Chapter 4: Trains

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak of the train system in France.  It is one of the most efficient transportation systems I’ve seen, but it is also French – meaning, it doesn’t always make sense…to an American.  If your grasp of the French language is fluent and impeccable, then you will have nary a problem.  If, however, you are still learning, or know little to no French, then God help you.  Departure platforms change at a moments’ notice and if you’re a person who likes to know exactly where your train is leaving so you can be ready and waiting when the train arrives, sorry – you’re not going to like train stations.  You just aren’t.  And please remember, this has been MY experience.  You, perhaps have traveled with great success by train and I would love to hear your experience because I sincerely hope to have a more positive experience one day!

Your ticket will have the train number and departure time but you will need to check the screen listing departures to know which platform to be positioned at, and this will not post until 10-20 minutes prior to departure.  They will tell you it posts 20 minutes before, and perhaps they do most of the time, but every time I’ve traveled by train it has not.  Also be aware it may tell you to go to a terminal that is incorrect.  I pointed this out to an agent a couple weeks ago and he simply shook his head and said, “It’s French.  It doesn’t make sense.”  All the while I’m thinking, “Yes, but it SHOULD!”

October 2013 –

As I am traveling by TGV through the Vienne, Charente region from Paris to Bordeaux, the reminder to me this is the region my family originated is very present.  Travel by TGV is considered the premiere mode of ground transportation.  It is efficient, clean, relatively comfortable, and most importantly, FAST (often well over 300km/h).  You can now go from Paris to Bordeaux in just over 2 hours – a real boon for Parisians who wish to live in Bordeaux but work in Paris.  The TGV is fast and everything else I mentioned, but if you are not fluent in either speaking or understanding the French language – be prepared.  There are no signs in English or any language except French – and finding an English speaking agent at an information counter may also be a challenge.  Departing from the Paris area – either Saint Lazare or Charles DeGualle is relatively easy.  Trains are listed with their associated departure platforms a good hour or more ahead of departure.  If, however, you are departing from another station such as Bordeaux, Montparnasse, or a small intermediate station, not so much.  You may find yourself wondering where you will be leaving from up to ten minutes prior to departure.    They claim it will be twenty, but they lie.  So imagine this scenario:  two well-dressed Americans LOADED with luggage arrive a full hour and a half prior to their train.  No information is available except that the train platform will be posted twenty minutes’ prior and NO – they cannot tell you where that will be.  It could be platform #3… or platform #49.  Now, in my linear thinking American, Virgo rising way, I think, “trains departing this station to the Paris area are routinely from one of these three or four platforms; trains departing to Nice are routinely from one of these three or four platforms; trains departing to Strasbourg are departing from one of these three or four platforms, and so on.”  You get the picture, right?  Which leads to me thinking, that would be the loveliest of information to impart upon said traveler who clearly is not from this particular part of the planet.  But NO.  So, we wait…. and wait…. twenty minutes before scheduled departure – nothing.  Fifteen minutes before departure…. Nothing.  Ten minutes before departure… Platform 3!  Ok – quickly make our way to platform three.  We get to platform three – now, there are perhaps eight or ten cars, but which one?  D’aller a gauche, ou d’aller a droite?  Stop, ask a tagged TGV conductor – back six cars, load our behemoth luggage on (there is always a large gap between the platform and the train – so there’s no dragging or wheeling.  You hoist these bags from the platform to the train.)  You get on the train, load your behemoth luggage into the racks, take your seat… something does not feel right.  A man approaches and indicates he also is in seat 16… you check your tickets and notice he’s headed to Strasbourg.  You, are not.  You look at the train route number and it does not match your ticket and realize, with only moments to spare, you are on the wrong train.  Did I mention these trains depart with frightening accuracy?  If your train says it’s departing at 15:21, it’s departing at 15:21, not 15:22, not 15:21ish, it will depart at 15:21! Heart pounding, you wrestle your bags out of their compartments and off the train, searching for another agent.  They point you further down the train to the one you are supposed to be on.  As you race down the narrow platform, your partner trips on one of the pieces of luggage – airborne and flying over the luggage, and hurtles to the ground, tearing his jeans and skinning his knee; then, while struggling to right himself he yells, “Run!  Save yourself – don’t worry about me!!!  I’ll catch up!” Desperately searching for your train, another agent points for you to get the train beside you with the open doors and you pray this is, in fact, the correct train – but you have to travel through several cars as the train is beginning to move WITH all your luggage – up the stairs, then down the stairs, find your seat and realize someone with the same seat number is in this seat.   Dear lord!  Are we on the wrong train yet again?!?!?  You wait while your partner runs to find a conductor or agent with the tickets while you wait with the luggage…. he returns, we are, in fact, on the right train, just the wrong compartment.   Back through two cars, up another set of stairs, with…all…our…luggage in tow.  Find the seats, load the luggage, sit down, clean wounds (yes, mom’s always travel with wet wipes even if their kids are grown!), breathe a HUGE sigh of relief, then have a good laugh!

What did this experience teach me?  Well, first off, while it’s always advisable to arrive at the train station with more than adequate time, it is not always necessary.  If you are traveling with a full set of luggage, and you are not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of train travel in Europe, do yourself a big fat favor and FLY!  Traveling by TGV with a carry-on – no problem!  You are infinitely mobile.  If you have a full set of luggage, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!  Bon Voyage!