The Thalys

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. My 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! On 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 know. We 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.”Maybe 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.”“Oh boy.” We 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 tracks.“That’s your train.” Trundle, 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. Finally 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. Given the hassles and lack of information, I climbed onto the first TGV car I saw, which…
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