Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sweatpants Across Europa: France


A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story.  To begin at the beginning, go here.

Paris is a wonderful city for tourists. It has a few extremely high-profile attractions. It has a subway system. It has delicious cuisine available on nearly every street corner. Most attractions are within a long but reasonable walk from each other (although the Eiffel Tower is always much, much farther away than one thinks it is. Trust me.) Paris should have been the highlight of our trip. But it wasn’t.

I knew it wouldn’t be. I didn’t know how it wouldn’t be, but I knew from experience that in some way, Paris would frustrate me. The first time I went to Paris, I was a poor college student touring with some friends. We sat down to enjoy a snack at a small café. I wasn’t very hungry, but agreed to go along. The waitress took our orders but became very stern when she came to me and I told her I didn’t want anything. “You have to order some-seeng,” she said. I did not expect this sort of ultimatum. Have to? I had learned to expect bizarre rule enforcement from customs agents or DMV employees but not restaurant staff. Irritated, I ordered a sparkling water. I hated sparkling water but it was the cheapest thing on the menu.

For my return to Paris, I went with an open mind. These are nice people, I told myself. They mean well. There are just a few bad apples who are either arrogant or rigid. Due to the friendliness of the Parisians we encountered or maybe a bit of luck, our trip went without incident. Except for some rain during our visit to the Eiffel Tower, Paris was brilliant. We ate croissants every morning, visited art galleries that included paintings even I recognized, and never once felt the urge to make a tasteless World War II joke. Until we tried to leave.

All that stood between us and a flight home from London was a ride on the Eurostar, the high speed train that traveled between England and France beneath the English Channel. We arrived at the Eurostar station at 6:43 PM, ready to buy our tickets for the 7:19 train to Waterloo. By the time we got there, the 6:16 train had not even left yet. Unfortunately there was a bit of a line, but it looked manageable. By the time we were at the front of the line, probably around 6:50, we were told we could no longer buy tickets for the 7:19 because we had to check in thirty minutes prior to the scheduled departure (never mind departure was clearly going to be at least an hour late). In situations like this, one expects a bit of compassion. Unfortunately, Paris is not the place to be a frustrated American looking for compassion. The ticket person told us that there was nothing she could do – regulations are regulations, after all – but we could go upstairs and plead with the EuroStar ticket window people up there.

Anyone who has ever been transferred from one customer service agent to another can quickly recognize an impending goose chase. Just in case the upstairs Eurostar agents were not able to fulfill the hopeful predictions of their downstairs counterparts, I asked if the next train, which left at 8:43, had any student-priced tickets available. It did not. If we did not manage to board the 7:19 train for forty euros, we would have to board the 8:43 at full price, whatever that may be. Not the best outcome, but not a huge problem, I thought.

We bolted up the aforementioned flight of stairs, past a sign marked “ticketed passengers only,” and approached a bank of ticket windows that must have been for ticketed passengers who just wanted more tickets. We waited in another, slower moving line while the clock ticked away. Growing increasingly frustrated, we spoke with a very unsympathetic Eurostar ticket agent who clearly had no interest in selling us a student-priced ticket aboard the half-full 7:19 train. However he did tell us that we could wait until twenty minutes before boarding to see if any “released tickets” came up. To nobody’s surprise, no tickets were released. We asked, as kindly as possible, what the full price of the tickets was. “145 euro, round trip,” was the reply.

Doing some mental math, we calculated the cost of a one-way trip. “Ah,” thinks I, “so a full price, one-way ticket would be half of that, or roughly seventy euros.” It certainly was not the price we wanted, but it was reasonable. So we asked, “What about one-way?”

“250 euro.”

I assumed he misspoke. I asked if he was correct and, in fact, a one-way ticket was nearly twice as expensive as a round trip.

“Yes”.

He seemed to be enjoying this.

Needing to calm down, I wandered away for a bit. The 7:19 train pulled away from the station. There were no better deals waiting for us. At that point, the price I would pay to leave France was rapidly rising. Lacking better options, we paid, boarded our train, and stewed silently while the dark French countryside flew by.