Friday, April 29, 2011

It's Not About the Money, Part One: They Speak Spanish in Paris? -- Episode 3

(For episode two of this series, go here.)

Oh, boy. Here we go...

My face at the RE-planning stage.

Hello, everybody. Sorry about the delay in this post. Celebrations for the Royal Wedding are underway here in London and everyone is enjoying the four-day weekend. Despite all this joy and excitement, however, it's time to tell you about the lowest point of our European adventure.

Train tickets.

As Lauren told you in our last installment, we had a wonderful first half of our first full day in Paris before everything crashed down around us.

Before I can talk about that, though, I need to take a minute to tell you how things were suppose to work out.

We planned our trip out about a month before leaving London. We bought Eurail passes, plane tickets, and booked hostel stays at each of our stops. We timed out the train distances and arranged everything in a timely fashion to give us about three days each in Paris and Florence, around four days in Rome, and a short day in Venice. We would take some overnight trains to save on time and accommodations costs, and rely on a few day trains for the rest of our travel between cities before flying back to London out of Paris. Everything fit into a neat little schedule and was perfectly organized.

There's an old military proverb from German General Helmuth von Moltke that says "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Perhaps you've heard it. It certainly held true for our travels.

Our enemy was train tickets.

After our day of running about Paris, Lauren and I stopped in at the train station to pick up our tickets for the rest of the trip. With the Eurail pass, you pay for a certain number of days that you can travel an unlimited amount of time or distance within the designated countries for which you purchased the tickets.

Translation: Lauren and I were able to travel anywhere within France and Italy for six days. All we had to do is show your Eurail pass at a train station and pick up the tickets.

At least, that's what we thought. In practice, things worked out somewhat differently. We arrived at the train station, walked up to the ticket desk for international tickets (finding a man who could speak English after only two or three minutes) and proceeded to request our tickets.

There were none. The man explained that only a certain number of tickets are reserved for Eurail pass-holders on any particular train. Unfortunately for us, there's only one train each day that goes from Paris to Venice, and it was full. It was full every day for the three days that we were in Paris.

We were stuck.

After wasting the man's time asking about several other possibilities, he flat-out told us that it would be impossible for us to find any kind of train tickets with the Eurail pass on such a short notice. He offered to sell us full-price tickets for the trip, but we politely declined and retreated from the station.

About ten minutes later, we sat down outside of an abandoned cafe and panicked.

We're stuck. We only have two nights left reserved at the hostel. We don't have any way of getting out of Paris. We have no internet access. We have limited money. We don't know how to make international calls on our cell phones. Our flight out of Paris doesn't leave until the 22nd (it's the 13th at this point.)

We were going to end up stuck and homeless on the streets of Paris!

...our thoughts exactly.
Sitting there outside the cafe, we tried very, very hard to keep ourselves from curling up into tiny little balls of shame.

Artist's rendering.
So, instead, I pulled out our map and searched furiously for any possible way that we might escape Paris.

(Yeah, yeah, alright. I hear all of you crying "Escape Paris? Why would you want to do such a thing?" Nice as Paris is, folks, it's not where we wanted to spend our entire vacation.)

Alas, no alternative routes presented themselves for us to reach Venice. If you look at a map, you'll probably see that there's really only one route into Italy from France, and so there's only one train each day that goes through that route (apparently) and that train, as we discovered earlier, is full.


So we discussed our options.

Do we stay in Paris the whole time? We don't know if our hostel has enough open nights. Do we leave Europe and return to London early? That'll require us to buy another plane ticket, and our landlady won't be expecting us (she had friends coming to stay for an undisclosed period of time while we were gone, so our rooms wouldn't have been available anyway). Plus, it would be really disappointing to make all these plans and come all this way only to turn around and leave with our tail tucked between our legs.

Not pictured: tail.
For the rest of that day, I worried that our trip would be hollow. Even if we found some way to make our hostel reservations in Florence and Rome, it would likely cost us money. More money than we had wanted, expected, and intended to spend. I was worried that those new expenses, mingled with potential guilt over not reading the fine print on our Eurail passes, would prevent us from enjoying the rest of our trip (the bits that we could make work, that is).

