The Road from Rome

December 21, 5:30pm

We have been through Hell, with a long middle flight.

Rome, 7:30 AM, December 18. British Airways flight to London Gatwick canceled. 2:30 PM Alitalia flight to Heathrow canceled. Line after line, one disappointment after another. Alitalia offered no hotel at all. Luckily Emily’s dad was stuck as well and did get a hotel. We got on the airport shuttle around 9:00 PM. A sea of humanity is swarming the hotel. We sneak into the buffet without food vouchers, scarf down some contraband spaghetti. I swipe a half-empty bottle of water from an abandoned table.

In the morning we got up at 5:00 AM to make our mythical 9:30 flight. It was of course canceled. We stood in the ticket line again and decided to attempt my Plan B: Paris to London via Eurostar (the train that goes under the English channel). We booked a 2:30 PM which was canceled, transferred to a 3:30 – canceled. Resigned to spend another night in Rome, we tried to get Alitalia to give us a hotel room, to no avail. They said that Paris was open and booked us on a 9:00 PM standby. Miraculously, we managed to get seats and landed in Paris around 10:00 PM, got our luggage with our sights set on Gare du Nord—Paris’s North train station where the Eurostar departs. Apparently Paris shuts down completely by then—no buses or trains were running. So we got a taxi outside which a spleef-reeking Persian told us should be about 45 Euros.

Arrived at Gare du Nord around 11:00 PM. As I walked in, a Brit called out “Trying to get to London?” He claimed to have gotten the last ticket. We went into a ghost town save one massive queue a few hundred people deep. This was upsetting to say the least; I would have had no problem sleeping in the train station had it not been ~35 degrees. We were standing behind a skittish Harry Potter figure trying to get to England as well. He had been stuck in Warsaw, originally bound for Australia. It’s amazing how a simple commonality becomes so important and comforting in these kinds of situations. What we did not share with him, nor with most in that line, was that we had no booking. It turned out that all Eurostar trains had been canceled for most of the day, so our comrades were the backlog. It quickly became apparent that our Plan B was foolish optimism; even if services ran the next day, it would be ticket holders going, not us.

The station was swarming with cops—I don’t know why exactly. One of them told us that they were closing the station, but we were allowed to sleep on a sitting train. Someone from Eurostar was there and said that they planned to wake everyone up at 4 AM to queue again (this was around 1:00 AM). The outlook was grim, but what else could we do? We certainly weren’t willing to spend 175 Euros at the hotel across the street for 2 hours. So we headed for the train.

Oh that I may never again experience the feeling of utter hopelessness that pervaded my mind sitting in that train. I had no plan to speak of. Reports were that no tickets would be sold for Monday—Tuesday at the earliest. The dread was almost unbearable. Emily, in her infinite ability to sleep, had passed out, head on her pillow on the table between us. I fretted until 2:30, then put my head next to hers and succumbed to exhaustion.

I woke up before 4:00—time to move. By the time we got to the line, it was nearly as long as before. We stood in front of a really nice British couple. They had tickets of course. Rumours began to fly around—first come, first served. No tickets until the 24th. By the time we got near the ticket office, a Eurostar lackey told us there was no way for us to get out until the 24th. He told us this in disbelief that we expected anything else, as if we asked if we could buy a ticket to Alpha Centauri. Lost in despair, the couple behind suggested my Plan C: Gare du Nord to Calais via train to Dover via ferry. There had been reports that the ferries were running smoothly. So we went for it; headed to a ticket machine for a Calais ticket… but the machines only take chip cards. So we sat down by the ticket line and waited for it to open at 6:00.

**A vital interlude** I desperately had to relieve myself of a certain burden, in a big way. Public toilets are hard to come by in Europe (and particularly this train station), so I headed back to the train we had slept in. After promptly doing my business, I was mortified to find that the flushing capabilities of the toilet had been compromised* (this is after I had to wipe my ass with paper out of the rubbish bin because the toilet paper was gone. This, in hindsight, was quite foreboding). So I did the only sensible thing—I got the Hell out of there. And it seemed the perfect anecdote to add a little levity to our situation, I immediately told Emily.

