Okay, so I want to talk about an experience I had maybe four-ish years ago when I was in France. This is just one of many stories I feel I should write down, but I feel like talking about this one now. It's pretty complicated. I'm just gonna spill it out.
Alright. I'm about two months into the TAPIF program and Toussaints is coming up. I plan a trip to London. I have two friends in London, let's call them Oliver and Camille. Oliver offers to let me stay at his place. I book a train from Bordeaux to Paris, then from Paris to London. I do this all on the Eurostar website.
Some time before the trip, I go to the local SNCF office to pick up my physical tickets, and the guy working there says that he can't access them because I booked them through Eurostar, and there is no Eurostar office in Bordeaux! I have to get my tickets in Paris through a Eurostar office, which is stupid and beside the point, because one of the tickets I need to pick up is the one that gets me to Paris! He asks me to pay €20 to "buy" a new ticket (a nominal amount for the ticket, but absolutely not something I should've needed to pay because I had already bought the ticket). He handwrites this note and tells me to go to the SNCF office when I'm in Paris after visiting Eurostar, show him my tickets, and get a refund.
(I'd actually forgotten this part until I started writing because it's not the main part. Hahaha!)
Okay, I vow to never book SNCF tickets through Eurostar again.
The day of the trip. I'm riding the Bordeaux-Paris section and the train stops. There's an announcement that something's wrong. My French skills are still catching up so I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I know a ton of other trains are stopped too. My mind is cycling through the possibilities. Mechanical error? Suicide? Other track obstruction? I sit there and hours pass. Literally hours. I don't remember how many. I remember the Eurostar schedule and eventually I come to the conclusion that I'm probably not even going to make the last one.
While all this is happening, one of the few friends I made, a Taiwanese assistant, innocently asks me how my holidays are going. (This is all in French.) It's a polite message but I'm stressed and panicking. I'm fervently text back, oh, not so great. You know, my train is super delayed. I'm not sure I can make to London today. I might be stuck in Paris. I don't what to do.
You see, I was using this flip phone I bought in 2009. Back in 2009, it was already the cheapest option. I was using it because it was what I bought that last time I was in France. My own American smartphone was locked (and honestly not a scion of modern technology itself), so I decided to just use this one I already had. I can't look up anything on it! Not news, not lodging, not fucking anything.
My friend, bless her heart (I mean this!), kindly decided to look up some hostels for me. Here I am, sitting on the train, holding this flip phone like a lifeline, anxiously waiting for her reply. I open it and close it, open and close it.
She doesn't reply for a while, but I think when she does, she says she doesn't find anything. She's like, maybe the train company will help you out. I'm like, yeah, they better.
I stay calm. I'm not the only who's missing a connecting train (I wonder if I'm the only one missing on to a different country through a different service, though!). Lots of people are getting screwed, too. I'm not alone. SNCF will provide compensation, right? I text Oliver, who was supposed to pick me up at the London station. My arrival would've coincided with him getting off work. I tell him I'm probably not gonna be there today. I'm not sure on the details, but I'll let him know. I'm making these international texts with my scarce, precious, pay-as-you-go credit.
We finally get to Paris. It's chaos everywhere. Tons of people. I think I go to a regular service desk before I redirected to the correct place, this, glass walled section for... I don't remember. It's also service. I line up, I get to the front. They are brusque. They say they've booked me on the first train out the next morning. (Fuck me, I think, 6:00am. I'm not a morning person.)
Okay, you should know that there are multiple major train stations in Paris, and Paris is a damn big city. Train from Bordeaux comes into Montparnasse. Eurostar leaves from Gare du Nord. Trip on the metro between the two stations is about half and hour.
They have accommodation. I ask for something close to Gare du Nord. I already have to wake up super early tomorrow. I don't need the extra complication of trying to figure out how to get to the train station from some place, possible far away, I haven't been before. The lady nods and hands me a piece of paper with a hotel name and a metro stop on it. She waves me away.
I feel a little relieved, until I look at the paper again and realize there are no directions on it. Just the metro stop. What the hell? I'm already out of my element. My French isn't perfect. I'm tired. The stress comes back. I see a group of people next to the counter and they all have the same piece of paper in their hands. Some of them are talking about going to the hotel together. I think, maybe I can get in on this, and I step into their circle, but they all ignore me. They sort of separately file out. Great.
