33 Hours to Lourdes (by PSW)

Summary: Three planes, two taxis, a bus and a half, one train, and a shout-out for all the French citizens who were so helpful to a lost, stressed American traveler.
Category: Non-fiction
Rating: G
Word Count: 3131


 

“You know about your plane, right?”

The trip had been in the works for months, and I hadn’t even had to do any of the planning.  I was traveling with my parents and a group from their town to visit religious and cultural sites in Europe.  We would fly from Chicago to Frankfurt, then into Toulouse, France.  From there we would take a bus to Lourdes, one of the most popular Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.  After that we would travel across northern Spain, following the famous Camino del Santiago (the Way of St. James) pilgrimage route through Burgos, Leon, and various small coastal towns to its end in Santiago de Compostela.  Then we were headed to Portugal, where we would visit (among other places) Porto, the Knights Templar castle at Tomar, the Douro River valley (where they make port – yum), and Fatima, another popular Catholic pilgrimage site.  We would end at Lisbon, heading home from there.

The bulk of the tour group had flights booked to Chicago from the regional airport outside my parents’ hometown.  Since I live two hours away, the tour leader set me up to fly out of St. Louis instead, meeting the group in Chicago.  This also offered the added benefit of a forty-five minute drive to my home when we arrived back in the States, rather than a three hour drive.

Win-win.  All good.  Happy with the arrangement.  Looking forward to meeting the group in Chicago.

What did I know?

“You know about your plane, right?”

I arrived at the airport three hours before my flight was scheduled to leave.  I like to get to the airport early—get checked in, eat a leisurely sit-down breakfast, be at the gate in plenty of time.

Alas, no leisurely breakfast was to be in my future this day.

And it’s a good thing I gave myself three hours to spare.

I got off the shuttle outside the airport, tipped the driver, and took myself, my backpack, and my large purple suitcase on wheels (to be known hereafter as the LPSoW) to the check-in counter.  The agent took my passport, weighed the LPSoW, then started typing. And kept typing.  And at one point, finally, looked up and said the words no traveler wants to hear.

“You know about your plane, right?”

No.  In fact, I knew nothing about my plane.

Maybe I should have, but it wouldn’t have made a difference.  My plane was still sitting on the ground in Denver, due to ‘operational issues’.

I was missing the connection to Frankfurt.  There was never any question about that.

The typing continued for a long time.  Apparently, he was having trouble getting the computer to accept me onto any other flights—something about the group booking was confusing their system.  The agent next to him, having no one at her counter (she had already rescheduled someone going to Edenborough, and someone going to London, and someone going to Argentina, and two someones going to Dublin), started working with him to get me rebooked.  Eventually she had to leave.  Eventually I had to use the little girl’s room.  Eventually (about an hour and a half’s worth of eventually) he managed to get me on a plane to Munich, and from there a plane to Toulouse.  I would be landing at 5:30 pm the next day, Toulouse time.

The rest of my group was arriving at 9:00 am the next day, Toulouse time.

This is a significant gap.

At this point, I was counting myself lucky to get there at all, so I smiled (sort of) and thanked him.  (He was, after all, having a pretty rotten day himself.)  He informed me that he had confirmed me on the flights to Chicago and Munich, but that he couldn’t get me confirmed for flight from Munich to Toulouse.  I would have to find a Lufthansa counter in Chicago and have them confirm me.

Well, okay.  I at least had a substantial layover in which to do this.

I called my parents (who were already in Chicago), and told them I would not be meeting them there.  They spoke to our group leader, who told me that the bus couldn’t wait for me in Toulouse.  This was a bit nerve-wracking, but I had already guessed this would be the case—I would need to get myself from Toulouse to Lourdes.  I assumed (ROFL, BTW) this would be fairly simple by train (Lourdes being a rather popular destination), and told them not to worry.  Our tour leader then called and spoke to his booking agent, who called me in something of a panic.

“They have you on a flight to Istanbul.”

“Istanbul?”  Well … I’ve always thought Turkey would be cool, but this wasn’t really the time.

They must take this out of their computer,” she insisted.

I took my backpack (the LPSoW was checked and gone) and made my way back up the stairs.  My agent was busy.  The agent at the next computer looked me up and said that I was not booked on a flight to Istanbul.  The booking agent on the phone insisted I was, and that they must get me out of the computer.  The airline agent said I wasn’t, and that I could come and look at her computer if I didn’t believe her.  I didn’t want to look at her computer.

I wanted to go meet my group in Chicago.

That ship had sailed (so to speak).

I put the booking agent on speaker so she could talk to the airline agent.  Neither one of them wanted to talk to each other (I honestly can’t blame them, but passing messages was becoming increasingly awkward).  They both told me that the other would have to fix this (whatever this was).  I finally just told the booking agent I would call her back, hung up, and went down to security.

