Oh the Travel ‘Companions’ I’ve met

Most of the time I relish in flying alone. Despite the stress that usually accompanies flying- waking up at the ass crack of dawn, dealing with power drunk security officials, eating god awful food at jacked up prices- in spite of all of this, airports can actually provide a wonderful source of solitude, or much-needed space. I have time to write, ponder, read that book I’ve been dying to finish, observe the various interesting human interactions, and catch up on my latest trashy magazine (yes Cosomo is my guilty travel pleasure).

But then there are times when I wish to all-that-is-holy that I was traveling with a partner, or friend, or anyone who I could comfortably tell to “move their damn arm because it is popping my personal space bubble!!” On my way home this past Saturday, as I sat getting far too personal with the frosty airplane window, because Mr. ‘Unaware of His Surroundings’ just had to take up the entire arm rest, and even some of the skin between my ribs, I thought about the travel “companions” I’ve had the pleasure of knowing throughout the years.

I present to you only a few of the character’s I’ve met.

1. The Talker
This companion can actually be quite fun- if you’re in the right mood. Usually they’re excited about their destination, and want to hear all about yours. But mostly they want to tell you about their life’s story. I’m from Texas, so it’s kinda protocol to engage if someone talks to you. We’re talkers too. However, if I’m sleep deprived, or travel constipated, or still pissed off by the TSA jacking my favorite key chain, (true- it was a tiny pocket knife, but it’s honestly so small that even a fly would roll their eyes at it), then the last thing my sweaty, frazzled self wants to do is exchange in social pleasantries. Which leads me to #2. Continue reading

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The Portugal Diaries

Since I didn’t have wifi for the majority of the trip, I took to writing notes on my iPhone (starting to understand the beauty of these devices). So here are The Portugal diaries:

Day 1: Getting There (Grenoble-Munich-Lisbon-Faro)

Is this a day? It feels like 5 rolled into one. We’ve been traveling since 3am this morning. Bike to bus to airport, to another airport, to another bus, to a train we missed because our flight was delayed, to finally waiting in the dark streets for our airbnb host to let us in. We’ve feasted like hobbits having a meal or snack every few hours because our internal clocks are askew and as a hobbit might think, eating helps pass the time. 18 hours of travel. Antoine and I have been through something like the seven stages of grieving- denial of how long this day would actually feel, anger, and then guilt, from being grumpy with each other, and ultimately acceptance and hope that in spite of missing our train we might actually make it to our destination. Reminder- if possible avoid insanity-inducing long travel days like these.

Too early

Too early

Although I must admit- seeing the sun rise over the Swiss alps is pretty stunning.

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Day 2: Exploring Faro

Good news- we didn’t sleep on the streets! Even better, we met our German host who let us in to our cute little Faro apartment, and informed us that there’s a fall fair starting tonight in our honor! Well…there’s a fall fair on the day of our arrival. Coincidence? I think not. But it’s a gorgeous day- there’s a semblance of summer lingering just outside of my window! How can this much sun and warmth exist in October? I won’t waste my time asking questions- time to explore the old town, take a boat ride around the lagoon and go enjoy the beach. Finally a real vacation with Frenchie!! Continue reading

Snippets of delirium

I always thought you could judge a couple by how they travel together, until we became that couple.

You learn someone’s true colors when you wake up at 3am, having only gone to bed 3 hours prior.

And you can discover what a person’s made of when you bike to the train station at 3am, going off of 3 hours of sleep, with a 30+ pound backpack strapped to your back. Heck, you discover what you’re made of.

Antoine can’t function without coffee. Unfortunately I had to learn this the hard way. Traveling with him is like trying to motivate a grumpy, incoherent, sleep-walking child. And watching the effects of coffee on him is like watching a baby grow up.

Sweaty, delirious, 3 am bus ride- check. Now only 2 flights (one in the opposite direction), 1 bus, 1 train and hopefully a taxi left. Maybe we’ll throw in a boat to cover out bases. Either way, were headed to Portugal!

This, is exciting!

In my delirium (proof- I spelled prior as pryer), I decided that rather than writing a post, I’d relay the start of this trip in snippets. Aka the many beginnings I had in my mind but couldn’t choose from.

Grumpy start aside, I am on my way to Portugal! Finally getting a vacation with frenchie in a country neither of us have explored.

Tales to come.

How to take the SNCF (a.k.a. my love affair with the difficult French train system)

This one's special- so short.

