Monday, October 29, 2007

Part Two: The Train Incident

This is Part Two, as well as the finale to my story of our first days in France. I know it's long, but it's the foundation to my new blog. Tomorrow we'll discuss something :)

After touring Paris for two days, we were ready to get to our final destination and our new life. Mode of transport: train. TGV train! TGV is the acronym for train à grande vitesse (high speed train), which is precisely why I wanted to be on this train. The eight hour journey would be reduced to only five. We would race by castles and vineyards, make minimal stops and arrive with enough hours left in the day to spend them sitting in a café relishing the fact that we now officially lived in the country. The other train, the low-priced one that stopped with frequency and arrived hours later, was not for us I decided. We wanted to become French as soon as possible and the TGV was our ticket.

We got up early, allowing extra time to navigate the cobblestones, and headed to the metro stop. It was a daunting expedition of dodging poodle poop, waiting for the delayed metro and climbing lots of stairs. We lost so much time waiting for the metro that we literally had to run for the last thirty minutes of our trek, luggage (and daughter) flying in the wind. We knew the speedy trains left on the dot and we were not going to miss that train for anything, after all, we paid extra for these seats!

We found our train at the platform with just seconds to spare. We hurled our luggage onto the steps, jumped aboard and just then the train moved. WHAT A LUCKY BREAK! We appreciated how close we'd come to missing it and ending up on the second-rate train.
As the train moved on, we could relax knowing we'd soon be in the familiar care of my relatives who would be meeting us at the train station. Well, I was the one who could relax. Hubby was in front of me suddenly feeling queasy. He couldn't talk, he started stripping off his extra clothing. Of course, still wanting perfection in these first few days, I insisted he wasn't really going to vomit. After all, he’s never been a puker. He was just tired. And the stench in our section of the train was probably adding to his nausea. What was that smell anyway? He jumped up and bolted for the WC.

After that and a couple hours of sleep, he awoke feeling much better, and said it wasn't the stench that made him puke, but it was all the layers of clothing he'd worn during the marathon we ran that morning.
We chitchatted about our new life in the Old World and things rolled along slickly. I looked at the time and noticed we only had about an hour's journey left. I figured it was way past time for my daughter to use the toilet. We got up and entered the cramped water closet, strewn with used toilet paper and missed shots. Beurk. (French for "yuck!) I imagined a prison cell might not be much different. Claustrophobia set in. I urged Little Girl to hurry up, and as she did, there was an interruption in the smooth-as-glass train ride. Lurching, squealing, screeching, and sudden halting. As I fell onto my daughter, I suddenly reached for the door, scared of being trapped like rats, and pulled it open with all my might, slamming it into my daughter's forehead.

Little Girl was crying and saying, "Why did you do that?! You hurt me! And everyone saw my butt!"

I grabbed her, ran to our seats and yelled, "What happened?" Hubby said it seemed we hit something. But no one, no one in our train car made any inquiries or even acted like anything was out of the ordinary. They all kept reading their books, talking on their mobile phones, or sleeping. I inquired to a woman behind me and she said, "I think we've just stopped." Yes, I know.
The engine seemed to be off. Then after about 10 minutes, finally it started up! Relief! We'd be leaving soon. We weren't, after all, at a train stop. We were on the tracks in the middle of the countryside. In the middle of nowhere.
Then, the train shut off. Then it started up again. Then it shut off just as quickly. This pattern continued for the next two hours with no one ever questioning what was going on. As it approached the lunch hour, as if on command, mobile phones were being extracted out of purses and pockets. Calls were made. Eavesdropping to get a clue if there was an explanation that only the French people knew about, I heard only things like, "It looks like I won't be there for lunch....The train is stopped....No, I don't know what is going on....Yes, it's strange but I'll call you when we get there."

Why isn't anyone investigating why we're sitting on the tracks in the middle of France? Why is everyone so calm? C'est normale?

My husband now informs me he saw a village sign at the last train stop a couple kilometers back before we were immobilized. The sign said AGEN. Ok, I have a tourist's guide to France, I'll look up Agen. Very nice, it's the prune capitol of France. I should mention that I hate prunes. It seems ironic that everything had come to an abrupt stop in the prune capitol of the world.

Finally, after two and a half hours of discussing possible scenarios (always coming to the conclusion that the train hit something), a passenger (not an SNCF employee) came into our car and babbled something in French. I did not catch it because I was not warned he was coming to make an announcement, so I didn't have my French Ears on. (He was also the same passenger who ran through our train car moments after the halt and yelled “Accident! Accident!“ to which not a single person even looked up to acknowledge his presence.) But this time they listened and without hesitation, everyone quietly got up, grabbed their suitcases and started disembarking without asking any questions or making any protests.

I was paralyzed with fear. Was there a bomb? Were we hijacked? What did he say? When my husband looked at me for the translation I snapped, "I don't know! Oh my gosh, what is going on?"
As the flood of unruffled Frenchies were flowing past our seats, I heard the most exquisite sound I'd heard in days. A smiling 20-ish girl said in American English, "Hey Guys! Did you understand what's going on? He said the train wrecked and we're supposed to get off now because they are sending buses to bring us to the train station." With an enormous sigh of relief I could only say, "Thank God you're American!!!"

