Transportation has always been a sideshow, in the life of a traveler. It is, of course, a basic element of travel, but is often used as a fulcrum, to get the traveler to notice the discomfort of those who live, day to day, where he/she happens to be headed, or from where the departure is taking place.
I am going to continue, in my next installment of “An Eastward Homage”, with the story of Versailles, the town. For a few moments, though, I want to focus on two modes of transport, two countries, and two large entities coming to grips with the difficulties that come with an excess of size.
On June 12, my sole intent was to take the SNCF train from Brest to Rennes, then to Rouen. The French train strike was, however, still full on. The journey could only be accomplished, thus, by going from Brest to Rennes to Le Mans to Paris- Gare St. Lazare to Rouen. My France Pass being a carte blanche for ANY First or Second Class train, over a nine-day period within one month, I thought I was set for a comfortable, seated trip. Enter a horde of Gauls, coming from a trip to St. Malo, in northeast Brittany. First, I was rousted from a seat, by a young lady, whose ticket had that seat’s number. I moved to a second seat,and an imposing young man came along, with that seat’s number on HIS ticket. (Bear in mind that, on a France Pass, there are no tickets with numbered seats.) I moved again. Two Orthodox rebbes, who appeared to be father and son, appeared at the seat, raised their eyebrows, Gallic-style, and I moved again- to Standage. There, in the no man’s land between cars, were a family of four, a university co-ed, (who was visibly miffed at the presence of two little boys, and even more miffed at an Americain joining the group,) a French biker and his missus (headed to his shop at Montparnasse) and a hapless Italian tourist who had a France Pass as well, and had been booted from HIS seat by a nurse whose ticket had that seat’s number. The train had, in the aggregate, about 30% more people on board than was practicable. Still, we all made it, shared the four small, folding seats that are available between cars, and just looked after one another. The initial shock on the faces of the French people in standage at the thought of an American NOT sitting comfortably in a First Class coach gave way to the realization that I had no such expectation of undue privilege, in the midst of such chaos and mass discomfort among my hosts. It was a good outing- for me.
It was an experience that served well to show the visitor just how absurd the bureaucrats and the unionists can be, and the extent to which their absurdity discomfits the average French person. Those fighting the Train Battle likely were not out riding the train, during the impasse. They did, effectively, send France back to the regional and the parochial trains of thought that are described so well by Graham Robb, in his “The Discovery of France”. It was, for two weeks or so, impossible to go from Rennes to Rouen, or from Rouen to Amiens, par train.
Fast forward to Sunday, July 6, at Logan International Airport, in Boston. There was an airplane sitting at the departure gate, ready to go to Charlotte, or so everyone thought. My journey would soon be over, or so I thought. Airline policy is that a fresh cockpit team takes over after so many hours. Our fresh cockpit crew was coming from Washington, DC. There was a “difficulty” with the plane bringing the captain and first mate from Reagan. We were told they would be in Boston at 9:30, and we would be underway thirty minutes behind schedule. No one would miss their connections.
That was at 9 PM. Seventy-five minutes later, we greeted the cockpit crew with silent cheers. Fifteen minutes after that, we were airborne. One hour and forty-five minutes after take-off, we landed in Charlotte. Nearly an hour later, upon learning our “safe” connections had gone on without us, we were assigned various hotel rooms. My seat-mate on the plane and I were sent to Holiday Inn Express. The hotel informed us that a shuttle at 2 AM would be impossible and we were to take a taxi, for which the airline would reimburse the person who picked up the tab. That ended up being my seatmate, as he had cash and I didn’t. We each got our own room, got from 2-4.5 hours of sleep, and the next day caught a shuttle from hotel to airport.
After bidding my previous night’s seatmate farewell, I met another man who had stayed at Express. He nonchalantly told of having taken a shuttle to Express- at 2:30 AM. All he did was call the same person who had told me at 2 AM, “impossible”, and a shuttle was dispatched.
This goes to show that, the more things, and locations, change- the more they stay the same. Man plans, bureaucrats bumble, common folk work together to get around the snafus- and God laughs.