This one’s- special so short.

It’s time to talk SNCF. This post has been in the making for quite some time, as I have had an intimate and frustrating relationship with the French trains over the past 7 1/2 months. But let’s go to the start.

My relationship with the SNCF began when I was a young, optimistic, 18-year-old backpacker with nothing but love in my heart. I was charmed by SNCF’s allure. It was so efficient, so connected, it could take me anywhere- places I’d only dreamed of. After all, I was a mere Texan, where trains transported cargo or cattle, not people. It was easy to fall for SNCF’s appeal.

But as I grew older, and spent more time with SNCF, it grew distant. It let me down. It was unreliable, inconsistent and resistant to providing the information I needed. I became frustrated and bitter, longing for the unknowing innocence of my youth.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

So now I write. I write so you can know. And because in spite of it all, I still have love for the SNCF.

Step 1: If possible, get a pass. 

First and foremost, decide how long you will be traveling in France. If you are traveling around Europe, consider Eurail. If you are traveling to multiple destinations in France, look into the passes.

For example, if you are under 25, or even if you are under 30, get the carte 12-25. It costs 50 euros and gives you anywhere from 25-60% off of tickets. Buy it in person as the website is hellish (more on that later). Sometimes it goes to 25, 27 or even 30. It depends on the deals they are offering. Bienvenue a SNCF.

*Note- you will need a french passport style picture. You can come prepared, or take one in any of the ready photobooths at the train station.*

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This little guy has saved me so much!!

STEP 2: Decide how fast, and how much (and no, this is not a Boratesque proposition…) TER vs. TGV. 

Depending on where you are going, and how much you want to spend, you might want to take the TGV or the TER (or a night train, but that’s a whole other ballgame).

The TGV is a high-speed train that gets to your destination faster and usually more comfortably. However, it is more expensive and contrary to popular belief, can be a pain in the ass (more on that soon). Here’s what you need to know:

  • TGV can cut your train travel in 1/2, so if you need to save time, it’s worth the cost.
  • There are two prices for the TGV- 2nd class and 1st class. Don’t waste your money on 1st.
  • You have assigned seats on the TGV. Look on your ticket for voiture, your car number, and place, your seat. When the train pulls up, it will have the car number on the side and when you get inside, you will see seat ranges to find your place (ex. 61-80 to the right). If all else fails, there are usually conductors for you to gesture at your ticket and figure out the right direction.
  • More often than not, to get to your TGV, or to get into the center of town, you will have to take a navette, or shuttle service. It basically looks like a big tour bus that costs anywhere from 1.50-2.50 euros.

This is where TGVs can be a pain in the ass. The stations are usually located on the outskirts of towns, so you have to take a navette from the local train station to the TGV station. Ultimately you pay for the navette, and take more time, as you’re out in the middle of no where. I would recommend sticking with local trains, the TER, unless you are traveling to big cities like Paris or Lyon. They seem to have it down.

The TER is the local train that usually takes longer (as it makes many stops), but is cheaper. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Again. Don’t waste your money on 1st class. Stick with 2nd.
  • Pay attention to “période bleue” and  “période blanche” when buying tickets. Blue is usually more expensive as it’s during commuting time. White is cheaper.
  • Pay attention to the train as it pulls in. You can get a preview of what kind of seating you want. Each train is different, and sometimes each car is different. You can have anywhere from normal seating, to cabin seating, where 8 people fit in one cabin. Depends on how you like to travel and how many you are traveling with.
  • If there is construction, sometimes your train is replaced with an autocar- a bus that will take you to your destination.
  • In big cities pay attention to the name of the train station. Sometimes there are multiple stations.

Sometimes you take more risks with the TER- delays, construction, cancellation, but the trains are cheaper, the refunds easier and usually you don’t have to wait long to catch the next available train. Usually.

*Note- A plus of the TER is refunds. Should you have any problems, you can get a full refund before your train departure. If you want to cancel or refund a TGV, there is a small fee.

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The cabins even have privacy curtains

Step 3: Reservations/Buying the Ticket

Depending on how much of a planner you are, you have a few options.

  1. Buy tickets online
  2. Buy tickets at counter (speak to person)
  3. Buy tickets from machine in the train station

1. Buying tickets online would seem like the easier option. However, if you do not have a French card, purchasing can be difficult. Be warned that the SNCF website can be confusing to say the least. This can help you through the process:

http://www.seat61.com/France-trains.htm#How to use voyages-sncf.com

2. If you have questions, do not know the best option, or need help arranging travel plans, speaking to someone with access to all the train times can be helpful. Usually you can find some one who speaks English and is more than willing to help. Again, usually.

