On Trains and Paris

I just looked down at my watch and realized that although I’ve been back on UK soil (from Paris) for over 24 hours, I have not yet adjusted my watch. I managed to get through the work day–and a busy 12-hour one at that–without ever looking at more than the minute hand. It was practical, as there were meetings at various points throughout the day (o’clock, :15, :30 etc.) and I roughly knew what hour it was from the computer clocks and/or the other physical clocks in the rooms around me. But I shall now change my watch back before I make a big mistake tomorrow. Or I’ll leave it tomorrow since I have to leave for Germany early Wednesday morning. We’ll see. It’s that time of year. Insane European travel phase for me, when the watch changes take place more often than any sane person would like.

I had, as ever, a lovely time in Paris. I am quite enamoured of the fact that I can get there by train. So I have done it several times since I’ve lived in the UK. Plus once to Belgium. But it’s hard to shake the fact that Eurostar is a bit of a mess at the moment. Compared with flying, and this can not be emphasized enough, it is a dream. But I did have a bit of an adventure on my return trip. Some details appear here, although it was not quite the full story. I arrived for my train, about 75 minutes in advance of check-in (always more than enough in the past) and found that they had closed check-in for Eurostar completely, and there was a magnificent queue full of clueless people. The only overhead announcement stated that “due to an earlier security incident, check-in for the 19:13 train (mine) would be delayed” and it took some time to put facts together and realize that the train two earlier than mine still had not left the station. I will never know the truth, but the gossip was that there was an abandoned bag issue that caused security to be shut down temporarily, and departures had been halted completely for some number of minutes. I dutifully joined the queue, as I was instructed to by a young Brit who lives in Paris and hates the French. More on that in a moment.

The queue was by this point spectacular, stretching across the entire Eurostar upper level platform, down the stairs, curling around the Gare du Nord main level, out the door, and back in again, and circling round the platform at ground level. I tried to take photos but they did not do the queue justice. After some time of standing completely still, operations eventually resumed and the queue went from a stand-still to a slow crawl. Where it continued for the better part of 2.5 hours, in my case. The only information coming to us in the queue was from a “telephone game” network of others in the queue repeating what they had heard from others. Those travelling in a party of several (myself excluded) had the luxury of sending someone up the queue to try and figure out what was going on. I relied on the kindness of strangers and Twitter. So we waited. After two hours in the queue, sensible announcements started to come over the PA, but only after a Brit in line next to me had talked to the managers while his wife/partner held the place in line and told us what was really transpiring. We would be loaded onto trains in the order we were placed in the queue, with no regard for original seat assignments, so they could get us through and to London as fast as possible.

For the most part, aside of the information gap, I was quite impressed with how they handled the problem. They clearly had a system in place. I was given a new seat assignment, and an assignment for boarding to the “white” train (as opposed to the yellow or blue one) and once I had this magical sticker, after standing in the queue for 2.5 hours, I proceeded through immigration and security faster than I recall doing at the Paris end previously. (They need to upgrade their facilities a bit to compete with the relative efficiency on the British end, where the facilities at St. Pancras are all new and quite spacious. And who thought I’d ever be complimenting British efficiency on this blog!) I ended up on a differently scheduled train from the one I was supposed to be on, but the schedule had pretty much been thrown out the window by this point and we were all just trying to get back to the UK.

And here’s where I got lucky. By being at the station in Paris at the time I arrived, and by joining the massive queue when I did, I avoided the catastrophe of the train that died outside of London and had to be rescued. That was the train directly after the one I landed on. So my 90 minute delay in arriving started to look good in comparison. I actually wonder if I saw the ‘rescue’ train depart St. Pancras, since there was a completely empty Eurostar train leaving right as we arrived at 22:something, which would be consistent with the stories that went around in the press today.

I’m not going to pretend the experience was pleasant. Being in a 2.5 hour queue was hard on the feet. Being alone meant there was no opportunity to get a drink of water or visit the conveniences. Abandoning my luggage to do so was not an option, since that was the original issue that caused the delay in the first place. At one point I did step out for 10 feet to grab a landing card for UK immigration, but only after securing the services of a friendly co-queue person to watch my bag and know my intentions. I was away for all of 30 seconds, and I can assure you that the queue did not move.

