Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Strikes = Pointless

Last week I spent the most needed vacation along the Cote d'Azur in Southern France. It was a week of visiting coastal resort towns like Nice and Antibes as well as setting foot in (technically) another country entirely, Monaco. I didn't see too many sights deemed touristy but I consider not a second wasted just laying next to the Mediterranean in the warm sun. So yes, this vacation has been a major highlight of my stay in France but it almost didn't happen. You see, to reach my destination I had to overcome a pugnacious obstacle: French socialism.

Easter vacation (the two weeks off during the month of April) started off extremely boring, mostly hanging out in my room in Toucy with no human contact aside from Skype. The only thing that made this bearable was knowing that in less than a week I would be relaxing on the beaches of Nice. So you can imagine how devastated I was when, Thursday night, I get an email saying that my train from Paris to Nice on Friday night is canceled. I thought it was a late April fools joke. What really happened is that the SNCF (France's rail company) was supposed to strike on Wednesday but because of characteristics all too French, it was postponed until Friday (lucky me). "Don't fret," the email told me, "You can exchange your ticket free of charge... as long as it's for a date after April 28th." Oh yeah, after I leave, great idea! Not. So after a couple hours trying to figure out what to do I paid the extra costs to exchange my ticket for the following day. A little disappointed that I had to pay more and miss an entire day of vacation in Nice, I still went to bed assured of imminent travel. Imagine, then, not the devastation but the fury I felt when Friday night I receive an email saying the strike is now ongoing for an "indeterminable" length. I was at a complete loss. I talked to Marie and she said I should just go and try to get on any train because they're probably not even checking tickets. I decided to accompany Marie the following morning to Joigny to take a train to Paris and try my luck with the trains. I just figured I wouldn't take "no" for an answer, and if worse comes to worse I can always play the ignorant tourist. "What do you mean we have to have a ticket? I wasn't told that and NO I DON'T speak French!"

Since Marie wanted to get to Paris rather early, we arrived before 9 am. I waited until the English bookstore was open so I could buy something to read while traveling. I got a great deal on "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown since I found a used copy and because there was significant wear on the cover I got it for half price, so 3 euros! It was also beautiful weather so I sat in a park opposite Notre Dame and read in the sun until around 2 pm, when I was to meet my English friends Alistair and Jack at the station to take the train to Nice. They had booked a train and received no emails of cancellation, so I was planning on joyriding their train. When I met up with them, to all of our surprise, their train was canceled as well but they never got a heads up. The only train leaving from Paris to Nice that day was at 5:47 pm, so us three, as well as hundreds of other stranded passengers, waited anxiously in the train station staring at the board in anticipation of the dash to find a seat once the platform number was announced. It was mostly a blur but what I do remember was seeing the platform show up, yelling, "G! G! It's G!" and Alistair, Jack, and I running full steam through throngs of like-minded masses in the frantic search for a seat. I was golden, until out of nowhere I was stuck behind a man helping a handicapped woman out of her chair and onto the train. Alistair and Jack looked back only briefly while I gave them a pained look that said, "Go on with out me guys, I'll never make it!" So they rushed on ahead and luckily found 3 seats together. I got settled in as well and just in time too because it seemed right after I sat down the train was ridiculously packed. People were sitting on the stairs, on luggage, or just standing in the hallways. The people who didn't get a seat insisted that their seat reservations for previous trains were still valid and argued for others to move. This was of course ludicrous because multiple people had tickets with the same exact reserved seat. They were just sour they missed the free-for-all memo.

Our train car calmed down rather quickly however and no sooner than I figured we'd be soon on our way the conductor's voice comes over the intercom saying, "I will not have this behavior on my train. People in car three are fighting over seats and I will not leave the station until those passengers disembark from the train." Of course he said it in a "If you don't behave I'm turning this train around!" voice. Our imaginations began to run wild about the conditions of car 3. We imagined vines covering the windows and a general steamy, jungle-like atmosphere with tribes set up Lord of the Flies style. Finally it was announced that another train was leaving the station and was supposed to hit up several of the same stops, but not Nice, so the others not going all the way to Nice left our train and headed to the other. Our Napoleonic-complex driver let us leave the station, only 30 minutes late. There were no other mishaps on the way down and 6 hours later we arrived in Nice.

Flash forward one week later:

Much to our and the general public's surprise, the SNCF had continued it's strike for over a week! Needless to say, our train back from Nice to Paris on Saturday night was canceled. Since the ride down was easy enough to get I wasn't too worried about the ride back. But we all got to the station early, just to be safe. They were handing out free pain au chocolat and orange juice, which as poor of an apology it may be, was still delicious. When the platform was announced we hurried out to the train and I made a snap decision. I said, "Guys, we're going 1st class." I carried my bags up to the top first class car and the guys followed. We easily found four seats and settled in. Let me tell you, first class is like "whoa." The large, more comfy seats recline at the push of a button, there is much more space than economy, and the food carts come to you! The food service comes through first class with a cart, like an airplane, and offers first class passengers service before the economy. On the ride down they ran out of sandwiches but here I got first pick. (Also, soon after serving first class it was announced over the intercom that they ran out of sandwiches. Score.) No one checked tickets either so there wasn't a problem. To top it all, SNCF reimbursed our tickets because since our train was canceled it was assumed we didn't take the train, therefore we had a free ride from Nice to Paris! Everything ended up working out for the best despite the selfish rail workers' attempt to ruin everyone else's Easter vacation. Idiots.

Another post is soon to follow about how great the actual vacation was, proving it was worth all this trouble... because it seriously was.

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