10.  Eurail Pinball Part III

The next morning I was in no hurry to move on from Dijon and got to the train station with a complicatedly uncertain itinerary in mind. In one of my first two opportunities to get online in France, I had tried to make a reservation at my dear old Hôtel Caulaincourt Square (more on them later) via their website for the final couple of days of my trip, but there’d been a hangup in the online reservation process, and I wasn’t sure if it’d been booked or not. They’d not responded to an earlier email inquiring about room availability, and they’ve always been spotty when it came to online contact, whereas having phone conversations en français is like pulling teeth, for me, so I decided I’d just pop into Paris and check on that status in person (an approach aided by the fact that the trip to Paris from Dijon would be made by the high-speed TGV [Train Grande Vitesse] line).

Oh, the perilous joys of a Eurail pass! That I could make such an arguably extravagant side-trip at no extra cost was a convenience I appreciated, but it also added a tint of unreality to a trip already vague in its basis and boundaries. Paris is special to me, partly because I have only fleeting access to it as my life currently is, and to be able to flit into it and back out in an afternoon was just bizarre. On the other hand, I had an excellent reason for keeping that visit so brief: the Paris football (soccer, to Americans) team was playing the Marseille team that night—a Saturday, no less—at the Stade de France, just north of town, and the TV news was full of the security precautions being implemented in hopes of avoiding the violence and general behavioral mayhem seen in previous Paris/Marseille matches (Paris is France’s capital, whereas Marseille is its major Mediterranean city and is more culturally significant and familiar to France’s south-coastal population, and the two cities have not so much a rivalry as an adversarial relationship). For example, the two relevant lines of the five-line suburb/Paris-linking rail network (the RER) were reserved for Paris supporters, while a couple of Métro lines were reserved for the Marseille fans.

Mais Quelle Gare ?

Paris is the center of France in many ways, not least of which is the national train network, the SNCF (Société Nationale de Chemin de Fer, chemin de fer meaning literally “rail road”): all of France is served from Paris via six train stations (gares) whose locations within Paris roughly correspond to the regions of France they serve, as follows:
1. Gare St Lazare - located in the northwestern area of central Paris, it serves northwestern France; its name refers to a local street which was named for the lazaretto or “leper-hospital” which formerly stood near the Gare du Nord…yes, I know that’s a bit confusing, but there it is. Métro lines 3, 12, and 13 have stops here, as does the new line E of the suburban-linking RER.
2. Gare du Nord - located a bit east of the northern center of Paris, it serves locations along the English Channel (La Manche, or “The Sleeve,” in French), including connections to the U.K. such as the Eurostar (via the Chunnel) and ferries such as the Calais/Dover and Newhaven/Dieppe ones) as well as the high-speed Thalys line to the “Benelux” countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Métro lines 4 and 5 have stops here, as do RER lines B and D (and the new line E has a stop just outside).
3. Gare de l’Est - Est = East, and it serves northeastern France, with connections through to Germany, Switzerland, central Europe, and beyond (see the narrative at left for more on this station and its role); to add to any confusion you might have about all of this, the Gare de l’Est is located just a few blocks southeast of the Gare du Nord. Métro lines 4, 5, and 7 have stops here.
4. Gare de Lyon - serves south-central and southeastern France, including the major city of Lyon (hence the station’s name) by high-speed link; its clock tower is a local landmark, and the station’s located just a stone’s throw (well, if a catapult were involved) from the place de la Bastille. Métro lines 1 and 14 (the oldest and the newest Métro lines, respectively) have stops here, as do RER lines A and D.
5. Gare d’Austerlitz - the name commemorates one of Napoléon’s victorious battles (near the present-day Czech city of Slavkov), and the station’s lines provide access to south-central and southwestern France as well as further connections to Spain and Portugal; it’s just across the Seine from the Gare de Lyon but unlike the latter is quite obscured by grimy train and above-ground Métro tracks. Métro line 5 has a stop at this station, and it’s one end of line 10, plus which RER line C line has a stop here.
6. Gare du Montparnasse - I suspect that most people have no idea what this station actually looks like from the outside because it’s directly behind Paris’s only skyscraper, but it has quite a modern façade; trains from here run to northwestern France (Bretagne) and the Atlantic coast, so it should really be named the Gare de l’Oeust…except that’s what the Gare Saint Lazare used to be called, apparently. Four Métro lines—4, 6, 12, and 13—have stops under this station, and transferring from lines 4 or 12 to lines 6 or 13 involves a considerable trek. Paris's six train stations

With that in mind, sentimentality was largely sidelined in favor of a circumspect hit-and-run approach upon arrival at the Gare de Lyon. I swiftly transferred from SNCF (see sidebar) to Métro and got to Montmartre without incident (except that the Lamarck-Caulaincourt Métro station was closed for renovation during my trip, which necessitated a bit of a hike, albeit an enjoyable one, from either the Abbesses/Pigalle area stops or the Château Rouge one), and I quickly cleared up the question at the hotel (the reservation hadn’t been completed and therefore wasn’t booked, and anyway they were full at the moment). And I went to the Gare de l’Est by the most direct route available in hopes of maybe catching a train to Reims.

