Part 2. A Hop, Skip, Plane, Metro, Another Metro, And A Train Ride Away


My feet are finally firmly planted on French soil. A half empty suitcase in hand - it WILL be full on the way back - I trace my way through the airport like I’m on a mission.

Which I am. The goal is to navigate Paris from point A to point B and transport myself over to the Province, where I was born and where Maman still lives. The mission shall be accomplished with minimal disruption and maximum dignity upon arrival. A determined look on my face, I raise my fist to the sky to conjure the good spirits and set off (OK, that was a tad dramatic but closely reflects my mindset).

This is by far the most unpleasant, unsexy portion of a trip to France. Jet lag’s shadow is rearing its ugly head and threatening to swallow me whole.

There’s no time to waste, the clock is ticking.

Walking in France is an art, a constant negotiation between leisurely strolls infused with chic and detachment, and sprints to the finish line smeared with a "don’t mess with me, I’m very busy and late already” vibe. Never forgotten, it’s just like riding a bike. I pick up the pace and slalom effortlessly between lost tourists and mountains of suitcases. I barely miss a tiny dog and two small children. Heads are shaken in disdain, curses are mumbled.

Gawwwd, I missed this. I could kiss the ground.

Everything in me is wide awake. A visit to France is a full sensory experience, and all my senses are ready to be gloriously assaulted. Sublime architecture at every turn? Right in your face, eyes! The smell of rotisserie chicken overtaking the farmers' market? Take that, nose! So yes, right now, my hair is bouncy with buzz, my skin is glowing, and I have a certain sparkle in my eyes.

There’s no better Botox than anticipation and excitement.

On the RER (suburban train) and in the midst of a shapeless mass of tourists, all equally sweaty, most wondering if they’re on the right line to the City of Lights. They are. How first-time visitors manage their arrival in Paris is beyond me. The Charles De Gaulle airport is a nightmare, its signage harder to decipher than hieroglyphs. True to French form, signs are severely lacking, directions do not make sense, and no one’s really there to help.

Once you get to Paris, you’re on your own.

The Gare de Lyon - one of Paris’ main train stations - offers a glimpse into the Province. Or part of it at least since this station only sends trains to central eastern and south eastern France. Mixed with Parisians, awaiting for their train platform to be displayed, are Provincials. Ever so slightly less edgy and cool than Parisians. How can I explain? Some still wear squared-tip shoes and don’t wonder a bit about it. I say that with all the love in the world. I too am, after all, a Provinciale (but shhhh, don’t tell anyone!).

Ah, platform 13. Off I go. I have barely gotten on the train that I get attacked by a feisty grandma who resists having her small bag moved slightly to the right to accommodate everyone else’s colossal suitcases. She’s tiny but fierce. We stand off. I can see it in her eyes, she’s not about to back down. So of course, in respect for her great age… I fight back.

Because this is France, a country populated by rebels and people who strive on resistance.

A country in which you have to fight for and against something, every single day. The culture demands it. It’s not a real trip to France until you’ve bitched someone out or been verbally attacked by someone thrice your age. It is one of our national sports, along with going on strikes and mocking passerby's while stirring our espressos.

Here starts the joust:

- Grandma: “No, you don’t get to move my bag.”

- Me (applying logic): “All we want to do is place the suitcases under and your bag on top so we have space for everyone’s luggage.”

- Grandma: " “No absolutely not. I came here early specifically to have space for my bag.”

- Me (pleading empathy): “Again, your bag will have space… on top of our suitcases.”

- Grandma: “No I came early to the train station to ensure that I could find space for my bag.”

- Me (in full emotional blackmail mode): “Well lucky you!! You are retired and have aaaaaall the time in the world to come to the train station early. Some of us are not so lucky, just spent 11 hours on a plane and would LOOOOVE to be done with this insane game of luggage tetris.”

- Grandma: “No!”, she says firmly, staring at me and not blinking.

Her response is final. I have lost the battle but not the war. I do what any other French person would do. I seek assistance from the other victims and, in a tiny but meaningful act of revolt, I wait for grandma to sit down and move her bag where it should have been all along: on top of our suitcases. She should consider herself lucky; it was either this or squashing her beloved carry-on under a massive amount of luggage, like a bug. Nan meh!

White fury over there has caught on the scheme and is giving me the evil eye. But I don’t care. Now comfortably seated on the cushy bullet train, I’m finally able to relax. Dignity is mostly intact and I’m zooming past a blur of French country clichés: vineyards, fields, a bridge, a car, gasp! another train crossing our path, cows, rinse, repeat. Nothing can get me down, the splurging is awaiting.

To be continued...


Photo: Eric Pouhier.