Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4, 2008 – Arriving in France

The trip to France was “tres comfortable”. International flights are so much better than domestic flights. Free peanuts, beverages, pillows, blankets, dinner (with wine), and breakfast. I left the plane, cleared customs and then looked for my luggage. My big suitcase came right away…but where was my bike? I waited for 25 minutes, and still I didn’t see the case. Finally, I asked a woman with an official looking badge about my bike.

“Oversize luggage is by the exit,” she said.

Of course! How could I be so stupid to not know that even though there were no signs or people to explain!

The next challenge was finding my train to Bordeaux. There were no signs saying “Train this way.” So I asked and headed toward gate F. Fortunately, I had a cart so I could haul my two suitcases and bike cases with ease – at least for a while.

Then I came across a sign that said train “this way” which I followed. I went down the elevator and my suitcases tipped over twice. People watched me and seemed annoyed and inconvenienced. No one offered to assist. I took an elevator down to where I thought the train was and didn’t know where to go. All of a sudden, an assembly started down the escalator. The drums pounded and people were cheering. I had asked a man, “Ou est loe TGV?” (Where is the TGV train?) It was difficult to hear his answer, but I realized it involved going up the elevator that I had taken down. I had made a wrong turn.

I lugged my cases back up the elevator, and found a policeman. “Ou est le TGV?”

He spoke some English, and told me I was there. I just had to go down two stories to the train tracks.

It might as well have been rappelling 20 stories down the Empire State building. By this time, lugging my suitcases – even with wheels – had me drenched in sweat.

I looked around, and didn’t see an elevator. So I took two trips with the escalator, first hauling my bike case and then my two suitcases.

At the bottom of the escalator, I was relieved. I saw the train for Bordeaux was coming in 20 minutes. I had made it! And next to me was a friendly man – and I smiled. Thanks for the smile – he said – obviously an American. I felt a sense of comfort for the first time since leaving the plane. We talked about the American economy, the housing fiasco, the price of gas for the 10 minutes we shared. The train arrived, and I asked the porter about my seat. I was at letter B and I had to be at F. Down the tracks I ran with suitcases being pulled from each hand.

Would I get on the train in time? I was nervous. There is a no refund policy with the TGV ticket I purchased. I found car 17, and attempted to lift my luggage up. A woman in a sari, looked like she was going to help me as no one else would lend a hand. Her efforts shamed her son(?) to put aside his cigarette and help me lift up my suitcases.

I was on the train – smelly from my overnight train ride and hauling the suitcases through the airport. I was dressed in athletic pants with my hair in a ponytail – the antithesis of French sophistication. But I am here! On my way to Bordeaux on the 4th of July.

The train ride was relaxing and scenic. I watched the French countryside pass me by. The scene became hypnotic – and I was tired. I wanted to avoid sleeping so I could adjust to the eight hour time difference in France. I walked to the refreshments car and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich and a Beujolais wine. The sandwich was not like any ham and cheese sandwich I have had. Ham was in the middle, then a thin layer of cheese, followed by bread and another thick layer of cheese on the outside. It was like eating a ham/cheese/pizza/sandwich!

Four and a half hours later I had reached my destination – the Bordeaux St. Jean Railway station. The hotel was nearby, but first I had to go down a flight of stairs and up again to avoid crossing over the train tracks. I walked and found a ramp down and then an escalator up. My arms were aching and I was sweating profusely once again. I walked slowly through the crowds in the station. “Excusez moi!” I said loudly as I attempted to avoid running into people. I made it outside and knew the hotel was only a few blocks away. Only…over narrow sidewalks made of crooked bricks. I wanted to sit down and stop where I was. Then a man came by and offered to help me wheel my bike to the hotel. I was so relieved and happy.

I checked into the hotel and took the elevator to my room. Three people saw me lugging the bike and asked me if I was part of the Wide Open Road tour group. Ian (from Australia), Jonathan and Becky (both from England) asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. (I'm on the right side of the photo.) We had tasty Bordeaux wine and then with the help of some locals found a local pizza place. We had struggled to find a place that Jonathan, a vegetarian, could find some food. After walking and walking from place to place, I stopped two couples on the street and asked for help. They were happy to walk us to the pizza place. My companions were surprised that these people were walking with us. They asked if I knew them. No - just getting the help I need and muddling through with my very bad French. The amazing thing I realized is that people appreciate it if you even try to speak their language. I didn't have to do it well - the effort was what mattered.

It’s now after 1 a.m. on July 5 – and I can’t sleep!

(The architecture around Bordeaux is amazing. Check out the photo with the lovely statues atop the building.)

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