My friend Chris always chuckles when I finish up every story about my year spent in the south of France with a shake of my head and the exclamation, “God, how I suffered.”
Not all of the time, mind you. It just seemed like it.
First of all, never trust your travel agent. With all due respects to that vanishing profession, I was taking its name in vain that first afternoon in Paris, burdened down with thirteen very heavy suitcases in the sultry Parisian heat. My wife Brenda and I had not slept a wink on an overnight flight that had left Toronto at 11:20 p.m. Our two sons, Liam and Adam, aged four and two respectively, had not slept more than two and one-half hours.
The Perras family’s adventure, up to this point, had not been excellent.
I rolled my eyes in frustration and cursed out my wife. “Another one of your great ideas,” I seethed. “Let’s go to France, you said. The south of France. It’ll be great.” I looked around the vast, crowded Charles de Gaulle airport terminal and made a decision. “I’m going to get a croissant and a café au lait.”
It was August 11, 1995. There were three weeks before the start of school in September in Nimes, in the south of France. Given our present predicament, we would need all of that time before we found our way there. With our usual lack of foresight we had failed to ship any of our luggage on ahead; hence our heavy burden. And you can guess who the pack mule was.
“Getting to Nimes will be a breeze,” our travel agent had assured us. “The train station is right beside the airport. If you’re whisked through Customs quickly enough you’ll be on your train 65 minutes after you land.”
Of course. And the cheque is in the mail and this won’t hurt a bit.
The travel agent was partially correct. Customs was great. Never had an easier time. Train station ? An official pointed through the front doors, leading out to the Great Beyond. Just beside the airport ? He gave a Gallic shrug, a gesture that I would only become far too familiar with throughout the next year. “You can catch the shuttle bus right through there. I cursed (quietly) in French, then in English, gave my baggage trolley a yank and watched two cardboard boxes and one suitcase topple over. Brenda was up ahead with the kids and didn’t hear a thing. When I finally pulled up alongside her she was joining the sweaty, surging mass of humanity boarding a bus to parts unknown.
“Thanks for your help back there.” I gestured to my burden, which even one of those Himalayan sherpas would refuse to shoulder. She had two kids and two heavy bags in tow. That left me with only eleven oversized cases to handle by myself. The bus doors were closing and it was obvious there was no room for neither me nor my caravan. “Now what am I supposed to do? ” I shouted in frustration. Brenda looked at me, shrugged and waved as the bus backfired and pulled away from the curb. What, I wondered, was the name of that train station ?
Ten anxious minutes later another bus pulled into place and once again the crowd surged forward. Unfortunately for me it wasn’t just a case of grabbing my two or three cases and charging on board to carve myself out a spot; there would be four more trips back to the curb. I shot a quick glance back at
the airport and for a brief moment wondered when the next flight to Toronto would be taking off.
Reality interrupted my reverie when someone stepped on my toe and shoved in front of me in line. I started running between the bus and the curb like a chipmunk storing a winter’s supply of nuts.
Never had I encountered a better-humoured bus driver. While answering questions in French, Spanish and Italian, he looked at me and smiled. “Just don’t pile them on the steering wheel,” he chuckled.
“Train station?” I inquired, not knowing the exact name.
“Ah, mais oui,” he answered. Between the two of us we were able to push shut the bus doors.
I kept an anxious eye out for Brenda and the two boys at each stop. Usually, even if I can’t see my family I can always hear them. But this was more difficult in a bus loaded with excited international travelers speaking at least six different languages.
My frantic glances finally caught sight of three exhausted, dejected figures sitting on a curb. Brenda leapt forward when she saw me. “Did you bring all the luggage?” she asked as a first greeting. I resolved to make sure that at the next wedding I attended I would shout at the top of my lungs for the bridegroom to run now, as fast as he could, and never come back.
“Is this the train station?” I yelled back.
“I’ll find out.” She grabbed the two boys and disappeared through the nearest doors.
It took a frantic hour of asking questions and lugging bags in the wrong directions before an amiable station employee ambled over and inquired if we were the lost Canadians. Evidently, less than two hours after landing in the country, we had already acquired a reputation.
Faith in guardian angels was very much in fashion at the time and now we had found ours’ in the form of a bulky and bespectacled Frenchman. He found us a room to store our baggage and sent us off in the right direction to locate refreshments. “The train to Nimes leaves at 5:10 p.m.,” he said. “I’ll see you back here thirty minutes before that. Ask for Gilles.” After finally locating a snack bar that was serving we discovered that it was not only Canadian airports and train stations that could perform legalized holdups.
True to his word, Gilles was at his specified spot at 4:40 p.m. Obviously he had realized that this train station was particularly confusing, or just that we were easily confused, because he stayed with us right until the train pulled in. The conductor jumped out, took one look at our paraphernalia and sent us seventy-five metres down the ramp to another door. We had just started storing our bags when he reappeared and ordered us back down to the spot that we had just left.
“Con,” cursed Gilles, sweating profusely and puffing dangerously. It was a word describing what he thought of the conductor. Its translation is unprintable.
Three minutes later the Perras family pulled out of the Paris train station, destination Nimes.