In fact I wasn’t sure Reims was where I was going…it was really more of a stopgap decision I’d made the day before as I was convincing myself to move on and save the rest of Dijon for future trips to France. I was in the mood for some cool and wet weather, if any could be had at the end of this “unseasonably warm” April, and watching the méteo (the weather forecast segment of the news) in the previous days had suggested to me that I would possibly get a healthy dose of it out in Bretagne’s farthest reaches, as it’s always more or less prone to Atlantic storm edges, but it appeared that France’s northeast frontier was tending toward cooler weather than the rest of the country, even cooler than places quite nearby. I considered the fact that I’d been in Reims once before, but only for a stop late one evening in a road-trip with a friend in 1998 (we spent the night in Luxembourg, could you just die? rich friends are such a treat!), and that all I’d seen of the town was basically the cathedral and its immediate environs, sometime after dusk, and the interior of the cathedral in its night-lighting garb (which was enough for me to note the Chagall stained glass window and spot a nice prominent St Denis holding his head at waist level as usual). And I decided to give it a shot. Besides, that there is Champagne country, and I’d never say no to the cuisine that accompanies bubbly (unless of course I were out of funds, which would curtail any Champagne-related activities short of picking the grapes).

But first I had to get out of Paris before the football match’s attendees made transit a nightmare. So I arrived at the Gare de l’Est and started searching the reader-boards, and then the printed schedules, for the next train to Reims. I’d figured they must run every hour or so—after all, wasn’t that essentially the same route as to Strasbourg, one of the EU’s capital cities, where countless bureaucrats and bureauflunkies would go to and return from in a steady flow? Well, not on Saturday. I had a wait of a few hours ahead of me.

On top of that, I couldn’t even hang out in the train station—but on the bright side the reason for this gave me something interesting to mention in this tale: the station’s undergoing a major renovation, both externally and internally but most significantly in its underground connectivity, and the signage explaining all of this around the station emphasizes that the Gare de l’Est is getting itself ready to be the western destination of a new high-speed-train line serving Central and Eastern Europe. Apparently the EU’s recent expansion was seen by the SNCF as a green light for building the means to expand their business audience, and they and the Paris Transit authority (the RATP, responsible for the Métro and bus lines) are putting some serious effort into making sure the Paris end of things kicks ass. I’m impressed, actually…they’re ahead of the curve and thus potentially helping to describe its exact arc.

The reality, in the meantime, is that the station is a mess, albeit not entirely so: the paths to the quays and the Métro are unimpeded, if unpleasant in the latter case, but the place feels like a third of its layout and resources are blocked off for the renovation, and a key part of that is the basic train-station amenity of a waiting-room. The only place to wait at the Gare de l’Est at the time was the mini-plaza facing the big reader-board, and not only was it crowded but there was nothing to sit on but one’s own bags. So I left the station, unsure of whether to remain in the neighborhood or hop the Métro to someplace I could kill a couple of hours. In fact I was so unsure that I actually entered the nearest Métro station, spending a ticket, and walked back out a minute later.

Eventually I decided that I should spend the time looking around this zone of Paris which was completely unknown to me, unknown largely because I’d gathered it was so nondescript in my brief tastes of the Gare de l’Est quartier (neighborhood) before this, even if it truly wasn’t that devoid of character. In the event, after an unhurried tuna-on-baguette sandwich lunch spent sitting on the base of the station’s fence outside, tossing crumbs to little birds and discouraging pigeons who tried to horn in on the gig, I found both confirmation of and challenge to my previous impressions: the neighborhood did seem to me to have no definite character, which is uncommon in Paris, but then I wandered into the nearby Square Villemin (through its piss-fragrant northwest entry gates) and found a charming little neighborhood park full of locals and activity…and, most importantly, boules!

Yes, the La Boule du Xeme club and gin knows who else was out that mostly-sunny day, and the park’s northwest triangle of sandy gravel was host to four games of boules. Knowing I had an hour yet to kill, I trotted over to the courts’ low-fenced edge and seated myself on my larger bag to watch for awhile. As I studied the players’ techniques and general styles of play, I added this study to what I’d seen in Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy and concluded that if my Seattle boules-playing pals and I were to drop in on these courts, balls in hand (as it were), we would blend right in if our French were up to par: our amateurish techniques and skill levels were comparable with what I was seeing here (except for the attackers’ styles, which were much more aggressive if not consistently precise), as was the generally amiable and humorous mood which pervaded this Saturday afternoon scene, although these folks had the additional distraction of a boisterous game of basketball being played by youthful hoodli on an adjacent court.

