11 hours of travel for 40 hours of bliss, part I

(The first in a series of tales relating to what I did on my European vacation after I stopped having reliable and/or cheap Internet access. Today’s adventures: Getting to Provence.)

We left our hideaway in Riomaggiore at 09:00 intent on catching a 09:50 train to La Spiezia. From there we would head to Genova, where we’d change trains and go to Nice, change trains again, and go to Avignon, where we’d get on a bus and go to Arles. Staring a very full day of travel in the face, it was with some consternation that Trenitalia chose that moment to announce our train would be delayed by 40 minutes. I looked at my watch, looked at the timetable posted next to the tracks, looked at our onward reservations. It was going to be close.

In true Italian style, 40 minutes became 50. 50 became 60. An hour became 1:15. I couldn’t fathom what the problem was, but by the time the train was announced as being 1:15 late I’d already formulated a plan. Our original trip from La Spiezia to Genova actually involved backtracking. Why not catch the train direct from Riomaggiore to Genova and get there ahead of the originally scheduled time? Works for me. Problem: Genova has two train stations. The train from Riomaggiore arrived at Genova Brignole. The train to Nice left from Genova Principe. The one Trenitalia guy I managed to pin down mumbled something about it being not-so-complex to get from Brignole to Principe and, in hindsight, he was right. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, and I resolved to deal with the problem once we got to Genova rather than worry about it en route.

It’s a good thing, too, because the milk run train between La Spiezia and Genova gave me a lot of time to worry. Stopping at more or less every town on the route, I saw a lot more of the Italian countryside than I would have had we roared through on an express. Crammed into second class seats, I got a better sense of what travel in Italy is like for Italians — I didn’t, for a moment, think my first-class Eurostar Italia seats from Venice were representative. We chugged along the coastline, saw a lot of vineyards, a lot of farmland, and a few interesting towns that might be worth coming back to if the gorgeous beaches we saw were any indication. (Deserted at 10:30 in the morning on what would become a scorchingly hot day — who’d’ve thought?)

Arriving in Genova we hoisted our packs and made our way through the warrens of Brignole. I queued at the information office to get directions to Principe and was told to hop on a train at another platform. You know me, though — I’m not one to do something easy if I can do something hard, and, after consulting the schedule posted in the lobby, wasn’t fully convinced the Trenitalia guy had told me the right track number or the right train. It might well be one stop up the line (it was), but I’ve got all kinds of plans here, and I’d rather not see them screwed up by a language barrier. Anywhere but Italy I wouldn’t have cared. But transport in Italy had proven to be a very hit-or-miss affair, and I wasn’t terribly interested in pressing my luck.

So K. and I took a taxi across town. Brignole is out on the edge; Principe is closer to the old part of the city. I won’t pretend I saw anything interesting or terribly informative but it was nice to turn what would have otherwise been a layover stop into a short sightseeing adventure. Once at Principe we tried to get some lunch or at least provisions for the train, an effort that would end in failure. I queued at one of the cafes for a sandwich and was bumped by an older Italian who seemed to think I was standing with cash in my hand for the sheer fun of standing in lines, and got irate when I had the temerity to suggest that maybe it was my turn. I shrugged — it was something I’d gotten used to in Italy and I knew it wasn’t worth arguing further about.

Eventually our train to Nice pulled up to the platform. Although we had a first class railpass (mandatory) K. and I didn’t seem to get really good use out of it: We’d been shoved into second class on the trip to Venice, managed first class seats to Rome, and got first class seats into the Cinque Terre (but were surprised by the austerity of the accomodations). On the way to Nice we were to be stuck in second class too, owing to a lack of first class space, and I’m starting to see the wisdom of reserving trains well in advance because it prevents you from coming into contact with the kinds of people who have second class railpasses.

Before I get into that, a word about taking European trains. Kids, listen up. Do not carry big, hard-sided suitcases. Especially do not carry big hard-sided suitcases that are wider than the aisle of the train. It doesn’t work. Bad things happen. People behind you get cranky. Small children get trapped. Also, if you’re on the train, move your luggage out of the corridor and for god’s sake don’t sit on the little fold-out seats in the corridor when people are trying to get on! I ended up having to lift several bags over an intransigent fellow (no, not the same one) who absolutely refused to budge from his fold-down seat until we accidentally smacked him in the head with a small, soft-sided bag. I squeezed my way through the crush of humanity and found our assigned seats, then threw our bags up onto the overhead luggage racks.

All right, I thought. Maybe we’ll have the compartment to ourselves. Hah. Dream on. Two girls whose suitcases I had lifted soon joined us, followed by two guys of around the same age. And herein is the thing about second class railpass holders:

They’re kids.

