My Adventures in France 2011 – Day 1 – The 26 Hour Day

This is part 3 (yes, it’s a year later I’m finally continuing this story) in my series of blog posts about my trip to France.

I’m leaving on a jet plane…..

All charged up and ready to go to France, I load up the car and head to the airport. I’ve got a backpack chock full of electronics and 2 pieces of luggage one of which has another bag in it. I’ve got all of my paperwork too. Passport and all the receipts, confirmations, and other assorted pieces of paper for the week.

I get to the off-site parking site where I’ll be transported to the airport and my car will be protected from the elements with covered parking. Hop the shuttle to the airport with anticipation of my first international trip. To say I’m excited is an understatement at this point. Nervous? Not really. I’ve travelled all over the U.S. by myself before. Hell, I’ve moved myself 3 times across country. Twice to cities where I didn’t even know a soul. That takes cajones. A trip to France? No problem. I can’t tell you how many people were in awe and shock that I would attempt this by myself. Especially this being my first time.

First leg of the trip is from San Antonio to Houston. Uneventful. Land make the transfer to the international flight with ease. Especially since the Continental staff have me and a couple other people board one of their carts since I have to go to the International Terminal.

I know IAH (I mean George Bush) pretty well. I used to work for TV Guide. Ok actually Murdoch Magazines Distribution Division. Yeah, that Murdoch. I’ve actually worked for him twice. Anyway, I used to make a weekly visit to the airport to check the newsstands to make sure the magazines we handled were out. We did over 70 titles by the time I had left the company. They have an underground rail system. Pretty cool.

Time to board the flight to France. I have a window seat by choice. I love window seats. Yeah, 75% of this flight is going to be at night, but still. The only problem with window seats, not much room for your feet under the seat in front of you. The curvature of the fuselage means it’s a bit uncomfortable. Luckily there is an empty seat between me and my row-mate.

I get strapped in and ready to go. I know the flight attendant drill pretty well. But they don’t let you listen to music anymore. They used to when it was just a tape player or CD player. Not anymore. Anyway, we get through all of that and climb over the rain clouds. In the seat back they have video screens. For the next 10 hours I’m kinda glued to the flight path. OK, maybe not the entire flight, but I find it fascinating. I’m weird like that. They have all the stats of the flight, plus the flight path.

I’m plugged in listening to my iPhone and also have some reading material. I try to catch some Zzzzz when I can, but I’m never one to sleep on planes much. I even bought an inflatable pillow. Not that comfortable.

As we get closer to France the sun is rising. Not a whole lot to see with all the clouds, but I start to see land and look at the map to see where we are at. Landing in Paris was smooth. I get through Customs like I was landing anywhere in the U.S. I mean, yeah, some guy checked my Passport, but there wasn’t any hugely long lines. I think they have a lot of different checkpoints to make things smoother.

So now I need to get some money exchanged. I’d probably do it differently next time where I exchange the majority of my money to Euros before leaving, but I didn’t really think about it. I get the money exchanged. I sign up for some kind of deal where I keep the same rate and don’t have to pay a fee when I leave. At least that’s how I remember it. Right now it’s 9/14/12 and I left for France almost exactly a year ago, so I may not remember all the small details.

With Euros in hand I fetch my luggage. Grab a cart and head over to where the train platform is at the airport. I go to the ticket counter and retrieve my pre-paid ticket. This is pretty much a necessity. Some of these trains sell out. Especially the one I booked. The people at the counter understand enough English so that I can get my ticket. Now I get to wait for another 3 hours. I could have booked the earlier train, but I didn’t know how long it would take to get through customs, retrieve my luggage, and get to the platform. Even so, I wouldn’t risk it if I made the trip again.

I find a spot in the terminal to hole up and get online. At first there wasn’t anywhere with power. They have an area for people to plug in their laptops and such, but every spot was taken. I get some snacks and wait. And wait. And wait. And hear the non-stop 3-tone signal for every announcement. After about and hour, I realize it’s the same 3 notes as Soulja Boy. No, really. It’s this steel drum kind of sound and it’s the exact same 3 notes in that song. Drove me crazy.

