Thursday, June 16, 2011

Going from Paris to Aix en Provence

In my first entry, I mentioned that I was on a TGV train heading from Paris to Aix en Provence. These super fast trains are a huge improvement to the slower train system that stood previously. It is most comparable to the Acela train that runs from Washington D.C. to Boston. However, this system is much more extensive. The TGV interconnects with the still existing slower rail lines to allow most travellers to reach almost any French town or city. It goes further and allows the traveller to go internationally by rail to places such as Brussels, Berlin, and all the way to Moscow. The rider can arrive up to the leaving of the train to the station and get aboard to go anywhere. I know from my experience that I much prefer this method of travel to flying. Sit back, relax, and watch the view go by.

I arrived in Aix en Provence which now has a beautiful new station that was built in 2001 with the extension of the TGV system. Unfortunately, as I found out the hard way, the station is 13 kilometers away from the center of town where my hotel was located. Unfortunately for me, I found out that the French labeling in this particular station is not very good, and I was lost on how to get to the center of town without walking quite a distance. Lucky for me, and I say that sarcastically, there was a nice French information desk where I tried to ask in Frenglish how to get to Aix center, as they call it. The information desk was no help because all I could get out of the man was the phrase, “There is a bus downstairs.” I thanked him and went downstairs to find the bus stop. A bus stop I did find. However, there was no bus schedule to tell me when the next bus would be and where it would go. I was further concerned that there was no one at the bus stop.

Discouraged, I pulled my bag back upstairs to ask at the information desk about the bus and when it would next come. To my discontent, the man was gone and the information desk dark. At that point, I became quite worried. Tired of travelling and out of my element because I was no expecting a station on the outskirts of town. I wished I was still in Paris where the signs were clear and the metro could take me anywhere I wanted. In my opinion Paris was much nicer than this small city in the south of France. Just wanting to get to my hotel, I took the sky bridge over the tracks to the otherside of the station where I had seen other people getting into taxis. Dearly wishing that there would be one, I found a line with a sign post saying taxis. There were several in a cued up line that reminded me of the taxi cue outside of Penn Station in New York City.

Immediately, a man walked up to me in a leather jacket from his car and asked me in rapid French where I needed to go. In broken French, I told him Le Hotel Cardinal in Aix Center. He smiled and said of course. Before I could protest he grabbed my bags put them in the back of his taxi. Only then did I realize that the symbol on the back of the taxi I was getting in was a high end Mercedes Benz. That’s when I knew that I might be getting myself into trouble, but I was stressed from the days experience so I got in. The driver hopped in and starting driving like every professional European driver, and that is fast with great precision. He whipped the wheel over hit the gas and we were on our way.

At that moment, I remembered the words of my Dad when I was much younger. Those words paraphrased were to watch out when getting into a taxi in an unknown city that the driver doesn’t take you on a very expensive tour of the city. Having only a basic tourist map I tried to follow the route on the map. Even if I realized that this driver was taking me the long way, what was I going to do? Yell at him in English? He really only spoke French so that was out of the picture. He was a nice kind of driver though and seemingly took me a direct way with some traffic as we exited the motorway. He told me along the way in basic French where we were as we sped along. I was watching the meter jumping 20 cents every 5 seconds that we drove on top of a flat 2 euros 30 cents. We got to the hotel, and I had to give over 40 euros for one short trip. Ugh I thought at that point. It was about to get a lot worse though.

I walked into the hotel and gave my name to the woman at the desk. She looked at the register and didn’t see me there which was odd because I was holding my confirmation email in my hand. Then she began to read off names trying to find me on a register that only had about 10 names on it. When we got to the end, she let out an exclaimation and looked over at a stack of papers and asked me if my name was Kurtz which I said was really Kurz. Then in very rapid French she spilled into a long narrative that could not be stopped my exclamations to please slow down. Luckily her French speaking son that was a few years older than I am came out and helped translate. The gist of the story was that I had said in my email that I would arrive at 6 PM and it was now close to 7 PM so the woman had given my room away to someone else. I was told with some smugness that I should have at least called if I was expecting to be late. For the record, I was not late of my own doing but rather the inconvenience of poor station location.

I was outraged at this because I was holding a confirmation email in my hand that showed me sending my credit card number to confirm the room. I explained to the son that I was on a train and my cellphone does not work in this country so I could not possibly call. The son proudly smirked and said oh well and the woman looked no more concerned than the son. In fact, she looked quite overjoyed at my discomfort with being told that I now had nowhere to stay at 7 PM in a remote city in Southern France. Luckily for me at that moment, a conversation that I tried to follow started with the woman and another couple. The gist was that they could not stay even though they had just checked in and were leaving free of charge. With reluctance I was given their room that was not recleaned before I got up there. At least the room was clean and had a bed and I managed to insist on a lower rate for the inconvenience they had put me in.

As soon as I settled in my room, I decided that the people of Aix are not nearly as pleasant or willing to help as Parisians. I had been told people outside of Paris were more pleasant than Parisians. I beg to differ. Further, the things that I had planned to do while in Aix would cost a lot of euros because they were not within close public transport as I had thought they were. At that moment, I decided that I was abandoning my plan to spend 4 days in the Aix region. I was heading to the city I really wanted to see, Avignon, and then back to Paris where the metro was readily available.

I found out from reading online in the evening (on Wifi that I had to pay extra for) that in reality the bus is very reasonable and easy to use. Only problem is that they don’t publish there maps anywhere accept online and at the bus station in the center of Aix. I took the bus the next day for a lovely 3.20 euros. It was great learning experience though because never again will I be so early to become stressed and take the more expensive route. I should have stepped back and thought more carefully about my circumstance. It was a stressful leg of my trip but very educational.

Lesson learned here when going to a remote region expect that the movement around the area without a car may take some real exploring with fluency in the language of the locals. I also learned that a confirmation or what is said to be true is not always the real truth so expect the worse and hope for the best.

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