Time for another travel essay. Today, one of the things I do not miss about France.
When people ask me “What didn’t you like about France?” this is (one of) the stories that inevitably comes up.
(This is a funny story, more than anything. There are some other, less-funny things about living in France that perhaps I will get around to writing about someday, given I drum up the courage.)
Two weeks into my teaching assistantship in Normandy, I took the train to Paris for the weekend. I can’t remember what happened on that particular trip (I went to Paris often in those days) or why I was traveling back to Saint-Lô alone, only that I was.
The trip from Paris to Saint-Lô is a little less than two hours. There is no direct train there; you have to either change trains in Caen, the nearest city, or get off the train in this teeny-tiny town called Lison and transfer to a bus.
On that trip, I was doing the Lison transfer, because of the way my schedule worked out, presumably. The train was late, as trains in France are wont to be, and we arrived in Lison thirty minutes after we were supposed to. I assumed the bus would be there waiting, given I had a ticket that said I was going all the way to Saint-Lô.
The bus had left at its appointed time, connecting train or no connecting train. And there were no other buses leaving for Saint-Lô until the next day.
When I–along with the few other passengers who were stranded along with me–asked the man at the tiny bus/train station, as he was closing up his booth for the night, what to do, he shrugged.
Now, if you haven’t lived in France, you might not be familiar with the particularness of the French shrug.
It’s a gesture I would come to know intimately over the year that followed. It’s a move that conveys, all in one simple shoulder-lift: “This is not my problem, I don’t care about this problem, I don’t care about you, and I wash my hands of all responsibility over this, regardless of the fact that I am an employee of the particular establishment you are having this problem with.”
I would see this gesture repeated on everyone from bank tellers to hotel clerks to the people who worked at the prefecture to the infuriating assistants at France Telecom. But at this point, being brand new to the country, I wasn’t entirely familiar with what it meant yet.
“The bus has left,” the man said. “You must find another way home.”
As my fellow passengers pulled out their phones to call various friends and relatives for rides, I stood stock-still, in disbelief. We had tickets on this bus, which we had missed because the train we were on was late. It wasn’t our fault. It was the French transit system’s fault, and it was up to the French transit system to fix it. How was this okay?
And yet, none of the French people around me seemed surprised at all.
The ticket-booth man had started to walk to his car. I followed him.
“But you can’t just do that!” I called. “Our tickets say you have to take us to Saint-Lô!”
He barely turned, shrugged, and kept walking. “The bus is gone. Find another way home.”
“But I don’t have another way home!”
He stopped, sighed, and pulled out the number to the local cab company. “You can call them.”
I did, keeping the man firmly within my sights. When there was no answer, I chased after him again. “They’re not answering!”
Another shrug. “It’s possible they’re closed.”
“But then what am I supposed to do? I haven’t been paid yet; I can’t afford a hotel.”
“There are no hotels in Lison. Call a friend to pick you up.”
He was opening the door to his car. It was not his problem.
“But I have no friends!” I was close to tears now, picturing myself either having to steal the tiny horse in the adjacent field, figure out how to ride him back to Saint-Lô through the dark, with no directions, or curl up and sleep with the sheep in the field beyond that, all night. “I just got here from the US and I don’t know anyone with a car! What am I supposed to do?”
A long, withering sigh. “You are going to Saint-Lô?”
“I am passing by Saint-Lô.” He opened up his car door, gesturing for me to get in.
I hesitated. What if he was a rapist-murderer?
Fortunately at that moment, another passenger came up to us saying she, too, had no other way home, and so the man offered to drive us both to Saint-Lô. She wasn’t any larger than me, but I figured there’d be safety in numbers. And besides, the alternatives weren’t looking too great right then.
During the twenty-minute ride to Saint-Lô, I sat in the back of the man’s car, stewing. How was this acceptable? I would march down to the train station in Saint-Lô tomorrow and demand a refund on the bus-portion of the trip! No, I would demand a refund for the whole trip! And then some! I would sue them!
I did arrive (safely) back in Saint-Lô and the next day, told one of the teachers what had happened, expecting her to be shocked.
Bienvenue en France, that shrug seemed to say.
Image taken by me in Lison, France, April 2007