Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Barcelona/The Apocalypse

I now understand why the French drink wine. Red wine helps lower your blood pressure. This is truly necessary in France. I am entirely sure that after this trip, I will be a raging alcoholic.

I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I apologize for the fact that I must come off this way. I must remind you that I still enjoy being in France and that I plan to return in the future.\ What happened two weekends ago was nothing short of miserable. I can’t imagine things going worse. Well, I can, but this image involves theft, violent crime, bodily harm, illness, or death.

The trip started with a bad omen. I went to the train station to buy my ticket to Barcelona. I approached the ticket booth and smiled as I said “Bonjour!” I started right into “I need a ticket…” (in French, of course.) The woman at the booth, Rachida, put her hand up and stopped me. She said curtly “We start by saying hello.” “But I did say hello,” I stammered, taken aback. She mumbled something in French. I took a deep breath and started again. “I need a ticket blah blah blah.”

Then, the price of the ticket she was selling me was 10 euros more expensive than the price I saw online. I asked if there was another ticket, but she brushed me off saying that was the only ticket.

She also forced me to show her my 12-25 card, which is my train price reduction card. This was after I had already purchased the ticket. The train conductors enforce the validity of these cards. If I lied about having a 12-25 card and the conductor asked me to produce it when he came around to check my ticket, I’d have to pay a fine. But as for buying a ticket, you just have to say that you have one. It’s not part of the ticket sellers’ deal to see the card. I’m sure Rachida was within her rights to ask me to see the card, but since it’s usually not done, I found her asking me to be a condescending gesture.

So, I took the ticket and before I left I said, “I DID say hello in the beginning.” Normally, I would let something like that go, but I am sick of people being rude. I don’t deserve to be talked down to and scolded when I am being polite.

Rachida replied, “I didn’t understand you.” Not, “I didn’t hear you,” but “I didn’t understand you.” My French accent may not be fine-tuned, but I can sure as hell communicate “Bonjour.”

This woman just acted in such a condescending manner. First of all, if I were her and the other person hadn’t said hello (which I did), I would never DARE be so impolite as to scold that person. That action itself is rude. Then to say, “I didn’t understand.” IGNORANT SOURPUSS.

Anyways, the train ride to Barcelona was beautiful. We passed through the countryside and then right alongside the little towns that line the Mediterranean. The day was gorgeous as well. Mid-fifties, clear skies, lots of sun.

After spending the night in a hostel with incredibly helpful reception, I met up with the ‘rents and the bro at their hotel, which also had incredibly helpful reception. We didn’t do too much on Saturday as the fam recovered from jet lag. We did eat some great food. My mom unknowingly ate paella colored black by squid ink. (Oh! So that’s why it’s black!)

While they took a nap, I took a walk around Plaça Tetuan and down to the building Torre Agbar in the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, which I refer to as the “odd-shaped building.” I found out later that Jean Nouvel designed it. Leave it to a Frenchman to design something like THAT. It’s a full on Monet It's like the paintings, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess. That’s not quite true, it just looks so much cooler from far away.

That night, we had a lovely dinner of tapas; mostly seafood, but also fried hot peppers, Spanish tortilla (basically a potato omelette), and crème brûlée.

The next day, rested and recovered, we had a full day or tourism in Barça. Andy headed off to rent a bike. The ‘rents and I went to the Sagrada Familia. The cathedral is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s kind of surreal being inside the church. I saw the outside last summer, but experiencing the inside is crazy. At first the building looked totally bizarre to me, but then realizing the inspiration from nature and the way the Gaudi controlled the light in the building really made it come to life. I hope they can finish it in my lifetime. Any excuse is a good excuse to come to Barcelona!

After being Gaudi-ed out, I went for a walk by myself and my parents rode the tour bus. I saw the Palau de la Musica Catalana. The opera house has mosaic columns that have flower patterns on them. The patterns make the city so vibrant. That’s what I love about Barcelona. From the sea to the green in the parks, and the crazy architecture, everything is so colorful!

After that, I stumbled across the Parc de la Ciutadella, which was really a great find. It had the coolest and biggest fountain I’ve ever seen that depicted Aphrodite’s birth. I enjoyed walking around the massive park and watching all the cute dogs that were prancing about.

To end my day, I reunited with the family at a nice restaurant for some paella and wine.

