Planes, Trains, & Automobiles - part 3
14 August 2023 | or
Now where was I? Oh yes - Enter Moussa, Stage Left
In my heightened state, Mousa's fetching yellow and silver reflecting ensemble took on more sinister overtones - he was in uniform! OK, it didn't have the threatening cachet of the Waffen SS number one dress. Dayglo doesn't induce quite the same visceral terror as all that black leather and heavy metal insignia.
Moussa gave us a broad smile, then tripped over our bag. He looked quizzically at it, then looked at the luggage rack, pointed at our floor-ridden bag, and said something in French. And not just French, but French French. I don't speak French French. I speak 'O' Level French. The French (and Moussa) don't speak 'O' level French; they speak fluent French French. Fluent French French is post-graduate French spoken at auctioneer speed with every other word either contracted to unintelligibility or missed out altogether. I didn't understand a word he said, but he had pointed at the bags, and that was enough to confirm my deepest fears. I deployed my usual defensive tactic for dealing with foreigners, which is to look blankly at them with a vacant, idiotic grin on my face. A little trail of dribble running down the chin enhances the effectiveness no end. Eventually, they either take pity on me or back away.
Moussa looked me in the eyes with a "What's it like in there?" look on his face and repeated himself at dictation speed. I caught two words - 'autre valise', this was enough to throw me into panic mode. By way of defence, I intensified my congenital idiot demeanour. (Is this possible? - Liz )
Moussa raised his eyes heavenward and wandered off, broom in hand. He had better things to do than waste his time playing nursemaid to some genetic throwback rosbif - pick up discarded sandwich wrappers, perhaps, or scrub a particularly tenacious turd off the gents' toilet.
He was not a man to be easily dissuaded, though. Five times he returned and played out this snippet of Chekhovian Groundhog Day and five times he met with the same blank response. On attempt six, he came armed with a broad grin and the benefit of ten minutes spent on Google Translate.
"How are you?" he asked, following immediately with "Come with me." He beckoned me down the corridor. I followed meekly, wondering what horrors he and SNCF had waiting for me in their room 101. After successfully negotiating three-quarters of the train including both first-class carriages and the dining car, he stopped, turned, spread his arms and exclaimed "Voilà!" I looked around, perplexed. He had taken us almost the whole length of the train, only to end up in yet another dingy little cupboard under the stairs. Was this some Sisyphean torment they had dreamt up in revenge for Agincourt, Trafalgar, and the French fleet in Algeria in 1940?
"Qu.. Qu.. Quoi?" I stuttered. He pointed to the luggage rack. I followed his pointing finger, and everything became horribly clear. There, at the top of the rack was daddy hippo, just where Moussa had put him. I had been suffering from Repetitive Train Injury and had misidentified our target. Liz and I (and most of our luggage) had ended up in a completely different cubby hole. It was similar enough to pass a superficial inspection, and there was a near-doppelganger of daddy hippo in the same part of the rack, but it was definitely the wrong cubbyhole.
Moussa, being much more au fait with train geography than we are, had noticed this and spent most of the journey trying to rectify matters and reunite us with our luggage, only to be thwarted at every turn by my (now rather appropriate) village idiot impression. I thanked him profusely, my guilt chip on the verge of overheat. All the time he had spent wet-nursing an idiot Anglais had been at the price of neglecting his core duties. By now, the restaurant car was probably knee-deep in Tartare de Saumon avec ses garnis sandwich wrappers, and the recalcitrant turds had almost certainly multiplied exponentially and set like concrete. He was going to need to take an angle grinder to them by now. I stammered an offer to take a couple of the turds off his hands (so to speak), but much to my relief, he shook his head, tapped his watch and said "Dijon - douze minutes." Then he turned and headed back to put a new heavy-duty disc in his angle grinder.
Then it sank in. TWELVE MINUTES?!
Liz and I were at opposite ends of the train, as was our luggage. To add to the confusion, Liz knew nothing of these latest developments, and would have to make some pretty astute decisions pretty quickly when the train pulled into Dijon. The likelihood of ending up with both of us, accompanied by all of our luggage and none of anybody else's, at the right station, at the same time, was tending to zero.