Part of my interest in this occasion was in people-watching the other passengers. Directly in front of me in the queue was a British woman who appeared to be travelling with 5 children under the age of 13, and they caused some chaos. Going up the stairs to the Eurostar platform was a particular adventure, as she maneuvered an empty stroller/pram (MacLaren, of course) while the ~2 year old child ran up and down and occasionally screamed bloody murder. At one point the ~ 8 year old kid tried to (and did) pick up the ~ 2 year old on the stairs, thus risking an early death for both of them or us should we all tumble down. The mother seemed uninterested in the cries of the ~2 year old. The eldest, a young teenager, struggled with two enormous wheeled bags on the stairs. An ~ 10 year old had another. Good Samaritans around me tried to take over, sensing the imminent disaster, but the children were determined to prevail and the mother was disinterested in assistance. I was stunned. I am not a parent, but the risk of grievous bodily harm to the many assembled children seemed higher than I would normally expect to see in this sort of situation, not to mention the potential chaos if one of these little urchins did actually fall down the stairs with the full brunt of their weight + gravity creating inertial loading for the many of us standing down the queue. It was an interesting evening.

Another interesting observation was in the constant disparaging remarks made about the French by the British people around me. I have no strong feelings in this regard. But my experience here in the UK has led me to believe that there is truly a love-hate relationship going: the Brits I meet are either enthusiastic Francophiles, speaking the language and spending every possible spare moment in France, or people who completely detest everything about France, the French, and everything related. I admit, I’m standing from the distance of an American placed in the situation I was in. I would have liked it if the Eurostar staff or the Gare du Nord staff more generally had explained what was going on–but of course, I had my iPhone and turned on Twitter and talked to people around me and that was worth more than 100 PA announcements over the loudspeaker. But I thought the French staff handled the situation quite well, with the exception of the information dissemination. And the Brits in my immediate surrounds who clearly were prejudiced to hating the French already, they were not so generous. I have not heard such bitterly nationist (I hesitate to use the word ‘racist’ in this context even though popular in Euro-speak when referring to countries, especially given the common history of the Normans) thoughts expressed in such clear and direct language in quite a while. Some Brits around me really seemed to have a problem with the French. Which begs the question of why they were there IN FRANCE trying to catch a train for Britain.

In the end, I got home. I was about 2 hours later than intended, but I figure compared with typical flight delays, it is quite worth it to travel by train. My trip back was not too unpleasant, and I’ll head to Paris on the Eurostar again. Probably soon. It’s becoming my favorite ‘Escape from England’ tactic due to the fact that I’m loving trying out my high school 3 years of French on poor unsuspecting waiters in cafes across the city. I had my new camera and thus an excuse to try and do the city justice, which I most certainly did not. But I tried. This trip, I went to the Louvre and inside Notre Dame, both of which were new to me. I loved the former, and could not believe I had waited so long to see it. The museum is worth the price of admission just for the building, even if there were no Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa. The latter, I’ll pass. Notre Dame no longer felt like a church, it was such a tourist trap and I did not enjoy it much. Although I was staying near the Eiffel Tower, I still did not manage to get up onto the highest levels of it, so I have an excuse to go back to Paris yet again, hopefully soon.

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4 responses to “On Trains and Paris

  1. 2 hours late is nothing really is it, if a plane lands 2 hours late these days you tend to think of it more or less on time. And you probably wouldn’t have your bags either.

  2. Sounds like it was overall a lovely trip (minus, of course, the train problems.) I’m always confused by the disdain I hear for France here in the UK, but just yesterday I was reminded that my little hometown in the US is far from perfect. An Indian friend told me her sister lived in my hometown in Ohio and was treated so poorly by WASP-y people, that she left and moved to NYC. As I’m (glaringly) white myself, I never experienced that side of my hometown, and was quite embarassed about her views on it. So while I don’t quite get the English/French thing (and honestly have very little tolerance for this sort of nationalistic and prejudice behaviour), I think that parts of the US have a long way to come, as well.

  3. Interesting to revisit the whole conversation we had a year ago in your comments, about the word “racist”. I’d forgotten about that.

  4. I absolutely love France and the UK and can’t wait to go back to visit sometime soon. One of my favorite memories is traveling through Europe by train-one of which was the Eurostar- from London to Paris, and then later on from Paris to Munich. Great times!

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