Trains: the chosen iconic form of European transportation. It seems that when Americans find themselves at a standard gare, finding the correct train, then the correct car and finally the correct seat can be a daunting task – we don’t know trains. And while we’ve made airline travel a sort of science (no liquids over 10 oz, remove laptops from carry-ons before putting them through security), you’ll get funny looks if you arrive at the train station two hours before your departure.
This being said, there are a few things to remember while jetting from destination to destination via rail in France:
1. The trains and train stations are strictly non-fumeur. And in France, this is an issue. Without fail, when the train pulls into the station, people bound out, unlit cigarette in mouth with a look in their eye that says “if I have to stay one more second on this train without nicotine….” It goes without saying that you move out of their way or are subjected to series of sighs, grumbles, and the oh-so-french “pphft!”
2. There are no elevators or escalators in train stations, just stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. Normally, this isn’t a concern, but if you are thinking of traveling for a long period of time (or coming to visit!), pack light! My first moments in France consisted of me lugging two 50 lb bags up and down what seemed like hundreds of stairs. And in that situation, there weren’t just stairs, but a multitude of …stares.
3. They are very open about when they will be using the railways in national protests. In fact, about two weeks before the big event, there will be signs at each gare politely notifying the passengers about the nationale greve. A sort of “If you please, we will be causing some discomfort in your train traveling next weekend – please understand. Thank you.” To be fair, this means that you don’t have the freedom to roll your eyes when you arrive at the train station only to realize your 2:20 train no longer exists. They did warn you. And as I write this, I see that there will be another nationale greve on November 29. Lovely.
Now this is for mainland France only. Once you get to Corsica, all bets are off. In fact, I think they’re still using the same freight-cars that graced the island fifty years ago. Two rickety cars coast through the valleys and mountains of the Corsican interior, and when the occasion arises to ascend a particularly steep slope, the conductor revs the engine, eliciting a grinding noise as the car begins to shake and climb. But this is what makes it so charmingly Corsican! When I found out that they’re getting new railways next year, a wave of Corsican nationalism over took me and I was ready to protest the government for meddling in the island’s affairs. But really, they are in dire need of an overhaul. And if worst comes to worst, in true french style, we can always shut down the system for a few days. You know, just for a little protest.