Time to catch the train. I get to the platform. I’m a pro at trains/subways. I know that typically the first and last cars are the ones to go to when it’s busy. Yeah I have an assigned seat, but I also know that it’s a pain to get on in the middle. I head to one end of the platform where I think the front of the train will be.

The train arrives finally. It’s about 5-10 minutes late. Now I’m lost in this train thing. I have an assigned seat, but how the hell do I figure out what car to get on? The outside of the train is no help from what I can tell. So I get on a car. The first car. I’m on it for maybe 30 seconds when I realize that those numbers on the outside of the train mean something. 1 and 2. As is 1st and 2nd Class. I have a 1st Class ticket. Which means assigned seating. 2nd Class is just find a seat. The number outside my train is “2.” I grab my luggage and run the entire length of the platform to the first car I see with a “1” on it. I’m stepping on when the Conductor stops me.

“You’re late. You can’t come on.”

I have probably the most shocked look on my face. I look at the Conductor on the platform all confused. She looks at me and him and I sense she thinks he’s kidding. I look back at him.

“You’re late.”

I reply is the most melodramatic way I’ve probably ever spoken, “But I HAVE to get to Bordeaux! I have a ticket!” All breathy even.

“No, You’re late.”

In my head I’m thinking, “No MF, YOU’RE LATE! I’ve been waiting for 3 hours on your ass and you’re going to let me on.” Yeah, in my head. But I don’t want to be the “Ugly American.” Especially in Paris where they have a reputation of disliking Americans. I look at him with what was probably the saddest eyes I’ve ever had and turn around. I’m devastated. I don’t know what to do. I head back upstairs to start trying to figure out how I’m going to get to Bordeaux.

I look at the next train. It’s 3 or 4 more hours. I then try to contact the rental car company. All I get is failure on the phone. I’ve set up the phone in advance with AT&T to be able to make phone calls in France. All I get is a recording in French of course. And I can’t figure out what it is. I can stumble through French if I’m reading it. Not so much listening to it. I call AT&T and they tell me I’m good to go, so I call again. No change. Now I’m concerned that this is a recording from the rental car company saying they are closed.

I go back to the ticket counter for the train. I stand in line and try to see if I can exchange my ticket. Nope. Well, yes if I had gone back to them immediately, but I waited too long. And it was probably an hour so it wasn’t like I waited 15 minutes.

It’s at this point I walk away dejected. I’ve been traveling for almost 20 hours at this point. I’m so close to booking the next flight back home. No, seriously. It’s everything I could be not to just sit down and cry. And I don’t do that. I’m thousands of miles away from home, and I’m finally scared. I’m really scared. I don’t know what to do. Yes, I have a cousin in Paris whom I never knew about until a couple months prior, but do I sit there and call her up and say, “Hey, can I crash at your place tonight?” I’m alone and I never feel alone. I’m in a foreign country where I can barely understand the language that I was supposed to learn months ago. I’m very self-reliant. I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the years and I’ve always had that cat-like ability to land on my feet. This time I wasn’t so sure.

I’m looking at my options of staying in Paris until the morning, booking another train, driving to Bordeaux, or fly back to San Antonio. After I calm down a bit I stop thinking about going home. Dammit, I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years. I remember that I always come out ahead. I’ve made appointments with some great Chateaux. I’ve talked about this to everyone. It would be a failure to go home.

I go back to the train ticket counter ask the guy to translate the message from my phone call. He tells me it’s a message about not being able to contact the number. Great. Then he tells me that I could just go to the rental car company’s counter in the airport and talk to them. Well, duh, why didn’t I think of that!

Time to lug all my stuff across the airport to their counter. I get there and start explaining my situation. The girl there thinks I’m trying to rent a car with an automatic transmission to drive from Paris to Bordeaux. Luckily a colleague of hers figures out that I’m just asking if the place in Bordeaux will be open since I won’t be getting there until 9 PM and confirm that my car with automatic transmission will be available still. You see, everyone in Europe drive manual. Still. In the 21st Century. I have nothing against stick shift. I just think that I shouldn’t have to work to drive and it’s only something that should be in sporty cars. And the last thing I need in a foreign country is to worry about shifting and paying attention to the street signs.

