We are on the train returning to Paris after dealing with renovations of our farmhouse in Piemonte, Italy. This train ride is uneventful compared to the ride here a week ago!
We bought a "family discount" card for the train – recommended by the SNCF office They pointed out that if we have an enfant, we get a discount. We get 25-50 percent off of our 2 tickets and our 7 month old, Isabelle, gets a seat for free! It is basically cheaper to go first class.
Anyway the card only works in France. We park our car in Oulx, just on the Italian side of the Frejus tunnel. Partly because my husband, Clay, hates driving through tunnels and also because the tunnel toll alone is something like 30 euros.
So what we’ve done is buy our ticket to the furthest stop in France (just before the tunnel) via the family card, and then plan to buy a ticket just for the one stop through the tunnel to Oulx, Italy.
On this past trip here, we encountered 2 major kinks. First, it turned out that on this day (why on this day???) the train split, part of it continuing through the tunnel onward towards Milan and part of it terminating at the last stop in Modane, France, before the tunnel. Guess which section we were seated in.
Even before realizing this, we were caught in another obstacle. I was nursing Isabelle when the conductor (actually conductress,) came by to ask for our tickets. I showed her our tickets accompanied by our "enfant discount" card. She said no that’s not the card
Excuse me? Then what is it?
It soon became clear that what we were carrying was in fact the equivalent of the "frequent riders" card. Some ridiculous scheme wherein one acquires points for the train ride which one can redeem for goods from the SNCF (France trains) store. Why anyone would ever want to buy something from the French transport system, I’ve no idea, but the upshot was that we were not carrying the correct card.
Apparently what we were required to show was proof that we had purchased the card. No matter that having the stupid points card should be proof enough – how could we have the points card without having purchased the discount card? But what we needed to show was the paper receipt from the purchase of the card, with the date of purchase and child’s age clearly stated.
We tried to argue logically: how could we possibly have this dumb points card if we hadn’t purchased the actual card? We explained that this was the first time we had used it, that when we bought the card (requiring a long wait at the train office) they told us that once we received the plastic, wallet friendly card (the points card), we should carry and show that. We had left the receipt and accompanying cumbersome (non wallet friendly) paperwork at home because we had no idea we had to bring and show that.
The conductor politely pointed out that we might actually have this points card left over from previous years. She needed to see the current discount card and purchase date to show that it was still valid. We pointed to Isabelle, and her passport, and argued that since she was only 7 months old we could not possibly have an expired card (over a year old).
The conductress argued that we may have an expired card from a different child.
Look, we are clearly new at this (being parents, traveling the French rails with a family card) and we are obviously foreigners, clueless to this intricate system. The train office misinformed us, we left the paperwork at home, what are we to do? (Isabelle is on my boob during this entire interaction)
Clearly, we are meant to pay the difference in cost. The difference between our discounted rate and the cost for a2 first class tickets bought today: that difference being double the original cost of the ticket. are you kidding me?
She looked at us blankly. Of course not. You must pay the difference now – or we will have the police escort you off the train (with baby on boob). When you return to Paris, take your documents and ticket to the train office, explain and they will refund your money.
Let me also point out that using the family discount card requires you to actually go to a train office and wait in line to buy your tickets in person, rather than buying them on the internet. So, ultimately, the people with children are the ones who have to shlepp to the office, take a number and wait in an irritating line (like the post office, the train ticket office seems to always have a line. I have gone to both at all hours of the day and there always seems to be an exceedingly long line).
After all attempts to argue reason, couldn’t they just let us off with a warning? As new parents and first time "family card" users? We finally had no choice but to pay up. Clay first tried his French ATM card which (thankfully) didn’t work. Then mine didn’t work. Now I was furious because we had already agreed to pay the damn thing, bringing the cost of our train tickets now up to $500 , and their damn machine clearly wasn’t working!!! It finally accepted our Am Ex card. Relief because at least we could now argue the charge if its not refunded.
After that hullabaloo, we realized our train was terminating in Modane. We had a very slim chance of catching a connecting train to Oulx. If we were lucky, we’d have a 10 minute gap and be able to catch the only other train.
Unsurprisngly, our train was delayed and we missed the only connection by 10 minutes. Dragging our luggage, stroller and Isabelle, we considered our options. Which were slim. The next (and only) bus would leave in 4 hours, at 4pm. We would have to wait. However that bus wasn’t going as far as Oulx. It would stop one town short, in Bardinnechio, where we would have to find a cab to take us to out car in Oulx.
I was so frustrated. Here we had bought the damn discount card, which meant we were put on the wrong part of the train, the part that wasn’t going all the way to our destination, and because of the stupid card, we were now paying double to be stranded part way!
We called our Italian friend whose son lives in Bardenecchio, 10 mins from our carpark. Being the saintly family that they are John told us he would be there in a couple of hours to pick us up and drive us through the tunnel to Oulx where our car was parked. We settled in for a particularly bad pizza (as Clay commented "haven’t they ever just driven through the tunnel to Italy and tried REAL pizza?") and waited for John.
Bella spent her time riding the suitcases (her new game): she stands on the suitcase and holds onto the extended handle, sort of "surfing".
John arrived at 3pm, complete with carseat in his SUV and loaded us up. What an angel. We finally arrived at our car at 4pm.
And you will never guess what we did then.
Drove to Ikea.
We had to. We are under deadline to furnish this house and, seeing as how Isabelle hates the car, the prospect of spending Sunday driving back to go to Ikea sounded even more hellish than spending Saturday night there.
I was apprehensive about Bella’s tolerance for home furnishing shopping (seeing as I have none) at all, let alone after the long day we had already had, but I didn’t count on the fact that to her Ikea is a giant playland. Especially in Italy.
Open spaces full of mattresses to crawl on, sofas to climb on, new people to interact with.
What to me is a nightmare of crowds (yes, Sat night it was packed with crowds like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade), to Isabelle is a plethora of new faces to socialize with.
If you’ve got to go to Ikea (my idea of hell), go in Italy. Italians are so warm and welcoming, especially to children, and Ikea is no exception.
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