There were two small hiccups in our travels through France, both metro-related.
We picked up a rental car in Bordeaux so we could explore the towns and villages in the Dordogne valley during our stay in Sarlat. Then we drove to Paris to return the car and start the big-city part of our vacation.
The vehicle return location in Paris was a hard-to-spot parking garage entrance near the Montparnasse railway station. We had to circle the block twice to find it but finally did, and we approached the Europcar office a few minutes after 8pm. I thought we were in good shape, since the website said this location was open until 10pm.
That was before we saw a man locking the door at the Europcar office and starting to walk away, just as we arrived. Luckily for us, we were able to stop him and ask, what are we supposed to do with this car? Had we pulled up just a minute later, we would have never known that (a) this parking-garage return location closed at 8pm, (b) it was the Europcar office inside the train station that was open until 10pm, and (c) if there was no one in this office, we were supposed to park the car, lock it, then drop the keys into a little hole in the top of a poorly-marked box next to the dimly-lit office. Needless to say, none of this was spelled out on the Europcar website or mentioned by the rental agent in Bordeaux.
The man who had just locked up the Europcar office was incredibly friendly and helpful. He told us where we should park, he looked over the car for ten seconds to make sure it wasn’t damaged, he told us what to do with the keys, and he stayed with us until we had unpacked our luggage from the car, even though by now it was a good twenty minutes after his closing time. Whoever said Parisians aren’t friendly to Americans?
But that is only Chapter One of this adventure.
Here we were with two bulky suitcases, in a parking garage next to a railway station near a metro stop that would take us to our hotel. Earlier that day, Sue had argued (successfully, I might add) that we should just take a taxi to the hotel so we would not have to navigate all the stairs in the metro stations with our luggage — and I had agreed. So I was looking for the path to the street where we could pick up a taxi, when Sue said, why don’t we just go ahead and take the metro? (I had given her the impression we could save 15-20 euros on the metro vs. taking a taxi.)
While waiting for the elevator in the parking garage, we exchanged pleasantries with a man in a suit and tie, and Sue asked him how we might get to the metro. He suggested we follow him, as he would be taking the same line as the one that would take us to our hotel, and he said his way to the station would be shorter.
Sue and I proceeded to lug our suitcases over the streets and through the crowds around Montparnasse, following the path forged by the kind Parisian (who, I must say, bore some resemblance to Gus Fring from Breaking Bad) for what seemed like half a mile, until we finally arrived at the station for Metro Line 4.
Gus Fring offered to take Sue’s suitcase down the Metro stairs, while I struggled alone.
Then there we were, finally, in the Metro, with our luggage, and now all we had to do is figure out how to buy tickets and get on the thing. Gus Fring helped again and showed us how to operate the ticket machine before we exchanged our parting pleasantries and business cards and went our respective ways.
We didn’t even make it past the first turnstile before we had another problem. As Sue was pulling her suitcase through the swinging doors just beyond the turnstile, the doors closed and clamped onto her suitcase – we couldn’t pull the suitcase through and I couldn’t pry the doors open. After a minute of struggle, Sue had the idea to put my own ticket in the turnstile to release the doors. This worked, to the relief of the people waiting behind us.
Beyond the metro turnstile, we were to encounter four more sets of stairways, some of which must have had 30 or more steps. So I formulated a strategy: I would take my suitcase partway up the steps, leave it there in sight of Sue, then go back down to retrieve her bag and lug it up, repeating this process until done. But something else happened: every time I left Sue at the bottom of the steps with her suitcase, a young man passing by would offer to haul her bag to the top. Who were we to argue?
[Note: No young men or women offered to take my suitcase up the stairs. Just saying.]
After a transfer (and many more stairs and kind assistants) we finally arrived at our stop. I had to get oriented and figure out which way we needed to walk (with our ever-heavier loads) to our hotel next to the Sorbonne. Ten or so minutes later, we dragged ourselves into the lobby of our hotel, and I said exhaustedly to the desk clerk, “Bon Soooir! Monsieur and Madame Collins are checking in.” From the looks on our faces, he could tell.
