One must take a few train rides while in Europe. I believe it states that in the handbook they give you when you arrive. So, being ever dutiful and rule-obeying, I did.
London to Amsterdam
My first train ride of the season. Being a planner, I had purchased my tickets several weeks in advance. There was a special on the Eurostar website for the exact trip I planned to take, yet I could not make the website behave. No matter what I did, I could not get tickets to Amsterdam from London. So I picked up the phone and spoke to James, a charming Brit who helped me get my tickets.
During the transaction he asked me if I would like seats in the first class compartment for the same price as standard class. Does anyone ever say No to that question? The day before my departure, I swung by St. Pancras station to get the lay of the land and pick up my ticket from the self-serve machine. So far so good.
The morning of my departure, I arrive at the Eurostar terminal, put my ticket into the slot on the turnstile and await the opening of the magical world of first class before me. Ha! The turnstile wouldn’t take my ticket. Off to the talk to the sullen looking young woman with long stringy dark hair, sitting inside a glass booth. Aha, she said in French, with none of the flourish or flare you’d hope for. You have new seats.
The moment she said that, I knew I’d been kicked out of first class. “Why?” I asked her with an innocent smile that conveyed, I hope, merely the curiosity I felt and not what Europeans probably think is an American tendency to overreact to being put in one’s place. She shrugged. She knew, I’m sure of it, but preferred not to risk a customer-is-always-right fight so early in the morning.
Fast forward to boarding and, sure enough, I hop into my newly assigned standard class seat. The only thing about the situation that bugged me (I could hardly describe my feelings at that moment as anger since a) I wasn’t angry and b) it’s not like a paid for first class)? It’s not a window seat, which is actually what I cared about most. The woman next to me (in the window seat, dammit) and I start up a conversation. She is a German woman living in London, on her way to Belgium or somewhere near there for a vacation.
We had the biggest laugh over the big switcheroo. “What if,” she asked me, “we actually are in first class? I’d hate to see what standard class looks like.” The other thing about first class that was I’d been eagerly anticipating was that a ticket in that class apparently came with snacks! So she and I giggled about me starving back here with the rest of regular humanity. Oh we had a grand old time and the miles between London and Brussels (where I switched trains for Amsterdam) flew by.
Paris to Rouen
The day before I was due to travel, I went to the Saint Lazare train station to pick up my tickets and get the lay of the land. (Sensing a theme?) They use self-service ticket machines as well. And what I didn’t know is that both legs of my journey had separate itinerary numbers, so I had to conduct two transactions to get both tickets. It only took about 20 minutes for me to figure this all out, counting time for finding a rail employee and beseeching her for assistance.
The next day, I also didn’t know something, but at least I wasn’t watching my train depart while standing on the platform trying to figure out how to get my tickets. This time, I just didn’t know where in the big huge train shed to find my train. Luckily, another rail employee explained where to find my train…in lilting French and with a smile.
Happily I hopped onto the train for Rouen and a fabulous day at the Tour de France. Btw…I met a couple from San Diego on the train (and hung with them at the race), who knew a guy I used to work with. What’s that they say about a small world?
Paris to London
I ended the summer reversing the course I took to start it in the spring–on the Eurostar to London. This time, no one offered me first class seats, so there was nothing to disappoint on that front. My window seat, however, was placed precisely between windows so the view was of a slightly salmon colored plastic wall. The train was not full, so I grabbed the window seat across the aisle and up one row, to watch the French countryside sail past. Au revoir belle France!
My original plans had included a train ride from Paris to Lisbon and then from Barcelona back to Paris. Until I learned that those were overnight trips that involved a couple transfers. And the cost for a standard seat (let alone a comfy sleeper) was almost exactly the same as flying on a fab European discount airline.
When I arrived in Barcelona and told my friend about my original plan she told me that one has to really, really, really, really like trains to want to take a train in Spain. Apparently they are a pain.