Thursday, 8 February 2018

Of Snows Of The Wrong Kind And Late Night Chairobatics

As I mentioned in the last post (did I really write that?) the day, (now yesterday, do try to keep up) started dramatically enough. Leaping on to trains having already run a marathon between platforms followed by a distressing encounter with a troubled man were just the beginning of what was to prove an exhausting and very stressful day.

The gate to international trains at St Pancras International slid open as I shared the ticket in the Wallet application on my mobile phone admitting me to that holy sepulchre, security. Suitcase, backpack, bumbag, water bottle, coat and hat in large trays were treated to x-ray zapping. None of the nonsense of removing computers, tablets, e-readers, belts, shoes and anything else that conflicts with the rules du jour that afflict air travellers (or visitors to Parliament ... ah, you don't know about that yet, I must get round to bringing you up to date with my recent January - you will need to know about harmonicas and padlocks!). Two border control people fought for my attention at adjacent desks. I apologised to the one I had rejected and he graciously accepted my expression of regret. Another helper was available to aid me with inserting my passport the correct way round in the e-passport gate and there I was, in Valhalla - the international rail departure lounge at St Pancras. I had made the journey in plenty of time. I love it when plans actually work out. It so rarely happens. First stop, breakfast. Much lighter in the wallet later I had stocked up on more than enough goods to get me on to the train and through the three-hour journey to Paris. I may not be vegan, but I do try to select vegan food options when available. As usual at railway stations, there were none. After a short wait during which I began to write up my stingingly fresh memory of the distressed man we were called to board our train, which also proved to be painless enough. As we were boarding I caught part of the announcement that seemed to suggest there would be a twenty-minute delay getting into Paris, but no one else was listening and no one seemed to be making a fuss above their ambient chatter that had partially blocked the message, so I let it go too. The train left on time and I was looking forward to a stress-free trip from Paris Nord to Gare de Lyon on the RER, two stops only - the order of the day. I think I have now memorised the route from platform to platform, de quai à quai, and I had tickets left from the carnet I bought on a previous adventure. There would be no queuing necessary at a ticket office or behind one of the (usually few) working ticket machines at Paris Nord.

A little snow in Northern France 

I tried reading, but having had even less sleep than usual, I couldn't keep it going. I am currently reading Judy Dyble's autobiography written in partnership with Dave Thompson and really wanted to get past the obligatory childhood memories and on to her time as a performing musician. I dozed. I came to in the blackness of the Chunnel and dozed some more. The countryside of Northern France sped by. A sign on the screen in our part of the carriage pointed out that Eurostar had hit a record 346.7 mph at some point in the past. I wanted to fire up the speedometer application on my phone to see how fast we were travelling at that moment, but resisted, knowing I would need to conserve battery life for later in the day. The fields were beginning to look whiter. At first I couldn't make out if this whiteness were frost, snow or lime spread in anticipation of a specific crop. Soon it became apparent that this was snow. A few inches of the stuff were piling up on branches drooping under the weight as we rolled by. All was going well with the journey and the sign on the screen informed us we would soon be arriving at Paris Gare du Nord. Then we stopped. We didn't move for quite a while. We edged forward and stopped again. The disembodied voice from on high informed us we would be arriving fifty minutes late, because the snow had meant there were three trains ahead of us waiting to pull into the station. We were in a train jam! It appears that the French rail system also is prone to suffer the effects of the wrong kind of snow. After much more edging forward and stopping we eventually arrived at the station two hours late and it was clear I was going to miss my connection to Geneva. Half-an-hour should have been sufficient time to get me between these two Paris main stations and I had timed my journey to leave two hours. On this occasion it wasn't enough. 

Rather more snow in Northern France

I have often underestimated how much a difference in style makes in understanding helpful notices between the UK and France. For example, in England a direction sign with a down arrow suggests a descent to a lower level. In France it means go straight ahead (notified in the UK by an up-arrow).  On the tube in London, all stations are listed as destination options at the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, staircase or platform. Nothing of the kind seems to exist in France. One just seems expected to know that a train heading for Malesherbes or Melun will stop at the major gateway to the south, Gare de Lyon, in two stops. I think I have cracked this one now and  - probably for the first time - I found Quai 44, the home for southbound trains on the green RER ligne D without any wrong turns. However, there was still nothing really obvious confirming that my destination was possible. This was further confused by the apparent introduction of trains from Ligne B on to this track. The overhead electronic destination board was listing places with which I was not familiar and Gare de Lyon featured in none of the information. I checked with a woman in my broken Français and I understood that what I was now expecting was correct, namely that not this train, but the next one, should be my train of choice. It was. The first train pulled in and it was at this point that I discovered that even French people get confused with their own system.   The woman turned to me and said something I didn't understand and I smiled gormlessly in acknowledgement. She gave up after a few attempts to help me understand something. Then amongst a little gang of men on the platform a cry went up. Does this train go to Gare de Lyon? It doesn't, okay. It does? It does! One of the men leapt on the train and I followed in what used to be called hot pursuit. Once on the train I looked at the route map. There above the door in its full green glory was the route for Ligne D. The destination I hadn't recognised was a tributary of the main line and the only way to that destination was via Gare de Lyon, two stops down! Aaagh! I am never going to understand this. My map of the Paris Métro and RER system stops short of the tributary and so, of course, I had never seen it on the plan. Once again, and for the second time in the day, railway destination boards proved unhelpful. 

