A few weeks ago, I traveled to Paris alone on the TGV, the Super-Speedy Train that makes Amtrak look like a stone-age relic. So for my second trip, this time with my whole family, I would be traveling with a little more information, and ideally therefore a little more ease. I could find the station, I knew how to follow the signs, and I even had 30 centimes in my pocket in case I had to use the bizarro pay-toilet that disinfects its whole self when you are done.
So I assumed I was ready for Aix to Paris Itinerary #5: full family style. This time I knew exactly where we were going. No surprises. Easy trip. We had a really fun weekend planned with the Sadik family, friends who had stayed with us in Brooklyn a few years ago. They are off-the-charts friendly and generous people, and had been inviting us to stay with them since they visited us. They also have positively lovely children, whom we knew would be kind to Grace and Abigail.
Things have been a little (OK, a lot) rough at school lately. It’s a little hard not to be second guessing several of our choices. So if we couldn’t easily make the small-town school a perfect fit, I knew that we could at least go somewhere else where we would be sure to find friends. If the Mountain would not come to Mohammed, Mohammed would go to the Mountain. Of Paris. At 200 miles an hour.
So why make this trip, right now? Good question. About eight years ago, Bill worked in his scrappy and virtuous non-profit with a colleague who had previously fought in Vietnam. When they were facing the inevitable difficulties of helping impoverished mentally ill New Yorkers towards slightly more hopeful lives, the colleague used to explain a theory that he and his fellow soldiers would employ when they were under fire. The soldiers might not be able to figure out where the bullets were coming from, but they knew that the bullets meant that somebody was unhappy with what they were doing. So they would follow a simple pattern: they would change something. And then keep changing things until the shooters stopped shooting. If they were standing up, they would sit down. If they were marching north, they would head south. Anything but sit tight and expect circumstances to change of their own accord.
When Bill repeated this story, I found it to be great advice, as I am someone who responds to fight or flight situations by freezing like a stupid, scared rabbit. (Scientists should first study me, and all those deer frozen in headlights, then add “freeze” to the other two f-word options for responding to life’s most deadly situations.) When lost, I tend to forge ahead as though the correct road will miraculously appear for me. When I am hungry or cold or tired or grouchy, I tend to go on grimly doing exactly the same thing that got me in that situation in the first place.
Oh yes, I’m a real fun one to travel with, I am. Make your reservations now if you have somehow forgotten to do so already.
Now better understanding this limitation of mine, I try really hard to follow this “try something else” advice instead. At the very least, this idea certainly preserves one’s feeble sense of control in an otherwise random and pointlessly painful situation. So we hoped that in this case, with all of the disappointments of school hanging heavy on us, a change would do us good. Or at least the kids couldn’t throw erasers at Grace fast enough to catch up with a TGV.
We left Friday, right after the girls’ French lessons in Lorgues. They skipped out of the school all happy and content, and while they still won’t perform when we beg them “Dit quelquechose en Français,” at least I could be confident that with their beautiful and sweet French teacher in charge, nobody had spent the morning teasing.
We drove to the TGV station without incident, found Liesel a great parking space, and headed inside the station, which was inexplicably crammed – and I mean absolutely crammed – with silent, grouchy-looking travelers.
In the U.S. when there is a minor travel emergency (planes delayed by ground fog, trains cancelled because of a power outage, the café car suddenly runs out of Heineken) Americans tend to talk a lot more than usual to one another. They complain bitterly, or make unfunny camaraderie-building jokes at the expense of the airline or the train line or whoever could possibly be blamed. They break out of their little privacy-bubble to share information or give unasked-for advice. Sometimes they even look sort of happy in the sharing of a little faux-emergency.
But the French people all piled up in the Aix TGV Gare looked even grimmer and more silent than usual. They stood like stones, staring resolutely at the departures board, despite the fact that the trains they had expected to take had been late for at least two solid hours already. Nothing on the boards was changing, no announcements were being made, and nobody was explaining anything. All the typical French staring-through-one-another continued unabated, just with a lot more people to stare through.
We had planned to get a little lunch in the Gare, but every chair in the brasserie was full, as were all the benches and even the little coffee tables that silent waiting people had turned into makeshift seats. So instead, we stood around and munched on our croque-monsieur, wondering if we should just give up already and head for home.