My concern is that on Eurocar’s website, to pick up the car after 6 or 7 requires an extra payment. I was scheduled to be in Bordeaux at 4PM. This is Sunday. I know how smaller cities/towns work. After about 6 the sidewalks are rolled up on a Sunday. They assure me everything will be OK, and that they close at midnight.

OK, I decide that I will catch the next train to Bordeaux. My other option was to get a room at the Sheraton which is literally where the train station part of the airport is and catch the first train in the morning. That will get me there too late so I head back to the train ticket counter and buy another ticket.

This time I know what I’m doing. I get on the right set of cars and find my seat. I’m set. I can relax. Bordeaux in 5 hours. I’m on the laptop catching up, e-mailing, tweeting, etc. They have wifi on the train which is nice. I eventually strike up a conversation with the gentleman next to me. He’s a salesman from what I remember on his way to a town just north of Bordeaux. He tells me of a great restaurant also north of Bordeaux. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it there. Also, during my train ride to Bordeaux, I get a tweet from Sebastien of Chateau du Petite Thouars in the Loire Valley. This was after mentioning I was passing through Tours in the heart of the Loire Valley. I let him know I can’t stop on the way down, but I’m heading back to Paris in a few days. He and his girlfriend, D’Arcy live in Paris most of the time and they’d love to take me to dinner in Paris when I get back there. Sweet!

I arrive in Bordeaux. Lost again. Have no idea where to get my rental car. I eventually figure out where to go. I get to the building next to the train station and it’s dark. Closed. OK, I see a bunch of rental cars in the parking lot here and an attendant in a shack. I go there and ask him how I get my car. This is the first person that I run into that has a hard time with English, which is a bit funny since the British controlled Bordeaux for a while. He understands enough, but it’s a struggle. He tells me to go to the information booth in the train station.

Ugh. I go back there. I find the information booth eventually and talk to two gentlemen there. I explain my situation. They basically look at each other and let me know they’re really not sure what the answer to my dilemma is. They direct me to the Hotel California across the street from the station with the promise that I could get my car there or at least get an answer. YES! So maybe that’s the after-hours place.

I walk in to Hotel California. Yes, the Eagles song is running through my head. I don’t really believe I’ll get my car, but I’m hopeful. I walk in. This is around 10PM at this point. I ask the guy at the counter about my car. Confusion. Feck. I explain my situation to him. He’s sympathetic to my situation, but he can’t help me and doesn’t know why the information booth guys sent me there to get a car. Another moment of weakness. Very brief moment.

At this point I ask if there is “any room at the inn.” Not literally, but I felt like saying just like that. He lets me know that yes he has a room. And he has one where I don’t have to climb any stairs. Thank you, Jesus! At some point I’ve told him I’ve been traveling for 26 hours. I’m sure it was very evident anyway. It’s a room just off their lobby. I pay the rate; around 60€ if I remember right. He takes me to my room. It’s tiny. Like dorm room tiny. Actually half a dorm room. I’ve heard that the hotel rooms in Europe in general are small, but damn. This is a multi-story house that was converted into a hotel.

I get situated in the room. Unpack only what I need for the next day and my laptop. I Skype my parents. I have this MiFi unit that proves to be invaluable for the trip. While the hotel does have WiFi, it’s not that great, so I use the MiFi. It’s early evening in San Antonio and my parents are happy to see me and I tell them everything that happened. I finish the call and head to a restaurant I saw on the way.

Even though it’s after 10 on a Sunday night, there’s a lot of activity around the train station with bars and restaurants. I find one and order some food. In any other situation I’d probably rate it as average, but right now, it’s friggin’ awesome. I eat, head back to the hotel careful to avoid the drunk dudes on the way, and fall asleep.

26 hours later I can finally sleep in a bed with the knowledge that everything will be right in the world a few hours later. I’m in fucking Bordeaux.

A few links from today’s post:

Rail Europe – This is where I bought my train tickets. You can’t book more than about 9-10 weeks in advance.

Europcar – Basically the biggest car rental company in Europe. Prices seemed to be the best, especially for an automatic transmission

Hotel California – Yes, they have a website. No, my room wasn’t nearly as roomy as the one pictured, but, then again, I just needed a place to sleep for a few hours. If you look at their gallery, the little door to the back of the lobby area is where my room is. There is also a picture of the garden area with a walkway on the left. That was where my room was.

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