When I was seventeen, freshly graduated from high school, I wanted to travel the world. I craved adventure. I wanted to hop trains in Germany, float down the canals of Venice, walk the rows of the vineyards in France. I wanted to stutter my way through foreign menus, camp out under the constellations of a foreign continent, cover my rucksack in the flags of the places I’d been. I wanted to post really, really cool pictures to my Facebook account, candid shots of me against sunsets and canyons and eagles, the types of beautiful panoramas that would make people say “Wow, jeez.” Instead, I spent the year working in a Winnipeg gelato shop, one that by sheer cruel coincidence (and I swear this is true) was elaborately decorated to resemble a rustic Italian plaza. Life is funny like that.
I’m twenty-six now, and I think I’ve finally achieved complete immunity to the Travel Bug epidemic. It wasn’t easy. Plenty of my friends and coworkers are still suffering its devastating effects, waking up sweaty in hostel beds around the world, unsure of which country they’re in. The men keep sprouting these awful ragged beards; the soles of the women’s feet are black with foreign soil and sand. Young people are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars every year into ergonomic backpacks, the kind that can hold four hundred pounds of sandals and t-shirts without ever compromising lumbar support, and yet nobody says anything about it. Worse still, none of them can shut up about how happy they are.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-travel in general—far from it. I’ve done my fair share of it. It’s just that I feel the same way now about travel as I do about going vegetarian: it’s awesome, so long as I don’t have to do it myself. I mean, hell, somebody has to be available to dog-sit while everyone else is off hugging baboons in the rainforest or whatever. So why not me?
Things you may be wondering at this point:
1) Well heck Kris, what the heck happened? How the heck did you go from big travel-y dreams in an Italian-themed ice cream parlour to being a proud wet blanket and dog-sitter?
2) Do people really hug baboons in the rainforest? Is that safe?
While I can’t comment with any authority on question number two (speculation: “I doubt it,” and “almost definitely not,” in that order), the answer to question number one is a little easier to manage. The short answer is: I am not great at traveling. I have terrible luck, a practically non-existent natural sense of direction, and serious food allergies. I could get lost in a Burger King, and if there’s something around that could kill me, I will probably wind up with it in my mouth somehow.
Things you may be wondering at this point, Vol. II:
1) …exactly how bad are we talking here?
The stories that follow are all true. I wish they weren’t. Keep in mind that this is hardly a comprehensive list of my travel mishaps—that would take way more time and emotional effort than I feel up to—they’re just a representational sample.
Look on my travels, ye readers, and despair.
INCIDENT #1: HE TOOK THE MIDNIGHT TRAIN, GOING ENH-EEEE-WHEEERRREEE.
Over the summer of 2011, I managed to land what was essentially my dream job: I was going to be flying over to France to work as an English-language counsellor for a series of day camps. On paper, it was about as cool as it gets: my job was basically to speak English with French students and organize dodgeball games, while making sure none of the kids poked their eyes out. We were to sleep on site, would have meals provided, and since the camps were taking place all over France, I would get to see a huge part of the country, with my in-country travel expenses covered. I could practically feel myself getting cooler.
Most of the counsellors were French with strong English language skills, but the head of the company, a tall American ex-pat named Joel, liked to bring on counsellors from other English-speaking countries to provide some variety—hence me. As the only Canadian going, it was set to be a hell of a commute: Winnipeg to Montreal, Montreal to Paris, Paris to Lyon in the south of France, and from Lyon I was to take a train to a small town close to the Swiss border called Cluses.
It was to be my first major trip on my own, so I was a little trepidatious. The flights I felt good about; those couldn’t be that hard. But I was a little concerned about getting from Lyon to Cluses—I don’t think I’d ever taken an actual train before. Joel reassured me. The steps to follow, he said, were quite simple:
1) Once I’d landed in Lyon, I was to buy a ticket for a tram. It would cost ~11€.
2) I was to take the tram to the Lyon train station, which should be a fifteen-minute trip.
3) I was then to buy a ticket to Cluses.
4) I was to take the train to Cluses and arrive sometime around three-thirty in the afternoon.
Here’s how things played out: By the time I landed in Lyon, I was exhausted. I’d been either on planes or in airports for something like twenty-three hours. I’m tall; sleeping on planes is uncomfortable at the best of times. When combined with my general excitement and nervousness, I didn’t get a wink. Because of that, I was coming up on “vivid hallucinations”-level tired. Once I’d gotten my rucksack from the baggage claim, I found the booth for the tram ticket easily enough; shelled out the eleven euros. When I asked where I was to catch the tram in my rusty, tired French, the woman just pointed down a long hallway to my right.