And I knew that if this was weighing heavily on my mind, then it would be weighing down Lauren even more, for she has always been more sensitive about these concerns than me.

So, eager to relieve both of our fears, we kept moving. We agreed to find some kind of internet cafe (as they don't believe in free internet at coffee shops in Paris) and do some research. We weren't going to be able to do anything until we found more information. We had seen dozens of Starbucks during our trek across the city, all advertising internet. Surely we could find one here, in the heart of things.


It took us what felt like an hour (in a city that you can walk end-to-end in under three) to find a small internet cafe run by an Armenian man (or maybe he was Bosnian) and tucked away down two or three side streets. We wouldn't have found it at all if we hadn't been looking for a public restroom at the same time (another things Parisians don't believe in, apparently.)

The rates were expensive, the computer was slow, and the keyboard was strange (where in the world is the @ sign!) But it was internet. We felt empowered. Everything would be fine soon.

Deciding to focus on reaching our hostel reservations, Lauren and I booked a flight from Paris to Rome. It was relatively inexpensive -- not as cheap as we would have liked, but still less than our flight from London to Paris. We decided we would look into getting train tickets from Rome to Florence, in order to make our Florence hostel reservation, then from Florence back to Rome, in order to make our Rome hostel reservation.  Then we would try to get back to Paris in order to catch our flight. We figured our chances for getting tickets would be somewhat higher in this case, as Rome has a train running to and from Florence about once every hour. Hopefully they wouldn't be too full.

Unfortunately, this cut Venice out of the trip, but we decided we would be okay with that if it meant we could make it to the rest of our destinations.

After printing the boarding passes and paying the man for his internet, we set out in search of a drink. We decided it was well-deserved, all things considered.

Two blocks up from the internet cafe, on our route back to the hostel I might add, we found The Thistle:

Why a Scottish pub in Paris?
We didn't ask.

Guess what they have?

Yep, free wi-fi.

Regardless of the poor timing of its revelation, The Thistle became our best friend for our entire time in Paris. It had reasonably-priced drinks, free wi-fi, and a SubWay next door. (Don't hate. It was a long day.) For the next two days, we stopped at The Thistle to check our e-mail, bank accounts, and travel reservations. Everything was going to be in order now. Everything was going to work out. We would tolerate no more mistakes!

The rest of the day was uneventful. We stopped at the train station to get our Rome/Florence tickets sorted out. (And it was fine.) The one final complication was that we were unable to get a train ticket from Rome to Paris to catch our flight (something about religious people traveling, I think. Apparently they were filling up all the trains. I thought that odd, because it seems to me the religious people would be wanting to go INTO Rome, not out of it. Unless, of course, all the atheists in Rome were trying to escape for Easter... *shrug*) So we decided to purchase new plane tickets from Rome to London, because it was both simpler and cheaper than trying to get from Rome to Paris in time to catch our original flight.

At the end of it all, our greatest expense for traveling probably comes from what we didn't use. A flight from Paris to London, and three or four days of train travel on the Eurail pass. Both of those wasted expenses were big disappointments to us, but we were so relieved to have saved our trip at the thirteenth hour (yes, so far past the eleventh that it was wasn't even funny) that we kind of shrugged it off and prepared to enjoy the rest of our stay in Paris.

Besides, we were going to the Louvre in the morning. You can't be depressed when you're about to go to the Louvre!


  1. You really can't can you?

    In all seriousness, the travel woes sound horrible. That's the worst, when everything goes wrong and you have to fix it right away. I'm sorry it ruined one of your days. But hey, at least it all turned out alright. (Unless you were arrested the next day. Were you arrested?)

  2. You'll just have to wait and see. :)

    Also, it didn't completely ruin our first day. Everything that Lauren talked about in Episode 2 was lovely and our woes (while gut-wrenching while we were dealing with them) could not totally destroy that first impression of beauty.

  3. "The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry" is another one I use for those occasions.

    Wow, that really sucks. Despite the money issues, that was some really quick thinking on your feet. Good job. :)