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Alain Ducasse
Julia Childs

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French Trains Run On Time!!


Do you love to travel? Have you wanted to go to Europe - France, maybe? Or maybe you want to return, but need a final little encouragement? This column is for you. Travel to a non-English speaking country is not as difficult as you might think, but there are a few tips and tricks, learned from experience, that make it a lot easier. Oui, with a few anecdotes and a few lists, I hope to make it easier for you.

Let's start from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. To get to Provence, you can try to fly closer to your end destination, rent a car, take a bus, or take a train (TGV). European trains are almost legendary for getting you anywhere. Should be easy, right? This is the experience part - I'd never done it before. We usually drive. Here's what I learned about the Train Station (le Gare).

French trains run on time. It’s one of the few things in France that do, … except during a strike, … but the conductors are very serious about the timeliness of the train. On a recent trip, I decided to try a new experience – take a bullet train from Paris to Provence. At the station, I was a little disoriented – it being my first time; a little late which is normally not a problem in France; and a little bit in the wrong place for the first class ticket I held (wrong section of the train). The conductor, I’m sure, had seen travelers like me, and he knew just what to do. Without hesitation, he carefully (although a bit abruptly) put my bags on the nearest car and let me know (without hesitation) that my bags would make it fine – if I wanted to go with them, I should also get on the … right car. I could find the right car while on the train. “Aller vite”, said he. The train would be leaving in 15 seconds. I did. And it did.

It's easy to be confused. European trains have a first class and a second class. Not much difference except maybe the softer reclining seat in first. Consider it only for longer rides. The first class cars are always at the front. Unfortunately, the train doesn't always enter the station front first. A train on its "return" trip will move backwards ... which makes the first class section at the back by my reasoning. Not for the French. It's simply an untidy detail in an otherwise orderly transaction. The First Class section is at the front... the train is just facing differently. For those who are having trouble with the logic, there is a way to tell.

As you enter the platform area, the list of arriving trains will be displayed overhead along with the arrival time. Just before your train is due to arrive, look for an eye level image of your train. It will tell you exactly where to stand on the platform. Each train is different so be sure you are checking on your train and not the one that arrives 5 minutes earlier. The train image will show each 1st and 2nd class car along with a Letter designation - AA, BB, etc. You'll see which end is 1st or 2nd class. Your ticket will say which car you should be on. Look for that car number, i.e. 3, 4, 5 and find your "letter". You'll see large letters of the alphabet overhead along the platform. Find your designated letter and go there. Your car will be close to that location. Lastly, you'll need to find your seat; but trust me on this, if you are on the right car, the last step is easy.

But let’s just back up here a second. Experience comes when plans don't go as planned. I arrive after an 18-hour day a bit excited, a bit anxious and a bit confused about where to go. Step one for me with all my big bags in Paris is to get myself a luggage cart. In most European airports, they're still free. Heading off to "le gare", I walk what seems to be miles and then finally encounter the escalator. Won't work with my cart and all these bags. But there must be an elevator. Ah...there is - but it says "no carts" … don't believe all the signs on elevator doors. Take your cart. The French hate to follow rules. The sign gives them a limited opportunity to exercise individuality in an otherwise very strict environment. At a crowded elevator, you'll see plenty of examples. If challenged, here is where I would pretend not to read French. After being polite ... and missing the first two elevator cars - too many carts, I think, it was clear…the second rule is "every man or woman for themselves" or you’ll just watch the elevator go up and down without you. I get on and I go down. I see 2 platforms and 2 doors. Several questions and answers later, I confirmed it is the door to my left that heads to Provence. This is where I learned that trick about being sure you are watching the image for your train. I was early and easily found the right car for the train that arrived 5 minutes earlier ... and facing differently from how my train would face. I was at the right end of the wrong when I experienced, first hand, the determination of the French conductor to be on time.

A bientot.

PS: Buy your ticket in advance. Lines can easily by an hour long.

Bien Amicalement,