(And here, the wise reader will realize a flaw – aside from the most obvious one – in any analogy between my own life’s stupid little troubles and the more serious predicament of the Vietnam Vet: how do I know when it is best to change something, and when it is most prudent and sensible to sit tight and just wait for the weather to clear. Or, to quote the Clash, “Should I stay or should I go now? If I stay there will be trouble; if I go there will be double?” Aye, there’s the rub.)
We stayed. Gradually a few trains started to arrive and sucked a few people off the benches and into fast-moving trains. We still had no idea what was going on to cause the delay, or how long said delay would last. Neither did the one poor SNCF employee on duty who was being pelted with questions. I think that they posted a two-hour delay only because that would keep people standing quietly, staring vaguely off into space. But since it seemed that the station was gradually clearing of passengers, we imagined that would eventually get on our train as well.
Our train did arrive, and only about 45 minutes late. But when it arrived, our car (number 15) was simply not attached. There were lots of angry people still grimly and silently bustling around, and lots of contradictory information in French being announced over the loudspeakers. We decided that perhaps the next train would be ours, when the beleaguered employee emerged to shoo us all onto the train. But what about our seats? I asked with real alarm. As usual, she knew nothing, and gave me a wholly Gallic shrug. Either we would sit or we would stand, but this was the train we were to take. We crowded with all of our bags into car five just as the doors closed, and stood with a lot of other equally bewildered fellow travelers who appeared to have been robbed not only of their seats but of their whole train.
For it soon became clear that this train was to travel, high-speed and non-stop, with the passengers of two full trains. Which meant more passengers than seats. Which further meant that we four, the last to board the train car, would be sitting on the floor just outside of the rest room for the duration of the trip. This would have been a little funny, I suppose, had Grace not been absolutely petrified of the idea of the train moving 200 miles per hour.
I had tried to reassure her that the train would not be moving that fast, (this was one of those white lies parents have to tell to get through the day) but she was not to be reassured that easily. As we tend to do in our family, she settled in for a long panic attack, and we started in on the slow breathing and calming down right away. Her panic lasted until her butt got sore enough to distract her from her fear. It’s hard to panic adequately when your butt really hurts.
Bill, on the other hand, was in some sort of high speed-induced Nirvana. Nearly the whole trip, he was sitting on our luggage just outside the sickening smell of the train bathroom, just like the rest of us. As the door’s air-powered doors opened and closed again and again on my back, he regaled us with stories of his Eurail glory days with Alain, the day-long trip they both slept on the floor of a slow train between Nice and Florence. During that trip, there was nowhere to sit, and because he was then hungover, Alain really wanted to lie down. So he placed himself in the only available real-estate, between the automatic doors, which constantly opened and shut on his head. He did not wake up. Bill passed the long hours in the crowded train watching this happen again and again and again. I guess remembering that trip made it so much more fun for him to watch the doors close again and again on little old me.
Bill talks about this leg of his trip as though he is a normal person recounting a sojourn to the moon, or at least the World Series. Bill really really really likes trains. I might also mention that recently Bill has been positively unsinkable. Neither one of us has any future prospects to speak of, but to be quite honest, we may never have been happier.
Happy or unhappy, my bottom was to hurt for the next three days. And we had nothing to eat but a little bag of peanuts during the trip and an old Pago bottle filled with tap water. But tant pis, there we were, heading for Paris, and friends and the Eiffel Tower and a big old change for the better.
As the train slowed close to Paris, our little cabin near the bathroom (and the door) started to fill up with people who had actually enjoyed seats during the trip, and were now crowding around in hopes to be the first off the train. This struck all four of us as totally unfair. Last on, worst seat, should mean first off. As the doors opened, and a man lunged forward to surge ahead of us, I snapped my arm sharply up in front of his chest.
“You don’t understand,” he argued. “I have a Eurostar to catch!” Perhaps it was his use of British English, perhaps it was his utter entitlement, perhaps it was just the fact that my poor kids had spent three hours on the floor outside the bathroom. But I snapped rudely, like I don’t usually.
“Yes. And I have a few children to take care for. We sat on the floor this trip. You can wait.” As soon as we were all out the door, he rushed around us. But when we got to the end of the platform, there he was, sitting down sending a text or something. Grace was quick on her feet with the joke: “You don’t understand,” Grace quipped. “I have a bench to catch!”More, tomorrow, on how much we loved our visit to the Sadik’s house, their family's music, and the chance to see all kinds of friends – old, new, and as-yet-not-even-born.