I had compounded my catalogue of errors and omissions by leaving my phone in my rucksack, currently under Liz's guardiennage. In the absence of comms, I only had one real option. I pulled Pa Hippo down from the luggage bay, set him on his wheels in front of me like a battering ram and charged into first-class, brandishing a rolled-up copy of the Mail on Sunday, and crying "God for Harry, England & Saint George!"
What a disappointment.
Instead of succumbing valiantly to a barrage of erudite verbal barbs and apposite quotes from obscure philosophers, I was met with a wall of effete learned helplessness. The fight had gone out of them. They lolled, listlessly, in their seats.
"He's back again."
"So I see."
"What are we going to do?"
"Nothing - I can't be arsed."
"But what about Agincourt, and Trafalgar?"
"Sod Agincourt and Trafalgar. And sod the French fleet in Algeria in 1940 while you're at it."
"But, as Simone de Beauvoir says in 'Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter'..."
"Oh, don't you start! Shut the fuck up - I'm going to read this copy of OK magazine."
There were a few token attempts at resistance, a muffled cry of "Aux armes, Citoyens" and the odd deliberately obstructive elbow and ankle, but Pa & I made short work of those.
I got back to Liz with four minutes to spare. "Where the Hell have you been?" she asked, lovingly. I explained in as much detail as time allowed, which wasn't much. She didn't believe a word of it. "Not even you could be that crass, insensitive and unobservant."
Still, we ended up together in the right platform, at the right time, with the right luggage. Also on the platform was Moussa, who seemed to be moonlighting as a guard cum signalman. I went over to him, shook his hand, and thanked him profusely in a language he couldn't understand. At which point I found myself firmly skewered on an ethical dilemma. How best could I show my thanks without embarrassing, patronising, or insulting him?
Money was the option that first sprang to mind. God knows he could probably do with it. I couldn't see his job keeping him in sybaritic luxury. A hundred euros, maybe? I've spent more than that on a meal for two. It would probably make a real difference to him.
But but but.
OK, I see it as a sincere expression of gratitude, born out an honest wish to do well by him. He, however, could well be embarrassed, or even outraged by the proposal. Or, it could backfire - what if his employer forbade taking money from a passenger? I might even, in my ignorance, lay him open to disciplinary proceedings.
On the other hand, just a few words of thanks and a handshake could well be construed as the actions of a tightwad, belittling his commitment and the time and effort he put into helping a total stranger. In the end, I decided to do good by stealth. To his face he got the thanks and the handshake. In the background, I wrote to SNCF detailing his efforts, praising him to the skies, and promoting him as an asset to their organisation.
In all honesty, I didn't expect it to come to much, but three weeks later I got an reply from SNCF saying that they had passed my comments on to Moussa and they had been noted in his file. They went on to say that he had been invited to apply for promotion to a post in customer relations.
It's the little victories.
So - nearly there. We'd made it as far as Dijon with luggage and marriage still intact.["Wanna bet?" - Liz] All we had to do now was to get ourselves and our luggage the forty kilometres to Saint-Jean-de-Losne.
Not so easy.
Saint-Jean-de-Losne does have a railway station; It's just not in Saint-Jean-de-Losne. It's three kilometres down an unsurfaced track through the woods - ideal for dragging heavy weights with small wheels. Once you eventually get there, though, it's just like a proper station: platforms, rails, ticket office, waiting room, white-tiled toilets, big clock, porters' lodge, arrivals & departures boards, the lot.
Oh - and staff.
And toilet paper.
Saint-Jean-de-Losne sees two trains a day, max. And that's on a busy day. Buses in the countryside are even rarer - twice a week to some destinations. If you get the 08:00 bus on Tuesday you'd better bring a packed lunch and a sleeping bag, because you won't be coming back until midday Friday at the earliest.
So we lashed out just shy of a hundred euros and took a taxi.
Hence my grudging admission that the wussy naysayers were right. Although the waterways run through a few towns and cities, most of the time they meander their way through sparsely inhabited rural France; areas of broad agricultural swathes dotted sporadically with isolated hamlets and tiny villages of under a hundred souls. No shops, no nightlife, no banks, no ATMs, no-one under sixty-three, no restaurants, no mobile phone signal, and definitely no buses, trains or trams. Getting to us in somewhere like Fontenay-le-Chateau is more trouble, more inconvenient, more awkward, more hassle and more expensive than getting to Birvidik 1, anchored off some speck of flyshit on the Mediterranean chart.
It's a funny old world, isn't it?