Life in a foreign culture is polarizing. Trains are now constant companions, yet many of those involved in the system seem to be attempting to dampen my fierce joy in extensive public transportation. I would venture to say that I am experienced in train riding, but all my anxious backup plans and preparation still leave factors I cannot control. The SNCF (French train company) workers have all decided to begin striking.
Now, I wasn’t exactly surprised. I have developed the theory that Europeans don’t actually get more vacation time than Americans, they just strike consistently enough to satisfy any need to take off work. Earlier this semester, the employees of a nearby prison decided to strike and make bonfires every day for a while, which itself was concerning. Now, SNCF took it further and is striking 2 days of every 5 for the remainder of the semester. While I am unsure of the exact implications of this, it seems highly discouraged to travel within France on these days. This is slightly inconvenient as a resident of France. Despite obstacles, we persevere.
For the most part, we GTL students are a nomadic people. This tendency is tempered by the necessity to be back bright and early for 8:30 am circuits class on Monday. As a result, and in keeping with the defiance of the local culture, an underground movement has developed the concept of a “Barcelona Monday.” In entirely unintentional circumstances, it is evidently common for students who have traveled all the way to the titular city to “miss their train,” forcing them to forgo Monday classes for another day in Spain. While the frequency of these circumstances is a bit skeptical, it arises out of the legitimate difficulty of consistently returning on time while maximizing travel. I always try to have backup plans and avoid taking the last train for this reason. An extra hour of travel would be nice but is not worth the 40-minute walk at 2 am if you end up getting back after the last bus.
This weekend resulted in a new level of travel-related struggling. As mentioned, SNCF has designed a schedule as inconvenient and difficult to remember as possible. This wasn’t much of a problem after deciding to leave at 6 am on Friday, instead. On Sunday we miraculously avoid the striking of the French, but were no match for the superior inefficiencies of the Germans. Despite their reputation for engineering, all of my issues with delayed trains (excluding those in Italy which are honestly expected) have been in Germany. This time, a 35-minute delay caused us to miss a 20-minute connection (long by our normal standards). Of course, we had backup options and elected to splurge slightly by getting a last-minute reservation high-speed train instead of taking the option that would get us home after midnight. This plan was promptly jeopardized when our train arrived at the exact latest time we needed to leave to make our connection possible. The clown-car-like amount of people who poured out brought some levity, though this took so long as to dash any hope of making the next train. Just to emphasize the point, the train proceeded to arrive 60 minutes late, leaving most of the passengers stranded.
I am no stranger to the ephemeral homelessness of sleeping in a train station just to be kicked out at 1 am while your train leaves at 4. This night was to be much longer and would still result in being late for my first class. At this point, giving in and paying for a hotel seemed to be the best option, despite the already lost money on the reservation train. Yet in times of trouble, friends come out of the woodwork. This most recent delay resulted in meeting up with 3 other GTL students in the same predicament, as well as accidentally befriending a German-Canadian student on the train, who planned to major in Mechanical Engineering as most of us are doing now. Banding together proved to save the situation for us all.
To attempt to reclaim the money for the reservation, we ran into a crowd at the information desk. In contrast to their spotty work schedule, the SNCF employees worked hard when they were there. We soon found ourselves on a list for a free hotel room, and our fellow GTL student who hadn’t made a reservation managed to make it on the list also. I emphasize the importance in trying. Instead of accepting the fate we were used to, just simply showing up got us handed a hotel stay, a free dinner, and an excuse to miss class, though Strasbourg is not quite as thrilling as Barcelona.
Our hotel instructions were fairly vague, simply stating to go to the Ibis across the street. We were then met with two Ibis hotels, one specified to be the budget version, so of course we went to the full experience first. They feigned ignorance of any accommodation for us, and discretely explained that there were in fact three Ibis hotels: this one (red, for “stop, you’re too poor”), the blue one next door (notably avoiding the word “budget” prominently displayed on its sign), and the green one that we had not seen (speculated to be located in a dark alley on the other side of town). The blue turned out to be our home away from home, and we settled in, thankful for our welfare-esque dinner boxes and shared beds after offering to house other GTL friends who had not gotten rooms of their own. Awkward sleeping arrangements are welcome in comparison to a station bench.