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Sometimes it’s nice to get away, even from Paris.
One of the great things about France is its rail transportation system,
especially the high-speed trains (trains de grande vitesse or TGV). You
can now travel from Paris to the Montpellier, in the south of France,
in about three and a half hours. Or, you can take the Eurostar to
London, or the Thalys to Brussels and Amsterdam. Generally it’s really
a smooth trip. Center city to center city, the trains are clean,
comfortable and smooth. But, sometimes even the TGV can have problems.
Like the last time I took the return Thalys back to Paris from The
Hague in Holland.
sister, Rachel Gould, is a jazz singer and has lived in The Hague for
years. Last month she invited me to her birthday party, which took
place on a Sunday evening. It was really a great party and I regretted
having to return to Paris the next day, but that’s how it goes
sometimes. Her boyfriend dropped me off Monday morning at the train
station in The Hague. I’ve been there on and off through the years, so
I found the train platform right away. The Thalys was set to leave at
10:36 am. At 10:30, a normal Dutch train pulled up (you can’t miss them
since they are all yellow on the outside with a bumper on the engine
that looks like a big smile) followed by an announcement in Dutch,
which I ignored. Then I overheard a young man just in front of me ask a
train employee, “Is this the train to Paris?” To my surprise, the
response was, “Yes. We’re having some trouble with the TGV. This
is a replacement train for part of the way.” Good thing he asked,
or I would have missed my train!
the train, there were announcements in three languages (Dutch, French
and German) that there were problems with the TGV in Holland and that
the train we were on would take us to Roosendaal, the last stop in
Holland before entering Belgium. There, we would pick up the TGV to
Paris. Then there was another announcement. No, the train would
not take us to Roosendaal. It would take us to Dordrecht, in
Holland, where we would take a bus (huh?) to Roosendaal where we would
then catch the TGV to Paris. What was going on? Why couldn’t
they make up their mind? And what exactly was this “problem”? You
know, no one ever told us the reason. I found out later from a
friend in Paris that the French news that evening reported the
temperature was so hot the TGV couldn’t use the tracks. Nice to
arrived in Dordrecht, and everyone climbed off the train. (How are
they going to get 80 people onto a bus, I wondered. When we got off the
train, there was no information whatsoever. No announcement. No one to
greet us. Nada. By osmosis, and by following Dutch people, 99% of whom
speak English, 80 of us trundled over to what looked like a bus depot
in front of the station. Then we waited. Nada again. Then more osmosis.
It appears there was another bus depot on the other side of the
station. Trundle, trundle, trundle (at this point I was really grateful
that my luggage was light) went a bunch of lemmings through a tunnel to
the other bus depot. Then, wait. Still nothing. More osmosis from the
Dutch people. No, they’re not going to bus us to Roosendaal. We’re
going to take a train to Brussels, where we’ll catch the TGV to Paris.
At this point I was imagining a telephone conversation somewhere in Dordrecht:
“Is this Hans Brinker, the bus driver?”
“Ummmm I’m still half asleep. I just got in from Roosendaal.”
“Well, Hans, we really need you to drive 80 people who are stranded at the train station back to Roosendaal.”
“No way. I’m going to sleep. Good-bye.”
“Oops. I guess we’d better try my friend the train engineer Paul van der Hoeven.”
the Dutch are so used to things going right they don’t know how to
handle it when things go wrong. At any rate, trundle, trundle, trundle
we all went back through the tunnel under the station, and then up some
stairs to the train tracks. Well, at least there was a train right
there waiting when we came up. We got on the train.
“Sorry, this isn’t the right train.”
jumped off the train. Suddenly, another train pulled up and then
continued moving on until it was a good 200 yards ahead of us down the
“That’s your train.”
trundle, run, run, run to the train. Guess what, this train had
compartments! (There are far fewer seats on a compartment car than on a
regular one.) Those who could find seats were really comfy, while the
rest of us (the majority) were jammed into the narrow, seat- less
corridors. I happened to be jammed in the middle of an Indian family
who conversed loudly in their native language, interspersed with
English words, as I squatted down on my suitcase and attempted to read.
we arrived in Brussels. Again, no one to meet us, no announcement,
nada. I, the experienced traveler, knew where to find the TGV schedule,
and fortunately, I also happened to know that you need a reservation to
take the TGV. Since we had missed our original train, and the next one
left in about an hour, I looked for a place to reserve a seat on the
next TGV. Everyone started to line up at the kiosk that said
“Information TGV.” I followed my hunch, went to the head of the line
and asked the man if he had anything to do with tickets and
reservations. Not on your life. That office was at the other end of the
Brussels station. More trundling. Then standing in a long line to
reconfirm my TGV seat. The train employee couldn’t give me a seat
reservation, but he did confirm that I could get on the next TGV and
simply find a seat. That accomplished, I finally had a bit of time to
grab a sandwich and then head up to the platform.
the hassles and lack of information, I climbed onto the first TGV car I
saw, which happened to be first class. My ticket was second-class. I
didn’t care. They owed me. I even stood up to the controller who
ordered me to move into a second-class car because I had taken someone
else’s seat. How ridiculous. I had taken an empty seat, along with 20
or so other disgruntled passengers from my original train! I’m glad I
stood my ground and was able to keep my first-class seat, because when
you arrive at the train station in Paris, the first-class cars are near
the head of the train, and the walk is much shorter once you get off.
trip from Brussels to Paris took place quite normally; I ended up
arriving about two hours late. I really can’t complain because I did
arrive safely, after all. And we all know that when we take a journey,
sometimes the unexpected will happen. That’s what makes traveling
interesting. What’s important is that we arrive in one piece at our
final destination. Right?
To take your own trip, Rail Europe is undoubetdly for you. Click here to book.
Feldman is an intercultural specialist working with English speaking
expatriates to help them integrate into french life, both
professionally and personally. In addition she works with French
executives who need to communicate internationally.