Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Obstacle course travel, Part Three

My train pulled into the station, situated just outside Avignon. I read the sign as we rolled past: Avignon TGV. It was a smaller station than I expected with only two tracks carrying trains--at least that day--but clean, bright, and airy. A sun-white, modern looking place, obviously not that old. (See photo.) I bought snacks and a Herald Tribune in a gift shop on the lower floor and settled into a seat for my layover wait. There were plenty of seats available, as the station seemed underwhelmed with travelers that day. Funny, I thought to myself. I thought it would be busier in Avignon. Nothing much happened as I watched the minutes pass and a few--very few--trains appear on the board. Then a short, vaguely handsome man walked into the station, with a skinny, glamorous woman on his arm, and a small host of reporters and cameramen filming him, studying him, asking him questions. Ah, a celebrity. Passing through ordinary old Avignon. I watched these goings on with mild amusement, and the perspective that comes from not knowing in the slightest what made this particular man so important. Eventually, the man and his entourage left. (Coincidentally, a week or so later, as I flipped tv channels one evening, I saw him acting in a French police drama.)

More time passed; I read, I relaxed, and I started to wonder when my train to Arles would appear on the board. Unlike Paris, they listed track assignments long in advance of a train's arrival or departure. Also disconcerting, the only trains I ever saw listed on the board were TGV trains, or buses. Then, with only 35 minutes or so before I was supposed to leave, feeling more and more uneasy, I started walking the station and ran into a posted map of the Avignon area. Glancing at it, I saw something that answered every building suspicion. Another train station: Avignon Centre. Of course. How could I have been so stupid? No wonder Rail Europe didn't recommend this route. One had to get from Avignon TGV to Avignon Centre. I ran back to my bags, found my tickets to make sure I was right. Yep, the train to Arles left out of Avignon Centre station. How do I get there? And, just as important, could I get there in time? At the information booth, the attendant did not speak English, but, thankfully, another employee who happened to be lingering did. I hurriedly explained the situation. She said a shuttle bus could take me to the other station. It was parked outside. Yes, I probably would make my train, she said. But I had to get on that shuttle. Let's just say I bolted for the bus, afraid it would take off at any minute. No, it didn't. But when I got there I realized that I needed a shuttle ticket. This wasn't free. The driver didn't speak English and I showed her my train ticket, just trying to explain my situation--again. She looked at me patronizingly--tsk tsk tsk--and said something I didn't understand. After some more back and forth, I figured out that she thought I wanted to hop a free ride because of my train ticket. No, no, I tried to indicate, I would pay. C'est combien? C'est combien? If I got kicked off this shuttle, I'd have to pay a cab to take me to Arles, and God knows how much that would be. Finally, she understood. Or I did. I should pay her, and it was only a euro or two. Whew. I paid, got my ticket and moved to the back. I didn't even sit down. I was too on edge and I needed to be ready to move when we got there. But the shuttle itself didn't move. Minutes passed--two, three, five, ten--and we weren't going anywhere. There was maybe 20 minutes left now before my train left out of Avignon Centre. With virtually no French capability at all, I was forced to go up and ask her how long it would take to get to Avignon Centre. She reacted spitefully. "Deux minutes!" she shouted, outraged that I dared to question her. I went back to my place, at least happy to know it would be a short trip. Well, it wasn't. She must have thought I was asking when we would leave because the ride itself took almost fifteen minutes, in busy late afternoon traffic. And when we got there, we didn't park at the station but across the street.

I ran for the station, crossing a busy intersection, my suitcase banging against the ground, knowing I had only minutes to get on that train. Inside, I looked at the board and thought I'd missed it. I saw no train to Arles listed. Damn. But I still had two minutes left, didn't I? French trains leave exactly on time, don't they? After everything today, I hadn't made it? Defeated and confused, I went to the information booth and showed my tickets (yet again) to another attendant. She looked at them, smiled, and told me what track to go to. So I hadn't missed the train? I looked at the board and realized my mistake. I was not on a train to Arles, but a train to Marseilles, stopping in Arles. Whatever. As long as I could still make the train. And I did. I hopped on about a minute before it left, as completely spent as I've ever been, covered with strangulated, unnerved sweat. I didn't stow my luggage or try to find a seat. This train, I knew, would arrive in Arles soon, and I sure as hell was going to get off.

Nothing more happened on that train ride. A kind looking, young French guy hung out in the back like I did. He smiled at me, but seemed to realize I was a foreigner and didn't try to make conversation. Each of us was content to just stand there and watch the Provencal countryside roll by. We arrived in Arles on time. The train stopped. I got off, along with a dozen or so other people. I made my way through the small but clean station. Really--really--this time I was here. As soon as I exited the station house I saw a cab waiting, as if put there just for me. The cabbie seemed surprised when I told him I wanted a ride to the Auto Europe rental agency on Avenue Victor Hugo, but he drove me there all the same. I soon realized the reason for his surprise. The place was only five minutes away. I could have walked. I didn't care. I didn't care! You have no idea, I wanted to say to him, how long this day has been. When I got out, he mentally tabulated my fare, adding--as is the custom--more for the baggage, and came out with 10 euros as my bill. I suspected he had added quite a bit more than just the luggage to bring this short cab ride up to 10 euros, but I didn't care at all. Gladly, I handed over the bill. 10 euros? After a travel day like this one, that was nothing. That. Was. Nothing.


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