Our time in Barcelona was well spent. Everyone saw a lot, but of course one weekend in Barcelona doesn’t cover everything. The only disappointments were not having more time and the weather being unseasonably cold (hint hint hint FORESHADOW). We left our hotel at 7:30 Monday morning to get to the train station and have a quick breakfast. Then we got on our train and headed off to Montpellier.

The train from that runs from Barcelona to Montpellier is the most run-down train I’ve ever been in. It’s one step up from a subway train. My friend Brittany put it best, “That train is one step away from being a bus in Mexico with chickens and goats running around.”

The train may not be the best, but I was looking forward to the view of the Mediterranean. Much to my dismay, it started snowing about a half hour into our trip. The snow got progressively worse as we rolled along. Snow. On the Mediterranean. In March. What. The. Hell. We get just past the border into France and stop in a little town called Cerbères. On the way to Barcelona, this town had looked so beautiful that I had written the name down as a place to come back to. This time, I looked out the window and saw the wind blowing snow around. We were sitting there and as the time crept by, I started getting more and more anxious. My family and I were seated in separate train cars, but my Dad came up to sit with me for a while at 1 o’clock (we had been at Cerbères since noon). I started griping to him that at that point we’d probably have made it to Montpellier at about 5 pm, 4 hours after we were scheduled to arrive. I was pissy because that’s a lot of time for them to lose on their trip.

It was at about that point that I wanted to know what was going on. We’d been in the same spot for over an hour and no announcement had been made. We were just sitting there. The train was a Renfe train, which means it was Spanish run. The “people in charge” (quotations are necessary) were wearing SNCF uniforms, which means they worked for the French line. I asked two men in SNCF uniforms, who had been walking around acting like they were in charge, what was happening. They said that we were stopped because of the snow and that we might try to make it to Perpignan, a bigger town, that night. I asked them when we would know if we could go to Perpignan. They didn’t know and got really frustrated that I was asking questions. It is my opinion that as a passenger, I have a right to know what is going on. Maybe not everything, but at least something. I think an announcement should have been made as to why we were stopped. I don’t think I should have had to ask those men what was happening and I certainly don’t feel that it is ok for them to be so testy with me when I wasn’t interrupting them. They were just sitting there and I asked what was going on.

At about 4 o’clock, the police came on board and handed out blankets. They said that they didn’t know when we’d be able to leave, so we had to prepare to spend the night. I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m not exactly known for my ability to stay calm, cool, and collected. I had reached my limit and I started crying. My Dad was with me and I started swearing up a storm about how I couldn’t take anymore of this Goddamn French bullshit (Pardon my French). To steal a line from a Christmas Story I “…wove a tapestry of obscenities that, as far as we know, still hangs in space over the Mediterranean.” What set me off crying was the fact that no one knew what was going on, least of all the “people in charge”. I tried to ask if anyone knew anything, but I was treated as a nuisance for asking. They looked at me like I was nuts for expecting them to have any sort of information regarding when we would be able to leave. They kept saying, “No one knows… No one knows!” The one guy repeated what he said to me in English because he thought I wasn’t getting what he was saying. I understood what he was saying, but the situation was too fucked up for me to believe. Why doesn’t anyone know what’s going on???!!!

That is what set me off crying, but the real reason I was crying was because my family was there. If they hadn’t been there, I would have been pissed and my nails still would have been bitten to pieces from the stress, but I wouldn’t have cried. Of course it’s not them who made me cry. I was crying because they only have one week in Europe and a day is a lot to lose. This is their first time in Europe and I want to make everything great. I know there was nothing I could have done about the situation, but still I felt responsible for the mess.

Pulling myself together, I read an entire book. It was getting really uncomfortable on the train. They moved everyone into the first 4 cars of the train to save heat, so we were smooshed in together. I am entirely sure that the toilets on the train just empty onto the tracks. I am also entirely sure that’s how disease is spread. Anyway, the toilets became full, so to speak. In order to go to the bathroom, we had to walk across the train tracks into the train station, which had no power and was under construction.

We couldn’t move anywhere. When no public announcement is made as to what is going on, rumors spread. There were rumors that the train was going back to Spain. Those were false. We were stuck. We couldn’t go back to Spain, we couldn’t move forward anymore into France. The town of Cerbères had a power outage. (Our train luckily still had power). The highways were closed down. There is a hotel in Cerbères, but it didn’t have power and it was too small for all of us. Since there was a power outage, the payphones didn’t work. There was no cell phone service. I swear to God it was the apocalypse. It might sound melodramatic to call a snowstorm the apocalypse, but the way it was dealt with certainly made it feel that way. And by dealt with, I mean the people in charge sitting around not knowing what to do.