3. If you have an idea of the destination and times, the ticket machines in the station can be your friend. It also has options for several languages. However, yet again, if you do not have a French card, this can be a problem.

Step 4: Riding the train

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Once you have successfully purchased your tickets. It’s time to ride the train! But wait- it’s not quite that simple.

First thing you need to do- arrive early. Give your self time to figure out where to go and to find the voie, or platform.

In theory, your voie is displayed 20 minutes before your train departure. Most of the time, it’s more like 10 minutes. If it’s anything under 10 minutes, seek help. Even if you don’t speak French, gesture at your ticket, and you’ll get somewhere. I made the mistake of growing accustomed to SNCF’s delays, and thought 5 minutes was plenty of time. Turns out, my “train” was an autocar.

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I was taking the 9:50 Valance train. Note the time…

While you’re waiting for you voie, composte, or stamp your ticket in one of the many machines. But wait! It’s not that simple either. More often, than not, the lovely machine will reject you. ….or at least your ticket.

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It’s temperamental

Turn your ticket multiple times- try the front, the back, the other side- until the machine has been appeased.

Once your number or letter comes up on the screen, follow the signs for your train and hop aboard!

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STEP 5: Extra- Things to Bring

Just as a little tid bit, these things can be quite helpful:

  • a book and/or music
  • scarf (doubles as blanket)
  •  granola bar/snack as train food is expensive and you don’t know when you’ll be delayed
  •  water bottle
  •  tissues- doubles as napkins and toilet paper
  • patience

All things considered, the SNCF has been there for me. It’s been temperamental and we’ve had our fair share of fights, but at the end of the day, it’s taken places- places I only dreamed of.

French don’t give a #@*! about being polite

We all know the stereotype- the French are haughty, pretentious and downright rude. Except that each time I’d traveled to France, I experienced nothing but kindness. Sure they might laugh at your ridiculous accent, but I found that if you sincerely tried (a.k.a. don’t barge in with the “I’m from America and we’re gonna speak my language and do it my way” approach) then they were quite nice…in their own French way.

Until I lived here. In comparison to other countries, at times I’ve felt brazen and outspoken and rude as an American with my American ways. I don’t say Ma’am and Sir (although I’m sure many Americans do) and I can be quite loud and sometimes invade people’s personal space with my weird touchy laugh habit (thanks mom). But the French make Americans look like rule bound, guilt obsessed, polite pampered Brits. Sorry British but you guys do apologize for everything. 

They don’t give a crap about your personal space, your personal problems, standard politeness or welcoming manners. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of French people who have been warm and receptive and helpful. But living here has introduced me to a distinct cultural difference of social standards. Like the girl who blatantly mocked me while sitting next to me on the train and then proceeded to completely invade my personal space even though she had TWO empty chairs next to her. Or the students who talk or text regardless of whether it’s me or the teacher talking. Or the people who cut in front of me at the grocery store or use babies to skip lines at the prefecture. Or the girl who literally sat on me because my SINGLE seat had the smallest bit of room apparently open for stranger seating. No asking, no eye contact, just big ass on my seat. I felt like a crazy person as I searched for someone to share eye contact in a “is this really happening right now?” moment but being polite is so n’importe quoi.

When I first arrived in France, my friend warned me with a story of how she was invited to three dinners before the french even talked to her. I have now sat through two gatherings where hardly two words were spoken to me. I sat as the silent, awkward foreigner, thinking about how if we were in America, I’d have a drink in my hand, know everyone’s name and be involved in some sort of conversation. It seemed unfathomable to me- it’s just common hosting sense, it’s just good manners, it’s just politeness, human decency- how rude! But apparently it’s not rude, it’s just French.

And it’s not just me. Even Paris’s transport authority acknowledged the rudeness with an ad campaign to improve social awareness.

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/travel/news/sacre-bleu-campaign-to-put-an-end-to-rudeness-in-france/story-fn32891l-1226436549175

But it’s not all that bad. I’ve heard that the French are hard to crack, but once you break through, they’re there for life. And I will say that rudeness aside, the blunt way of communicating can be quite refreshing at times. But a big ass on my seat will never be refreshing- it can go find its own!