Well, France is en grève and it is making things interesting. The national strike has been going on since last Tuesday now, and it means that transportation is un petit peu difficile. Of course, I decided that mid-strike would be the ideal time to get out of town and take the train to Dijon to spend the weekend with Hazel and crew on the Roma.
On Thursday afternoon, I went to the SNCF boutique to get my train ticket. There were four people in front of me, and three people working. Guichet C was only for people who had made appointments to buy tickets. Guichet A was functioning, if slowly. And Guichet B was inexplicably fermé with it’s fonctionnaire busily doing things like reorganizing envelopes and ignoring the customers. After forty-five minutes of waiting, my number was called. I asked if I could please buy a ticket to Dijon.
“C’est pas possible,” he responded, a phrase that I’m become fairly familiar with here.
Evidently, due to the strikes, SNCF did not yet know which trains would be running the following day, and when. But, he explained, even though he couldn’t help me, I could look online that evening because the schedules for the following day are posted at 5. I looked at the clock. 5:15. D’accord.
So later that night I hopped on SNCF.com and sure enough the schedule for the next day was posted. No TGV’s, it said, but the TER (regional train) was running leaving from Paris Gare de Bercy at 7:20 a.m. Three hours on the train, I could finish my reading for school and be in Dijon by 10:15 to meet Hazel and go to the market. Perfect. Purchased.
I woke up at 5 a.m. and was on the metro by 6:15, making my way to Bercy. It was still dark out, and freezing; the sunny week had ended with a serious cold snap. I went to the little kiosk, found my reservation, and printed my ticket. Then I looked at the screen to see where which platform my train would be leaving from. No train on the screen. Looked at my phone. 6:55. Then I noticed a little sign.
Due to the national strikes, TGV Number 95053 from Paris to Dijon will be leaving on time from Gare de Lyon.
I read it again. Gare de Lyon. I went to the guichet.
“Hello, excuse me. I’d just like to confirm. I’m on the train that leaves in twenty minutes for Dijon. Am I understanding correctly that it is now leaving from a different train station?”
So I grabbed my ticket and my bags, made a mad dash back to the metro, got to Gare de Lyon, sat down on my train at 7:19 and we were off.
After a few minutes, they made an announcement. I heard something about passengers going to Dijon, but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. Half an hour later, after our first stop, they made the announcement again. That time I made out something about passengers to Dijon and a bus. I felt confused, and suddenly very unsure of myself.
I asked for clarification.
The man I spoke to explained to me that the next stop, at Laroche-Migennes, was the final stop. In response to my blank stare he smiled and said, “Bonne chance.”
Bonne chance indeed. The train stopped at Laroche-Migennes at 8:15. Later, in recounting this story to Hazel and Phillipe, I would have Laroche-Migennes described to me as “dodgy,” “sketchy,” “scary,” and “the armpit of the Burgundy railway system.” I disembarked and asked one of the SNCF employees on the platform where I went to catch the bus to Dijon.
“Oh, it’s very simple, you just cross the parking lot and you will see the buses at the far end.”
Seemed straightforward enough. I walked under the tracks and crossed the parking lot and, lo and behold, there really was a bus there. Only upon closer examination, it turned out that bus was headed in the direction of Lyon. Come to find out that my bus, the one destination Dijon, wouldn’t be arriving until 10:45. Approximately two and a half hours from then. I looked around. Foggy. Freezing. Nothing open in town. I looked back at the station. One bench. Freezing. Twenty people waiting. But at least they had a coffee machine.
So I dutifully waited for my bus, cold and exhausted, rode it three hours to Dijon, and then met Hazel at the train station, arriving at last on board the Fandango roughly eight hours after I had left home.
All that to find out that, around the time I was enduring my second hour of Burgundy bus riding, Daniel back in Paris had decided at the last minute to hop on a train that day, too. So without a ticket, he went to the train station, got on board a TGV, had a beer in the restaurant cart, never had to pay, and was in Dijon in less than an hour and a half.
Maybe you just have to be French to understand how it works.
Anyway, after a really lovely weekend on the Roma, it was time to head back to reality. Specifically to my 5:00 Monday evening class in which I had a 20 minute presentation due. The train ticket I had originally purchased had me leaving Dijon at 1:59 and arriving in Paris at 3:30, with plenty of time to go home, drop my bags off, and get across town to class. Sunday afternoon, I got an e-mail from SNCF.
“In order to let you know ahead of time,” it stated formally, “and to minimize the inevitable problems related to your voyage, we wish to inform you that due to planned strikes, rail traffic shall be perturbed on October 18th.”
Mais bien sûr.
It went on to state, however, that I could board any train between Dijon and Paris either that day or the next. So I was hopeful. Even if my train was cancelled, there had to be at LEAST one train running. After all, the official announcement was that one out of every two TGV were running normally, and with six or seven trains a day headed to the capital, that should be no problem, right?
Sunday night, I went on the SNCF website to find out what trains were running. Website down. Went back a little later. Website down. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later. Called the phone number. All operators busy, call back later.
So we decided my best option would be to get up as early as possible, go straight to the little train station in St. Jean de Losne, get on the little commuter train to Dijon and find out in person how and when I was going to get back to Paris to go to my class and do my presentation.
At 7:00, I woke up and we went to the train station. It was vacant, with a little sign hanging on the door. It was foggy. And silent. I almost expected a tumbleweed to roll across the tracks, and a vulture to be circling up above. We approached the station warily. The sign on the door was a schedule, a list of all the trains running that day from St Jean to Dijon. The list was long. Unfortunately, they had highlighted all of the trains that were actually running despite the strike. And I had missed the last one by a good hour.
We circled around to the back of the station, where through closed blinds of a locked door we could see a dim light. We knocked.
An irritated looking man in an SNCF uniform answered. We asked politely if there were any more trains that day going to Dijon. He pointed to the sign on the door as if we were idiots.
“Non. C’est indiqué la.”
We asked politely if there would be any other form of public transit connecting St Jean to Dijon that day.
“Oui,” he replied shortly. “The bus.”
And how, we inquired, might one go about finding out the bus schedule?
“I don’t know the bus schedule,” he answered, before closing the door again.
I felt a slight panic. The website wasn’t working. The phone system was too busy. Even the actual employees in person at the train station weren’t able to tell me how to get back to Paris. Should I just start walking? Was there a bike? Driving wasn’t a choice; I had no car, I don’t know how to drive a manual even if I had managed to negotiate borrowing one, and, to top it all off, there was a gas shortage due to the strikes and not a single gas station in town was open.
So we did the only logical thing and went back to the Roma for a nap in front of the stove followed by champagne lunch. At 2:00, Jean Luc was headed to Dijon anyway, so he drove Hazel and me into town and dropped me at the station. If I was lucky, there was a 4:00 train that normally ran from Lausanne in Switzerland to Paris with a stop in Dijon, and rumor had it that the international trains would be running as usual. So, with a useless TGV ticket in hand, I huddled on the platform with what seemed like a thousand other people all trying to get to Paris.
When the train pulled up to the platform, it was a mad traffic jam of people all trying to squeeze on, sit down, and fit themselves and their luggage into any available space. I pushed and shoved with the best of them, and miraculously managed to find a little corner in the hallway where I could sit on my suitcase, read over my notes for my presentation, and know that, late though I was for class, I was at least headed in the right direction.
So just over an hour late, flustered but in the right city, I made it to class, we gave our presentation, and thus ended my formal schooling in transit strikes in France.