Thursday, July 12, 2012

Are we there yet?

Paris is not beloved for its weather, so I shall resist the urge to devote an entire blog post to complaining about the fantastically depressing low-pressure system that has been ours to bear since mid-March, leaving me resentfully muttering “always winter but never Christmas,” and instead focus on one of my favorite topics: modern transportation and why it’s out to get me.

After a particularly difficult week at work at the end of last month, I decided to travel to my husband's parents’ home in the south of France for a much-needed weekend of R&R. The south is warm; the south is sunny; the south is full of cicadas going tse-tse-tse-tse-tse. I love the south! What’s not to love? I’ll tell you what: the 10-hour train ride it takes to get there.

“A 10-hour ride?!” you might gasp. “Surely not! France has wonderful high-speed transportation!” To which I might reply, “HA HA HA HA!!!”

Now, I may have had my differences with certain commercial airlines—whose names shall not be mentioned—but in general I enjoy taking the train. Sure it tends to run late, but it’s so much more convenient than the plane that I really don’t care about punctuality (hell, I don’t care about it elsewhere in my life; why care about it here?). However, there is normal, make-an-entrance late and then there is OMG-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding, theater of the absurd late. The difference? Four letters: S-N-C-F.

It all began normally enough: I left work “early” (6:45 pm), went to the Gare de Lyon train station and boarded my train. Foreshadowing the unpleasantness to come, my 1st class ticket had no seat assignment. This is a fairly new gimmick from the SNCF, France’s national railway company. The basic concept is this: you pay for a seat, but then don’t actually get one. Isn’t that innovative? But hey, you’re still allowed to board. If you’re lucky, you can snag a rare vacant seat at some point during your voyage. If you’re unlucky, you can stand (or sit on your suitcase in the dining car). Either way, the SNCF gets your dough. I’d say it’s a win-win deal (for them). So that’s how my voyage began: with no seat. Luckily, at about an hour into the trip, a kindly conductor told me that there were open seats at the front of the train. Score one for me!

Except here’s the thing: no sooner had I occupied my newly-found seat than the train ground to a halt. “Your attention please. Our train has stopped in the middle of the tracks. For your safety, please do not attempt to open the doors,” announced the all-too-familiar automatic voice of the SNCF. Uh-oh.
Ten minutes later: “Your attention please. Our train has stopped in the middle of the tracks....” This isn’t happening.
Thirty minutes later: “Your attention please.” Putaaaaaaaaain.

THREE AND A HALF HOURS LATER, a real voice informed us that the train was, in reality, dead. No sh*t. By that time, we’d lost electricity and were thus “stopped in the middle of the tracks” AND in the dark. Plus I was starving, so I figured it was as good a time as any to enjoy my little paper bag dinner. For those of you who have never tried eating a sandwich on a train in the dark, it’s an interesting experience. Since the air conditioning had obviously gone out as well, and of course the windows were all sealed shut, my fellow passengers were able to truly appreciate the aroma of my sandwich. Luckily for them, it was cucumber and not chicken curry. And luckily for me, they couldn’t have found me anyway.


Sadly, this was but the prelude. At some point, we were given the reason for the train’s death: “la moteur a brûlé.” Oh good! So we’re locked in a train with the engine on fire, I thought. Why is no one reacting to this? And indeed, the stereotypical complaining Parisian was nowhere to be had; these people seemed rather stoic. Instead of rioting, they just sighed and made that distinctive “pfffffff” sound that expresses Gallic exasperation. Incomprehensible. I, on the other hand, was seeing black. Er, red.

At long last, we were informed that a new TGV had arrived behind ours and that firefighters(!) would be escorting all 650 of us along the tracks and onto the new train. At half past midnight, evacuation began (very slowly): one by one, we descended a dubious aluminum ladder out onto the sloping side of the tracks, which was basically one giant pile of over-sized gravel officially called “track ballast” (at least my vocabulary benefited from the experience). Dragging our suitcases/children/domestic animals through said ballast, we stumbled along as best we could, in the dark, for 400+ meters. A grand total of three firefighters were equipped with headlamps, which they kindly directed our way, but just between us it felt preeeeetty improvised. Like, I don’t think the SNCF staff exactly goes through preparative drills for this kind of situation (considering their lousy track record, they might want to reconsider that). The firefighters either for that matter. Sigh.

Similar to our evacuation route. Minus the “in the dark” factor.

All those people took a long damn time being evacuated (also disconcerting), which left us stuck for a good hour and a half before the new train finally sputtered to life ... and took us backward to the Mâcon train station, where we were given water bottles. That was nice of them. But by that point, I couldn’t have cared less about water; I just wanted to arrive already. With our backtrack taken into account, 200 km still lay between me and my destination. Plus, no sooner had the water been distributed and the doors closed for departure than a pregnant woman began to feel faint (no joke—that’s what midnight strolls with the SNCF will do to a person). So the firemen had to come BACK on board to tend to her, which added another hour. TGV: the only high-speed train that travels at zero kph.

False advertising.

Finally, finally, FINALLY we left. And went ... to Lyon (still not my destination). By then it was 3:30 am and the lunch boxes that were distributed to calm/nourish us held no interest for me whatsoever. I didn’t want a tin of tuna rillettes; I wanted to strangle every member of the SNCF executive board with my bare hands. “Railroad maintenance” kept us parked at the Lyon station for another 30 minutes (because as everyone knows, 3:30 am is the ideal moment to work on the tracks. Especially when it’s clearly the TRAINS that need maintaining). At long last, we began to roll; this time in the right direction. And at 5:30 am, I found my sleepy husband waiting for me at the station. By the time I fell into bed, cursing modern transportation and certain I would have been better off taking a steam locomotive (or a bicycle), the birds were chirping cheerfully away in the trees. Of course they were; I’d be cheerful too if I had wings. Merci la SNCF.