Traveling to Clermont-Ferrand Part 3: Regrets of taking a 2nd checked bag (continued)

My platform was, of course, on the other side of station, so I resumed my role as the American madwoman and quickly walked down the ramp with my luggage. Gravity did not work in my favor, so my bags rolled out of control and I had to run to keep up. I found my platform and it had an elevator…that was not in service. So I ran to the other side, quickly hopped on the elevator and found my place on the platform. The train arrived late, which wasn’t a problem, except that I was concerned it would want to leave on time and that I may not get all of my luggage on the train before it left. When it did come, it went farther down the platform then was expected and there were long lines. After running between two lines, my luggage flipping over and dragging and my coat falling off, I finally made it into the second-class section of the train. Because of all of the confusion getting on the train (crazed Americans and French commuters alike), there were huge lines to get between the sections and store luggage. I was making my way through the aisle, my suitcases basically hitting everyone along the way until I hit a standstill. Three teenage boys were trying to get through and were giving me the “staredown”. No words were exchanged, but the gloves were off. I was not going to budge. This was mostly because I literally couldn’t, but I also figured that if I was going to be teaching teenagers in a week, I should develop the look of “I’m your elder, hear me roar” now. In the minute that passed (where they easily could have just moved to the side and let me pass), in their eyes, they seemed to be calculating what it would take to jump over me. Finally, one of them said to the other three that they should move and they did. Slightly. After two seconds, they decided that I was going too slowly (because there was still a huge line of people behind them) and they decided to go around me at all costs. After that I found a fold-down seat in a loading area and parked my luggage there. Again, this was an overbooked train. This area that was supposed to be clear for people to get on and off of the train. Instead, it was wall to wall with large luggage like mine. Any time that someone tried to pass our area or get off the train from this part, we had to play Tetris with the luggage. The conductor even remarked that every time he passed it looked different (or at least that’s what I think he said).

I should pause to say the ride was absolutely beautiful between Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand. Tucked away in mountains, we travelled from quaint village to quaint village. For all I know they were larger cities, but from the architecture to the landscape, they looked to me like idyllic French country villages.

When it was time to get off this train, I thought I had it figured out. I had everything attached and ready to go. Again, I struggled. Some guy walking by pulled one of my bags out. At this point, if he wanted to steal it, I probably would have let him. Now off the train, baggage in tow, I looked for a taxi stand. Naturally, the station was under construction so they moved the taxi stand. There was one sign for taxis that pointed towards the city in general, but not to a taxi stand. Dragging my suitcases in circles, I finally stopped a woman about my age and asked in broken, cavewoman French, “where taxi?” Luckily she knew and pointed me in the right direction. After that it was smooth sailing. The smoothest part of the whole trip. The taxi driver knew exactly where to go, drove directly there (and followed the rules of the road) and even carried my luggage up the steps of the hostel.

It was a long trip. Once I reached my hostel, I fell asleep immediately in my madwoman clothes.

Traveling to Clermont-Ferrand Part 2: Regrets of taking a 2nd checked bag

Finding the train station and getting my ticket turned out to be pretty easy. Luckily, most people spoke English, so I was spared from embarrassing myself just yet. I waited for four hours for my train and the only thing of note was the homeless man wandering and yelling about the station.

Once on the train, I had to find a place for my luggage. It was a 3-hour ride and I couldn’t have my luggage in the aisle with me, so I had to find a place to stash it. With the AirFrance strike, there were more people on the train than usual and not enough space in my compartment for my luggage. Instead, I had to lug all of it upstairs and leave it far from my seat. In my tired/crazed state, I’ll admit I was a little paranoid that someone might run off with something and ran up and down the stairs with each piece of luggage. It went something like, 1) waddle at a fast pace with large 50 lb suitcase, 2) press the button to open the door to the cabin, 3) quickly drag my luggage into the cabin, 4) watch the door close on my suitcase, 5) reopen the door and drag my suitcase in, 6) meekly lift my heavy suitcase to the top shelf (because naturally that was the only one that was still available) until a good Samaritan pitied me and helped, 7) run down the stairs in hopes that no one had stolen anything yet, and, 8) repeat 2 more times. Once my baggage was settled, my camera bag removed and safely by my side, I found my seat.

Knowing that I had 5 minutes to get off of the train once it got to Lyon before it would leave for the next station, I spent the whole train ride making sure I would stay awake so that I could begin the process again of preparing my baggage for my stop. The process was pretty similar to before. (I also discovered that someone had stored their cat in baggage area as well. I thought it was someone’s alarm because was meowing repeatedly and rhythmically until I saw another person walk off with their dog).

I was ready. Except when the train stopped, you can only really take one piece of baggage off at a time and it was all facing the wrong direction and I was blocking literally everyone from getting off…so I had to set aside my mild paranoia and allow people to help me basically toss my luggage off of the train. As I tried to attach this luggage to that bag and turn everything around, I pretended like I did not see the traffic jam I had caused both inside the train and on the platform. Once I had everything sorted out I waited for the platform number to be posted for my train to Clermont-Ferrand.

