Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In the words of Blanche DuBois...

I thought that my two overnight train rides in six-person cabins populated by strangers would be the most adventurous and uncomfortable transportation aspects of my trip abroad. Silly me. As I write this, sitting in my airplane seat awaiting a flight that I pray will go smoothly, I still haven't processed the past three hours and the variety of emotions they have stirred within me.

Some background:

When I arrived in Paris this morning, I stored my luggage in a locker at Gare d'Lyon so that I would not need to shlep it around for the day. This necessitated that, after my "I'm leaving Paris, I really need to buy something NOW" induced shopping trip, I return to Gare d'Lyon before heading to Charles De Gaulle Airport. From Gare d'Lyon I took an RER A train one stop to Chatelet -- where I was to switch to the RER B train that goes to De Gaulle. With little fanfare, I made my way to Chatelet for my RER transfer. As I reached the B platform, I saw that a very full CDG-bound train was already waiting. Knowing that I had a large suitcase, a lengthy ride, and that the next train was only a few minutes away, I decided to wait -- hoping that I could procure a seat on the next one. I regretted this decision almost immediately. The next two trains to arrive were not CDG-bound and the platform was beginning to fill up again. The next CDG train would be just as crowded and I'd wasted 10 minutes for nothing. Once again, silly me.

Well, I finally made it on to a crowded RER B and was even offered a seat after one stop by a lovely girl who noticed that I had my hands full. All seemed fine -- despite some strange rattling noises that the girl in front of me did not approve of. Then, out of nowhere, the train began to jump, as as if it had driven over a large jumble of tree branches. My fellow passengers and I stared at each other, but no one said a word. Seconds later, the car filled with the smell of burning rubber. Many people, myself included, began to cough -- and a mild panic began to take hold. About a minute later, after trying, and failing, to open some windows, the train ground to a halt. About a minute after that, we heard it power down completely. This being an airport-bound train, many of us consulted our watches, wondering when -- or if -- the ride would resume. Then, an announcement.

A female railroad employee, clearly in shock and crying, mumbled a few sentences. Not speaking French, I began to seek out translation -- but saw only disbelief in the eyes around me. Finally, through gestures and bits of polyglot dialogue, I got it. Someone had jumped in front of the train.

Holy sh*t.

Suddenly missing my flight didn't seem so important. But, my moment of perspective was fleeting and I soon began to, once again, worry about myself. I had about 12 Euros in change in my possession, no working phone, and a minimal French vocabulary. I thought I had been so smart in spending down my Euros. I didn't want to have too many left over -- especially given that currency's current state. It didn't really matter though. For the time being, the train wasn't moving and neither was I. A nice man let me use his phone to try to call my airline, but I was on a holding loop when I heard a whir and an audible gasp. Some young men had pried open the doors of the train and people were beginning to jump out.

I was more than wary of this plan.

The people who had jumped out of the coach were climbing a fence about 50 feet from the train tracks and walking away -- to where, I had no idea.
Just then, the still-crying conductor returned to the PA system and made another announcement. From the gasps of the passengers, I knew it was not good news. Apparently there were two victims. Two people who had jumped in front of a moving train.


It was then that I saw some firefighters walk by our train car. Their presence sparked several people to make their way off the train. This required a pretty sizeable jump onto a rocky hill and a wall climb after which someone would throw you your belongings. Apparently, the firemen had communicated that we would likely be waiting 3-4 hours before the train could start up again.

Hearing this, a French girl sitting near me, about my age and also heading to CDG, said she was going to go. She'd walk into the next town and try to find herself a cab. I suppose it made sense, considering that staying put meant that she was sure to miss her plane. Another girl tried to convince me to do the same. I looked at the wall I'd need to scale, thought for a moment, and said I couldn't. She reminded me that I was going to miss my plane. I concurred, but explained that I don't speak French and that I was nervous to head into a strange town in the hopes I might somehow find a ride to the airport. Time was already tight and I preferred missing my plane to ending up alone in the dark in a French village. At least if I stayed put, I'd eventually get back to Paris -- I hoped.

But as the minutes ticked away -- and more and more people began to jump from the train, even small children -- I questioned my decision. So many people were airport-bound. And, a group of men, in a feat of strength, managed to knock down the fence so that scaling a wall was no longer necessary in order to get away from the train tracks. I decided to go for it. I was probably going to miss my flight anyhow, I might as well try.

