What I Did On My Summer Vacation 2008 – Part Trois

French Flag

The power and the glory that is the TGV – especially when it utterly fails.
Chicago to NYC in 6 hours For $125 – Choke the Mister – Even at this speed, Avignon still give me the willies – \”They don\’t know what the problem is\” –

France has a train system that is truly impressive.

In addition to the local trains that run on roadbeds hundreds of years old, there is the power & the glory of the TGV. TGV stands for Train à Grande Vitesse, which translates as “high-speed train”. What it is, in point of fact, is a totally workable, cheap and efficient means to get from one end of the country to another.

The TGV is electric powered, and, given that France gets 99.8% of electric power from nuclear plants, you can see how this a very advantageous system; contained emissions & pollution, no dependency on foreign oil supplies, noticeably cleaner train stations, etc..

They were also real clever with the track layout. When you talk about making a system like this in America, one of the first negatives that pops up is the supposed need to lay all new track and make new stations etc.. The TGV gets around this by using existing tracks at most destination points, which allows the use of preexisting rail stations, and it then diverts onto its own, newer, limited access lines when they really stand on the gas. And there\’s no rail crossing on these lines either; they\’re overpass/underpass things for dealing with other tracks and auto routes.

They can get these things cranking along at 320 clicks an hour, as fast as a Ferrari 360 Modena.

What can I say, it\’s fun. You\’re out in the middle of the French country side, sitting in a cabin closer to a airliner than train, and you are flat out booking for hours at a stretch.

Getting on the train?

That\’s fairly easy … unless you\’re complete louts like we were. See, we screwed up massively getting on the TGV in Charles de Gaulle airport (and how much of a no-brainer is having a train station at the airport?) which had a comic/tragic knock-on effect, but I\’ll get to that later. Anyway, here\’s how the ticketing and boarding procedure works:

You go and buy a ticket from a nice lady at a counter. She\’s usually well dressed, smells nice, and distracting attractive (usually). You can get the ticket days in advance, or within minutes of the train pulling into the station. You walk about 100 yards to the platform where your specific train will pull up. You get in your assigned car. That\’s it.

No metal detectors, no security theater, no bans on liquids or any of that other BS that helps nothing but makes flying more and more of a complete pain in the ass.

If the TGV was up and running in America, you could get from Chicago to New York City in around 6 hours for a cost of $125.

Think about that for a while … and the next time you run into a politician, ask them \”Hey, why don\’t we have a train system that\’s as good as the French have?\”

Like all other trains, there\’s a bar car, but since this is food in France, there\’s none of this 13 day old tuna salad sandwich in a triangular plastic box for $16.38, oh no. Wine, bread, cheese all that sort of thing. My wife turned me on to this kind of open-faced sandwich deal. Since I don\’t speak French, I can\’t accurately recall, let alone spell what its name is, but it literally translates as \”Choke The Mister\”* and they aren\’t kidding. It\’s two pieces of bread layered with cheese and ham and takes up the area of a half a laptop computer. It comes on a plate, and you have to eat it with a knife and fork, since there\’s cheese and ham all over the place.

Cost? $5.

This is what the French regard as the sort of food you eat when you have to, just to get by, because there\’s nothing proper to eat.

No water though, unless it\’s bottled. The French still haven\’t figured that whole tap water thing out.

So, there you sit, ensconced in a comfortable seat, trying to finish the last of your \”Choke The Mister\”, blasting through the countryside at 180+, and, more or less, just taking in the view.

The French countryside looks likes something from a world War I movie set. 90% farmers\’ fields about an acre in area, boarded by hedgerows or low rock walls, Every so often there\’s a little village made up of two and three story buildings made of stone. It looks like the sort of place where you could hastily land the Neuport after that Hun got off a luck shot from his tri-plane and holed your crank case.

Every so often you\’ll go through a bigger town or city.

On our way south we passed through Avignon. It sits astride a river, thoroughly modern and up to date in the downtown area, but up on the hill there\’s a castle and a cathedral and all that. When I saw the cathedral is gave me the chills. For a while, there were two Popes, and one of them was based out of that building. He came up with all sorts of nifty ideas on how to make the world a better place (once he wrested control from the other Pope). Ideas like The Inquisition. You had best be towing the party line if you were hanging around Avingon a thousand years ago, or you would have come to a very sticky end.

So, we were somewhere beyond Avignon, just outside of Marseille completing the first part of our journey, when all this wonderful, high speed technology of the TGV goes CLANK!!!

We weren\’t going all that fast, but the long and the short of it was that the train slowed to a stop.

We sit there, silently for a few minutes. Everyone is doing what they would have been doing had the TGV been in motion, no one seems all that upset.

