“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.
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...
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.
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.
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???