All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The five horse accumulator over the obstacles

{{fr}}Course d'obstacle sur l'Hippodrome de De...Image via Wikipedia
We have the chance to get away on holiday, so I have been at the computer checking dates, flights and prices, and I am in need of a wet towel round my head and the cup that not only cheers but also inebriates. I hope to goodness that I still have some of Didier's rocket fuel tucked away.
And to think travel is supposed to be pleasurable!

I have never been in the sector of society that could be described as the 'jet set', or 'alternative' so my experiences have been pretty run of the mill. I never went on the hippy trail in one of those VW campervans that used to be lined up for sale outside the Australian embassy in London....the female sex tours to the Gambia were not my cup of tea or rocket fuel at any class travel was never an option...mine was 'the age of the train', in second class.

For my mother, it was not only the age of the train - excursion trains ran to all the major seaside towns to take the huddled masses for an awayday - but also the age of the motor coach, going to the sea, or touring beauty spots.
Even then, travel was not without its' hazards.
She remembers being taken to the sea in a Surrey Motors coach...custard and brown livery as she recalls... with the motor in a sort of outhouse at the front of the vehicle.
All was well until it made the obligatory loo stop at a pub which had acquired the passing trade of several coach companies, and thus had a huge car park, in which, as passengers disembarked, queued for the loo, took tea or beer and rejoined their coach, the vehicles would keep moving forward rather than parking in one spot.
It behoved the passenger to memorise the livery and the name of his coach company or he would share the fate of the bewildered woman who was wandering the carpark looking for her chariot of delight.
The Surrey Motors' driver tried to help.
'Which coach are you from, Dear?'
Mother still remembers the despairing wail with which the woman replied
'I know it's green but I don't know if it's a Venture, a Vulcan or a Vulture!'
The poor soul was eventually recaptured by her husband, all cap and beery breath, and hustled away, but it was a lesson to mother that she should keep a weather eye on the transport if she wanted to make a getaway.

As children, we had much more liberty to travel than the modern child seems to have.
From an early age, at the start of the school holidays I would be taken to Euston Station and put in charge of the guard on the Royal Scot - then a proper fire breathing steam engine - for the journey to Glasgow where an aunt would meet me for the next stage of the journey.
I would be placed in a compartment with other children under the guard's control and off we would go, perfectly safe, escorted to the dining car and back, but otherwise trusted to behave ourselves. And we did. The boy who tried to empty his orange squash bottle through the window while not understanding how air flow worked is the only malefactor that I can remember.
The aunts would be assembled at the gate of the platform at St. Enoch's...the guard would shepherd us up to them and there could be no problems of identity as aunts and children waved, smiled and hugged.

Later, there were Rover tickets on the Green Line buses, to explore the countryside for the day with a packet of sandwiches and a few coppers for a cup of tea. We were independent, without fear and without mobile 'phones. We made it home every evening.

So, as a student, travelling French railways for a week in the summer was a doddle. I could buy a Thomas Cook timetable - at that stage of my life I knew what two crossed hammers signified - and plan my trip in the most economical way, then it was off to Picadilly to the offices of French Railways - SNCF - to buy the ticket. It was my first unwitting step to succombing to the wiles of the great seductress.

Now, much later in life, I don't go to offices or travel agents to buy my tickets..I search and buy 'on line'. Out in the sticks, it is a tremendous boon not to have to shift from the house and trek to the town to wait in line at the station where one harassed man - currently in a portacabin while SNCF spend vast amounts on modernising the station - tries to deal with every query under the sun.
I reckon about one in three actually want to buy a ticket...the rest are doing the French equivalent of a five horse accumulator, working out whether a ticket for large families, employees of the railway, with two grannies and travelling mid week beats the price for the current offer of discounts if making your reservation by mobile 'phone.

Why am I worrying about trains when I am going by 'plane?
Because I have to get from la France Profonde to an airport, that's why.
And before I start checking flights, I need to have a comprehensive overview of what trains say they will be available on the day.

Last minute cheap package holidays are no trouble at long as they go from an airport to which a friend can drive you if and when the railways are on strike.
I learned this the hard way, leaving from Charles de Gaulle airport for a week in Turkey. I arrived at Montparnasse only to find that some parts of the Paris railway system were on strike, and ended up hauling suitcases all over the Metro to the Gare du Nord, and then trying to find a train out to the airport. The lifts were out - in sympathy? - so I had to haul the luggage up a steep and narrow stairway to get to the platform.
After that, I picked charter flights from Nantes. A long drive, but no nasty surprises.
However, this is long haul and regular flights. It will have to be Paris.

