I was supposed to meet Mike, Vic and Peter in Argentière on Tuesday, June 2. On Sunday I'd planned to see a few monuments but mainly go around the city on the Metro, since I had a three day pass. I decided to go to the Gare de Lyon and find out what was involved in getting a ticket.
Of the three ticket windows that were open, I picked the one with the très jolie young thing, of course. And I decided to use English, for that authentic French accent experience - not just a Québecoise accent. As the transaction was being completed, she said ``the full name of the station is `Argentière something something.' Hmm, I thought, with a faint sense of unease. ``This is Argentière near Chamonix, right? côté d'Chamonix?'' ``Oui, oui,'' she said. Ok....
Well, Tuesday arrived. I went to the Gare de Lyon and found my train (after a few anxious moments-the SNCF seems to regard the platform information as a state secret or something, they didn't put up that information till 10 minutes before the departure time!) and settled in. It was an exceedingly pleasant trip, and soon I was in Valence, looking for the train that was to take me to Argentière. Ah, there it is, with a final destination of Briançon.
After we got under way, I took out the Road Atlas I had and started to follow my route. Hmm, I thought. If this train gets me to Argentière by 6 p.m. and then goes to Briançon, it must have an awfully circuitous route... and it must pick up a lot of speed! Unfortunately the Atlas didn't show railway lines. ``If we don't turn left at this next valley,'' I thought, ``I'm screwed.'' And then I noticed a little town between our present position and Briançon: l'Argentière la Bessée.
I flagged down the conductor and between my so-called French and his equally bad English I managed to get the point across. ``Argentière Haute-Savoie? C'est catastrophe!'' It certainly was. So what should I do?
``You must-um, you must-''
``En français,'' I exhorted.
``You must descendre-''
Ah! ``Get off.''
``Oui, get off le train at Veynes-''
I pointed to Veynes on the map and he agreed that's what he meant.
``Go to the-um, the--''
``Yes, the guichet and talk to the-um, the-''
``Le chef de gare?''
``Oui! He will help you.''
Veynes finally arrived, and my heart sank. A tiny little town. I got off and went inside to the ticket window.
``Parlez-vous Anglais?'' I asked, hopefully.
Damn! Ok, time to dive into the French, and to hell with the grammar. ``Mon billet, il'est faux. Je voudrais allons Argentière Haute Savoie,'' and I pushed over the ticket. He studied it, typed a few things into the computer terminal, shook his head, typed some more. Great, I thought. The next train probably doesn't leave for another month.
Finally he looked up and shot off a rapid fire string of French. ``Je ne pas comprend. Repetez-vous, s'il vous plait, plus lentement.'' He then used the American trick: when you are speaking to someone that doesn't know the language, just speak louder. I managed to catch enough words to understand that at 5:30 another guy would come on duty who would be able to help. It was now 3:45.
Finally the other guy showed and I repeated my little speech. He tapped on the computer, then wrote a note on the back of my ticket and outlined my itinerary: I was to take the 7pm train to Grenoble, then a train at 4am from Grenoble to St. Gervais Les Fayet, then (with 5 minutes to make the connection) a train to Argentière. I asked him to ``écrirez-vous, s'il vous plait'' and he printed out a copy for me.
Veynes was a quaint little town but no one seemed to speak a word of English, of course. I walked around a bit, engaged in some small talk with the locals and waited for 7 p.m. The trian finally arrived: just two cars, with no separate locomotive. And it was no TGV either, but that was ok, the scenery was beautiful and I was in no hurry. The conductor read the note on the back of the ticket, shook her head and apologised.
We finally rolled into Grenoble after nightfall. Since it was already pretty late and I had a 4am train to catch, I should just hang out in a bar instead of finding a hotel, I thought. I went to the information desk to find the left-luggage office - ``Ne pas le consignée.'' What the hell is the deal with French railway stations? He was kind enought to inform me that if I went out to the Hotel Suisse et Française, they had a consignée.
I staggered out with the two back-packs and found the hotel. A fresh-faced lad informed me that there was no left-luggage facility at the hotel either. I begged him to reconsider and told him I had to catch a train at 4 am. Sensing an unofficial business opportunity, he finally relented; he indicated that I was to hide the backpack behind the counter and said it would be ``soixante-dix francs''. Wow, $12! But it wasn't like I had a choice. He firmly refused to consider letting me sit in the lobby.
Ok, let's see what Grenoble has to offer. I noticed that there were a few cafes that promised to be open all hours. I went to a restaurant for dinner, the further plan being to go to a bar till 1 am and then move to the cafe. Comes 1 am and I find that those ``all hours'' cafes were all closed! And the railway station was too, to discourage the homeless. I met a young Canadian couple (``I couldn't help overhearing you, are you American?'' ``No! We're Canadian.'' Excu-u-use me!) who said there was a nightclub that was open all night, called La Vieux Maison. Since the police had shown up and were encouraging the homeless and the kids dancing on the sidewalk to move on, I set out for the Maison.
Did I mention that it had rained the whole time I was in that town? And this nightclub seemed at the other corner of town. After getting lost a few times I finally found the place... and of course it was closed. I walked back to the railway station, walked around the old part of town, walked around the new part of town, searching for a business, any business that might be open... nothing. And everywhere it seemed there were the gendarmes making people move along.
