Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: Leaping Back into the Bathtub

So I promised you some blogs about my visit to Nantes. Well…it’s been a crazy time since I’ve been back. Imagine that, with the holidaze and all.

On Monday the 3rd, I’m sitting at Dulles waiting for my flight to be called, and I am SO EXCITED. But I’ve been up since 1:50am so I’m thinking sleep on the plane won’t be a problem. United Airlines gave me a great seat with two open seats next to me, and as the dinner service on the flight ends, I figure I’m about ready to settle in for some rest. I’ve been prepping by getting up early for an entire week, and I’m certainly tired. But sleep never came.

I shouldn’t say NEVER. I got maybe 15 minutes of sleep. I had open seats next to me and I was comfortable, but I was WAY TOO EXCITED. The flight over there is like 7.5 hours, and the whole way there was turbulence once every 30 minutes. Add that to people hitting my elbow as they walked up the aisle, and before I knew it they were handing us breakfast. I knew at that point sleep was out of the question.

We arrive in Paris and it’s rainy, cold, and still dark at 7:00am. My bag finally comes out and French customs also seems more lax than before. Five French police officers are just standing around the exit into the airport and no one seemed to be paying any attention.

I’m planning to grab a train at 9:47am to Nantes, and this time it will be a lot easier than in the past: Since I left, the airport has a TGV station so I don’t need to spend $80 on a cab going into Paris or hop on the commuter rail or bus with my luggage. Those times can stay lost, as far as I’m concerned; Paris cabs, like cabs in New York, are an adventure that no one needs to have.

And that’s when I get my first shock: Everything in the airport and the train station is now in ENGLISH as well as French. This is a trend that I see over and over again during my trip, both in Roissy at the airport, in Paris, and even in Nantes. Lots and lots of English everywhere. I’ll talk more about that in later posts but keep that in mind moving forward.

But another hurdle stands in my way, and this time, technology is not in my favor.  I take the CDGVAL tram over to the train terminal and go to buy my ticket. They’ve got TONS of machines available so I don’t even need to talk to a person. I put in my itinerary—I did NOT press the British flag button, if you’re asking…if I can’t buy a train ticket after as much French as I have had I’d better pack it in!—and dip my credit card. “Card not read”.

I try this three times before I realize what is happening: French cards have a gold “coin” or “une puce” as the French would say for additional security. If you don’t have this type of card, you can’t use the machines and have to go inside to the customer service representative to buy your ticket. So I’m thinking…”I’ve got about 90 minutes before this train leaves, so no worries.”

I walk into the office, ready to have my first interaction with a real-live French speaker in some time. But instead of entering the bathtub slowly I was shoved in headfirst. Blocking the line in front of me is a man yelling at the lady in front of him in line in very intense French: “When we open up your bag and we find my shit in it, I will put a bullet in your head!”

I carefully make my way around the man, who continues his rant. Apparently, the lady in front of him has stolen stuff from him—she’s carrying his yellow plastic bag, supposedly—and he wants it back. A burly security guard comes out to the unhinged man to make sure he doesn’t do anything physical. The woman, for her part, tells the security guard that she will happily allow him to look in the bag to make sure none of the man’s things are in it. She’s rather calm, but she keeps pushing forward in line.

As the line moves forward, the man just keeps yelling. A train company employee comes out to try to calm him down but his rant continues. He calls her a thief and a liar and insists that the police come down to investigate his claims. As he is doing so I’m focused on the customer service representatives and the electronic boards over their heads. I notice one of them changes to “I speak English”, and again I am struck by the change. Do French people actually WANT to make Anglophones comfortable?

I finally get my ticket and confirm my suspicions about the card. I make a mental note to allow more time to buy a ticket for the ride home, since the machines are right out. I leave the folks to their dispute and head outside to sit. I’m trying not to be tired but it’s catching up with me a little, and I know that if I give in it will seriously screw me up.

Nearly four hours later, I get off the train at the same place where I disembarked 21 years prior—Nantes. I was absolutely thrilled and totally nostalgic. I walked slowly through the train station, trying to give my brain time to assimilate what had changed, which was a lot.

And that was when I started finding lost time. I remember waiting for people to arrive in the old waiting room, the old train information panels that changed with a whick-whick-whick as they rotated—they are now digital, of course, but some of the old ones are still there—and the corridor connecting both sides of the train tracks where you go to get on your train. It was crowded at this time of day, which surprised me since it was only 1:00pm.

I headed to my hotel, a short walk from the train station, and unpacked and showered. I needed to wash the “road” off of me. Then I went out and got on the tram to pick up my old bus route. The #51 is still going to my old house, so I grabbed it and while its route changed a little at the beginning, I started seeing familiar sights. Then I came into my old neighborhood, and more lost time was sitting right there. Small little bursts of familiarity started to come back to me: The side door of my French family’s home, the old supermarket near my place, the traffic noise. I’m thrilled to be there, elated to know that the year I spent there wasn’t lost after all, that it wasn’t just a vivid dream that I concocted.

I walked along past their house to the Erdre, one of the tributaries of the Loire, where I used to go every once in a while. The view has changed a little but not that much. I remembered the many times I crossed the bridge walking friends home at night, and I took deep breaths of the Nantes air and loved every second of it.

I hit a local grocery store with the original name of “SHOPI” and sat on a bench and had a snack. The fact that I hadn’t eaten lunch—or whatever the fuck you wanted to call it at that point since my body was stuck somewhere between EST and French time—finally overtook me. 

I headed back for the city center but this time I used a tramway line that didn’t even exist when I lived here before. They’ve made some amazing improvements to the TAN network and I couldn’t wait to try them out. I was impressed; they are quiet, fast, clean and cheap. You can’t ask for more than that in public transit.
I headed back to the hotel and checked out the area. I found my local grocery store and took a quick look around. Then I headed back to my hotel and realized that I wasn’t going to be awake for much longer. So I snacked a little more and soon thereafter crashed on my bed.  I had been awake for the vast majority of the last nearly 48 hours, and my body decided that enough was enough. I didn’t wake up once in the next 13 hours.

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