Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Light at the End of the Channel Tunnel

As the pessimist once said, “If you think you see light at the end of the tunnel, it's not. It's a train coming to run you over.” This would have been quite an accurate image, except that in South East England on Tuesday morning, the chances of a train travelling through a tunnel at a speed likely to run you over seemed minimal.

On my arrival in London, a mere 23 hours late, I dragged my suitcase from St Pancras to King's Cross only to discover that there were no trains whatsoever leaving for the North that day. I schlepped my luggage over to Euston, hoping to catch the cross country service only to discover that Virgin had decided that the thousands of passengers who were supposed to travel on the hourly East Coast service would not all fit on their trains and were telling people to go back to St Pancras, where a miracle would apparently happen and north-bound trains would appear.

(On the fifteen minute walk between the stations, my one consolation was looking at the Eurostar queue, which was several kilometres long and served by security guards to lead it across the roads and volunteers serving coffee (we Brits really do queue well), and being eternally grateful that I wasn't in it.)

At St Pancras, a member of staff told me that the proposed solution was to take a train to Sheffield and catch a connection to Scotland from there. This sounded like an idea more likely to have been suggested by an armchair railway enthusiast with too much time on his hands than an actual, practical solution, so, despite the temptation to run for the Sheffield train before the rest of the millions got there, I decided to try changing direction entirely and phoned my brother, who lives in the South West, instead. Luckily, he answered his phone and luckily I could stay with him that night, and luckily the only flaw in my journey from then on was an abandoned bagel which I had ordered but didn't have time to collect in Paddington before I dashed to grab a seat on a delayed and very crowded train.

Funnily enough, there is loads of snow in the South West but the trains, apart from being a little late, appeared to be running just fine. I'm off to build a snowman!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

As well as the guardian angel lady who got me on the Eurostar this morning, in the midst of a winter of Parisian rudeness, a couple of other acts of kindness have touched me recently.

This morning at the metro station, a lady kept the gate open for me so that I could get my suitcase through. She stood holding it as I fumbled for my ticket, organised my multiple bags and pieces of clothing and shoved the suitcase under the turnstile.

And the other week, also in the metro, I was trying to change trains at Bastille and because the connecting passage was blocked for building work, came out of the exit by mistake. When I went to the information desk to ask the man to revalidate my ticket, he not only did so with a smile and without telling me how stupid I had been, he also gave me a free magnet wishing me a happy Christmas from the RATP. As public transport workers are normally the grumpiest in the world, this counts ten times over on the kindness scale.

Merry Christmas, everybody, from me as well as the RATP!


November 2010

“Eurostar can't afford to make the same mistakes again,” I said confidently to numerous friends and acquaintances when they asked about my Christmas travel plans. Last year, I managed to catch an Easyjet flight home in the 4 hour window between Charles de Gaulle airport opening and Edinburgh airport closing and counted myself incredibly lucky, especially as two friends were on a train which got stuck in the Channel tunnel and had to be towed out, meaning that they arrived home in the Midlands (in a taxi paid for by Eurostar) in the wee small hours of the morning and about 13 hours later than expected. This year, we were sure that the train company would have resolved their problems and snow on the train tracks somehow seemed less of a problem than snow on an airport runway.

Mood: Far too confident

December 17th - 18th 2010

Snow was falling in the Ile-de-France. Horror stories began to come on of friends waiting days for flights and spending the night in the airport.

Mood: Ever so slightly smug

December 19th 2010

Eight Eurostar trains were cancelled as more snow fell overnight. Messages from Eurostar suggested rescheduling journeys if possible but the snow melted. I was becoming a little bit worried about making my 2 hour connection in London but I figured I'd catch another train.

Mood: Optimistic

December 20th 2010

10am: I set off for the Gare du Nord. A couple of trains had been cancelled that morning, and mine was also cancelled, but others were running. I would get there eventually, I was sure. Nice lady in a yellow jacket told me to go and join the queue to wait for a place on the next train.

Mood: Not too worried yet.

10.45 am:This isn't the end of the queue...nor is this... 3 loops around the concourse of the Gare du Nord and this might be it. But Eurostar trains hold hundreds, right?

Mood: It'll be fine.

3pm: I've been waiting in this queue for 4 hours now. I have begun eating my family's Christmas presents and am vaguely wondering where I could get a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine. Occasional announcements come over the tannoy but we can't hear them because we are about 5 miles from the Eurostar terminal. We can't see the departures board either. Some nice people behind offer to keep my place so that I can go and buy a sandwich. Not sure I can go to the toilet though – it's too far away. My phone battery is running out and I'll have missed every connection in London apart from the sleeper train. Hmm...

Mood: Resigned

4pm: Rumours start to spread that the only trains arriving in Paris are 4 hours late and broken down. The station is freezing and I can only feel my feel because of the biting pain in my toes.

Mood: Surprisingly upbeat, especially about the fact that I have a nice warm flat and friends to spend Christmas with in Paris.

5pm: Suddenly the queue starts to move. Is this it? Has the famous 6 o'clock train arrived? Nope, the queue is moving because there are no more trains and staff are telling people to go home.

Mood: Still upbeat about the flat and the friends but hoping I don't have to go through all this tomorrow. Also somewhat pissed off that despite the fact that northern Europe is supposedly in the grip of an Arctic winter, it's about 5 degrees in Paris, the slush is turning to grey water and it's raining. I wouldn't mind being held up in the snow if there actually was some.

December 21st

7.30 am: Phone call from Understanding Frenchman at the Gare du Nord. Eurostar trains are departing and the queue is not enormous. I jump out of bed, throw on yesterday's clothes, grab yesterday's suitcase and make a dash for the metro.

Mood: No time for moods, just move!

8.15 am: Arrive at the Gare du Nord. The queue doesn't look enormous...until I realise that instead of looping around the concourse, today it's stretching out along the platforms for TER Picardie. It does seem to be moving, though, so I stand in it.

Mood: resigned, again

8.20am: Chat to a friendly French couple to check I'm in the right queue. They chat to one of the SNCF staff, who they seem to know. I chat to her. When I tell her that I was supposed to travel yesterday and that I'm all by myself, she adds me to a little group of desperate but somehow privileged people who have buggies, crutches and other signs of needing extra help. She leads us through business class to avoid the howling mob and slips us into the queue for the train.

Mood: Ecstatic
Lesson Learned: Chatting gets you everywhere, especially in French in France.

9.48 am: I am on the train. The train is slipping through the frozen fields of northern France and the carriage is blissfully warm and quiet.

Mood: How lucky am I???

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas Lights in Paris

Place Vendôme: Modern but Classy

Galeries Lafayettte: Eastern Splendour

Galeries Lafayette: Glamorous

Printemps: overly pink and not improved by the animated pink teddy bears who looked as though they were humping chairs in the windows