June 15, 2014
“You call me. Meter start right then,” the driver says in broken English with a hint of disgust in his voice.
“I can’t believe that,” Steve whispers to me in a not-so-quiet voice. “This is bullshit.” He turns back to the cabby. “None of our other taxis have done that. That doesn’t seem right at all.”
A string of French words ensue. Suddenly, our driver has forgotten the sparse English that he spoke only moments ago.
“I don’t understand French,” Steve says in an aggravated tone.
“You in France! You speak French!” Those are the last English words he says.
Steve and I don’t address him again.
We find Gare de Lyon in a bustle as the cab pulls up. I open the door to exit but as my foot hovers inches from the ground, the taxi starts moving again.
“What the hell!” Steve yells as we hear the driver chuckle. Steve gives him a string of English words that would get him kicked out of any religious establishment. I blush, embarrassed by the scene we’ve caused in front of this Paris train station. We grab our things quickly as Steve gives the driver the money owed a little roughly. As he pulls away and leaves us to our travel, Steve’s eyes are bulging. “Can you believe that guy?!”
“Please, no fights in foreign countries,” I say with a small smile. “Let’s just get out of Paris.”
Paris is interesting and very pretty, but it was the least favorite place either of us have visited on this trip. We are ready for the small-town feel, delicious food, and cheap wine of Florence.
We walk in and are immediately faced with the hub-bub of people coming, going, and waiting. Actually, we notice that there is a whole lot of waiting going on. The service center line is about fifty people long, all the seats are taken, and there are people scattered on the floor sitting on their luggage. As we make our way to the automatic machine, I mentally pat myself on the back for buying our tickets ahead of time to avoid the line. After some button pushing, frustration, and help from a local (most French people are very nice, despite the stereotype), we have our tickets in hand. We walk over to the giant screen that updates frequently with the arrival and departure times and look for our train. We stand there for about ten minutes, staring, and I suddenly have a lump in my throat. Our train is not listed. It occurs to me to take a good look around and I realize that there are a lot of stressed, tired, frustrated people. We get in line at the service desk and wait. And wait. And wait…
Finally, we arrive to the front and the pretty young lady asks, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, we can’t seem to find this train on the schedule board.” I show her our tickets and wait for the ball to drop.
“Oh, yes. This train has been canceled. The next one leaves at 13:30.” It is 10:00. “Just hold on to these tickets and go to that train at the expected time.”
Steve and I look at one other, annoyed at the situation. We make our way to a little café in the train station and find a table big enough to accommodate us, our backpacks, and the roll away suitcase. At this rate, we will be arriving in Florence very late. Not to mention, we still will have to navigate to our B&B and (hopefully) check in. Thankfully, there is WiFi and so I email the owner of our place in Florence. He emails back quickly and quenches our worries; whatever time we arrive is fine.
Steve leaves me at the café with our luggage to go use the bathroom. When he returns, he has an unfortunate update. The look on his face tells me that this is another ball, dropping.
“I was talking with someone who had the same train as us and he told me that the train company is on strike and there is no guarantee that we will even get on the next one.”
This is unbelievable. We have already paid for these train tickets and the night in a B&B. We need to get to Florence.
This time, I leave Steve at the café and go back to the end of the service desk line, which is even longer than it was before.
“This is ridiculous,” I hear a daughter say to her mother.
“Absurd,” I hear a father say to his son.
Everyone is beyond themselves. I ask the daughter what is going on with their train.
“The company is on strike,” she says. “We spent the night in this station hoping to get on the one this morning, but no luck. We are waiting for the 13:30 train, and I don’t know what we will do if they don’t let us on that one.”
My heart drops. This is not good news for Steve and I. I look at my watch. It’s 12:50. I know my time is short, and the line is still pretty long. Nerves take over and I’m at a loss of what to do. I do a little nervous dance, unable to stay still any longer. The line gets shorter; there are probably about seven people left in front of me. But it is now 13:05. I feel like someone is punching me in the gut as I get out of the line I have been waiting in for thirty-five minutes and go back to the café. When I get there, Steve is visibly upset.
“Where have you been? We have to get over there! There is no guarantee that we can even… wait, where’s my hat?”
I have been wearing the fedora Steve got at the H&M in Amsterdam all day, not for the sake of style, but because Steve refused to pack it and is already wearing a hat from home. I try to think through my stress.
“I… I don’t know!” I yell.
I know that look. Steve is pissed. “Screw it. Let’s go.”
As we walk as quickly as we possibly can with thirty pounds strapped to our backs, I race through my memories. When did I take that hat off? The only time I remember doing so was at the café! I thought it was with Steve the whole time. I bring this up to Steve as we trudge through Gare de Lyon towards our (hopeful) exit from Paris. He brushes me off and insists that it’s not at the café. I feel terrible, for more than one reason.
