French Friday: So Many Trains. So Many Places. Season 1.

Among the possible topics for this French Friday Series I had considered writing about trains since they have been important at different stages in my life. I had drafted a post, but it was way too long and I wasn’t sure how to handle the issue. Then I read Dan Anton’s post on Wednesday night. And his short anedocte related to his experience on AMTRAK put me right on track.

 

Office du Tourisme Paris

 

In 2006 my daughter spent a month with her French grandparents in Champagne. She was young, so I flew with her. I wasn’t overexcited to rent a car and decided instead to take a train from Paris to Champagne.

As anywhere in the world, summer is the season for road construction. For train stations, too, as I could attest when our taxi dropped us Gare de l’Est from Roissy Airport.

Courtesy Office du Tourisme Paris

 

The train station was under remodeling and portables replaced the regular ticket booths. We had online reservations and had to get physical tickets before boarding.

“You can’t use this terminal to get your tickets,” an employee informed me as I tried desperately to print our set of tickets. “You don’t have the right credit card.”

“I used it to purchase them,” I said.

“This isn’t a French credit card,” he insisted. “It won’t work.”

A younger friendlier employee pointed at a woman. “She’ll print your tickets.” There was a line, but he reassured me, “It won’t be long.”

Only two windows were opened for about twenty customers, but we had more than two hours in front of us, so there was no need to panic.

“Try to stay awake,” I reminded my daughter who had followed a non-stop movie diet on the plane. “You’ll sleep on the train.”

“Will it be a nice train?” she asked with a yawn.

“Very nice. And it will be on time. French trains are never late. Except of course when the SNCF is on strike.” I punctuated my statement with a cheerful laugh.

“SNCF?”

“Like AMTRAK. Only better.”

Finally we got our tickets for the 11:15 a.m. train to Epernay.

“See?” I told my daughter, pointing at the departure board. “Our train is on time. We’ll know the track number soon. Meanwhile, let’s have breakfast.”

I adopted a fast Parisian pace and walked decisively toward a familar café. But like the train station the café was under reconstruction, too. Adieu, café crème, croissants, and cozy leather seats. We ended up eating on a small makeshift indoor terrace facing the railroad tracks. Food was served from a booth, which bore no resemblance to a café either. Yet the croissants, pains au chocolat, and coffee smelled and tasted so good! My disappointment at the sight of the closed café vanished, and I relaxed.

No, there was no Starbucks Coffee back then Courtesy SNCF

Our train was still announced to be on time but the track number wasn’t yet displayed. I didn’t want to worry my daughter but decided to find out more. Dozens of travelers massed around the SNCF booth. Not so long ago, I knew my way among my fellow compatriots. Today I couldn’t elbow the men and women crowding around me, yet many pressed into my back. I gave up, lost in this sea of people. The temperature climbed, both outside and inside the train station. I remembered that “air conditioning” isn’t a French word. Knowing that my in-laws waited for us, I called them.

“We won’t arrive as early as I thought,” I announced.

“A strike?” my mother in-law asked.

“I don’t think so, since other trains are running on time.”

“Then, an accident.” And she started listing the latest deadly train collisions.

“No idea. But we won’t make it for lunch. Don’t wait for us.”

“Thank you for calling,” she said. “Good luck.”

Our suitcases made excellent seats, so my daughter and I sat, facing the large board, hypnotized by the numbers and letters that switched constantly. Nobody around us talked to each other. Many people read. Many more spoke on their phones. Strangely, nobody looked upset. It’s funny, I noted, how the French, who have a hard time waiting in line, don’t complain when a public service doesn’t function. My daughter mentioned that in the States everyone would already be talking to everyone.

Three hours later, our train pulled into the station. People, rightly edgy and impatient, stamped on each other’s feet without any apology or smile.

“We’ve got reservations,” I told my daughter. “No need to rush.”

We boarded last. Tags with our names above two seats confirmed our reservation, yet two women sat there. All other seats were occupied.