Parlez-vous français?

Last Friday, I met up with a group of language assistants and we got to talking about speaking French. It was such a relief to me to hear that many of us were on the same level. We were all proficient, could always use more vocabulary, but mostly just wavering in confidence. For me in the shops, it seems to go like this:

Person: Bonjour!
Me: Bonjour! (Whew, got that one.)
Me: In French. Can you help me with X? (Okay good that came out just like I practiced and he/she seems to understand.)
Person: Blah, blah blah, blah.
Me: Petrified look on my face. (Um, oh God. He/she responded to me in French. I mean, I expected them to respond in French. Eh, that wasn’t what I expected him/her to say. In fact, now that I think of it, I didn’t get this far in my head.)
Person: Confused look.
Me: In French. I am American. I am sorry, but I don’t speak French very well.

Then usually we’ve continued on in a combination of broken French and English. The good encounters anyway. The other ones, it usually just ends with me saying I don’t understand and that kind of ends it. Announcements at the train station or airport? Nada. Don’t understand a thing. Shows on tv? Not a clue.

And, very soon, I am going to have to start calling landlords about places. Ha, that’s going to be an adventure. In any event, it was comforting to hear that a lot of people were in the same boat. They didn’t come with perfectly fluent French and they wanted to learn too. With each day, I feel like I am improving. I’m thinking more in French. I catch a word or two more. Learn a new word. Or just feel less awkward speaking it. It will be a long road to get where I want to go with fluency. The trick will be to keep forcing myself to speak French and not take the easy way out every time I learn someone speaks English. For the first week, I am not going to be so hard on myself. If I am going to sign a lease, open a bank account and do other things like that, I think it’s okay that I actually know what’s going on rather than stick to my principles about always speaking French.

Traveling to Clermont-Ferrand Part 1: The oddest flight experience I’ve ever had

I’d thought I start with a little bit about the journey here. Nothing went wrong per se, but it was certainly an odd trip. After a tearful goodbye, the flight from Cedar Rapids to Detroit was uneventful. On my flight from Detroit to Paris, it started when I reached my seat and there was a gentleman well settled there. I told him that he was in my seat and he politely moved over. As I sit down, I realized that he has occupied all of my armrest. Okay, these seats are small and I’m a smaller person then him…I figured I could handle it. However throughout the rest of the flight, he seemed to believe “mi casa es su casa” applied to my seat. As he would drift off to sleep, his entire upper half would drift over into my seat. Flowing with Iowa/Minnesota nice, I gently tried to make myself as big as possible to remind him to stay in his own seat. Every once in awhile, he would wake up readjust and promptly resume the position of moving into my chair. Now I sleep better with my head propped on the tray table, so I thought I would try that. At first, he said something about not worrying about my seat. English was not his native language, so I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying. Then it became clearer. I’m pretty sure he said that I could rest my head on his shoulder. I, uh, politely said that I was fine sleeping on the tray table. Once I was no longer using the back half of my seat, he seemed to think that it was free real estate and kind of sprawled out on the back of my seat. Really? I, again, moved to the back of my chair, thinking that I paid quite a lot of money for this seat and I should get to use all of it, and nudged him a bit harder this time to move back into his seat. Finally, I had to stop being so indirect. So I woke him up and asked him to move back into his own seat. He did. I decided that drifting in and out of my seat was preferable to blatantly moving in.

At one point, I was so uncomfortable that I considered saying something to a flight attendant, but then they made an announcement over the intercom for a doctor. Through the rest of the flight (due to other announcements), it seemed that someone had some type of diabetic/blood sugar issue that caused him or her to pass out in the flight. The person was a few rows back, lying in the aisle. Luckily there were several doctors on the plane and we did not have to make an emergency landing, so I think that they must have been okay. Compared to what this poor person was experiencing, I thought that it would be largely inappropriate and insensitive to say anything to flight attendants about my dear neighbor.

Between my lovely neighbor and the medical emergency, I did not sleep at all on my flight.

Landing in Charles de Gaulle in France, I found my two checked bags and proceeded to search for the train station. Between the awkwardness of lugging two checked roller bags, one carry-on roller bag and my laptop bag (where the strap was hardly attached…something I certainly hadn’t noticed before), I wandered through the airport. Before I continue to describe the rest of the adventure, I think it is only fair that I describe my outfit because it will help to paint the complete picture of my mildly crazed appearance. When I travel, I dress practically, not fashionably. I wore my largest shoes (tennis shoes which are only worn in France for running), yoga pants (because I was going to be traveling for 24 hours), a tank top (in case I was too hot), a cardigan (because there wasn’t any more room in my suitcases) and a jacket tied around my waist (also because there wasn’t any more room in my suitcase). My hair was pulled back in a messy bun (let’s pretend that was 100% intentional) and I can only imagine the look on my face (likely containing fear, awe and exhaustion). Combine that lovely outfit with two checked bags (weighing 50lbs a piece because I had to get my money’s worth), my one carry-on and a broken laptop bag…I can’t help but think that I embodied everything Europeans love about American tourists.