Specifically, they’re non-European kids. More specifically, they’re American kids, either college students or kids fresh out of college. And so I spent six hours on the way to Nice in a compartment on a train with two sorority girls and two frat boys who were intent on doing everything they could to confirm every stereotype you ever had about southern California frat kids.

This gave rise to several funny comments:

  • They complained about the inability to get a “good” breakfast in Italy. This struck me as odd; I’d had perfectly fine breakfasts for the entire time I’d been there. Then I realized they were talking about American breakfasts and the grease content they wanted. I didn’t understand why that was important until…
  • … they began recounting their myriad drinking adventures. I guess the modern thing to do if you’re a college student is to come to Europe and drink your way across the continent — a kind of EU version of Spirit of the West’s “Home For A Rest,” as narrated by people not nearly as charming as John Mann. I don’t understand this. I’m not much of a drinker anymore, and I certainly drank more on this trip than I have in recent months (or years, for that matter), but I’d think you’d come to Europe to, you know, see Europe — not Europe’s bars. But I’m weird that way.
  • One of the girls then began to complain about — yeah, get this — Italy’s (I can barely type the words) lousy food. “All I’ve had since I’ve been here is pizza and pasta!” she moaned. “It’s soooo boring!” I wanted to reach over and smack her. She was craving burgers and eggs and fries. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Later she mentioned she’d spent something like a month in Tuscany and I became even more disbelieving — how on earth can you spend a month in Tuscany and eat nothing but pizza and pasta? Are you trying to be an idiot? Are you working overtime at not finding other food? Other than the foccacia bread in Riomaggiore I don’t think I ate the same thing twice my entire time in Italy, and I’m including the time I made pasta twice in Rome. How can you complain about lousy food in Italy? The mind boggles.
  • K. then asked the kids about the Greek system. I played along under the guise that I was a stupid Canadian with no knowledge of fraternities and sororities. The kids started talking about the advantages of joining one, about how it had never occurred to them to not join one, blah blah blah, and then they got kind of defensive about it. “It’s not elitist,” one of them said. “It just lets you pick your friends. We have to let you in to the sorority, and if my friends don’t want to hang out with you, I probably don’t want to hang out with you, either.” (I paraphrase, but K. will back me up that this is a reasonably accurate transcription of the conversation.) There was a pregnant pause while the kid considered what she’d just said. “Well, I guess it could be kind of elitist.” K. shot me a smug look. I rolled my eyes, plugged my headphones in, and buried my face in A Brief History of Nearly Everything.

All in all, it was a sensorily taxing trip. The kids wouldn’t shut up about anything. I heard about “donor” stands (I swear, this is how they pronounced it) in Prague and stupid hostel stunts. I learned about the different kinds of clubs in various parts of Europe. Every few minutes one of them would point out the window and ask whether we were in France yet. (We weren’t.) This got really trying after about the third attempt:

Them: “We’re in France now, see? Pizze! That’s not Italian!”
Me: “We’re still in Italy.”
Them: “How do you know?”
Me: “Pizze is the plural of pizza.”

I had no idea whether this was true, and still don’t, but I’m betting they didn’t, either. What I was really going on was the fact there was a big sign on the rail right-of-way that said “Ferrovie dello Stato.” I didn’t tell them that.

Somewhere along the line we spent an inordinate amount of time in Ventimiglia. (“Are we in France now?” “NO.” “How do you know?” ““Ventimiglia” isn’t a French word.” “How do you know?” “Um.. I speak French?” “[blank stare]”) What we were doing there, I couldn’t tell you. But the air conditioning powered off (this was a common theme during the trip, actually) and we didn’t go anywhere, so we sat and baked in the train yard. I’m guessing we were waiting for an engine or something, but maybe it was the Trenitalia mandated delay so that everyone could miss any connections they had in Nice. The announcements didn’t explain much, though for a change they were in a language I could actually understand rather than just guess at. (The fact that they were in French did not do much to help me convince my travelmates that we were not, in fact, in France.)

Eventually we started moving again, and the kids turned to talk about their future travel plans. They discussed night trains. K. and I sighed, thinking about our Austrian adventure. “I heard,” one of the girls said, “that there are gassings in Eastern Europe so they can rob you.” Her friend nodded sagely. “We met someone who had it happen to them.” The guys nodded too. “Yup.” I couldn’t bring myself to argue, but maybe I should have.

This is one of those urban legends that seems kind of scary and a little too precise but falls apart when you think about it rationally. And maybe the reason it falls apart for me is because of what I do — I don’t know. But let’s break this down for a minute. The legend says that in some parts of Europe, sleeper trains are gassed with some kind of knock-out agent so that occupants can be robbed with greater ease. Inevitably there’s advice offered, like making sure your window stays open, to prevent this kind of thing from happening.