I have never been charged for a flight to Istanbul, so I assume this was a non-issue.

I also never called the booking agent back.  She stressed me, and I was already stressed enough.

The security line was long but blessedly uneventful.  I made my gate with just enough time to get a sandwich (it was no longer breakfast time, sadly) before boarding.  I spoke with friends of my parents who randomly happened to be on my plane, headed for a different tour in Ireland (they had been rebooked too).  We boarded and flew to Chicago.

Not forgetting that I still needed to check in for my flight from Munich to Toulouse, I asked the agent at my arrival gate in Chicago where I could find a Lufthansa counter.  She told me that if they had a flight currently boarding, there would be agents right down the terminal.  If they had no flight boarding, I would have to go to the check-in counter.

The one outside security.

I prayed that a flight was boarding, and headed down the terminal.

A flight was boarding.  I stood off to the side until all the passengers were through (my flight wasn’t leaving for four more hours, at the moment I had nothing but time), then asked the agent to check me in from Munich to Toulouse.  She was happy to do so, informing me as she did that the agent in St. Louis could have done this.  I did not explain that he was barely able to get the computer to accept me on the flight, much less confirm me—that in fact I had no paperwork at all (other than a scribbled confirmation number on the back of a disposable luggage tag) proving I had any way of getting from Germany to France.  I thanked her and went to find lunch (since what I had eaten near lunchtime was technically breakfast).  I spoke to my parents’ friends again, who were eating at the next table.  Then I went to my gate and settled in to wait for my flight to Munich.

The rest of my time in Chicago was rather ordinary.  There were a few tense moments when the head gate agent for my flight was informed ten minutes before boarding that the flight attendants’ break area on our plane was non-functional and that he would have to open up four seats in business class for the attendants.  (I was half afraid that, given my late booking onto this flight, I would be bumped and reassigned to yet another plane.)  They found volunteers, however, and soon we were winging our way across the Atlantic.

I napped on and off throughout the entire flight.  Anyone who has ever travelled knows that napping on an airplane is not terribly restful, but still I landed in Munich feeling ready and capable.

This is surely nothing I can’t manage.  Go, me.

I went through customs, then found an ATM and got cash.  (My parents had picked up my cash for the trip when they did their own exchange—this way we avoided paying two transaction fees.  However, they still had it.  Right now, that arrangement didn’t seem like the good idea it had at the time.)  Then I found my gate and waited.

And ate some more.  Twice.

A six hour layover is a long time, especially traveling alone.

Eventually, however, we were called to board and shuffled through the gate.  We went down several flights of stairs and outside, and were then loaded onto a bus.

A … bus?

The bus drove for a very long time, around what must have been most of the airport.  I verified with the French woman beside me (who thankfully spoke English, as my two years of high school Spanish was really of very little use in Germany on the way to France) that we were, in fact, both going to Toulouse.  At least if I was in the wrong place, I wasn’t there alone.

We finally did stop beside a plane.  It was terribly small, but I didn’t care.  In fact, I was perhaps happier to see it than the situation called for.

The flight to Toulouse went (dare I say it) well.  I followed the other passengers to baggage claim, where I wandered aimlessly for a few minutes.  Eventually, however, I found the right carousel and snagged the LPSoW (which arrived, by some miracle far beyond the comprehension of my poor mortal mind, right where it was supposed to).

Then I looked for transportation to the train station.

A metro train of some sort appeared to go from the airport to the train station, but I couldn’t read the signs detailing how to take it.  I opted for a taxi, which seemed easier.  And it was easier, except that when we reached the train station he couldn’t take either my credit or debit card.  I had been expecting this (I use Discover, and know it is not taken in very many places in Europe), and was ready with cash.  He wasn’t thrilled about breaking my large bill, but the ATM gives what it gives—and in the Munich airport that was 100 euro notes.  Inconvenient for everyone involved, but legal tender nonetheless, and soon I had entered the station.

It was very hot (because for some reason every time I go to Europe they have a heat wave—when I went to Germany in 2010 it was 95 degrees F for most of the trip).  My poor, tired, generally climate-controlled American body wilted, but I pressed on.

No train to Lourdes was listed for that evening.  Further investigation revealed that because of the transportation strike, the train to Lourdes had been canceled for the night.  Another would leave at 7:30 the next morning.

I thought I might cry.

I called my dad and explained that I might not be able to join them that evening, and why.  After much discussion (with my dad, the group leader, and the tour guide all offering advice), it was decided that I should stay the night in Toulouse.

This sounded like the worst idea ever at this point, but I also didn’t see any other choice.