And then I feel worse. We walk into a crowd of at least a hundred people. There is a conductor standing on top of a cement block in front of the train. There are at least ten police officers with large guns standing in the way of people entering. The conductor wipes his brow and speaks in rapid French to the angry mob before him. Steve makes his way to the front with our tickets and shows them to the conductor.
“Wait,” he says and holds his hand up. I take that as a good sign. We back up a little so as not to anger any of the other patrons.
“When did you buy your tickets?” a woman with a bunch of luggage and a family in tow asks.
“Months ago,” I answer. “Online. I thought I was doing good planning ahead. This is crazy.”
“Well, you’re lucky,” she says jealously. “You guys will probably be let on.”
I feel terrible for feeling relieved. A college-age girl comes up with lugging a stuffed backpack.
“Hey, are you guys American?” She is obviously American herself.
“Yes we are! Chicago. How about you?”
“New York,” she smiles. “I’m Allison.” We introduce ourselves and share in one other’s frustrations.
“Yeah, unfortunately this happens all the time,” Allison says. “Train companies always seem to be on strike in Europe.”
I have heard this statement before, but of course as I was carefully planning out our adventure, I disregarded this fact as an exaggeration. As I reflect on this, I notice the conductor calling certain ticket numbers to enter the train. We stare at our tickets as if we are checking the lottery. And then, he stops calling out numbers and says “c’est tout.” Angry cries rise from the crowd and I feel hot tears build up behind my eyelids. A storm of thoughts rolls through my head. Will we be able to get a refund for our tickets, which cost hundreds of American dollars? Will we be able to get a refund for our B&B in Florence? Should we still follow The Plan and go to all the places we planned to visit in Italy? Will we ever escape Paris?!
The conductor has visible sweat collecting on his slanted brow. An assault of French words spills from his mouth. People yell back in an array of languages. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand and answers back first in French and then in Spanish. As he starts speaking in Italian, his voice breaks. He clears his throat hurriedly and begins again. The police have a tight handle on their guns and an intimidating look in their eyes. I look around to try to read the reactions on people’s faces. I decipher that whatever the conductor is saying is not good news for the huge crowd left standing here. It is obvious who the other English-speakers are; they are looking defeated and confused.
“Do you know French?” I ask our new acquaintance, Allison. “Or Spanish? Or Italian?” I laugh in spite of myself. It is then that I notice a nice-looking middle-aged couple come up behind us to listen to her answer. They are obviously American as well.
“Yes. He is basically saying there is nothing he can do. And that the next train leaves at 15:30.”
“But I assume there is no guarantee that we could get on that one either?” Steve asks.
“Nope,” she says somberly.
“We’re never getting out of here,” I whisper in Apocalypse Now fashion.
“We will figure it out.” Steve says encouragingly. This phrase has begun to sound like the butt of a bad joke; this has been our motto since the ferry incident in England.
On that note, Allison continues. “If I can’t get on the next one, I’m thinking about maybe renting a car. It’s probably cheaper than a last minute flight. Would you be interested in splitting the cost?”
I immediately get an extra burst of nerves. Driving? From Paris to Florence? That sounds a little dangerous, and definitely not part of The Plan. At all. This huge detour from The Plan makes my heart jump out of my chest.
We decide to see if we could trade our tickets for ones that would get us on the 15:30 train. We exchange numbers with Allison and she walks off to figure out her next move.
“Well, this is crazy,” comes a voice behind us. It is the pretty, red-haired wife breaking our dumb-struck silence. “Where are you guys from?”
“Chicago. How about you?”
“Oh wow! We’re from New York. I’m Carolyn, and this is Kirk. We’re supposed to be in Milan tonight, but I guess that’s not going to happen. Where are you guys going?”
“Florence,” I say. “I’m Jen, and this is Steve.” It is then that I notice Steve talking to the husband. After a few minutes of slow walking and chit-chatting, Steve addresses me.
“Hey, maybe we should rent a car. Kirk looked up flights and the cheapest flight to Milan is about $700. They are going to rent a car regardless and we can all split the cost. Maybe that Allison girl will go in on it too.”
I give him a look and don’t say anything, silently hoping we will be able to get tickets for the next train. We get up to a smaller service desk and see the family we talked to back in the angry mob. The mother walks away from the desk and she is obviously angry.
She looks at me. “Sold out. We can’t get tickets for the next train either. I can’t even believe this!” I give her a understanding look as they stomp away.
“Well, I guess we’re renting a car!” Steve decides for us. But really, what other option do we have? We’ve paid ahead for all of our B&Bs in Italy. Maybe I overestimated The Plan and a better option would have been Go-With-the-Flow. Unfortunately, this is a You Live and You Learn situation. “I’ll go with Kirk to set up the rental, and you-“ he pauses for dramatic effect. “-go find my hat. Let’s meet at the Hertz counter.”
Really? We’re stuck in Paris and he’s still worried about a hat that cost him three Euro? Although this is the least of our problems, I roll my eyes and forge through the sea of transients.