Getting to Mont Saint-Michel the Hard Way
It was now time for our little side trip to Mt. St-Michel by way of Chartres and Pontorson. Thursday morning we take a good deal of Fae’s luggage and store it in a locker at Montparnasse station. Fae does not believe in traveling light; in fact, every time we had to transport all of our luggage from one place to another I was fretting that she was going to hurt herself, loaded down as she was. I told her she looked like some affluent bag lady. But for this short trip she had agreed on the importance of “stripping down.”
I get in line for our tickets. It’s the confusion we experienced in trying to make reservations all over again. In fact, the man behind the counter even has to bring in another man to consult on the subject of our itinerary. This has me worried, so when I finally have the tickets in hand, I stow Fae and our bags in the second class waiting room (properly second class looking, and crowded with people) and go back upstairs to the Bureau d’Information. Here a different lady in the Good Place to Start tells me (at least I think this is what she’s telling me) that there are no through-trains(Paris/Chartres/Rennes/Pontorson) in the mid-afternoon. We would have to come back to Paris to get a train for Pontorson.
Well, it was almost time for our train to Chartres; obviously I would have to straighten things out when we got there. I was full of dismay, but tried not to convey that to Fae, thinking how she had probably been right: I should have made our arrangements in English. But I had felt so strongly that we should not be expecting these people to speak our language! After all, what would we think of people who visited the U.S. and attempted to make their needs known without a word of English? Wouldn’t it be, ‘what’s with this jerk?’
I fear there are times when traveling with me must be a real trial.
The trip was pleasant, the train running through pretty, unspectacular farm land, past charming, very French-looking villages of stone buildings with red tile roofs and shutters.
At one point a little old lady missed her stop. She was sleeping and only awoke as the train was pulling away from her station. With a cry of alarm she jumped up and rushed to the door, but it was too late. There was a good deal of dismayed chatter from her, and sympathetic clucking from the other elderly ladies in that end of the car (all of them looking like kindly, respectable peasant ladies). The sweet-faced woman across from me (the seats were such that each two faced another two, which meant you had to make allowances for one another’s knees and small packages) said it really was too bad (“C’est bien domage“), they used to always announce the stations, now they never did, service was terrible these days.
What I liked about the situation was that people did not simply ignore the woman, sit there in an embarrassed silence. Though they could do nothing about what had happened they could, and did, at least openly sympathize with her. She was not isolated in her misfortune, as is so often the case in modern urban life. People don’t want to get involved, don’t want to take the chance of somebody needing something of them, even if it’s just a little attention for a few minutes.
The woman had to get off at the next stop (which seemed to be just a shelter beside the tracks, not even a proper station) and wait for the next train going in the opposite direction. I was extremely glad it wasn’t night, or terribly cold.
At the Chartres station I went through the business of trying to ascertain what we had tickets for, and what it was actually possible to do. It became evident that we were not going to have time to see this city’s famous cathedral if we wanted to catch a train that would connect with another train (no through-trains, if you’ll recall) that would get us to Pontorson before it was too late at night. We didn’t want to be arriving too late, as we still had to find accommodations. So apparently it isn’t possible to do what we’d originally planned to do, which means I either didn’t make it clear to the fellow with whom we’d made our reservations, or he goofed.
So, what the heck, Chartres would just have to wait ’til another day. Determinedly philosophical, we stored our bags in a locker, and went to have lunch at a place recommended in another travel guide I had along this trip, “Let’s Go: the Budget Guide to France,” put out by the Harvard Student Agencies, and probably more suited to backpacking types than early-middle-aged people who like their comfort and some degree of “class.” La Flambe, however, was an excellent bargain: a clean, attractive little place, across the plaza from the train station, serving delicious crepes and galettes (which are hearty crepes made of buckwheat) at almost indecently low prices.
Shortly thereafter we’re again standing on the platform, watching a train come in. Now, it’s our understanding that this train will take us to Le Mans, where we’ll have to change to another train for Rennes, where we’ll have to change to a little country line that will take us to Pontorson (and I was afraid we’d spend all our time on trains if we went to Amsterdam!) But this train has “Rennes” written all over it. Fae states the obvious — “I think this train goes to Rennes” — but me, I’m sure the guy inside said we’d have to change at Le Mans. So I ask the conductor when he steps off the train, and he assures me that no, we do not have to change. At my look of bewilderment he even breaks into English, “No change, no change.”
I’m now convinced I’m never going to understand what’s going on, but with a feeling of resignation, board the train.
Which is neat. Unlike the commuter-type train we’d taken out of Paris — which would have felt at home on the Long Island Railroad — this was the cross-country kind, with a corridor running down one side, little compartments opening off it, just like in the movies. I got a kick out of riding such a train from Amsterdam to Paris on my ‘74 trip, and I got just as big a kick out of riding this one, 14 years later.
One fascinating — and enlightened — feature of this train was the Play Car, where parents could take their children if they started getting restless. Like readily available restrooms and plenty of places to sit down everywhere you go, this is the sort of thing that impresses the hell out of me, because it suggests an awareness of, and acceptance of, real human needs. So often in the U.S. we pretend people are the way they should be — or rather the way our Puritan heritage insists they should be — rather than the way they really are. They don’t have to use the bathroom when they’re away from home, or sit down to rest when they’re visiting a museum; their children don’t get restless when they have to sit still for a long time, etc., etc. This is all a part of our vast hypocrisy about the human condition.
Actually, I think it’s part of a larger problem. Our public policies so often treat basic human needs as the personal problems of individuals, to be solved by them as best they can, rather than as common problems that the community as a whole can at least help with. It can range from a company’s attitude — ‘it’s not our problem if your child gets restless on a long journey on one of our conveyances; that’s your problem’ (even though bored, restless children can make a trip a misery for everyone around them if their parents aren’t able to solve the “problem” themselves) to a whole, elaborate system’s — ‘it’s not the nation’s problem if you can’t afford to send your child to college, that’s your problem’… although undereducated children perpetuate poverty from one generation to the next, and are a tragic waste of a country’s human resources.
And yes, I can’t deny that visiting Europe always brings out the socialist in me.
Since Fae and I don’t have reserved seats on this train we have to plow our way through the cars until we find a non-smoking compartment (which are fairly rare, since in France, just as in England, many more people than in the U.S. still smoke), that isn’t too crowded or all reserved. This was another time when I felt grateful that Fae was the kind of traveling companion she is: while she certainly has her preferences about things — like non-smoking train compartments and hotel rooms with attached baths — she isn’t fanatical about anything; in short, she’s Ms. Flexibility, and a damn good sport. For example, she never once said, as regards our fouled-up travel arrangements, “I knew we should have found someone who spoke English.” In fact, when I finally had the courage to apologize, on the return leg of our trip, for condemning us to spending as much time on trains as if we’d gone to Amsterdam, she said that was O.K., it was interesting experiencing train travel in France, and seeing the French countryside.
The only way to travel is with someone like Fae.
Well, now, I bet you think our troubles were at last at an end, right?
Wrong. We made the switch at Rennes with no problem, but then Melody gets it into her head (I’ll spare you the convoluted reasons why) that we were supposed to change yet again at the little town of Dol, not far from Pontorson. We get off there, and as the train is pulling away I ask the station master when the next train to Pontorson leaves. He says to me, pointing at the departing train, “Mais c’etait la!” (“But that was it!”)