Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The long way home

My trip to Vienna was absolutely wonderful! I had a lovely time reconnecting with an old friend and discovering a delightful city. There is much more to be said about my first visit to Austria, but for the time being I think I will tell you the tale of my 27-hour journey home.

Maren dropped me off at the Vienna Airport at 11:30 am. My flight was scheduled for departure at 1 pm, so  I had plenty of time to get checked in and to the gate. When I tapped my reservation number onto the "self-check-in" screen a red message suddenly appeared: Your flight has been cancelled.

Paris was covered in snow, and 40% of all arriving AND departing flights from Charles de Gaulle had been scrapped. The best that Austrian Air could offer me was "stand-by" status for a flight that was scheduled to depart at 5:30 pm; however, they encouraged me NOT to check my suitcase because if I did not get on that flight, it would be next to impossible retrieve my bag for another night in Vienna.

I texted David to let him know the change of plans and I informed Maren that I might be begging a bed for another night.  Even IF I did get on the later flight, I would have long missed my train from Paris to Tours, where David was planning to meet me to drive me home to Loches. David did a quick internet search and found that there were NO trains from Paris to Loches later than the ETA of the flight.

Thankfully, we have friends in the Paris area. Dear friends. The kind of friends who, upon receiving a text about my predicament, reply, "Of course you are staying with us!" and "If the weather holds we will even pick you up at the airport." and "Will you need dinner?"

No matter what, I would have a place to sleep that night, so without a worry in the world, I waltzed my way through the Vienna Airport, eating chocolate, drinking cappuccino, and surfing the web on free wi-fi. An hour before the scheduled departure I went to the gate, but the attendant didn't arrive for another half hour. As he settled in behind the desk a line began to form--the stand-by-ers, vying for position.

Each of us heard the same response, though it came to us in varied languages, "I will tell you if you have a seat in 15 minutes." Meanwhile, boarding began.

Finally, one by one, names were called and boarding passes were issued. Never in my life was I happier to receive a middle seat in the back of the plane. 26B was fine with me! I quickly texted my Paris friends with an arrival time of 7:30 pm, turned off my cell phone, and made my way to my awaiting seat.

It was a calm flight, totally uneventful. I did get reprimanded for failing to turn off my Kindle before take-off; but honestly, it did not occur to me that my "book" was an electronic device. On the ground in Paris, before the plane even reached the gate, I got a call from my Paris friends. Snow had been falling again for the past three hours, and though they attempted to drive to the airport, the journey proved impossible. I would have to get a train to their village.

I thanked them for trying, and headed straight to the train station in the airport. I was relieved to hear French and thankful 1. That communication for the rest of the evening came easily and 2. That I am familiar with the public transportation system in Paris. Two years ago, if I had found myself in this very position, I would have been a little anxious and slightly overwhelmed. Instead, I was rather bemused and totally at ease.

In some ways, there is a sort of fraternal feeling among travelers on crazy-weather days. There are shared sighs, smiles, and snickers. Even ticket agents and airport employees seem to be graced with an extra dose of compassion. I felt a strange sort of "belonging" in the community of weary voyagers, and not once did it bother me that I was, indeed, traveling alone.

At the railway ticket office I booked a train to Chantilly, which required a change at Gare du Nord. All familiar ground for me. I then purchased another ticket for the following day--from Chantilly to Tours. This would require taking the train from Chantilly to Gare du Nord, the Metro (Pink line 4 direction Port d'Orleans) from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse, and then the TGV from Montparnasse to Tours. Again, all familiar ground. Paris is my playground.

Tickets in hand, I headed for the RER B, my ride to Gare du Nord. Few people were on the train, so I settled into a window seat, placing my suitcase at my side. I texted my friends to tell them my ETA.

Two stops later--at the convention center--the train filled to the gills. I have been on crowded Paris trains before, but I have never seen anything like this. People were squished 2 to a seat, sitting on the backs of seats, and literally hanging from the rafters. For the next several stops no one could get on OR off the train, because the bulk of the crowd wouldn't budge.

My seatmates and I began discussing our desired destinations, and discovered that all of us were heading for Gare du Nord. We assumed that most would be getting off at this major hub, and dared to hope that it would be possible to leave the train when it arrived there. After several "weather-related" delays, we arrived at Gare du Nord, and the crowd did budge, but not as quickly as necessary.

And so this is the point in the story for which I had to repent. I really did not want to go past this station and get off and catch a train back. I would already be running to catch my next train. And so when I heard the buzzer that warns that the doors of the train are about to close, and saw a wall of people who were trying to get ON the train, I picked up my suitcase, held it in front of my body like a battering ram, and shoved my way out of the train. Big men, little old ladies, women with babies, I cared not a whit whom I hurt on the way. I WANTED OFF THAT TRAIN! Oh Jesus, forgive me! Fortunately, I do not think there were any real casualties, just a few frustrated commuters who would have to wait for the next train.

My assertive, aggressive, assault method worked. I did get off. The young man who had been my seat-mate also escaped the train, but after seeing my wicked ways, he scurried away from me with a look on his face that communicated both fear and respect. No matter, I had another train to catch.

I ran, but my efforts were futile. I missed the train to Chantilly. How it left on time is a mystery to me! It seemed every train on the board was showing a delay. The next train to Chantilly was due in 20 minutes, but it was already listed at 10 minutes late. I had 30 minutes to kill. At least. I texted my friends to tell them that my arrival would be delayed, and that I would let them know when I was actually, finally ON the train to Chantilly.

You know its a bad travel day when SNCF is giving away free coffee, soft drinks, and water at Gare du Nord. I wandered over to the table to ask for a cup of water. An older gentleman served me and asked me all the typical traveler questions--he noted my accent, and wondered how far I had traveled that day. I explained that I LIVE in France and that I really hadn't traveled far at all--even though I'd been traveling for enough hours to have crossed an ocean. After hearing my traveling tale, he offered to take me to his apartment for the night. I thanked him for his generosity, but explained that I'd rather stay with my friends. Still, its nice to know I had options.

Finally, my train arrived (15 minutes late in the end) and I boarded without causing bodily harm to any more travelers. It was a 20 minute ride from Gare du Nord to the Chantilly station, during which I spoke to my husband for the first time all day. I told him my arrival time in Tours on the following day, and wished him a good night.

At 10 pm I was eating a warm dinner and holding my beautiful goddaughter, who so sweetly waited up for me! I slept in a lovely bed and had a delightful Dutch breakfast. At 9:15 am--wearing all the same clothes from the day before--I was back at the station, and at 12:31 pm my dear husband met me with a great big hug. A 40 minute drive to Loches--and at last I was home.

Home again, home again, jiggety jog.


  1. I'll bet you slept in "my" bed!
    :-) I didn't figure out who those friends were, until the end. I know. I don't catch on very fast! :-P

  2. Dear Jennifer,
    In heavy traffic,I hope you do not drive your automobile like you departed that train! Hee-hee from Howie!