There’s one problem with this legend: There ain’t no such thing as knockout gas. Oh, sure, there are inhaled anesthetics — simple things like diethyl ether, and complex things like sevoflurane or desflurane — and the Russians seem to have used some kind of aerosolized fentanyl derivative during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis to knock the terrorists out. But here’s the thing about those gases: They’re all heavier than air. It’s impossible to get a constant concentration across an entire compartment, vertically, without pressurizing the thing. And here’s the other thing about anesthetic agents or high-dose narcotics — they all cause respiratory depression. (Ether also has the benefit of igniting, as I’m sure you all know.) Roughly 120 people died of respiratory depression during the hostage rescue in Moscow, and that was with people who presumably knew what they were doing.

So in order for the legend to hold up, we have to have criminals with an agent that’s great at knocking people out at low doses, does not cause respiratory depression or airway compromise, mixes equally with air, isn’t flammable, and is easily transportable. (Most inhalational anesthetics need to be vaporized by heating before you can inhale them.) With me so far? I would submit that, if such an agent did exist, the robbery teams would get richer selling it to Sandoz, Merck, or Hoffman-La Roche than they would robbing people, because it would be the world’s greatest anesthetic agent and anesthetists everywhere would be lining up to use it.

The legend is bunk from its very premise but it took me an embarassingly long time to realize that. Once I did I started thinking about how it was that people might believe it was true, and it dawned on me that it’s just not that hard to rob a person who’s asleep.

Anyway, after disgorging the girls in Monaco, we made it to Nice. Late. Duh. It was oppressively hot. (Shocking, I know.) K. and I had toyed with the idea of staying in Nice if we would get to Arles too late, but she decided on the ride in that perhaps we weren’t physically attractive enough to spend the night on the French Riviera. We made our way to the (air conditioned!) SNCF office where I made arrangements for us to take another regional train to Arles; we’d get in around 21:45, and that seemed OK.

The first class accomodations on the SNCF train to Arles were — how to put this — heavenly. We had a six-person compartment to ourselves. The air conditioning, while not nuclear powered, was excellent. We could stretch out, relax, put our feet up, read.. well, maybe not read, because the lighting in the car was sporadic and we seemed to go through a lot of tunnels. I never understood how it came to pass that the A/C would stay on, but the compartment lights wouldn’t. Eventually, after a nearly four hour trip through the Bouches-du-Rhone (including a trip past the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion), we arrived in Arles as the sun was going down.

Now, bear in mind that I had made our reservations in Arles over the net. Normally this isn’t a problem, but I’d used a consolidation Web site and booked at a hotel I couldn’t actually find in Google. I had directions, but they were vague. I had planned on taking a taxi from the station to the hotel, but couldn’t find one around the station. A phone number was displayed, but I had no phone card, and payphones in France apparently don’t take coins anymore. The bar down the street tried their best to help, but couldn’t find any taxis anywhere. “It’s match night,” the guy said to me, and I realized that in fact it was match night — France was playing Brazil, and everybody was watching. So, having found no taxis, and no buses, and having convinced myself the best way to get to the hotel was to follow the Rhone until I came to the Trinquetaille bridge, cross it, and then find the Rue Noguier, K. and I set out amongst the bugs along the stinky banks of the Rhone.

Along the way we passed through Arles’ deserted streets — everyone was inside. I stopped, briefly, at what I was pretty sure was the place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” but wouldn’t commit to saying so. Eventually, after what turned out to be an easy fifteen minute walk (even with the packs), we walked up to the front door of the Hotel Porte de Camargue, where we met Patricia who was startled at our appearance.

“Who are you?” she wanted to know. I told her. She got a panicked look on her face. “But I thought you already came!” It turned out that there was another Asian guy staying at the hotel that night, and he’d come late as well, and she’d never bothered to ask him for identification.. oh, hilarity ensued. We had a good laugh over the whole thing. K., meanwhile, was standing in the corner agog — although she’d known for some time that I spoke fluent French, she’d never actually seen me do it, seen me make jokes, and so the disconnect was highly, uh, disconnecting.

The hotel, by the way, is fabulous. It’s this tiny place on the other side of the river from all the tourist stuff, and that means it’s incredibly quiet. Yes, it’s a ten minute walk to the major sights, but who cares? It’s well-appointed, and the rooms are air conditioned, and it’s reasonably cheap. We cranked on the A/C and fell almost instantly asleep.

My last conscious thought was, “I’m glad to be in France.” And I was.