As I have said before - here - French railways are distinctly luggage unfriendly so it is as well to try to get a through train rather than having to change, with all the heaving and hauling that is involved, but here I have come across a problem.
I know that there used to be a train in the early hours of the morning that gets into Montparnasse at about 6.00 am, thus, in theory, making it possible to catch flights leaving Orly or Charles de Gaulle around 9.00 am.
It does not show up on the SNCF online booking service.

I ring Ziya who has minitel. He says it exists on the timetable on minitel.
Further he rings the SNCF automated travel service. It says it exists as well.
I ring the man in the portacabin. He says it exists too, but if I want to book it I'll have to come to the portacabin....
Why isn't it on the computer booking service?
A deep sigh.
They want to make you pay for the TGV.
I have always said that living in France is good training for moving to a third world country.

Well, that's the trains. Now for the planes.
I am going to Central America and I want as hassle free a journey as possible.
This automatically cuts out any flight going through the U.S.A.
I have done this twice and refuse to do it again.
Not only do they want to know the ins and outs of a bull's arse three days before you travel, but, having acquired all this information, they still make you reclaim your luggage and go through immigration even though you are only in transit!
I have visions of mother faced with a demand for her fingerprints by some surly immigration official....veteran of the Second World War and not very impressed by the speed of American participation in said conflict, I can just see surly official blown backwards bow legged and mother off in an orange jumpsuit to Guantanamo Bay.
Do I hear a siren voice breathing
Go on, book via the States....?

Mother is not coming, so I can resist the temptation.

That leaves flights via Mexico.
That simplifies matters.
Or it would, except that the online fare and flight comparison sites like to give you the flights from the airlines with which they are affiliated so a fair bit of time is wasted knocking out the U.S. element.
Further, some sites give prices with taxes, others without.
Depending on the site, the prices could be quoted in pounds sterling, euros or U.S. dollars. With or without taxes.
Up goes the currency calculator on the screen.
I know that I am supposed to be able to have split screen on this machine, but as computers don't come with handbooks, I don't know how, so I keep dodging between flight websites and the converter until I feel distinctly overwhelmed by it all.

I finally find a flight. It leaves Orly at 6.00 am, and makes a change in Madrid. A short wait in Mexico City, then on to the destination.
Only one problem. No train will get us to Paris that early. We shall have to take the latest train and sit in the airport overnight. Not a good option with a husband who is not well. We shall have to book a hotel.

That is fraught with problems as well. The last time I booked a hotel in Paris through the Paris Tourist Office I wanted to stay for two nights. Hotel number one could only do one, so I booked that, and the second night in a different hotel. All through the Paris Tourist Office site.
Checking my e mails before checking out of hotel one, I was just in time to catch a message from hotel number two cancelling my booking for that day as they were full!
Luckily, the delightful Algerian lady at the desk found me another room for the night in a hotel nearby, but so much for the Paris Tourist Office!

Our Turkish builder rings. Ziya told him we we're going to get an early morning flight so he thinks it best if he takes us.....he can load up on Turkish goodies in Paris at the same time. Typical of him to find an excuse for covering up his kind heart.

Only a few problems now remain.
I will book the flight with my bank card. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that my bank will refuse to honour it, as they did once before for an airfare.
I had made a booking and the day afterwards the agency told me that my bank wouldn't pay. I lost the flight.
I called the bank.
It was for my own security.
Why? Didn't they think I would be safe outside the boundaries of France?
No, it was an unusual amount.
I agree it is more than the usual fifty euros in Leclerc, but why didn't you call me to see if it was genuine?
We don't do that.
This is the bank who managed to let someone take over a thousand euros from my account - more than the airfare - without a quibble.

If the card works, then all I have to worry about is whether the baggage handlers or the air traffic controllers will be on strike. The holiday period, any holiday period,  is usually the cue to down tools, but I am booking for just before the great Easter exodus, so I might just make it.

I have been warned of the hazards awaiting me in Guatemala, the most emphasised of which has been armed men leaping out at my car on the road and demanding money at gunpoint.

I had had no idea that the gendarmerie would be on holiday in Guatemala at the same time.

Putain de merde! Back to the computer....

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