I cautiously lowered myself to the floor of the train and contemplated my jump. The ground below was slanted and covered in rocks. I gritted my teeth and succumbed to gravity. Though wobbly, my landing was painless and I managed not to fall -- though my heart and the laughter of the men at the door of the train told me it was close. The men, who had taken on the role of gatekeepers, passed me my belongings -- including a very heavy suitcase -- and I made my way to the spot where the fence had been breached.
Around the bend, I encountered my former seatmate. She had called and was waiting for a cab, but was sorry to tell me it was going to be full. She explained that most people were walking to the next train station where they were hoping there would be cabs available.

I followed the crowd, answering "Je ne comprende pas" every time a fellow traveler tried to communicate. At one point, I considered joining a young couple who had flagged down a woman in a minivan they were hoping would drive them to the airport. They were unsuccessful in their mission and I trucked on. I honestly had no idea where I was going, but I followed the other intrepid travelers with rolling suitcases and walked parallel to the tracks through a sparsely populated residential area where people stared at us in our motley parade. In the distance, I saw another train. I hoped this meant the station was near and that I'd find access to a taxi. Preferably one which would accept my 12 Euros, 40-something American dollars, or a credit card as payment.

I continued to follow the others on an increasingly windy path, through parking lots and playgrounds, when I finally saw what seemed to be a busy intersection -- and a bus. A bus! I began to run, or hobble -- with my over-stuffed suitcase, hoping that the railroad had sent a shuttle to take all of us weary travelers to CDG. It was not to be. It was a regular bus, at a regular bus stop, and none of its routes included the airport.

Disappointed, I noticed the growing crowd at an unattended taxi stand to my left. There were no taxis, but there was a sign, and that was something.
Surveying the crowd, I heard heavily accented English being spoken between two middle-aged gentlemen.

"Do you speak English?," I inquired.
"Yes," the younger of the two men replied.
"Are you going to the airport?"

Again, his reply was yes and I asked if I could join them. They said sure, noting, that with the older man's son, our group would be four. I explained that I could only pay with dollars. The younger man hurriedly told me not to worry and that he would pay my share. I thanked him profusely and we began to seek out taxis.

A few passed by, but already had passengers. A group next to us flagged one down and put two members of their group in that cab's remaining seats. After several minutes, the older man's son flagged down a minivan taxi that had an old man in the front passenger seat. The opportunistic driver said he would take us after dropping his passenger off nearby and at the price of 30 Euro per person. My benefactors agreed and we piled in. The driver told us it would be a 15-20 minute journey to CDG. After bidding the old man "Au revoir," literally, we were off. After a serious lobbying effort, I convinced the men to take 30 dollars from me and continued to thank them for their help. I am absolutely certain that they only took my money because of how absurdly ripped off we were being by the taxi driver and the realization that he had actually deprived them of all their cash.

I knew I was going to Terminal 2, but beyond that I was clueless. There were no signs letting me know which airline parks where. The younger man was going to 2B and the father-son pairing needed Terminal 1. Our driver stopped first at 2B. The man and I ran out, grabbed our bags, and wished our new companions a hearty good luck. The man dashed off and I tried to figure things out.

Seeing no signs of clarification, I stopped a CDG employee and asked her for my airline. She and friend were heading to a cigarette break, but she told me she'd show me to the Info Desk because she wasn't sure. I told her my story and we began to run because she, like me, was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it to my plane.
The woman at Information told me to go, quickly, across to 2A and hope that check-in wasn't completed.

My new CDG employee friend (I can't spell or pronounce her name) insisted on running with me since I didn't know the way and even insisted that I let her pull my rolling bag.

Upon our breathless arrival at the XL Airways area, she explained the situation and a staffer let me past the rope line.
However, upon reaching the counter, I was told that check-in was closed and that I'd need to go lobby the airline to let me on the flight. Seeing this, the staffer who had let me past the ropes intervened and I was allowed to get my boarding pass and even check my bag.

Very luckily, I faced no lines at security or Passport Control and my gate was located directly behind the x-ray machines.

I walked onto the plane just as the boarding period was nearing its end.
Now sitting in my seat, almost 2 hours after takeoff (the amount of time I've been writing this), I have a moment to think about someone other than myself.

Why did two people jump in front of a commuter train? Their motive, I'm sure, was not to have me miss my flight. What had gone so wrong in their lives that they thought death was the answer? How are their families? How is that conductor? Her shock and sadness were palpable. She will never be the same.

What possessed that lovely airport employee to run with me (and my suitcase!) through the tunnels of CDG? I tried to express my gratitude, but as she kissed me goodbye (both cheeks, very French), the other staffer dragged me away. I told her I wouldn't forget her, and, the next time I see someone in need of a helping hand, I pray that I won't.

Kindness and sadness emerge in the strangest of places. Character is your reaction wherever you find them.