Monday, March 8, 2010
So I wandered into the Gare de Lyon, happy to see that there was over an hour before my train left. It wasn't on the board yet, but I didn't expect it to be. All the extant seats were taken, so I meandered for a bit; then, sick of being overburdened with the bags, I just stopped and leaned against a pole for a while. Finally, a little spooked after the earlier mishaps, I decided to show my tickets to the woman at the information booth. Were these okay? See, reader, I'd bought them over here, weeks before I left, from an outfit called Rail Europe. Everything written on the ticket was in English and the price was in dollars not euros. I didn't want anyone to tell me the tickets were no good, not valid, just as I tried to step on the train and when it was too late to catch another one. I needed to get to Arles before 5:00 in order to pick up a rental car I reserved. And the rental car agency wasn't even in the train station. (A whole other story that.) So I actually needed to get to Arles well before 5:00 to get a cab to the rental car place before they closed. From previous trips abroad I knew that if a business says it is closing at 5:00, it is closing at 5:00, if not sooner. And if I didn't get my rental car, things were hairy, because I had no other way to travel the six miles to my rental house, to say nothing of carrying the groceries I hoped to buy on the way. In short, I had to catch the train I was booked on out of Paris.
I'd already encountered difficulties when I tried to get the tickets through Rail Europe. When I simply requested a reservation for Paris to Arles, the system showed me the route: TGV (high speed)train from Paris to Lyon, regular train from Lyon to Arles. Except that on the day I needed to leave Paris there were no seats available on a morning train to Lyon. It turned out that the day I was travelling was among the busiest travel days in the whole year in France, as it came at the end of a long holiday weekend (to celebrate the anniversary of the end of WW II). The first available seat was on an afternoon train. And that was too late to get me into Arles before 5:00. I cursed my luck--and myself for delaying buying my tickets--and raved (sort of) to my friend Garry Craig Powell, who shared an office right across from mine in Thompson Hall. Garry, who has toured the south of France before, suggested I look for a train to Avignon. If you can get to Avignon, you can get to Arles, he said. Sure enough, like magic, I found a TGV to Avignon leaving exactly when I needed it to. I simultaneously bought a one way ticket from Avignon to Arles on the same day, getting me in well in advance of 5:00. (TGV trains that could carry me non-stop from Arles to Paris for the return trip were readily available.) How come, I wondered, was Rail Europe so fixed on the Paris to Lyon route? (Reader, if you're smelling the scent of a looming problem, you're astute.)
The woman at the information booth in the Gare de Lyon scrutinized my tickets for a moment as my heart pounded and then pronounced them satisfactory. But you want to wait upstairs, she said. Upstairs? She pointed to a stairway nearby. Okey doke. I lugged my luggage up the stairway; when I reached the top and saw the upper floor of the Gare de Lyon, I had a comforting realization. I had been here before. While teaching for UCA in a summer-in-Holland program in 2001, me and my family had traveled to Paris for a school-sponsored "field trip." This was the station we had come into to and left out of. Now, it felt like an old friend. I moved to the waiting area, sat down, happy again to remove again the burden of all that damned luggage. On a nearby board, track assignments flashed, but only ten minutes or so before the departure time for each train. That was certainly cutting it close, but I figured I was okay. I could see all the tracks before me, lettered from A to I. No matter which track it was, I could be there in a minute. I waited and watched with amusement as employees of the national rail system rushed to meet a just arrived train, in joyful guerrilla style, hooting and shouting and clapping, even doing a spontaneous Wave as people exiited. Who are they cheering for, I wondered, and then I realized: no one, or, that is, everyone. It was a promotional stunt, a feel-good thing. The exiting passengers looked bemused momentarily, then laughed, getting the joke. The rail employees--they were likely hired just for this gig, because they roved the station with the enthusiasm and smart alecky self-possession of an acting troupe--wore t-shirts promoting train travel. This too amused me, because I didn't see the necessity. It wasn't like the French were going to stop taking trains anytime soon, and it's a nationalized rail system. It's not competing with any other. This promotional stunt was akin to the US Post Office running commercials at Christmas, advertising their services. So what, people rightly asked, the Post Office thinks it doesn't get enough business at Christmas already?
I had just about lost interest with the "players" when I saw my train's track designation flash on the board: 7. Seven? Where the *#*%* was track seven? I looked at the tracks before me once again: A through I. Meanwhile, with the announcement, a whole crowd of travelers surged to my right. With nothing else to do, and panicking again (was nothing going to go smoothly on this day?) I followed. I stopped to check a big station map and thought I made out where track seven might be. In pidgin French, I asked a Frenchmen nearby if I had my bearings straight, and I believe he answered in the affirmative. I didn't really have time to figure out, though, because the clock was ticking. My train--the train I had to be on--was leaving this station in under ten minutes and I still didn't know exactly where I was going. I went where I thought I should, moving as fast as I could with my luggage, flowing with a crowd of other travelers I could only hope had the south as their final destination. Sure enough, shortly after, I saw a whole other row of tracks, perhaps 15 in all, these all bearing numbers. I found track 7 and the the train. I saw travelers stopping to run their tickets underneath some machine. What for, I had no idea. Did I need to do that? Would my Rail Europe tickets even get "read"? I decided to ignore the machines and move for my car. Minutes later, my huge suitcase was stored in a luggage compartment inside, and I was sitting in a comfortable seat, my laptop and backpack at my feet. I was here. I'd made it. All I had to do now was just ride. In an hour and a half I would be in Avignon. I had a comfortable layover there, close to two hours, with the Avignon to Arles trip then taking only 25 minutes. I would make it. I'd get there. As the train rolled out of the station, out of Paris, and--in a shockingly short time--into the beautiful countryside and small communities beyond the edge of the city, I relaxed for the first real time that day. Sunlight broke through the clouds once in a while, sending stiff, wide rays across a landscape that could have been right out of an Impressionist painting. I brought out one of the novels I'd carried across the Atlantic--Rick Moody's The Diviners--and tried to read, but found myself dozing. I hadn't slept well in Paris--I never do when I'm just off a transatlantic flight--and the accumulated weight of exhaustion, combined with the frantic scrambles of a day that wasn't half over but had already unnerved me, was overpowering my brain. Go ahead and doze, I said to myself. You've got 90 minutes before Avignon. And from there the rest of the day is gravy. Go ahead. You're clear now.
Oh no, I wasn't.
(Tomorrow: Will I ever make it to Arles?)