Here is my deal. If they saw how bad the weather was, why did we end up at a point where we couldn’t move anymore. Why did they take us to the point of no return? If they saw how bad the weather was, we should have stopped in Spain and not in a podunk middle of nowhere town. Poor judgment. Cerbères in mythology was the dog that guarded the gates of hell. Well Cerbères, you didn’t do your job. We got past you and into hell.

We spent the night on the train. It was completely uncomfortable. There was a Spanish mother and daughter who moved to my train car next to me. The daughter was completely nuts and the mother just commented on how her daughter was crazy. The mother was pretty funny too though. She kept mumbling about how ridiculous it was that we were in this situation. This perky Spanish girl behind me told her to have patience and the mother responded “We aren’t like you, we can’t have patience for this.” I’m right there with you mama! The daughter, Pamela, provided some much needed comic relief though. When the police car came to deliver food and water, Pamela was really forward with the officer. She asked him “If the highways are blocked, how’d you get here?” He didn’t answer. She then persisted “When you leave, take me with you.” He asked her, “What about all these people here?” She replied, “Leave them.” Everyone in our train car laughed. Pamela wasn’t joking and I applaud her. After this police officer left our car and another one came in, Pamela approached him and pretended she was having a heart attack. She started panting and saying telling the officer that she needed to get to town immediately. The officer didn’t believe her for a minute. It didn’t help that Andy, Pamela’s mother, and I were laughing as we watched this unfold.

It is curious though. They told us the highways were blocked, but a news crew showed up and our train was on national TV…

After a dinner of ham, cheese, bread, and a can of tuna, we settled down for the night. It isn’t easy to sleep on a train. I curled up in a ball on the floor between the rows of seats. It was a fitful sleep to say the least.

I thought for sure they’d have something figured out by morning. Not quite. God, I hate feeling helpless. I understand that it rarely snows in the South of France. The last time Montpellier had a snowstorm before that weekend was 1991. The last time that there has been a snowstorm this late in the winter happened 33 years ago. I get that this is rare and people have a hard time dealing with it. BUT… It snows in other parts of France. A lot actually. 2 weeks ago there a massive snow storm occurred in the North of France. They have snow removal equipment in this country and people that know how to use it. It shouldn’t take 24 GODFORSAKEN hours to get it to us either. It’s not like it snowed in San Antonio and they’re trying to get snow blowers from Minneapolis. France isn’t even as big as Texas! (It is over 8,000 square miles smaller). Good God, it’s not rocket science to move snow! Give me a shovel and maybe we’ll get somewhere!!!! It hadn’t even snowed all night. The snow let up pretty early in the night, so it wasn’t like they had made any progress that was buried under fresh snow.

My nerves were getting the best of me and I hysterically explained to one of the French police to give me a shovel so I could dig. Things were grim.

At 9 am, a police officer announced that a train should be coming by 10:30 am. At about 10 am I realized by the congregation of police officers that this wasn’t happening. My Dad and I went for a walk to the town of Cerbères at that point because we couldn’t take it anymore. I was very vocal and vulgar in expressing how I couldn’t take it anymore. My Dad was a little more reticent.

Even with the snow and the horrible experience, Cerbères is gorgeous. The beach is in a little cove and it just looks like the perfect summer place. The sea was choppy because of the storm, but it still impresses me because of that perfect shade of Mediterranean turquoise.

Our train ran out of gas because it had been running all night to keep the electricity on. Finally, Perpignan sent us a new train. It was nicer than the train that we had spent the night on. Go figure. There were not enough seats for everyone though. Luckily, Mom and I secured 4 seats for the fam, but most people stood like sardines. It looked like a NYC subway at rush hour. We sat on that train for a half hour before it left. A tense half hour. This train was not the express train so it stopped at every little town along the way. After being stuck in one place for 24 hours, the last thing anyone wanted was to make all these little stops. We reached Narbonne, a bigger town. Originally, the plan was for anyone headed to Montpellier to get off at that stop and catch another train to Montpellier. However, because of the number of people, they decided to just take us on that train to Montpellier. Well, I mean, A DUH, our train’s original terminus was in fact Montpellier. GOOD GOD! That was good news that we didn’t have to change trains, right? Kind of. We still had to wait a half hour before the train left Narbonne. Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue.