“Excusez moi,” I said in my most polite voice. “I believe these are our seats.” I wasn’t sure the women heard me as they proceeded with the opening of a picnic basket. I cleared my voice. “I think there is a mistake.”
They glanced at me holding their baguette sandwiches. “I don’t think so,” one of them said. They didn’t move but started eating, commenting on the food.

My daughter had wanted to rent a car, but I had insisted on the French train experience. Now, she was so pale-looking that I knew she had to sit down. After I asked, again in a polite voice, the two women packed and left, shaking their heads in disbelief. My daughter fell asleep within seconds.

An hour later, we pulled into the train station of Epernay.

Courtesy Wikipedia

“Madame, madame!” A man was calling from the train and I looked up. “Can you watch after my friend?” he said when he met my stare. “He’s a little…” He drew circles on his temple with his index finger. I noticed a young man, walking with indecision along the quay. “Just make sure he finds the exit,” the man added.

Of all people, why did he ask me? But then I saw how the passengers were vanishing, swallowed by underground hallways. My daughter and I moved slowly, our bulgy American suitcases two boulders at the end of our arms. I nodded oui and the man smiled a merci. I smiled back, more to myself than to him. I was French again. I could talk without words and I remembered how, when I first moved to California, people had commented on the way I used my hands and facial expressions to tell a story.

“It could have been worse,” my mother-in-law said when we finally met. “With a strike, you could have been stuck for days.”

“The SNCF is not what it used to be,” my father in-law concluded.

We never found out what happened exactly, but it was likely an accident.

******

As I kissed and hugged my daughter goodbye at the train station the following afternoon, I considered taking her with me to Paris for a couple of days. Yet as the train left for the capital, I knew I had to return alone, for the first time since I left France, to the city I loved so much.

Of course, my reserved seat on the train was occupied and it made me laugh out loud. This time a businessman had opened his briefcase on my seat. He had spread enough paperwork to discourage an American citizen from reclaiming her territory.

“Umm, umm,” I said. “I think you are seated in my seat. Probably by mistake.”

“Vraiment?” he said, bunching his eyebrows together.

“Really,” I said and I showed him my ticket.

“This is annoying.” The man motioned to the pile of papers, his cell phone, his computer, and planner. “I’m working, you see.” He sighed as he browsed through the mess of his paperwork.

Another man, clad in a similar business suit, tie included, joined in the conversation. “The seat next to mine is free. You can have it,” he told me.

“Perfect,” the first man said. “Plus,” he added with a charming smile. “It’s a window seat.”

I mumbled, “Merci,” as if I were indeed grateful. On my way to the “free window seat,” I spotted two more available seats.

“I’ll stay here,” I told the man who offered the seat next to his.

He nodded. “You’ll have more privacy.” He readjusted his tie and sat down.

I searched my bag for my book, relishing the pleasure to read until Paris. My book was still unopened on my lap when a loud voice boomed right behind me. The first businessman was on the phone describing in great detail his day spent in Reims and the work he had accomplished.  The conversation went on with a lengthy description of his lunch in which it appeared that the fries could have been crispier. I closed my book.

When the man hung up he leaned over my seat. “Work,” he mumbled with a disarming one-shoulder shrug.

The train reached Paris late afternoon. As soon as I stepped out, people, then cars and buses surrounded me. I would have to take the metro or more likely catch a cab to go to my hotel. But for now I stood on the sidewalk. The quick fingers of the breeze played in my hair and on my skin. I felt the luckiest woman on earth.

A train had taken me to Paris.

 

Courtesy Office du tourisme Paris

 

Courtesy Office du tourisme Paris

 

 

 

So Many Trains. So Many Places. Season 2 next Friday.

Meanwhile, I wish you all a great weekend.