I noticed that there was an aspect to the order of play that seemed to be different from what I’d learned, with regard to the rotation of throwing after a successful attack move, so when I was reasonably sure I’d established myself in the players’ awareness as a respectful observer I caught the ear of a nearby hanger-on. Nearly any boules game will have these personages—friends, fellow players not currently playing, local characters, or whatever—and they’re usually out on the court with the players, discussing/disputing the various throws, gossiping, gabbing about nothing in particular, smoking, etc. They’re a part of the game, just as in Occidental Square (R.I.P.) the passing locals and curious tourists were who conversationally joined our games.

So I managed to connect with one of these guys as he was fetching a ball near the edging fence in front of me, and, after establishing myself as a boules player, I asked him about what had seemed to me to be a different order of play; he explained what I’d seen, and it followed what I’d learned but not so clearly what I’d seen, and after a moment I realized I’d been confused by the way it appeared in team play: I’ve only played one-on-one or “cutthroat” (three-way). It was great to be able to chat familiarly like that—thank you again, Nelly, sincerely as always—and to not sound like a clueless fool wondering why people were tossing steel balls around on the ground.

The best moment of this afternoon came soon after: two of the games had wrapped up, a third game was happening at a very leisurely/senior level off to one side of the courts, and one of the games I’d arrived to find was still underway. But the hangers-on and players from the other games were still on the courts, milling about and/or now hanging about the latter game. An amusing aspect of such gatherings, as I saw them in France on this trip, is that the non-players will very very casually assemble along the line of play as a game (or even a just a round) reaches its conclusion, and in this case I was treated to the delightful sight of 24 people (players and guests) standing in such a line, single file, all calmly watching and awaiting each of the players’ throws.

Also, while the games I’d seen in Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy had been played by only men, albeit of various ages, these in this park in Paris had some women players, and that was a pleasure to see, that un-cliquing of a game many tend to think of as something played only by old guys; in Seattle I’ve played boules with (and usually lost to) my friend Kristin, and I love to be part of such an example of gender-irrelevant pleasure for others to consider trying. It’s a lovely game, really. :^)

The games ended, and I made my way through the city’s continued air of easygoing contentment back to the Gare de l’Est to board the train to Reims (“hRANSS,” pop. ~190,000), which had an uneventful trip through the late afternoon (except for the moment of recognition I had as we passed through Épernay, which is one of the capitals of Champagne [the other being Reims]). Upon arrival in Reims, my situation changed considerably: of the four hotels in my price range mentioned in the Rough Guide, the first two were out of business (granted, it was a 1997 edition of the Rough Guide, but still I thought that was a bit odd) and the second two were full. The city certainly seemed full, with the long pedestrianized stretch of the place Drouet-d’Erlon and its multitudinous flanking cafés abundantly populated, but as far as I knew there wasn’t a particular city-filling event on the calendar that I should I have been aware of (unlike my faux pas in Montreaux in 2003, when I arrived just in time for the enormous annual auto show).

I started exploring axial avenues, and eventually their side-streets, in hopes of locating something reasonably affordable and less frequented, and I did so with a mood waxing pissy…especially when I found a place with rates that looked appropriately cheap for its general dinginess but whose lobby was closed—with a sign indicating that one should call for access. Oh, THAT’s traveller-friendly! (Especially with no telephone in sight.) By the way, the only Étap-Hôtel in Reims was in fact in the suburb of Thillois, which I later determined was at least four miles from Reims; at the time, however, my bitter education in Clermont-Ferrand had taught me well enough to know that if the city I wanted to visit didn’t even appear on the proximity map of the hotel in the Étap-Hôtel directory, it probably wasn’t within easy walking distance.

It didn’t take me long to put two and two together and conclude that Reims didn’t want me to stay there that night, or at least that all signs indicated that I’d be in for a fight against realities if I tried to force the issue, and soon I was nudging my hotel-sniffing route back toward the train station. I figured I’d take a chance on accommodation rates back down the line in Épernay, and when I decided for sure to abandon this attempt at Reims and strode uninterestedly past the Ibis “budget” hotel near the station, it was an amusing surprise to find that the station’s reader-board’s first listing was not the train to Épernay a half-hour hence but rather one going further out along the line, one leaving in about 5 minutes.

THAT is my kind of impetus, a signal and a situation I can get into. And without even blinking I walked directly (and quickly) to the patform to catch the 19h59 train to Charleville-Mézières. Or, as I described the decision the next night in my journal, “I skirted another Annemasse” (site of Stinky-Cheese-Butt Pants incident in November 2003) “by pulling a Quimper.”

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