We gathered our things, no small feat, and followed everyone else. Hubby walked to the front of the train to see if anything was on the tracks. What he saw would explain the sounds of twisted metal and the grinding wheels hours before. It wouldn't, however, explain why they ever even tried to start the train back up. It would have gone nowhere.

There was a gaping hole in the nose of the TGV. Armed with the video camera, my husband recorded it for posterity. Video proof that would end up being essential for future story-telling purposes. Especially since this event never even made it into the news. I think there was a cover-up.
We followed the masses through a field, through some bushes, and ended up next to a road. We waited for something to happen. No one talked. No one fussed. A college girl entertained our Little One by pointing out a verre de terre (earthworm). After about 30 minutes, two buses could be seen off in the distance. Finally, we would be saved and taken to my worried uncle who surely had no news of our whereabouts.

As the buses rolled to a stop, these Frenchies who were so calm and quiet in the midst of tragedy the last few hours suddenly did a 180. They became loud and aggressive when it was time to queue. Their me-first attitude caused them to literally shove us out of the way, take cuts in line, throw their bags into the basin of the bus, then leap inside to stake their claim. The first bus filled up in a flash. As Hubby was loading the last of our suitcases into the belly of the second bus, the driver announced that bus was full! We scrambled to retrieve our property, just in time as the flap came slamming down by the driver, sans compassion.

The group of French college girls who had befriended our four year old noticed our misfortune and pulled their own bags off the bus and said in broken English, "We will wait here with you for another bus." I was stunned. After being shoved by all sorts of people (older women included) this group of six young women left their sure spots to stay with us and take us under their wings. At that moment, my attitude changed. We could make it to our final destination without cursing all of France for the way we'd been treated by The Rude Ones.

When the next bus came, we got on with little drama. There were plenty of seats for the remaining castaways. But, even tragedies in France don't prevent les francais from lunching. There were individual lunch platters served. We got two of them, for the three of us. The lady next to my husband scowled at him and, being the kind person he is, he offered his to her. She snatched it as if he'd stolen it from her in the first place. No merci, monsieur from her.

We finally got to our train station, hours after the economical, non-TGV train had dropped off it's load and left. We were exhausted and homesick. How would we ever get word to my uncle?
We were just stepping into the crowded station when I reached for my camera case (which also contained my eye glasses.) It was not there. In our confusion, we had left it on the crippled train. As I was telling a person at the counter, we looked out into the sea of worried people coming to pick up their loved ones that had been trapped on our train. I saw him. Out of the hundreds of faces, I spotted My Uncle. We screamed his name and he came. He had been so worried about us and he seemed to be just as relieved to see us and we were to see him.

As we rode in his car to his 17th century farmhouse out in the rolling hills of tournesols, we'd never felt so happy to be anywhere. As we pulled up the driveway, we saw the rest of the family out front waiting to bathe us in bisous and nurse our emotional wounds and culture shock.

So it started off rocky. But as I type this, I have a slight smile across my face that only comes with a fond memory. I love telling this story. I'm glad that we saw the rudeness contrasted with the acts kindness. It didn't end there. That evening, SNCF called to let us know they had found my camera case and were holding it until we could come retrieve it.

Oh, and after a few phone calls my uncle found out it was a tractor that the train hit. No worries, the man who misjudged the speed of this train jumped off in time. And then called the farmer he borrowed it from to bear the bad news.

Every word of this is true.


Hi! I'm Adele... said...


I am printing out both installments of your journey's beginning so I can enjoy them over le petit déjeuner! Thank you for taking the time to share these wonderful memories with us, I start every morning now with a hot cup of tea and Cassoulet Café!!

Merci -

My Inner French Girl said...

How positively delightful! I mean, not in the sense that you had such a horrible time during the trip but that you can look back on it and realize it for the adventure it was. Thank you for sharing it with us!


La Belette Rouge said...

Dear Cassoulet,
All mythic stories begin with the hero going through an epic trial so as to see if their heart is pure and to discern how much they really-really-really want it. It is a process of initiation. Yours is a mythic tale!....The prunes sound kind of good to me. I steer clear for obvious reasons. Les pruneaux ne sont pas chics, n'est-ce pas ?

Cassoulet Cafe said...

BELETTE, One would think that prunes were definitely NOT chic. Until I did a Google search yesterday for Agen and found out that Agen prunes are the most expensive and coveted in the world. Hmmm...I'm still not converted. For obvious reasons. ;)
MARJORIE, So glad you liked it and thanks for commenting :)
Adele, Wow, I am very honored...I'm right up there with the hot beverage in the morning! :)

Cris in Oregon said...

I think I would have headed home by now. lol
Yep it sounds like the worst scenerio's were out of the way at the beginning. Hope it was uphill from there. ;)
Enjoyable blog.

ShabbyInTheCity said...


Cassoulet Cafe said...

Ok, I think I'm doing something wrong. I'm trying to post replies to comments via the email I received, but I don't think it's working. Thanks everyone for stopping by. Don't know if WOW is a good or bad wow ;) Could be "Wow, that was long!"
Merci tout le monde!