Planes, Trains, Buses…OH MY (Part 1)

Micah Doctolero
December 3, 2021

“You’ll probably miss a train or get lost in Paris,” they said. And, I’m telling you (from first-hand experience) they weren’t wrong.

And this is how the story of my travels began… Hopped [on] a plane at LAX with my dream any my [two international suitcases]. Flying to Paris was a rather uneventful direct flight from LAX to CDG on AirFrance. After downing a glass or two of champagne (courtesy of flying AirFrance) and eating a dinner of smoked salmon and fish eggs, everything I don’t like (because of my failed attempt to practice French while ordering), I was ready to sleep through the entirety of the 12-hour transatlantic flight. The last-minute packing combined with the unpredictable LA traffic heading to the airport had thoroughly exhausted me, so sleep seemed much more inviting that bingeing movies. Yes, I know I’m a grandma… I’ve only been called one every 5 minutes because of the number of naps I take throughout the week. Traveling with Jenny, my friend from Santa Clara University, guaranteed that I could comfortably stretch out because there weren’t any strangers seated next to me with the 2x3x2 configuration in Premium Economy. For anyone considering Premium Economy on AirFrance, my advice would be to skip the upgrade unless your reasons are baggage. If you think you’re going to be more comfortable… think again! Here’s the short run-down. Simply put, the seats are 100% uncomfortable from the design of the shell, angle of the recline, and general lack of space (at least for the money). Economy would be a much better option to avoid any of claustrophobia from the seating configuration. Anyways, after take-off we noticed that the row in front was empty. Jenny ended up moving to the empty seats up right before my flight-long nap, but as soon as my body and mind drifted off, I was rudely awakened by commotion because the flight attendants were moving people around. For whatever reason, Jenny was booted back to her original seat next to me. With my face mask once again blocking the light from other people’s screens, I finally was able to sleep for the remaining duration of the flight from LAX to CDG. 

Traveling with a friend definitely made the experience of navigating public transport in a foreign country less of a daunting nightmare, albeit a blind-leading-the-blind type of situation. Our friend and host for the week in Paris before the program started recommended taking the RER from CDG to Opèra, the subway stop closest to her apartment next to the Louvre. Let’s just say we made an effort but did not succeed in figuring out 1) What even is the RER and 2) How to use the RER to get from the airport to Paris. For reference, the RER (Réseau Express Régional) is like a metro or subway running along a parallel system through the tunnels below Paris but at faster speeds for longer distances. In everyday words, the RER is one of the available public transit alternatives to reach the city center from the airport. Simply use the transit function of Google Maps or Maps (for iOS users) to route the fastest journey. Tickets or day passes can be purchased at the entrance of each station. You’ll definitely notice that Parisians like to cheat the metro system by entering through the exit or by going through the turnstile with you, but the 35+ euro fine can be easily avoided by purchasing the RIGHT tickets or day passes. I’ll explain this more later in the story. Long story short, we called an Uber and somehow the driver managed to fit the four international suitcases in a compact SUV.

Anyways, Paris happened. There weren’t any interesting public transportation mishaps during the first week, so let’s skip ahead to the program start day. Here’s the tea… Jenny and I had previously booked a OuiGo train from Gare Montparnasse to Nantes that was scheduled to leave at 8:45 a.m. There wasn’t one thing that made this journey particularly scarring… other than the fact that EVERYTHING which could possibly go wrong went wrong. Granted that everything worked out in the end, I guess this day could have turned out worse. 

6:45 a.m. Waking up was hell. Running on less than 4 hours of sleep because the laundry was taking an eternity to dry the night before (like 3 cycles in the Parisian dryer) was already bad enough.

7:30 a.m. The night before, we planned to start calling an Uber at least 1.25 hours before the train’s departure in order to arrive at the station 30-45 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave. Calling the Uber was more of a hassle than either of us had anticipated. First, every Uber at 7:35 a.m. happened to be the same model of a Mercedes coupé which definitely could not hold four large suitcases. After calling one of the drivers and asking (or trying to ask in French) whether or not the vehicle could carry everything, we quickly dragged the suitcases down five flights of stairs to the street. By 7:45 a.m., there was a black Mercedes C Class parked in front of the apartment. The driver simply looked at us and said ça ne marche pas, got back in the car and left… left us with a 15 euro cancellation fee! At this point, we were already running late (or at least behind schedule) so the only other option was to call two separate Ubers to drive us to Gare Montparnasse. I had to order the Ubers for both of us by running up and down four flights of stairs to our friend’s apartment to use the wifi. To clarify, neither of us had purchased cellular data yet. We were entirely dependent on wifi internet connection which wasn’t very helpful because wifi almost everywhere in France isn’t fast or very dependable to say the least.  

