Sunday, March 7, 2010

Obstacle course travel, Part One

When I traveled to France last summer to do research for my book, everything went so smoothly for the first few days I should have been suspicious. No missed connections, no wrong trains boarded, no delays, no complications with my hotel room. By the time I was ready to leave Paris for Arles--two days after arriving in country--I felt like a veteran. It was a cloudy, dripping day in the city, but I had no reason to expect any problems. I had my tickets and thought I knew where I was going. I wasn't even in a hurry as I had (wisely it turned out) scheduled myself on a late morning train, leaving out of Gare de Lyon. I enjoyed a relaxed final breakfast at the hotel, checked out, and set off with all my overstuffed bags (mammoth suitcase choo-chooing along the sidewalk, backpack jammed with books and other resources for research sagging against my shoulders, loaded laptop bag strung over one shoulder on top of the backpack strap) for the RER--a train system that runs side by side with the Paris Metro but finally goes to different destinations. I had studied the RER and Metro maps thoroughly before I even arrived in France and knew that if I got on the RER at Notre Dame it should be a short, uncomplicated ride to the Gare de Lyon, although I would have to switch lines once, dragging all my stuff around. I actually probably could have walked all the way to the Gare de Lyon, but why do that, I figured, when I knew the RER. Hah!

I reached the Notre Dame stop easily enough but entered from the end opposite of where I had come out two days earlier. No big deal, I'd just walk down to the other end through the tunnel. This proved impossible. There was no tunnel, and only one RER track I could get on. Scrutinizing the sign, it looked like the wrong RER train. But I told the guy at the ticket counter where I needed to go and he directed me to that track. Or at least I thought he did. Someone misunderstood someone somehow, because after riding only a stop or two on that train, I realized I was going the wrong way. Mild panic. I got off at the next stop, walked to the other track and picked up the first train I could. Wait a minute, I thought, as the train pulled out, Is this going the same direction or opposite? I hadn't paid attention as the other train had pulled away which direction it was going and thus which direction was opposite of that. I was moving too fast and not really watching what I was doing. Within seconds, I suspected we weren't going back the way I came--the stretch of track didn't look familiar-- but only further in the wrong direction. But hadn't I switched tracks? Yes, I had, but apparently trains on both tracks ran in the same direction. A look at the map as we reached the next stop made it clear that I was even further now from my target. I got off as soon as I could, examined this station more carefully and realized what I needed to do. A huge staircase towered to my left. I couldn't simply step to the next track, but had to haul all my stuff up that staircase, work my way across the body of the station, and then down another staircase, in order to reach the correct track. Even if I hadn't been sweating already, all this unanticipated lugging and running was a veritable Cardio Blast. But finally I found myself on an RER train going in the correct direction and minutes later passed through the Notre Dame station I had so calmly entered some thirty or forty minutes earlier. Who knew all this would happen, I thought, thinking I finally had matters straightened out. I reached the transfer station, got off, and just to be sure I made no more mistakes I asked at the ticket counter for the right track to Gare de Lyon. Fortunately, this time I understood him (or he me, I'm not sure) and the directions were easy and correct. The wait for my next train was considerably longer than I expected, however. I had the time to wait, but still I was tapping my foot, checking my watch. Finally, the train arrived and I was onboard for Gare de Lyon.

I got out, and started toward the exit gate of the RER grateful that I still had plenty of time before my train to Arles would leave. All the mixups were over. Right. It should have been a clue to me that my troubles had only started when, upon reaching the gate and stuffing my huge suitcase underneath, I inserted my RER ticket into the slot and was told by the machine that my ticket was invalid. The gate would not open. What? I just bought the damned thing to get here! Then I realized my mistake. I'd made habit, the entire time I was in Paris, of sticking my used Metro and RER tickets in my wallet. What I'd been doing just then was trying to run the wrong ticket through the slot. But did I still have the right one? I tried another ticket. It didn't work. Another. No luck. Around me, people were surging through the other gates in working day hurry. Behind me, other people were eager to get through and I was jamming the line. With a great, sweating yank I pulled my suitcase back under the gate, squeezed my way backward--mulish with all this crap I had to carry--and out of line. I needed to find that ticket. A few moments search found what I hoped had to be the right ticket, because if it wasn't I was really SOL. I stepped up to the gate yet again, inserted the ticket, and voila, the gate opened. I shoved the bag through. I was there.

At the Gare de Lyon, that is. Not Arles. No, no, not Arles. Before I reached Arles there was a lot more this day had in store for me.

(Tomorrow: The adventure--and the obstacles--continues.)


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