I arrived at Gare de Lyon about ten minutes after my connection to Geneva had been due to leave. I considered the possibility that my next train had been delayed too and that I would still be able to catch it, but of course today was not going to be that day. I looked on the overhead information boards and there was no sign of any train leaving for Geneva, on time, running late or at any time in the foreseeable future. What if the train I had booked on to was the last of the day? It took me a further twenty minutes of drifting between Halls 1, 2 and 3 to find help. I found a man in his smart SNCF uniform who was loitering in the lobby and answering the questions of the stranded and delayed. Every answer seemed to initiate the immediate flight from his spot to a distant part of the hall with the hapless passenger in pursuit. I joined the game and once again failed to crack a French code. This one probably explained why railway station staff in uniforms only answer questions from people who interrupt a previous passenger requiring another migration with a flock of the confused in tow. After a while I had been his acolyte for longer than anyone else and was still being ignored every time I moved into his direct line of vision and opened my mouth to speak. That was the point at which I gave up and looked for another solution. Eventually I found the ticket office in a hitherto hidden corridor between Halls 1 and 2 and decided that enlightenment lay somewhere near at hand. The queue leading from the door was horrendous. It was being marshalled by barrier straps while the entrance to the ticket office itself was staffed by bouncers. No one was allowed through unless they had queued for at least half-an-hour, unless for some unfathomable reason the bouncers decided it was your turn to sidle up to the exit lane and push through to the inside - another French code I have yet to break. This queue was at least as long as the queues I had often encountered at ticket machines on the Paris underground during strikes and public holidays, when most of the machines had already given up in despair and actual ticket offices with real people were closed. It was also growing longer by the second. I turned to the woman behind me and asked as best I could if this was the right place to come as I had missed my connection. She answered in the affirmative helpfully filling in my halting French with random words in English. So I waited … a very … long … time. Finally being beckoned into the ticket office foyer I was greeted by a charming and smiling woman in SNCF colours who looked at my home-printed ticket and led me to a machine that dispensed tickets with numbers. This is France after all. My number was I39043. The foyer was festooned with more overhead display screens. It was overhead display screen heaven. I worked out that my ticket number would appear in a left-hand column and the desk at which I was to present myself for assistance would be in a corresponding right-hand column. I learned a new word, guichet (n. m. - a window in a post-office, bank or some other administrative office through which one speaks to an employee). Once again I was confused by the customs associated with this form of queuing. While waiting for my ticket number (I39043, remember) to hit the display I had to experience a somewhat abstract arrangement of letters and numbers first. Ticket number A61230 would be followed by, say J11275 and then a sequence of I numbers, except for mine. It took me a while to discern that the newest number appeared at the top of the screen and eventually disappeared altogether from view after it had dropped to Number Six in the chart. I did not even begin to work out what happened if one missed a turn. My eyes stayed glued to the screen. After another half-hour I was summoned to guichet dix-huit. I handed my ticket to the gentleman at the desk and explained as best I could my quandary. He tapped at his computer keyboard and I had to wonder if I should trail behind when he leapt up from behind his desk and hurtled out amongst the throng to speak to the woman who had allotted me my ticket number. I stayed and awaited his return. I assumed his return was as near to inevitable as dammit. He did indeed come back to his desk and he could not have been more helpful. He changed my booking to the 15.15 train and didn’t even charge me for another ticket. I had been fearful that I would be expected to cough up another €90, because French rail staff are generally rather keen for passengers to travel only on their allotted train and only in their allotted seats. Booking websites are equally keen to point out that tickets are not transferable. I needn’t have worried. The experience from here onwards was actually rather painless, barring the inevitable wait for my next train.

A little south of Paris the snow disappeared altogether. It appears that the snow that had caused so much chaos was in reality a narrow belt stretching from the west coast to the German border. Once in Switzerland I knew my way. I could almost do that bit blindfolded. It took me longer to pick out the Swiss francs in my change to buy my ticket from the ticket machine for the 61 bus back across the border into France. Having arrived at knocking-off time I had to stand for the whole journey. Arriving at my destination in the town centre left me with just the fifteen-minute walk to P’s apartment. 

When I opened the door the sewing machine was throbbing and production was in full flow. The Divine Miss M was brandishing gold-threaded braid and asking me how much I wanted to be able to tie up my new cape. P immediately had me balancing on a chair so he could pin up the pantaloons he had made me. I was so exhausted that I was seriously afraid of not being able to keep my balance. Breaking a leg at this stage would be most inconvenient. Tomorrow night we leave for Venice. Carnival awaits.

Work in progress - The Divine Miss M
Work in progress - P modelling my outfit so far

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