This is where everything goes wrong. I think the issue was that I misunderstood the word “tram.” Since it’s not really a common word in Canadian English, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking for. The hallway I was to walk down was really long; when I came to a set of train tracks about halfway down the hall, I figured that must be it. The screen on the platform listed the destination as “Paris, Gare de Lyon,” which I figured meant something like “region of Lyon, eventually going to Paris.” [Those of you who speak French are already shaking your heads.]
When the “tram” pulled up, it was massive and pristine. Double-decker, in fact. I remember thinking that a LOT of people must take the tram in Lyon as I boarded, threw my bag on a rack, and settled in for what was supposed to be a fifteen-minute ride.
After twenty minutes had gone by and I still saw nothing but farmland out the window, I started to get worried. We were going fast, too. I decided to try to find some information—I had seen a couple of train controllers walking around collecting tickets, so I thought I’d ask them when we were going to stop.
Eventually, I tracked down a pair of men wearing the distinctive purple uniform.
“Excuse me,” I asked, summoning up my best French from the depths of my memory, “can you tell please tell me where this train is going?”
They looked at each other for a second.
“Paris,” said the shorter of the two men. I could literally feel myself starting to sweat.
“Well,” I said hopefully, “where is the next stop?”
“Paris,” he said again. “This is the express train.”
As it turned out, what I had done was board a TGV (or Train à Grande Vitesse, literally “High Speed Train”) directly back to Paris, which I had flown out of not an hour and a half prior. I turned around to head back to my seat. It would be another two humiliating hours before I could even get off the train. I felt ill.
“Wait,” said the second controller.
I looked back at him.
“Do you have your ticket?”
Still in a bit of a daze, I pulled my eleven-euro tram ticket out of my wallet. The two controllers gave me a suspicious look.
“This is like a bus ticket, sir. Will you be needing a train ticket?”
I nodded, not sure what else to say. They turned to each other, whispered, and punched something into their handheld ticket machine. When they were done, they turned the screen back toward me. It listed the price for my ticket, including the fee for having boarded without a ticket to begin with, as ninety-eight euros.
By the time I arrived in Paris, I was freaking out. I like to think of myself as pretty even-keeled, for the most part, but this was a special occasion. First, my debit card was suddenly not working when I tried to withdraw money, meaning that I could only rely on my credit card. Second, my credit card didn’t have a chip in it at that point, which meant that only maybe forty percent of retailers could actually use it. Third, I had absolutely no idea where the hell in Paris I was, other than “in a big fucking train station.”
I managed to find an ancient pay phone and dial Joel. I was panicking. I was hoping he’d tell me to sit tight while he sent in a helicopter to pick me up, but instead he told me to hop the next train back to Lyon and continue following the original plan, and to try to update him with my new arrival time. I took a deep breath and hung up.
With the state of my debit and credit cards, All I could rely on was the cash I had in a pouch slung around my neck: two hundred euros that had been given to me as a parting gift. On the plane, I had conservatively estimated it was plenty of money and would last me straight through the year 2014. (I am not, shall we say, financially-minded.) Between the first ticket and this new ticket I needed to buy to return to Lyon, plus the croissant and the coffee I’d had at the airport, I was down to about thirty euros. I prepared myself to become a sort of dirty, destitute vagrant, a lone Canadian “Eh”-ing his way around the backroads of France. I got back on the same train I’d just taken out of Lyon to head back to Lyon, this time brandishing my totally-real-and-legal ticket like a crucifix to ward off vampires. I told myself I’d get some sleep.
ANOTHER two and a half hours later, I still hadn’t managed to sleep, and my exhaustion-paranoia was reaching new highs, which were compounded by both pay bathrooms (Why, France? WHY?) and the fucking incessant jingle that plays before every announcement in French train stations, approximately every forty-five seconds. It’s a clip that goes like ”*swoosh* ba-da-Bah-Dah,” except at a volume that can’t possibly be safe for your eardrums, and it now haunts my nightmares.