We walked into the lobby about 9:45 pm, a good 90 minutes after returning our car. If we had grabbed a taxi, it would have taken 15 minutes tops. Lesson learned. The Paris metro is no place for people with luggage, no matter how kind and helpful Parisian passersby may be.
Which brings us to our second metro adventure. Strictly speaking, this did not take place on the Paris metro system but on the regional rail system known as the RER. The RER has four lines (A, B, C and D) and has many stations throughout the city. You can ride the RER using a regular metro ticket if you stay in the city. RER trains do not run as often as the metro but they still save a lot of walking.
We used the RER C to take us to Musee D’Orsay on Sunday, our third full day in Paris. Very convenient — the stop is only steps away from the museum ticket office. After our visit, we had lunch and a glass of wine at the museum restaurant, then headed back to the station to return to our hotel.
A train had arrived just as we reached the platform. I looked up at the status screen but couldn’t tell whether this was the train we wanted, and I saw no signs on the exterior or interior of the train that identified it as RER C. I hopped through the doorway of one car to ask the passengers sitting next to the door whether this was in fact the RER C.
Here, dear reader, is where the universe splits. You can read my account or you can read Sue’s account. Then you decide: what would you do? Choose your own adventure.
Although I was asking “RER C? Is this RER C?” in my best French accent while I gestured to the confines of the train, no one on the train answered — in fact they hardly looked at me.
Suddenly the car doors began to close behind me! If there was a warning, I hadn’t heard it. I tried to keep the doors from closing but couldn’t pry them back open. Someone behind me said something about an emergency stop, but I had no idea where that was. The train began to pull away. I looked at Sue through the window with my mouth open, stunned, unable to think of anything to do or say.
This is when one of the passengers finally decides to speak to me. “You need to go back,” she says in an accent that was more Spanish than French. She tried to explain something to me, but I couldn’t grasp what she was saying. I got off at the next stop — which was in fact our destination.
Call Sue from my cellphone? Not an option. We had decided not to bother with them in France — too much fuss, and after all, who would we call?
Here were my thoughts. We had only needed to travel one stop on the RER C. I remember showing Sue, on the map posted in the station, where we were going and telling her we were one stop away. Did she remember? Would she board the next train and meet me here? Sue is smart. What would she do?
The last thing I wanted was for us to pass each other on trains heading in opposite directions, trying to meet up. Someone had to move and someone had to stay put.
I looked up at the screen and saw that the next train would arrive in about nine minutes, so I waited. Sue was not on it. Maybe she was asking for information. Maybe this train had not stopped at her station. Do all the RER C trains stop at all the stops, or are there “express” trains that skip stops? I didn’t know. And there was no information booth on this platform.
I decided to wait for the second train, which the information screen listed as “delayed.”
I waited a good twenty minutes. The “delayed” train disappeared from the screen and never showed up — where did it go? Finally, another train did pull into the station, but Sue was not on the this one either. I decided I would wait for one more train and, if she was not on it, I would go back to the museum station.
The third train pulled in another twenty minutes or so later. I hurried down the length of the train to look for Sue but again no dice. As the crowd of passengers cleared, a young couple walked up to me and asked, “Asheville, North Carolina?” It was the last thing I expected to hear in Paris. After I said yes, the man said, “Your wife is waiting for you back at the last station.”
That sealed it. I made my way to the opposite platform, found an information booth and asked if they could send a message to my wife at the Musee D’Orsay station that I was on my way. The woman at the information booth was very professional and obliging. Later, as I was waiting at the platform for the return train, she walked up to me and said they located Sue and had relayed my message.
We were reunited about ten minutes later. It felt like it had been hours. We smiled and began to compare notes.