I walk to a metro map. Maybe the hotel is near the stop? Honestly, this seems impossible. I look for the stop indicated on the piece of paper. And then I realize that this fucking place is nowhere near Gare du Nord. It's at the terminus of some other line that doesn't even cross Gare du Nord!
At some point during this mess, my Taiwanese assistant friend texts me if I've gotten a place to stay. I finally text here back. I say, kind of, but I don't know where it is except that it's super far from where I want to be. She says, she has a friend who lives near Gare du Nord. Would I like her to contact her for me and ask if I could stay there?
Close to Gare du Nord? Yes, close to Gare du Nord.
I say, yes, please. I think maybe she might've been hoping I'd say no.
I wait, wondering what I'd do if her friend says no, wondering where she lives. Time is ticking and I don't want to be wandering around some random area of Paris at midnight.
Taiwanese assistant friend eventually texts back and gives me the okay. Tells me which metro stop her friend closest too. I look at the map. She really is close! I think she was only one or two stops away from Gare du Nord. I keep expecting to get this friend's number and be asked to communicated and figure our the logistics directly, but my friend keeps playing middle man.
I take the metro. I text her when I'm at the stop. She tells me which direction to walk and to look for a big red door. The instructions are detailed, but I'm still worried, of course. I stare at the doors in the darkness, wondering if any of them are big or red enough. I keep walking.
I see one that does looks appropriately red and large. I text, I think I'm here, and by then her friend has come down to greet me. By now it's midnight or a bit past, I think. I'm full of apologies and gratefulness. Thank you so, so, so much for letting me stay here. I'm so, so, so sorry for bothering you so late. I'm also so, so sorry because I'll have to wake up early tomorrow and probably wake you up, too.
I'm a complete stranger to her. I barely know her friend (my Taiwanese assistant friend), and suddenly she's letting me crash at her place on short notice. She's a student and she has an exam tomorrow. I'm just amazed, and so grateful, and thinking what great people these two people must be.
We go up to her apartment which she shares with a couple roommates, some of whom are already asleep. I meet one. I'm like, how does she even introduce me? Hey, here's some random person I'm letting sleep in my room tonight. We go into her room and she has this sheet laid out on the floor. She offers me a small pillow, which I graciously accept.
I say I'm gonna go make a couple calls. I go into the small kitchen. I call Camille. I quickly explain my situation to her, thinking about my dwindling minutes. I say, I missed my train, do you think it's possible for you to meet me tomorrow morning instead of whatever time we had originally decided on? My friend Oliver can't pick me up anymore because he works in the morning. We can hang out for the day before I head over to his place in the evening. She agrees! I say--it's gonna be early--are you okay with that? She laughs and says it's okay.
I call Oliver and explain to him the plan. He says, in that case, he won't be going to the train station. He'll meet me at the metro stop closest to his home. Is that okay? Yes, of course.
I hang up, finally, finally, finally relieved. I feel so relieved. I stand in the kitchen and eat a little bit of the food I brought with me. Paris-living friend offers me some water, which I accept.
So I take to the sheets on the ground and cover myself up with my coat. (It's cold, but hey I am not complaining in the slightest. I will take what I can get! Which is already more than I expected.) Paris-living friend says that she'll probably pull an all-nighter is everything is okie dokie. I try to sleep.
The next morning I wake up very early, as planned. Friend is still awake and I thank her a ton, quietly. I use the bathroom. When I come out, one of her roommates is there, groggy and pissed. I don't notice the second part at first, so I smile and says "bonjour!" but she's like, do you speak English? She tells me to not use that bathroom because it's very loud in her room, then promptly goes back and shuts the door. I apologize and ask Paris-living friend about it. Apparently there are two bathrooms, and yeah, I wasn't supposed to use that one during sleeping hours. I feel bad that after that, I'll just be disappearing into the ether.
I make my train. It takes me a while to find Camille on the other side (miscommunication about where we should meet), but we meet up.
And that's the story of my first trip to London, where almost everything went wrong, but so many things went right because of the great people in my life.
Here is a picture of the English breakfast I had the morning I finally arrived.