Comments

  1. Ahh…c’est la vie mon amie! How very much I enjoyed this post Evelyne, a regular Friday series I see and what a great idea. Oh I am sorry to have missed so many…I do so love to read of your travels to your home country. You reminded me of the time hubby took me to Paris, my first time, in November, 2007. It was bitterly cold. We travelled by Eurostar from St Pancras in London to Gare du Nord in Paris. Everything was on strike except the taxis! We waited in line for 4 hours. A businessman from New York shared ours and when he got out, he paid the taxidriver for our fare too. I love your nuances and the way you tell us so much with your usual light yet perceptive touch. For instance, the way your daughter noticed the difference between French and American passengers. We Brits share similar, such as not doing air conditioning and having to endure those loud conversations that always begin with ‘I’m on the train….’ Really? Ha! How wonderful for your daughter to visit her grandparents in Champagne, I am sure she had the most wonderful time. And you were indeed the luckiest girl in the world at that moment…I too long to return to Paris one day 🙂 I’ll be disappearing again very soon with our house move fast appraoching, but I will be back at the earliest opportunity…maybe one day, I will be back to blogging normal, whatever that is! Meanwhile, Have a wonderful summer my friend… 🙂

    • Thank you for your friendly visit, Sherri and your personal stories related to your trips to my native France. As you say c’est la vie when we travel it’s better to be prepared to funny or a little annoying. Never boring at least. See you soon when you have more time. Enjoy the summer!

      • I love sharing stories of our travels and of your beautiful France with you. You capture me with with your funny and poignant anecdotes. Looking foward very much to catching up with you after the house move…happy summer meanwhile dear Evelyne! 🙂 xoxo

  2. Thanks for the mention, Evelyne. I’m glad I helped you tell this story, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of my AMTRAK travel is either a Business Class seat or a Coach seat, but neither refer to a specific seat. I take the trains I take because I board at the 2nd stop on the way to DC and the first stop on the way home. I can pick a seat and stay put. I’ve moved to let family members be together, but generally I read or work.

    I always feel good getting off a train and arriving inside the city. Unlike an airport, where you then have to arrange transportation to the city, the train usually drops you in the heart of the matter. I always find it exciting. I think Union Station in DC is my favorite destination. When you walk out, you can see the Capitol, and, if you don’t think about what might be going on in there, it’s a very special feeling,

    • Your experience was great and mine were a little annoying at first. I was the first one to applaud the end of First Class cars in the Parisian metro. But coming all the way from California on a red eye I had planned the reservation so my daughter could rest before reuniting with her grandparents. And the traditional American civility had already spoiled me. Big time. However, traveling is the only way to discover different ways of life. Which can feel foreign even to a native:)

  3. Your experience reminds me many things. As a french, using train each day, I always think about trains in other countries. In France, Trains are never on time and since several years, the annoucement of the track number is at the last minute. I don’t know why because with their computer program, there is no reason for that. And in Japan, 10s late is awful and they have more trains than us.

    But I don’t like to travel with french people, in train of plane : Always noisy, speaking as if they were alone in the world. Always to take other seats than their seat, not to respect reservation, ….Rules and France can’t marry. And that’s maybe my eastern french/german side.

    But on the other way, I love Train to discover a country and french trains are good…. when they can work. It’s confortable, quick and going to Marseille from Paris, for example, is incredible. In a few hours, you’re in another “country” with sun, sea, life…

    • I miss the French public transportation a lot, here in the USA. Even large cities such as Los Angeles lack the equivalent of the French subway system.
      As you say, nothing beats a train to go from point A to point B. In Europe especially where distances are shorter it’s wonderful. I traveled this way for years within France and I still miss that. On the other side, I don’t miss the French in public settings 🙂
      But again these little stories create memories and blog posts.
      Thank you for reading. Best to you. On a train or not.

  4. Lovely post – I think I would enjoy taking a train to Paris.

  5. Great post Evelyne. I love trains and I had a little experience of French trains when I travelled around Europe for a month in my twenties. I remember a night train from Marseilles with lovely leather seats but an unfortunately smelly bathroom, and I remember spending a night sitting in the train station in Paris waiting for an early train in the morning, with some quite interesting characters hanging around! There’s nothing quite like the excitement of getting on a train.

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