7:50 a.m. Jenny left before me because her Uber arrived a couple minutes before, but I had thought I’d coordinated for both of our Ubers to drop us off at the front of Gare Montparnasse. Regardless of who would arrive first, we had planned to wait out front of the station until the other arrived because we had no way to communicate. My Uber didn’t arrive until 7:55 a.m., 5 minutes after Jenny had already left. The SNCF train tickets recommended an arrival no later than 8:00 a.m. to check in because of the Passe Sanitaire controls before boarding the train. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m lowkey a control freak when it comes to planning. I’m the type A person with multiple spreadsheets for tracking packing, planning, and financing…so running late and behind schedule is very out-of-character and unnerving for me. 

8:10 a.m. My Uber dropped me off (at what I thought was the front of the station) across from Gare Montparnasse. I was obviously stressed because 5 minutes late wouldn’t have been too bad but almost 15 minutes late was even more of a worst-case-scenario. I waited until 8:15 a.m. for Jenny before I began freaking out. I started running around and looking for any public wifi to text Jenny, but as we’d soon figure out even public wifi wasn’t good enough to send a message. I was nervously pacing up and down the escalators out of the station with my two very heavy suitcases and backpack trying to get any visual of my travel companion. That was when I had my first panic attack of the day…I sort of melted on top my suitcases and my body started shaking. I was thinking about how we were definitely going to miss the train, which was already enough of stress. But the thought of being alone without any way of contacting anyone was even more scary. Someone yelling my name pulled me back to reality. Doctolero? Doctolero. Doctolero! Someone was yelling my name. That someone was Jenny. Long story short (again), my Uber dropped me off at the side entrance which was closer to the tracks (so good intentions but not helpful) and Jenny’s dropped her off at the real front entrance of the station. After finally finding each other, we looked at the clock which read 8:30 am and started running through the station to the gate. 15 minutes. That should be enough of time, right? Just as we got to the gate, running and out of breath, one of the SNCF workers locked the gate. For whatever unusual reason, the train decided to leave early so we ended up missing the 8:45 a.m. train. Instead, we had to rebook brand new tickets at the station for more than double the price of the original tickets. Turns out that we had purchased a OuiGo ticket rather than a normal InOui TGV ticket so weren’t any refunds for missing a train. OuiGo is the budget high speed rail, so baggages also come at an additional cost. The next train did not leave until 10 a.m., and by that time the SNCF workers were checking all passengers for the Passe Sanitaire to enter the gates of the station. I had previously applied for the Passe Sanitaire, but Jenny only had her US vaccination card. Advice for bypassing rules: Watch how each worker checking the Passe Sanitaire interacts with other passengers to determine which one looks more friendly. After choosing your unsuspecting subject, approach the worker and have whoever has the Passe Sanitaire, scan their QR code first then act as the liaison for the other American. Act like a lost student in a foreign country (try speaking French then switch to English) to solidify their empathy for you. DON’T ARGUE. Simply gain their pity. Then ask them to make an exception because you don’t have a choice. Et voilà!  

10 a.m. I was finally flying through the French countryside on my way to start a semester abroad in Nantes, France. Every worry was behind me, right? We made it on the train this time and the worst of the day was already behind us… I couldn’t have been more wrong! A minute before the train pulled into the station, Jenny and I started to wiggle our way downstairs through the already thickening crowd of people to get our four oversized suitcases in the luggage hold on the first deck. The tiny hallway of the first deck was even more packed with people and suitcases that there wasn’t enough of room for me to take down our luggage. As I started stacking the suitcases on each other in front of me, Jenny quickly turned around and said that she couldn’t find her drone bag. My first thought was that she had been pickpocketed (because Paris seems to have a reputation for pickpockets). She then left me in the tiny corridor with all of the suitcases to go back upstairs. As soon as she left, I had my second panic attack of the day…the hallway was becoming overly claustrophobic. There was an audible sentiment of annoyance coming from the angsty people waiting for their suitcases with their sighs and grunts. My body started shaking again, and I drifted from reality for a second. But then 10 million things happened at once…and every stereotype about the French being mean was proven wrong. One mother in front of me turned around and helped me catch my breath while some other passengers helped me carry the suitcases out of the train. Anyways, the drone was not stolen. In fact, Jenny had left the bag under the seat, so everything worked out. 

To be continued...

Micah Doctolero

<p>My name is Micah Doctolero and I'm studying in Nantes, France during the Fall 2021 semester. I'm a first-generation college student studying French and Management Information Systems (MIS) at Santa Clara University. Exploring the outdoors, whether the beach or the mountains is one of my favorite pastimes back home in California. I'm a 20-year old with a knack for discovering new places and meeting new people!</p>

Home university:
Santa Clara University
Hometown:
Santa Barbara, CA
Major:
French Language
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