro printing price but said I would have to send her an email with the ticket attached in order to print the paperwork. When I asked if she could access the ticket directly through her system, her retort was something similar to, “It’s your ticket, not mine! You need to send it to me.” She appeared to take pleasure in scolding me and when I dared to ask where I might find Wi-Fi, she scowled and then added, “You don’t have it on your machine?” When I shook my head in response, she directed me down the hall to the McDonald’s, her tone implying, “How stupid can you be?” She wrote her email address on a scrap of paper and when I questioned whether one of the letters was an <r>” she snapped back, “No, can’t you see” as she redrew it, “it’s a <p>!” Apparently it was an Austrian <p> because it still looked like an <r> to me. “How many rude employees does it take to get us on a train in Austria?” I barked at Joe as I headed to McDonald’s. Thirty minutes and counting...

If I hadn’t been on the verge of tears already after being chastised by Clerk Ratched, the fact that the McDonald’s wireless was on the fritz sent me over the edge. I furiously tried to connect and after multiple attempts, finally asked for help. The fresh-faced, braid-bedecked girl behind the counter informed me, “No Internet today; it is finished.” We were back to square one and now down to twenty minutes.

While I had been squandering precious time under the Golden Arches as the clock ticked away, Joe had managed to locate the sole ÖBB employee who appeared to understand our plight. Joe must have flashed his finest please-take-pity-on-me look because when I arrived, the courteous gentleman was on the phone to “ask the authorities for permission” to print our ticket. It took him a full ten minutes to get through to the ultimate printing power and be granted the authority to produce our bloody ticket, our temperatures rising and American expletives flying all the while. Eight minutes remained before the train would depart.

A frenzied sequence of orchestrations that involved the two of us behind the counter, multiple fumble-fingered attempts to enter my password correctly (while some function well under pressure, I find it impossible to remember to breathe) and a thumb-drive file transfer from my Mac to their desktop terminal finally yielded the precious document with three minutes to spare. We raced from the office down under the tracks to the final insult: two minutes prior to departure and the up escalator to our track was geschlossen -- closed for repairs. Adrenaline pulsing, sweat pooling and (my) tears pouring, we stumbled up the stairs laden with 160 pounds of luggage and collapsed in two steaming heaps on the train. It immediately started to move and we were on our way to Vienna.

We were barely able to speak for many minutes but when we’d finally caught our breath and gotten settled, Austria and the ÖBB did not fare well. I had a hard time wrestling with the pent up emotions that had swollen and left me feeling sick as we’d boarded the train. We hadn’t felt such frustration since we’d almost been barred from boarding our flight to Milan out of Fes. Over the course of three months in Italy, we can honestly say that we never met one rude or disrespectful person, but in less than a day in Austria, we’d already encountered three! In the end, we agreed, we were no longer in gentile Italy and we’d better get used to it...schnell. Austria was a new country with different procedures and a whole new attitude. Its sense of order, respect for the rules and belief that those in authority hold sway constituted the new paradigm and we would have to adjust. But the hurt still lingered from how we’d been treated by not just one person, but a string of them, and I once again harked back to Maya Angelou’s wisdom: we never forget how people make us feel. My natural inclination is to kill offenders with kindness as a means to making peace, but that strategy made little difference in Innsbruck. I always do my best to be nice to people and they generally respond in kind, but it completely knocks me off kilter when that formula doesn’t work. What are the odds it will pay off in Vienna?

Pictures of our adventures:

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