The whole railway station knew it was me


I am in the French village of Plésidy now, in the Breton-speaking region of Brittany. Before I get around to telling you all about my first day of classes and the adventure I had in getting here from Laax, I would first like to let out a scream in all the languages of the world as I try to figure out this bleeping French keyboard. The Q and A have changed places and if you’re gonna screw around with a vowel key of all things then 99% of the time the attempt I make to spell a word such as “banana” will end up looking like bqnqnq. Not only that, the Z is where the W should be and the M is to the right of the L. Needless to say, to get this far in this travel entry has required me to backspace nearly every other word in order to correct it. It has been a frustrating experience. Thus I will take the hint and keep what I have to say brief [1], as I get used to finger-typing.

When I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris I immediately headed for the information desk, which you see as soon as you step out of the baggage-claim area. I asked how to get to Guingamp, the Breton town I would be spending the night in before getting picked up on Sunday and taken to Plésidy. I was given several options and decided to take two metros (subways) to the Montparnasse station in downtown Paris, then transfer to a TGV train to Rennes, then transfer to a TER train to Guingamp. Fine and easy to understand, even in French. Yet it was a whole other matter when I left the airport.

I am one who would much rather buy a train ticket from a person, not an automated machine. I was not alone, as the lineup to talk to a real live human was at least thirty people long and it was not moving fast. I had a 16.05 train to catch in Rennes and there was no way I would make it if I waited in this line. So I lined up at one of these automated machines and tried to figure out what to do. I selected English because, I thought, if I was going to get lost in Paris, I’d might as well know where I was going. The first selection was for downtown Paris, and since I knew that the Montparnasse station was located downtown, I selected it. It would cost 8.50 euros and as I only had small pocket change in euro coins I had to insert my credit card to pay for it. I got my ticket (more a chit than anything resembling a ticket I know) and then tried to figure out how to get to the metro platform below.

There were signs posted all over saying that certain tickets were not valid at this station. I saw the picture of the ticket on the posters and thought that it was identical to the ticket I had just bought. Oh great–I just wasted 8.50 euros on a worthless ticket. I ran, with a full backpack on and towing two suitcases behind me, to another metro entrance, (but in the same station) thinking perhaps my ticket was valid at this entry point. The same signs were posted there too. I felt then that I really had to talk to a real live person in order to get out of this station.

Yet before I abandoned the metro entry point, I decided to try my ticket just in case. I thought *maybe* it would work. In these desperate times I thought that maybe it would work *for me*. And when I got a good long look at my ticket, I saw that it was slightly, yet only very slightly different from the tickets which were not valid. The entry gate spat it out to me, opened up and I was on my way.

The next train to Gare Montparnasse would leave at 15.07, so I would have 58 minutes to get there, and if it was anything like Toronto’s Union subway station, I would have to find my way to another station outside of the metro that shared the same name. The metro did not stop at all the stations on the route map, so I wondered if it would stop at Montparnasse at all. Was I on an express train clear through Paris? Not to worry, as I figured out (note that I did not use the phrase “I soon figured out”) that the train would only be stopping at stations in the white-shaded downtown area. And once the train entered that area, it did make all the stops.

It was getting very close to 16.05, and by the time I arrived at my transfer station on the blue line, Denfert Rochereau, it was 15.51. The Paris metro is all stairs (no elevators or escalators that I could see) so I had to fly through in order to catch my metro connection on the green line. I had to produce that minuscule chit again in order to transfer metro lines. I had a three-minute wait for the metro that would take me to Montparnasse, which was three stops away. I stood by the doors, waiting to dash out as soon as they opened. Fortunately the signs to the TGV trains were indicated clearly and I raced to the upstairs Montparnasse main station.

By now I was totally exhausted. My shirt was drenched both front and back, I was dying of thirst and my mouth and throat were as dry as dust. I had five minutes until the 16.05 departure yet no ticket. I could see from the display screens that my train was already at the platform. I did not see any humans behind wickets so I headed for one of those machines again where I attempted to find my train and destination from a screen full of selection choices. I chose the correct departure time, train number and class (the cheaper second class) but when I inserted my credit card, it was rejected. Visa was one of the many credit cards that it would accept, and I inserted it exactly as instructed on the screen. Why was this happening to me now? The train was waiting at the platform and meanwhile the seconds were ticking away. I could not just abandon the kiosk and make a run for it since my credit card information might be registered in the machine and I wanted to log out completely. So I waited in order to cancel my purchase request. After I did that I made a dash for the train. I would board the train without a ticket and deal with the consequences once I was on it already, bound for Rennes.

The platform number was 3, and I was standing at platform 19. I dashed like a speeding demon on fire. With the two suitcases behind me it was hard to keep an eye on what –or who– was behind me, but during my mad dash I accidentally dragged the heavier of my two suitcases over a woman’s bare foot. Okay she wasn’t completely barefoot since she was wearing open sandals but just the same: she let out a scream so loud she could wake the dead in Paris’s catacombs.

I could only apologize and keep on running. She, on the other hand, could only scream. And scream she did, long after I had run past her. I could hear her poor pain-filled cries clear across the station. The whole station knew it was me who had harmed her, yet I was only focussed on making the train. When I got to platform 3 a railway employee saw me racing towards her and she motioned for me to hurry. Just before I boarded I asked her if it was okay to buy one’s ticket on the train. She said a quick “Oui” and as soon as I lifted my second suitcase on board, the doors shut and I was on my way. I couldn’t have been even a second later. This race could have been lifted right out of a movie, when you see the train doors shut immediately behind a racing traveller.

Once aboard I could only wheeze and wipe my dripping face. I found a seat in the second-class side of the car and caught my breath. Two ticket collectors were in the train already when I boarded, and when they came over later to check passengers’ tickets, they remembered my last-second dash. They explained that while one can still board the train without a ticket, it would cost an extra ten euros to do so. Lesson learned for my future train trips in Brittany, which I will embark on after the course.

During the ride I thought of the poor woman I had hurt, and I’m wondering how she is feeling two days later. The TGV was so wobbly I could barely write in my travel diary. The ride was the most unstable train trip I had ever taken. The windows were smaller than the ones in microwave oven doors, yet the first-class windows were typical train size. What’s this? I’ve got to pay first class just to see out?

I will write about my first Breton class (which was today) in tomorrow’s mail. In the meantime, does anyone know which terminal Air Canada departs from at Charles de Gaulle Airport?


[1] Couldn’t keep it brief, sorry.

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