The rest of the night passed in a hazy blur. It seemed to consist mostly of me pacing the streets one step ahead of the police while cursing that young thing at the Gare de Lyon, although I did find occasional rest in bus stops. And then a bonus: I found a bus stop in the University area that was on a quiet one-way street. I sat down. I noticed there was a cat across the street; for the next half hour I had a conversation with that cat. Unfortunately a loud thunderclap sent him sprinting off, I felt as though I'd lost a dear friend.
Finally 4 am arrived and I got back to the railway station. There were a few more people around, waiting for the train. (Again, I was a little concerned because I thought the train started at Grenoble, so when I noted the train wasn't yet at the platform... but I was told by a fellow passenger it was scheduled to stop for 5 minutes.) As I saw the light of the approaching train, there was an announcement on the PA system. Of course there was no hope of my understanding what was happening, but I realised with some chagrin that the other passengers paid it a lot of attention. Damn! I ran up to a young guy thinking he probably knew some English. ``Excuse-moi! Parlez-vous Anglais?'' ``Un peu,'' he said. I asked him what the announcment had been about.
``This train,'' he said haltingly, laboriously constructing sentences. ``It go to Genéve and to St. Gervais.''
Ok, I thought, half of the cars got to Geneva, and the others to St Gervais. ``Which ones?'' I asked him.
``The-'' he couldn't find the word he was looking for.
``En français!'' I pleaded. But he obstinately continued to grope for the English words. By now the train had pulled into the platform and I noticed that the car in front of us had ``Genéve'' written on it. Which end of the train do I run to?
Finally my friend seemed to arrive at a decision. ``Where you go?'' he asked. ``St. Gervais,'' I replied. ``Come!'' And he ran.
I followed him to the head of the train. He pointed ``Ça, ça, ça, St Gervais. Reste, Genéve.''
Phew! I clambered on and tried the first compartment. A bleary-eyed man woke up and gave me a dirty look. I apologised and closed the door. Now what? Then I noticed that my young friend was with us once again, and he was cheerfully throwing open the doors. He found an empty compartment and motioned to me.
When the conductor arrived, the same drill was carried out: he shook his head, smiled and apologised. I was amazed that this handwritten-note-on-the-back-of-the-ticket shit really worked! Then it turned out my friend had a second class ticket, and held that since the second class cars were full, he had no choice but to be in first. The conductor showered him with abuse and sent him off to the Geneva section of the train saying that at Annecy (where the train split) they would see.
Ok, there was still the problem of the 5 minute connection in St Gervais. I was anxiously looking at my watch but I was telling myself that it would be a small station so finding the train shouldn't pose any difficulties. Well, the town may have been small, but the station certainly wasn't! I sprinted off the train with my backpacks, and just my luck, we were on the second platform. I went down the stairs, through the tunnel, climbed back out and found the information office. ``Excuse-moi, ou'est le train de Chamonix?'' I wasn't taking any chances, I wasn't asking for Argentière any more! But the main at the window just grunted rudely. Then I realised that what he had said was ``Quai deux!''. Damn! Ok, back down the stairs, under the tunnel and up the stairs to where I'd started. And then I noticed that the train on the other side of the platform was this bright white and red train that said ``Mont Blanc Express'' on it... oh well, c'est la vie.
Phew! I had a whole three minutes left, I could actually walk now instead of running. Obviously all the stress affected my senses because I thought I heard someone calling my name. I turned around just in case and ... ``Vic! What the hell are you doing here?''
``What are you doing here?'' He said. ``I thought you were supposed to arrive yesterday. Did you go to the wrong Argentière? Ha ha!''
The bastard, making fun of my travails. And how did he know anyway?
``Yes, I did. How did you know?''
``What! I was just joking because that's what I did!''
So we got on the train and exchanged the stories of our harrowing experiences. Vic had taken the TGV to Grenoble and realised there was something wrong; he had managed to get a train to St Gervais the previous night, and had stayed in a hotel. He, too, had a hand-written note on the back of his ticket. But uppermost in my mind was an overwhelming feeling of relief, the wonderful knowledge that at last I was on the train that would get me to Argentière, with no more things to worry about!
The conductor came, and we showed him our notes. He just shook his head, and then I think he realised that Vic's note was from Grenoble, and mine from Veynes and knew that we had independently managed to make the same mistake.
Soon, Argentière rolled in. Vic and I lumbered to our feet and staggered to the door. Then I realised that the door, although automatic, didn't open; you had to push a button and turn a handle. By the time I worked this all out, the damn train starts to move!
The conductor reappeared and looked at us quizzically. ``Le porte,'' I said sheepishly. ``Il n'est pas ouvrir.'' He shook his head, looked at us as though to say ``What kind of morons are you two!'' and moved on.
We managed to get off at the next stop, found the bus stop (there were no taxis in evidence) and made it back to Argentière and walked to the campsite.
``Hey, how did you get here?''
``On the train.''
``But I went to meet it, and no one got off!''
``Er, yes, well, we couldn't figure out how to open the door.''