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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pass the feta

OK I’m back. Spring has STILL to show up in Paris, but I can’t hibernate forever; there’s too much opinion-spouting to do! Let’s get right to it, shall we? France has just replaced charismatic President Nicolas Sarkozy by an insipid mass of vanilla pudding and far be it from me to not point and laugh.

So here’s the thing. I realize that a lot of people out there love to hate Sarkozy; bizarrely, the fact that he has a taste for luxury goods—even French ones—seems to stand out more in the minds of many than how he dealt with Libya or managed to keep France afloat during four years of economic upheaval. Who cares if he single-handedly reshaped the presidency? Who cares if he brought gutsy and much-needed structural reforms? The big jerk dared celebrate his 2007 election at a swanky restaurant! Quelle indécence! 

I personally LIKE(D) Sarkozy; his dynamism, while not always well-directed, was a breath of fresh air after 12 years of Chiracian inertia. I loved how he challenged the whiners instead of caving into them; I appreciated his iconoclasm, his courage, his leadership, his willingness to take an ax to the bloated French state. My only wish is that he had hewed wider and faster, though, because with the election of socialist François Hollande, France is nearly certain to do an about-face and march straight into the mire Sarkozy had so deftly avoided.

François Hollande has no experience in high office. No one—not even his supporters—seems capable of explaining exactly why he would make a good president. I’m not sure even he knows why he would make a good president. His campaign platform seems to rest entirely on pointing out that he isn’t Sarkozy. All we’ve heard from him for months on end are self-aggrandizing comparisons with former President François Mitterrand accompanied by platitude upon platitude such as, “What’s at stake in this campaign goes beyond all of us on the Left. What’s at stake ... is France itself” or “I’ll let you in on a secret ... I like people, while others are fascinated by money.” This kind of crapola would be laughable if it didn’t draw emphatic nods from so many.

Whereas Sarkozy brought with him a feistiness and pragmatism sorely lacking from the French presidency, Hollande brings precisely the opposite. The man is in way over his head; he’s like a lost deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming semi. His proponents may cheer him for being “normal” or “calm,” but these are daft, profoundly irritating attempts to sidestep the glaringly obvious fact that the guy belongs behind a desk at the post office, not at the helm of a G8 nation. It matters not whether a president is “normal” (name me ONE “normal” dude who has wound up as president—and no citing Kevin Kline); it matters whether he is capable of successfully leading a world power. And Hollande most definitely is not.

To put it another way, when I looked at Sarkozy over the past five years, I saw this:
It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.

And now, when I look at Hollande, I see this:
The Traveler has come! Choose and perish!

I don’t know about you, but in the middle of a worldwide economic crisis, when it really does matter who the president is, I know damn well who I want in charge of the country in which I live … and it sure ain’t a French spin on the Stay Puft marshmallow man.

I'll miss Sarkozy. His disappearance from the French political scene will be a tremendous loss, and I’m tempted to say “too bad for France” except that I live here myself and am therefore personally affected by the embarrassing results of an election I unfortunately didn’t have the legal right to participate in. I’m definitely not looking forward to five years of Hollande’s “assuaging” gibberish, especially while he “calmly” transforms France into the new Greece. But, I will not lose all faith in the ultimate utility of universal suffrage, for the United States’ own elections are on the horizon and I cannot wait to get out there and reelect my Obama!

 Now THAT is a world leader! 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I am mortified by how long it has been since my last post. However, it cannot be helped; my fingers are frozen.

If only those temperatures were in Celsius.

Soon, Paris will heat up again and I will be out of excuses. But in the meantime, I’m hunkering down. Brrrrrrr.