We made it to Montpellier! Praise Jesus! Hallelujah! I know it’s Lent and I’m not supposed to say that word, but these are extenuating circumstances. We rolled in to Montpellier about 5 o’clock. Our train was supposed to have arrived at 1:22 pm. The previous day.

Our dilemma was not yet finished. My parents rented an apartment for the week, and the guy renting it to us was going to meet us at the train station. We didn’t have a phone number, just an email address. After all we had been through, the consensus was that we just needed to find beds for the 3 of them to sleep in that night. We took a taxi to a hotel in the center of town. They didn’t have space, but the woman directed us to another hotel in the Ibis chain that was super close. We booked it there as fast as we could with all of the luggage.

At the next Ibis, I see the same prices listed. They list the price for a room and then a separate price for a supplementary 3rd person. I go to the front desk and ask the receptionist for a room for 3 people. She says they don’t have any rooms for 3 people. This was the absolute last straw. I started getting hysterical and I said between tears and hyperventilation, “You don’t understand, “ I started to explain. “We were on a train for 36 hours. I don’t care if one person has to sleep on the floor, we need a room for the night.” She said “I am sorry but I am not authorized to put 3 people in a room, it is not allowed.”

At this point, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We had just been through hell and I knew of nowhere else to take my parents. By the response that this receptionist gave me, I thought that there were no rooms available at all. I asked if we could have 2 rooms and she said, that was ok. I was still freaking out and my Dad took over because this girl spoke English. I was off in the corner yelling to no one in particular about how I stayed in a Hotel Ibis with 3 people to a room and how if you can’t put 3 people in a room, it shouldn’t be advertised “supplementary 3rd person.” This receptionist answered my ranting by explaining to my father that the supplementary 3rd person is only if one of the customers is handicapped and needs assistance, blah blah blah. Bullshit in my opinion.

During this time, my Mom had gotten a hold of the Frederic, the guy who we were renting the apartment from. He would meet us at the train station, so we peaced out of the hotel. Frederic ended up being super nice. He drove us to the apartment. He told us that the day before, he had been at the train station waiting for our train when it all of a sudden it disappeared from the timetable. He asked someone about it and the worker replied, “Are you sure that train exists?” That sure is how we felt on the train.

Finally, everyone was settled. I went back to my homestay, kicked off my cold, wet shoes, took a hot shower, put on some warm, clean clothes, and stretched out my back.

My homestay felt bad for me. They saw our train on the TV, but didn’t realize I was on it. Claude said the French call the border “a mess”. Well, it was.

I have Grammar on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I explained to my Grammar teacher on Wednesday why I hadn’t been there on Tuesday. She replied “Oh you were on the famous train destined for Narbonne! I heard about you on the radio.” Yup, that was us.

Françoise, the program director, told me that on the news they were calling us “the people on the sunken ship”. Sure were!

On Wednesday, I felt ashamed of myself for the way I had treated that poor receptionist. Unfortunately, I encountered her at a point where I couldn’t take anymore. I really felt awful that I unleashed on her when she was being perfectly polite. I was on my way to go buy her flowers and apologize when I changed my mind. She does deserve an apology. There was no excuse for my behavior. I just can’t do it though because the way she dealt with everything was so backwards. She saw a problem, but no solution. My meltdown started because I took what she said to mean she had no rooms available at all, not that there just weren’t rooms for 3 people. If I were her, I would have said, “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t offer you one room for 3 people, but I can offer you 2 rooms.” I still wouldn’t have been happy, but I wouldn’t have gone hysterical. I know that she didn’t cause my hysterics and that my actions are my responsibility. It’s just so annoying that no one can offer solutions. A mediocre solution is better than nothing.

All this forced me to think- not something I do very often. Why God, did you make it snow in the South of France in March? What is the point? You took a day and a half out of my parents’ long-awaited, much anticipated voyage. I’m here for 4 months, what does a day and a half matter to me? But for them… !I came to this conclusion: It might be fluffy and stereotypical sounding, but studying abroad makes you grow and mature as a person. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, some really expensive, that I’ve learned from. I’ve met and dealt with a lot of people, some were awesome, some were much less than awesome. I may think that I’ve already grown a lot and learned a lot, but my nervous breakdown and inability to deal with this situation calmly and maturely is God’s way of telling me “Honey, you’ve got a long way to go.” Luckily, I still have some time.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Christina, though I think you were a little unfair to Barcelona in the title. A very entertaining read. I linked to it in my Mazurland Blog post. You have the better story, but I have the photos!