I was shaking like a nervous chihuahua surrounded by doberman pinschers as I stood in line to buy my ticket to Cluses. I had a persistent fear that the controllers would find me and kick me out of the station or something, or that I would suddenly forget all my French and be stranded there without any change for the bathrooms. When I did get the ticket, I checked and re-checked the information a dozen times. I did not want to be lost again. The departure platform, the departure time, the destination—I knew it all. It also listed a specific train car, but I was having trouble telling which car was which—to this day I maintain that they weren’t marked (although it must be noted that every French person on the planet maintains that I’m just an idiot).
Eventually I did my best to just choose the car that seemed right. At the end of the day, how much could it matter? It’s not like trains, I dunno, SPLIT UP AND GO TO MULTIPLE DESTINATIONS, RIGHT?
THAT WOULD BE INSANE, WOULDN’T IT?
So anyway, I eventually found myself pulling into the train’s terminal station: Geneva, Switzerland.
I was not then, and am not now, a geography buff, but I did seem to recall that Switzerland was not a part of fucking France. Somehow, I had not only missed the city in question, but had managed to go to the wrong country. By then I had completely given up on ever: a) getting to Cluses, b) seeing my family again, and c) surviving. I didn’t know which language they spoke in Switzerland (Swiss? French? Swedish?), which currency they used (didn’t they sit out of WWII? Did that mean they used their own crazy pacifist money?), or what the hell the getting-out-of-Switzerland situation would be like. Was this like the Canadian border with the States? Would they cavity search me for contraband cuckoo clocks as I got off the train or something?
Thankfully, a kind woman at one of the ticket kiosks showed me how to take public transit to a local train station, and in a (rare) stroke of luck, no controller had actually punched my ticket, so it was technically still valid to take to Cluses from Geneva (I won’t pretend to understand how that worked; she may have just been trying to calm me down). She did warn me that this was literally the last train to Cluses for the day—if I somehow missed it or screwed it up, I would be stranded. Which was… helpful.
The payphones wouldn’t take my change, so I couldn’t call Joel. I was nearly catatonic with panic, and still hadn’t slept, bringing my total hours without sleep to somewhere in the mid-thirties range. I looked like a patriotic meth head, jittery and decked out in a bright red Canadian Olympic sweater.
The whole time I rode the train out of Geneva and towards Cluses, I was on the verge of a complete breakdown. Would a controller just come in and kick me off if I couldn’t pay a fine? What would I say? I practiced the French phrasing for “I am incompetent and foreign, please just let me live” again and again in my head. As we came up closer to Cluses, I remembered that I still hadn’t been able to call Joel—he wouldn’t have any idea where I was, and I didn’t have a single clue of what the address was of the site I was supposed to be at. Would it be close? Would I be able to walk? Were there cabs? Outside, the sun had set and it had also started to rain, because I guess I was serial killer in a past life or something.
The doors of the train opened, and I stepped off, equally relieved and defeated. I’d have to find a pay phone, maybe, or see if anything was open nearby and—
If I ever get married, I can tell you right now that having the love of my life say “I do” will not be half as sweet as hearing my name on that platform. It was Joel. I was floored. I asked him how he’d known I’d be there and he just laughed.
“This is the last train of the day—I showed up for the second last one and stayed. Figured you had to be on one of the two.”
So, to recap—here are the steps I was supposed to take compared to the actual steps I took:
1) Fly Winnipeg-Montreal-Paris-Lyon/1) Fly Winnipeg-Montreal-Paris-Lyon
2) Take tram to Lyon train station/2) Take express train directly back to Paris like some sort of idiot
3) Take train to Cluses/3) Take express train BACK to Lyon
4) Arrive in Cluses/4) Take train to Switzerland somehow
5) Narrowly avoid complete panic-induced break with reality
6) Take train back to Cluses
7) Try not to cry
Estimated approximate cost of non-flight travel: 45€
Estimated arrival time: 3:30 PM
Actual approximate cost of non-flight travel: 195€
Actual arrival time: 9:30 PM
As a bit of an epilogue: there was one unexpected upside to the whole thing. I learned very quickly that there is hardly anything that makes a European love a North American more quickly than hearing about how badly they screwed up taking the train. If I wasn’t friends with someone there at first, I was the second I finished the story. They were moved almost to the point of tears at the hilarity of it, riveted and demanding that I tell their friends. I was like an incompetent folk hero, some sort of moronic Johnny Appleseed.
So overall, we can chalk it up to a win—just so long as I never have to do it again.
I know this will likely be a bit unbelievable, but next week for Part II we’ll get into the really dumb travel mistakes. You’re thrilled I’m sure.
(Now that time you forgot your sunscreen at the beach doesn’t seem so bad, does it?)