Great outlook. We are going to China this summer for my sons wedding. I'm nervous and excited.
It is the end of our seven country tour and we find ourselves at the Marriot on the Boulevard Victor-Hugo in Neuilly just outside the Paris beltway or peripherique in the northwest corner of the city.
On the occasion of their high school graduation, we have given each of our daughters a two week bus tour in Europe with the route being their choice. Then we spend a final week in the Italian village where my wife was born, visiting family. This was Carla’s turn and her choice of countries ended in France. Thus we spent our last night with the tour group in a charming, subterranean restaurant in the St. Germaine district of Paris. There was much singing and toasting. Addresses were exchanged, pictures taken, and a respectable amount of wine consumed.
We rise the following morning for breakfast in the hotel, and say our final goodbyes. Most of the group is headed for the airport to catch their flights home. We have tickets for the overnight train from Paris to Rome. Our train does not depart until early evening, so we find ourselves with a free day to explore the City of Light. Before we set out on foot, we review the train tickets with our Portuguese guide, Maria. She determines that our train is to leave from the Gare de Leon-Bercy which is exactly opposite our hotel in the southeast corner of the city. The peripherique will get us there. It is only a half hour by the freeway, but we allow two hours before departure time to give ourselves a half hour cushion of travel time, and an hour to relax before boarding the train. A taxi is to meet us at around 5:00 pm at our hotel.
Then we head out for our solo adventure on the streets of Paris. Being the seasoned, world travelers that we are, we have no trouble mastering the Metro. Even the purchase of subway tokens is automated, so our language skills are not challenged. Besides, we have always found the shopkeepers and waiters to be, for the most part, well versed in English, and unlike the French stereotype, friendly and helpful. We spend the afternoon strolling the Champs Elysees, window shopping, and spending way too much for lunch. Late afternoon, we return to the hotel in plenty of time to meet our taxi. This is when the wheels begin to come off our careful plan.
The taxi driver arrives to pick up three adults with a full compliment of luggage in something that is maybe two thirds the size of a Mini Cooper. Upon seeing us in the lobby standing with our bags, he immediately throws up his hands in that international gesture for (insert your favorite profanity here), which my wife, Rosa being Italian, has no trouble understanding. After much lamenting and cursing in French, he switches to English and explains that his idiot dispatcher had said nothing of luggage, and that it would be impossible to get us all in his cab. Another driver would have to pick us up. While his dispatcher may be an idiot, one would think that a driver picking up passengers at a hotel for a ride to the train station might realize that luggage would be involved.
The second driver arrives about thirty or forty minutes later during which time we are becoming increasingly aware of our train schedule. As the second driver speaks no English, Maria explains where we were going, and how much time we have. (not much!) After loading the cab, I show him the train tickets, pointing out Gare de Leon to which he replies simply “Oui.”
We enter the peripherique only to become almost immediately engulfed in stop and go rush hour traffic. I keep watching the signs and checking my city map, and watch our time cushion being rapidly eaten away. Traffic is just not moving, and at times we actually come to a complete stop. Finally we arrive at the station and are unceremoniously dropped with all of our luggage in the street just outside the Gare de Leon, but we still have about a half hour. It looks as though we will make it.
We pass through the main entrance into the most enormous room I have ever seen. It is the Parisian equivalent of Grand Central Station. Now all we have to do was find our train. Acutely aware of the time, we spot what appears to be an information kiosk. We let Carla do the talking. While she does not speak French, Carla is the most multi-lingual of the three of us.
That’s it. We are out of languages. Now I’m not one of those ugly Americans who thinks the world should accommodate us, but this is Paris. We are in a major transportation hub of a world class capital city. They don’t get international travelers here? We show our tickets. The helpful person at the desk looks at them and shakes her head in disgust. “Non! Bercy, Bercy!” We look at the tickets again and see that they indeed say Gare de Leon-Bercy. We have learned that Gare is French for station, and Leon is the name of the station. That is where we are. What the hell is Bercy? She waves us away, not willing to waste any more time.
Time to huddle up and plan our next move. In most train stations the trains depart from a lower level. We look frantically around and see a broad, marble staircase about a hundred feet off to the right. Maybe if we go downstairs we will see the tracks and be able to match up the numbers on our tickets. So we gather our belongings and run for the stairs. The lower level is just as big as the main floor, but with lower ceilings that just make it seem more sinister. We are beginning to panic. Finally a young Asian man approaches and addresses us in English: “Do you need help?”
We explain our predicament and show him the tickets. He has no idea where our train is, but he does speak French. Our new best friend consults with a station employee and determines that Bercy is a different station. He says that we can get on the Metro and take it to the next stop. He points to an archway in the distance and says we can get on the Metro right here in the station. We thank him profusely, saddle up, and run for the Metro. We arrive in a low, arched tunnel lighted with sodium fixtures, and looking very much like the gates of hell. The tunnel stretches off in both directions disappearing into blackness as we realize we don’t know which direction we need to go. There is a soldier or maybe policeman leaning against the wall, smoking. We helplessly wave our tickets and ask: “Bercy?” He doesn’t even answer. Just gives us the typical gallic shrug and take another drag from his cigarette. There is absolutely no time to make the wrong decision. And if you have ever been on a subway at rush hour anywhere in the world, the prospect of boarding the Paris Metro with three rolling suitcases, three carry-on bags, two purses, and a camera bag is not comforting. We decided not to do it.
