Max’s Memoirs: A travel faux pas in France

crowded train station platform

During this and past COVID lockdowns, I have been thinking a lot about travel – or more to the point, the lack of it. I rely on daily Facebook memories to fulfil my desire for international travel. One of those memories has rekindled thoughts of past travel gaffes. Perhaps a disastrous blunder that deserves to be at the top of my list happened in Lyon, France, some years ago when Jenny and I were travelling throughout Europe.

The itinerary is set. After seven glorious days in Uzes, France, we will travel first class by train from Lyon to Venice in Italy. Bookings and payments are made in Australia well in advance. We have SNCF (French National Rail System) ECO tickets. Ones that are senior discounted, refundable and exchangeable.

The difference between first and standard class is that the former is an upper deck, has more room to stretch out and more comfortable, adjustable seats.

As the price difference is not huge, it’s an easy decision to select the first class. We are generally “cattle class” travellers, but what the hell – let’s sit in comfort for the two-leg, nine-hour journey. Then we’ll meet our friends in Venice for a long-awaited catch-up and chill out.

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The waiting room is crowded. All eyes are on the overhead electronic screen, which indicates platform numbers for all departing trains. Unlike previous inter-country train travel, where platform numbers have been known well before departure, we have only 10 minutes from the time the number is displayed until the train leaves.

There are only 15 minutes until our train departs and I am getting anxious. “Will you stop pacing,” Jenny says. My third café latte of the morning has kicked in and is only making me more agitated.

At 0821 the screen lights up with the information we’ve been waiting for – our first leg, Lyon Part Dieu 0831 to Turin Porta Susa 1224, platform 4. We quickly gather our cases and move slowly through the crowd towards the escalator with the sign pointing up to platform 4.

People seem to be blocking our path. I’m thinking, “get out of our way. Don’t you know we have a train to catch?” Everyone seems to be in a panic to get to where they’re going – us included.

We make it to the bottom of the escalator but there is a long queue. The clock is ticking but we eventually get to the platform. Great, our train is already there, however, there is no overhead electronic sign confirming this, nor is there a guard in sight – which seems odd for an inter-country train.

Jenny is somewhat dubious and hesitant. “Are you sure this is our train?” I turn and give her a non-committal shrug. I think to myself that this must be ours. Why wouldn’t it be, with departure imminent. Our ticket says coach 002, seats 055 and 056. We find coach two and board. It is 0825 & we still have six minutes to find our seats and relax before departure.

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We walk through the cabin. Why aren’t there any numbers on the seats? Doubts are starting to cross our minds. We continue, and after a few seconds I hear Jenny ask a passenger, “Turino?” I turn, and she’s pointing in the direction of the front of the train.

The passenger’s head turns from side to side. Oh no bloody hell, we are on the wrong train!

As we both turn to head back to the door, there is a long buzzing sound as the door closes. Then the train starts to move very slowly.

They say when you are close to death that your life passes before you. That’s what I felt at that moment and I’m sure Jenny did as well. There is a weird feeling at the pit of my stomach. My mind is in turmoil. Everything is happening in slow motion. I look up and see the yellow emergency stop cord in easy reach. I lunge at it and yank it down hard. Why would I do a thing like that? I didn’t think of the consequences of what might have happened if I stopped the train. But alas, nothing did happen and the train just picked up speed and continued out of the station.

We stand there for what seems an eternity, just looking at each other, hoping that either one of us might be able to reverse this horrible situation. No such luck. We sit down without uttering a word to each other. I can tell that Jenny is seething, “Not happy Jan!” I should have taken the advice from her and not been so bloody stubborn. I could read her mind as she stared into the distance. “Well done, Max, you have f…ed up big time.”

We get off at the next station, Sathonay, some 15 minutes north of Lyon. We are the only passengers to alight. There is not a single person in sight. I leave Jenny alone with the luggage and go to the station office to attempt to sort out our situation.

This will be fun – not! In my very agitated state and not being able to converse in French, I may not get far. Luckily, the station master speaks English and after about 40 minutes she has sorted everything out.

It’s hard for her not to pick up on the fact that I am in a very stressful state. Maybe she feels some empathy and shows it by being very friendly and helpful.

In fact, we find that French people in general are friendly and helpful, contrary to the long-held belief that they are arrogant and dismissive (they would have every reason to be now, after our PM’s submarine snub). The nice woman cancels our second leg tickets and issues a refund as part payment for new tickets (standard class this time). I head back to Jenny with the good news and her relief is palpable as, having been left for so long with not a soul in sight, she has convinced herself that she is now stranded in the backblocks of France with me never to be seen again.

We gather the luggage and wait for a train to take us back to Lyon where we will hang around for four hours for our second attempt to get to Venice. We don’t say much to each other during that waiting time – just think and stew about what has happened.

I think a lot about the level of grovelling I will need to do in the next few days. The upshot was that it cost about A$200 extra and almost five hours lost in time, for our (sorry, my) stupidity.

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The train pulls into Venice Santa Lucia station at 9.40pm on this very hot night. We get a vaporetto (water taxi) to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, and then wearily drag our cases about 1km over cobblestone paths to our hotel.

It’s hard enough during the daytime to navigate one’s way through Venetian streets, but night time is horrendous, particularly when all you have is an incomplete map copied off the internet, and you are looking for your hotel on the wrong side of the canal.

We eventually find our hotel a bit after 11 pm, absolutely pooped. Our anxious friends are still up to meet us for a welcome drink. I should mention getting to our room requires lugging cases up to the third floor! This has been a day to forget.

As seasoned travellers, we wouldn’t have expected a blunder like this, but if you drop your guard (and are bloody stubborn) look at what can happen.

As a former Catholic, I think back on the Latin words “Mea maxima culpa” – my great fault. This was a time I felt the guilt.

This faux pas has surely been a doozy and rates high on the travel stupidity scale. 

What’s been your biggest travel faux pas? Please share it with us in the comments section below.

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