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* – for the uninitiated, it is very important to note that train toilets are completely dry until flushing
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By the time it opened, the first train was sold out, so we got the 7:58 AM—115 Euros for two tickets. The outlook was grim from daybreak; snow blowing thick enough to white out the opposite end of the platforms. It was actually snowing INSIDE the station, a dusting of flakes sifting between the glass roof panels. Correspondingly, we were freezing. The only available heat source were a string of patio heaters. We piled our luggage around one and camped out, eating a pain au chocolat for breakfast.

The waiting. A giant old-fashioned Departures board loomed like Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, judge and jury of our fate. Its yellow-gold lights and white “RETARDE” signs flick like artificial intelligence. Delays grow like a cancer. Finally, the expected happens. Flickflickflickflickflickflick.

7:58     CALAIS         RETARDE

7:58 comes and goes. The attendant says a 40 minute delay. 8:38 comes and goes “40 minutes.” High speed line closed due to snow. We go to sit in a little bench area. Emily goes to sleep of course. The feeling from the train creeps back, but worse. I was convinced the train would be canceled. But we couldn’t even leave the frozen station. All I could do was stare at an LED readout, the 7:58 flashing between RETARDE and INDETER. Undetermined. Indefinite. At the top of every minute, a gong sounds and an announcement is made. In French and nothing but. I only catch two words—‘inclement’ and ‘weather’. The incessant gong and pounding INDETER breaks me. Panic mixed with exhaustion makes me crumble. My frustration bubbles through my eyes. I have to get my handkerchief from my bag. Emily wakes up and takes me in her arms. I can’t be strong anymore. She checks with the attendant. 5 minutes he says. 25 go by. At this point it is over 2 ½ hours late. I go up to ask. “7122?” “…Platform 7.” “Now??” “Yes!!” By the time I get to the waiting area, Emily has already seen it on the screen. We race to the platform, jubilant.

Generally and comparatively speaking, the French are assholes. A girl is sitting in the baggage cubby and refuses to move so that we can stow our bags. A couple shows a man their tickets to show that he is in their seat, and he blows them off, overtly mocking them in French. They scow. They stare.

We both fall asleep on the train. We stop at some village for ages, some delay explained in French, met with sighs. Finally we stop at Lille, about half way to Calais. Most people get off. We sit FOREVER. Finally a message: they are terminating the service there. I heard earlier that they had one conductor and two trains. They couldn’t decide which to keep going. Obviously it wasn’t us. We had been talking with the couple across from us, who were trying to get to London as well, and another guy bound for Newcastle. We decided to look for a bus or train together. The taxi stand had a few groups doing the same. Reports were 4 people, 200 Euros to Calais.

It was about 2:30 PM. It was a surreal experience, driving through the snow-blanketed Northern France in a taxi with two people we had just met. The sun was setting through the streaky clouds as we crossed the countryside.

It was snowing in Calais. I’d felt like a refugee since Paris, and this was the culmination. We fled France, got on the 5:05 to Dover. The ship, Pride of Kent, was a bastion of the motherland. This was the first luxury on our journey: meals, cushioned seats, toilet paper. Emily was nearly comatose, I dragged her to the food hall and bought an English feast: Christmas Dinner (turkey, carrots, peas, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, stuffing, gravy) and Bangers and Mash. It was glorious. We went back to the lounge and sat near a group of Welsh couples taking a coach home. When we told them our sob story, they were ready to take us with them! “You’ll get a warmer welcome in Wales anyway.”

Snow in Dover. White powder illuminated by sodium lamps always looks like Deadliest Catch. We shuffled into the half-lit National Express office and booked the 8:10 for 14 GBP each. We spend the interim 80 minutes in the ferry lobby, slowly gorged with more refugees going both to and fro. The snow was initially of no concern—puffy bits that  instantly melted on the road. I kept checking, watched it thicken ominously. By the time we went to stand at the bus stop, the road had become white. We stood with several others, swapping war stories culled in the past few days. The bus appeared, the eccentric driver: “I’m not going to make any guarantees, because the roads to London are really bad.” Early 30s with a spiky shock of white-blonde hair. But he was a pro. As the Christmas music blared, we trudged through.

The damage

Time spent: 64 hours
Time without sleep: 35 hours
Canceled flights: 7?
Money spent (not including original plane tickets): 265 Euros, 90 GBP

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~ by miyagisan on January 4, 2011.

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