By now we are pretty much resigned to the fact that we will not make the night train to Rome. As we wander back into the main part of the station, we run into the same young man who had helped us earlier. Amazed to see us, he asks: “Are you people still here?” He says he will ask if anyone might be able to help us. With about ten minutes to make the train, he grabs the first, random passerby and explainsd our plight. The new man looks at the tickets, and becomes very excited. There is much waving of hands and rapid fire French exchanged. We hear the word Bercy several times. The young Asian man explains that this is Claude. He speaks no English, but he will help us. He says we can actually walk to Bercy, and that it isn’t far, but we will have to hurry.
There is a set of glass doors on the far wall leading out to a lower street level behind the Gare de Leon. Claude grabs two of the rolling cases and sets out a dead run toward the doors. Helpless to protest, we run behind him. Loaded up like pack mules we run down the cobbled street past smelly Dumpsters through a very questionable looking neighborhood. Heart pounding from the effort, I breathlessly tell Rosa that Claude is probably leading us into an alley where his buddies will kill us and steal our luggage, but we don’t have much choice at this point.
Claude pauses for a moment and points up. There is a huge, glass building maybe a thousand feet away at the top of a very steep hill. He says, simply: “Bercy.” By this time a wheel has come off one side of two of the rolling cases. This makes them pull sharply to one side as we drag them along the pavement. I take one of the cases from Claude, who immediately takes Carla’s, as she is visibly struggling. We make the last sprint up the hill, drenched in sweat, hearts pounding, with just minutes to spare. I thank Claude, shove two twenty dollar bills into his hand, and watch as he approaches another group of travelers, obviously lost and confused. I feel like I have just completed an unscheduled stress test, but I passed.
Inside, the trains are right there in front of us, and we easily find ours idling at the platform. This is the place in the story where the clouds part, the sun shines through, and the angels sing. An Italian train, it is staffed by Italians, and the first one we meet is our conductor. He is straight out of central casting. In a blue uniform with brass buttons and a peaked cap, he is tall and rotund, has a handlebar mustache, and (I’m not making this up) is singing Italian opera. He hoists our bags off the platform and onto the train. “Buona sera. Benvenuti signore e signora. Che bella signorina. Andiamo a Roma, eh?”
Pavorati leads us down the aisle to our sleeper compartment which is about the size of a sheet of plywood, but it has a comfortable seat, a window, and a place for our bags. It is very warm, but our singing conductor assures us that the air conditioning only works while the train is underway, and would be on shortly. As we settle in, the train begins to move.
In a little while we decide to head off to the dining car for dinner while our compartment is made ready for the night. We enjoye our linguini with meatballs and watch the Paris suburbs slip past the windows as the train picks up speed.
It is getting late now and I stand at the window in the corridor watching the sun set over the French vineyards while the girls change into their jammies for the night ahead. Our route would take us through the south of France, skirting Switzerland, and crossing the mountains into Italy. The scenery promised to be spectacular. Unfortunately, it also promised to be dark. So I turn back into the compartment to get ready for bed. The night porter had transformed the daytime seating into three narrow bunks. One above the other, about two feet wide, stretching the width of the compartment. Rosa is in the middle and Carla is on top. Lying there with her nose just inches from the ceiling, she complains bitterly: “Dad! It’s gotta be 120 degrees up here!” The air conditioning was apparently not yet fully engaged. She is obviously exaggerating. It couldn’t be more than 95, but we decide she can bunk in with Mom on the second level while I stay on the bottom hoping the chains will hold the two of them.
Eventually it cools off some, and exhaustion gets the best of us. We drift off to sleep through about half the trip. In the morning we wake to sunshine streaming through the east side window of the compartment not entirely refreshed, but excited to finally be in Italy. I remembered sometime during dead of night, the train had stopped. I had heard muffled voices outside the window and the train had made train like noises, clunked and bumped, and then got underway once more. We peek out the door of our compartment to be greeted by a hearty “Buon giorno!” from our mustachioed conductor. After breakfast, our sleeper is once more transformed into a sitting room, and we spend the next few hours watching the Tuscan countryside roll past the windows. Every now and again we can see the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean.
Finally the train begins to slow as we pass through the outskirts of Rome, and then into the behemoth known as Termini: Rome’s central train station. Our journey is not over. Rosa’s village is still another 50 miles or so south by commuter train, but this story ends as we step out onto the platform at Termini.
I have told this tale many times. Some folks laugh. Others are appalled. Some say this is why they will never travel outside the US. As for me, I think it’s all in how you look at it. I don’t see it as an ordeal, but as an adventure. When things go wrong, I just get better stories.
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