Then there is a distant, far off banging and clanking and clattering and hammering.

The PA crackles to life, and a voice says, \”nous sommes désolés qu’il semble y a un défaut de fonctionnement avec le système d’entraînement si vous nous donnez un certain temps pour le fixer que nous sommes sûrs que les choses seront meilleures ont en attendant encore plus de vin et le fromage tout est normal tout est bon ne laissent nous seul aucun vraiment filon-couche de chose soit bon il est probablement quelque chose avec les enroulements d’entraînement des roues et ces rats arrières au dépôt de réparation dans le shold de Paris ont pris à soin de ceci, garçon, nous les fixera sure.\”

The guy sitting across from us, that looks like either a Proust scholar or a shoe repairman, translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion \”They don\’t know what the problem is.\”

So we sit there for another five minutes or so, and in the far background there\’s this banging and clanking and clattering and hammering.

Then the PA comes on again, and this French voice says, \”Désolé, mais lui semble comme là pourrait être quelque chose vers le haut avec du fromage distribuent sur la pièce avant de la voiture du numéro deux et elle effectue défavorablement le rendement du panneau de commande électrique qui vraiment devrait avoir été fixé par ces singes en arrière à Paris, mais du moins dit au sujet de ces types le meilleur. Quoi qu’il en soit, nous espérons avoir tout mis dans son endroit légitime, et, Dieu voulant, nous serons sur notre chemin dès que sera humainement possible. Ainsi nous vous remercions de votre patience.\”

And the guy across from us translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion \”They don\’t know what the problem is.\”

More bangingthumpinghosingpoundingclanking, and then a really frustrated voice gets on the PA and says, \”C’est tout le défaut de ces imbeciles arrières au dépôt à Paris. S’il y avait n’importe quelle justice dans notre république, ils pendraient tout des arbres à ce moment même. Pourquoi nous même devons accepter ceci pendant que les professionnels de chemin de fer est au delà de moi, mais là de vous ayez-le. Ainsi nous presserons “MARCHE” et nous obtiendrons le problème résolu dans aucun ordre court, puisque nous l’avons maintenant tracé vers le bas à un défaut dans la transmission magnétique pour rouler le numéro soixante-douze ou au fait que le singe de conducteur auxiliaire est devenu lâche et a arraché les boulons retenants avec ses mains nues.\”

And the guy across from us translates, without the slightest inflection or emotion \”They don\’t know what the pro-\”clang-THUMP!!!

And the TGV starts to move, slowly, ever so slowly, down the track on the way to Marseille. We get up to a speed of what seems like maybe 30 MPH, and hold that speed for about 10 minutes until we coast into the Gare de Marseille (that would be the Marseille train station).

By now though, we are horribly late to catch our connecting train on to our final destination.

We pull into the station just in the nick of time. Uniformed TGV personal stand on the platform yelling \”Go-go-go!!\” urging us forward so the train can leave, and we all, en masse, run out and into the parking lot.

My wife and I realize this is not where the connecting train to Frejus will be boarding, hang a quick 180, book back into the Gare, run the in opposite direction from where uniformed TGV personal are still standing on the platform yelling \”Go-go-go!!\” urging people forward, just in time to see our connecting TGV silently, powerfully, pulling away from the station without us on board.

By now we had been on the road for 36 straight, sleepless hours (two plane flights and one, almost complete TGV run) and were facing the possibility of having to spend the night in Marseille (look up the history of crime in Marseille, and you\’ll see why this was not the best of possibilities).

I don\’t speak French, but my wife does, and she did, in great quantity, to the uniformed TGV personal still standing happily on the platform, thinking they had done a great job.

A few phone calls and an hour-long wait in the parking lot (I won\’t go into the rats that were eyeing me and my luggage like I was dinner) resulted in Peter, my father-in-law, showing up to drive us the last bit of our journey.

So OK, they kind of screwed up there at the end … but other than that it was a great way to travel. And the two other times we used the TGV, a non-stop blast back to Paris, and a run from Bordeax back to Paris as well, it was as flawless as could be; wine, Choke The Misters, met an actor, saw some great scenery, all that kind of stuff.

Like I said, the next time you run into a politician, ask them \”Hey, why don\’t we have a train system that\’s as good as the French have?\”

Maybe sometime this country will get its act together …

Note: As it turns out, the name of the sandwich does not translate as Choke The Mister, it actually means Crispy Mister (which is even funnier). My wife, who speaks French, got it wrong while we were on the train, and only realized it when she was looking up the recipe on Wikipedia. So, indeed, it is Crispy Mister.

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