S is for Strike

Up until now everything had gone surprisingly smoothly for us. Nothing had been lost or stolen (except a couple of adapters…). No trains had been missed and we had never seriously gotten lost (we just had no idea where we were going-there is a small but important difference, I hope). Today was the first day where that sense of control was lost and it was pretty stressful.

We had booked a train direct from Tours to Paris where we would then have a couple of hours to metro across the city to our fast train to Brussels (which we had had to pay around $100 to book even with our train pass, quelle horreur!). We had everything pre booked and had given ourselves plenty of time for the connection. So as usual, we arrived at the train station far too early, prepared to relax with a coffee. Everything was weirdly quiet and our train was missing from the sparse list of departures on the board. We found a lady wandering around in uniform and tried to ask about our train. After a bit of delay thanks to my terrible French comprehension we finally grasped that she was trying to explain that the train staff were on strike and there were no trains going from Tours to Paris. I asked about connecting to our train in Paris and she said that that train could possibly be cancelled as well.

Trying to keep calm (the lady was thankfully very helpful, if not for her it would have been a totally different story) we discovered that there was one train going from a nearby train station to Paris that could potentially get us to our next train in time. With no option but to use the only taxi of our entire two months (a luxury we normally don’t allow ourselves) we got to the train station just outside of the city to see if we could get any more information. The staff were even fewer here so we had no choice but to wait 4 hours for the train to turn up and hope that we would be able to catch it without the booking that was normally necessary for a TGV.

Thank god for Caf├ęs and their endless supply of coffee, pastry and air conditioning. The next few hours went by quickly, I think mostly due to the stress of what was going to happen once we got to Paris. The station got pretty busy as the train time approached and everyone seemed as confused and stressed as the next person which was somewhat comforting. The TGV arrived and any worries about whether we would need a reservation disappeared once we realised there were no available seats and the huge amount of people who we had been waiting with were all going to have to stand. It was hot (there was no air conditioning outside of the cabins), noisy and uncomfortable but it was a fortunately short ride (faster than the train we were originally planning to take).

Back to the chaos of Paris, I wish we would have had more time to see it again before moving on, but we had about 15 minutes to get to our international train and we weren’t sure if it would be there when we arrived. The strike had affected the metro as well, with lots of lines running infrequently and the metros that were going were packed full. I was just thankful the metro was running at all but standing in a cramped tiny metro car was not pleasant, with people pushed up on you and no space to breathe.

Just in case the day was not already stressful enough (and not containing anywhere near enough chocolate), a man standing next to me in the metro had some kind of epileptic fit right before our metro stop. I don’t even know how to communicate how terrifying the moment was, he started falling and then before I could even grasp the situation he started seizing on the ground. Obviously everyone tried to help him and once we got to the stop the alarm in our cart was pressed so that he could get help but it was a terrible feeling to stand there, not knowing how to help, not being able to communicate easily and also knowing that we only had a matter of minutes to get to the train station. Once we knew people were helping him and there was nothing more we could do we ran to our train, which by some miracle was still running, and found our seats with only minutes to spare.

I haven’t really cried much on the trip but by this point it had become a little too much, I felt stressed and scared for the guy on the metro and horrified that we had had to leave and not make sure he regained consciousness. I knew others were helping him and two more people would only get in the way, but I felt so selfish and after the stress of the day I was a bit of a mess. Even now thinking back I start to feel stressed, it was definitely the worst day of the entire holiday but somehow, incredibly, we managed to make it to Brussels.

I guess I should talk about Brussels, as we only had a short afternoon to get some sightseeing in. I wasn’t in a great mood and would have preferred to wrap myself up in blankets with some good delicious Belgian chocolate, but logic won over and we caught a bus from our B&B to the central square, Grand Place. I’m so glad we did, it was pretty late at this point so we wandered around the square, admiring the amazing architecture and enjoying a musician who was putting on a reggae show. We also went to find the ever famous statue of the pissing boy (Mannekin Pis), which was a bit of a let down considering half of the tourist shops were selling replicas that were bigger than the actual size. What was more entertaining were the two guys carrying around an Elvis statue and getting photos taken with him. We found a restaurant for dinner at the cute but incredibly busy Rue de Bouchers, and a much needed beer and then took our tired selves home where we subsequently collapsed.

Brussels is obviously a pretty big city and needs far more time to explore but I’m glad we got to take a glance at its main highlight. It was also great as everyone seemed to speak English and I was too exhausted mentally to try and speak French. By the end of the day I was still just kind of shocked that despite everything we had made it to Belgium in one piece.