I looked at Craig and I thought, that is pretty stupid – why is he on the train? He doesn’t even know this is the right one! Then I saw the door close with Craig inside – the look on his face was hilarious. Oh well, I said to myself, this will work out one way or the other.
So now I had to figure out what my choices were. First of all, I didn’t know where he was going or whether it was even the right train. And I didn’t know what station I was supposed to go to. I hadn’t been paying attention – Craig was in charge of getting us where we needed to go and I just did what he told me.
I looked at the screen for the next train and its arrival time was listed as “indefinite” — so I had no idea when another train was coming.
The bottom line is, I didn’t think I could get on another train because I didn’t know what the correct train or station should be. If I were to take a chance and get on the train and then get off at the next stop, and he wasn’t there because it wasn’t the right train or the right stop, then I was stuck. I had no money, just a ticket for the metro. And we would both be on the loose — he wouldn’t know where I was and I still wouldn’t know where he was.
As I learned in the Girl Scouts, if you ever get lost, the number-one rule is to stay put and wait for someone to find you.
So I just waited and entertained myself by asking various people around me what they would do if they were in the same situation. Pretty much everyone said, I think you’re right, just stay here and he’ll come back for you.
I started watching the trains coming in the opposite direction to see if he was returning. I didn’t think he would necessarily be on the first train coming back but I was surprised he was also not on the second.
After about forty-five minutes of waiting I started to panic. A homeless man was hanging around the vending machines several feet away, just standing and looking at them. No one else was around. I started to send brain messages: “Craig! Come and get me!”
I kept getting up and looking for the train and sitting back down. I sat next to another couple who happened to be from Boston. They told me they were getting off at the next stop and said they would look for Craig if I could tell them what he looked like.
They were just ready to board the train so I had to think fast. The first thing that came to mind was, “He is pretty nondescript.” Then I added that he was tall, had wireless glasses, was a little balding, and was wearing a sports shirt and black jeans. I forgot to mention his moustache.
A little later as I was waiting, I saw a security person walking directly over to me. She asked, “Did you lose your husband?” and I started laughing. I said, “Yes, I did.” She then said, “He’s on the next train and he’s coming back for you.” So I relaxed, sat down and waited.
I was pretty shocked, actually, that it took over an hour for him to come back. At the outset, I figured it would be a half-hour at the most.
We had a fun reunion – it was good to hug him again. I was never angry, I just couldn’t understand why he ever got on that train.
Readers are invited to share what they would have done (or their own metro stories) in the Comments section.
• • •
So, what did I learn from this (mis)adventure?
• Don’t step on a train that you don’t want to take!
• When traveling as a couple, make sure each of you has some money, at least enough for a taxi back to the hotel.
• In Paris, each track is dedicated to a single line. Lines do not share tracks. There would have been no other train but the RER C on that platform. I should have read this first.
• Furthermore, Paris has no “express” trains. Trains stop at every station they pass.
• We also learned (after the fact) that the RER system had been on strike for several days, so service was sporadic. This explained the long waits and the disappearing trains. (As I discovered later, the RER C normally runs every six or seven minutes.)
• Finally, I learned that I can still do stupid things even at 60-plus years old. And why I decided to wait for that third train is a mystery even to me.
Our helpful concierge told us about the ongoing RER strike when we got back to the hotel. She suggested that we book a shuttle rather than rely on the RER (my original plan) to take us to the airport at the end of our stay. We took her suggestion.
Sue noted that she wasn’t the only person at the station who didn’t know what was going on, where to go, or what to do. She thinks that the stations should have help phones on platforms where there is no information booth. That would have been helpful to me too.
Rick Steves says: “Travel is exciting and rewarding because it requires you to ad-lib, to be imaginative and spontaneous while encountering and conquering surprise challenges. Make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride.” Easier said than done for this everything-under-control perfectionist. Sue showed much more sang-froid than I did in this situation.
We used the metro several more times before we went home, without further incident or uncertainty. Maestros of the Metro.