My dad told me to get some rest.  Several times.  He meant well, but I was too exhausted to take it well.  I did cry, and I was angry that I was crying (I had every intention of handling this thing with calm and composure, after all), and I was not terribly sweet when I told him I had to hang up the phone right now.

My dad, bless him, is pretty laid back about that kind of thing.

I went back and asked the young customer service clerk (who spoke very little English, to go with my nonexistent French) where I could find a hotel.  Another clerk who did (thankfully) speak English, came and was about to help him look for hotels when a third clerk informed us that, in fact, I could still get to Lourdes that evening.  I needed to take the train to Tarbes (the end of the line), then a bus to Lourdes (about twenty minutes away).

Might I just take a moment here to say that the French ground transportation people were so wonderful.  I could still be wandering France, lost and alone, if not for them.

The idea of having to use yet another form of transportation between Toulouse and Lourdes might once have daunted me, but no longer.  In fact, by this point I felt so swept along in tumbling current of my travels that I thanked them profusely and jumped on this suggestion like the lifeline it was.  They directed me to the kiosks to purchase a ticket.

I couldn’t buy one here?

No, only at the kiosks.

Okay, I thought.  I should really be able to work out how to purchase a ticket to Tarbes, even in a different language.  And I did!  But the kiosks didn’t take my credit or my debit card.

This was no problem.  I had cash.

The kiosks also didn’t take paper money.

Hmm.  The ATM machine in Munich had not prepared for this eventuality.  However, I canceled my order—I had some time yet—and went looking for a change machine.

There were none.

No change machines.  I had money, and no way to get a ticket.

At this point I started to panic.  Just a little.

I went back into the customer service office.  I waited while a group of customers and the clerks exchanged loud, tense dialogue for about ten minutes.  I don’t know the subject—it was in another language, and I was trying not to cry again.  I went up after they had finished and said that I would need to spend the night after all, since I had no money that could work in the kiosks.

I suspect my French friends were getting a little tired of me.  I don’t blame them—I was getting more than a little tired of myself.

One of the agents vaulted the counter (yes, just hopped right over it—if I tried something like that I would be in the hospital for a week) and steered me out to a group of train employees standing at the stairs down to the platform.  “They will get you change,” he informed me, then told them I was going to Tarbes and went back to his office.

Ah.  No change machines because they do it in person.

That’s nice.

Another woman was in front of me, talking to the employee with the change bag.  She was quite chatty and did not seem in any hurry (which was probably the truth—and anyway, it wasn’t her fault my day was a bit of a shambles).  The  employee with me shifted impatiently a few times, glanced at the clock, then nudged me around the woman and toward the stairs.  “Go!”

“But I don’t have a ticket.”

“The train leaves in four minutes!”

“I don’t have a ticket!”

“Get a ticket on the train.  Go!”

So I clattered down the stairs, the LPSoW thumping along behind, and scurried across the platform.  I got on the train and just stood there by the conductor, without a ticket.  (Honestly, I didn’t know things worked this way.  I sort of expected to be kicked right back off again, given the way my trip had been going to this point).  Fortunately this was not the case—the conductor (once he had finished frowning at whatever paperwork two young men were trying to use to board) assured me that it was possible for me to buy a ticket, then turned and walked off.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to follow him, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for me so I found a seat instead.  I wrangled the LPSoW out of the aisle, flopped down, and took a deep breath for the first time in hours.  It was a beautiful ride and the train was mostly empty and quiet, which allowed me to regroup and calm down.  Eventually the conductor came for my money, and though we couldn’t really understand each other (my nonexistent French strikes again) we had a very friendly exchange.  Honestly, the train was the best portion of my journey, for all the trouble I had getting onto it.

I had thought I might just take a taxi from Tarbes to Lourdes (figuring out yet another form of public transportation seemed like almost too much), but there were no taxis anywhere in evidence outside the train station .  I wasn’t sure where to find the bus, but two young French women heard me on the phone with my mom (it was nearly 11 pm by this point, and my dad had finally gone to bed) and came right over, saying they spoke English and could they help.  They didn’t know exactly where the bus was either (it turned out to be right around the corner, just out of view), but together we found it.  Another young man on the bus offered to translate so I could pay—but fortunately the amount appeared on a screen.  I handed over my money and we were off.

Again, I thank God for the help of so many gracious French citizens.  I would have been lost (very, very literally) without them.

Twenty minutes later we arrived in Lourdes, were I did find a couple of taxis at the bus stop.  Yay!  I gave the driver the name of my hotel—and he knew right where it was.  Yay, oh yay.  We sped through the nighttime streets, pulled up five minutes later … and there was my smiling mother, waiting at the hotel door (and laughing at me, just a little).  Glory be.

I guess it was a little funny, once it was all over.

***The End***

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