Monday, 16 June 2014

Train Adventure

Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it. I described this vacation as an adventure at one point. Yesterday adventure arrived, coming to the Gare de Lyon in a way we never expected. It started as most adventures do, quietly, without much of a warning although with portents aplenty. By the time the day was done, adventure had been delivered.

We went to the train station early yesterday; our train was scheduled for 2:41 pm; we went early to advise the train company that I was in a wheelchair and couldn't walk. This is what they advised us to do the day before when we went in and offered the same advance notification of my situation. Both times the answer was that all was good and the train crew would be ready for us.

We had a little sidewalk breakfast where the sparrows and pigeons terrorized Cheryl in scenes reminiscent of The Birds, that famous Alfred Hitchcock movie, swooping by at high speeds, working desperately to steal the brioche right out of her hands. I, of course, in my kind and understanding way, simply encouraged the birds, feeding them crumbs from my hand and tossing bits on the ground outside the restaurant rail. She was not impressed. Once breakfast was complete, we headed for our train, or at least for the platform from which it was to depart, eventually.

On arrival at the platform, we saw a crowd growing steadily. A station agent was yelling loudly, with people in the crowd yelling loudly back at him. These were not shouts of happiness by any stretch of any imagination. The anger was palpable, the crowd was growing into a mob, and they were not happy. The station had arranged to have military personnel with sub-machine guns stationed at the barricades for crowd control. It was a menacing situation, getting worse by the minute.

We sat back, watching and wondering, thinking we would be fine as we had reserved seating for me and they were expecting my wheelchair. Would it were so. Soon I began to see a separate crowd breaking off and I heard the station agent yelling something about the 14:41 train, our train. We dove into the crowd, struggling against the mass to get to the gate where we were quickly waved through past the armed guards, the mass behind us doing the same one or two at a time. It was then that I noticed that once people had emerged from the gate, they ran, almost to a person, to get to the train, as if walking meant trouble.

I managed to get the attention of a station agent. He looked at my wheelchair as if to say "Where the hell did you come from?" Apparently nobody knew there was a wheelchair passenger; it was not on any notification list or advisement to the platform. Nonetheless he took up the challenge and called for a lift. He asked me if I could walk or stand. I said no. He asked where my seats were and we produced our tickets. He looked very concerned, for reasons I was soon to discover. All the while, as we waited for the wheelchair lift, people were running by, scrambling to get to the train, a train that was clearly filling rapidly.

Eventually the lift came. After copious hand waving and discussion, I was loaded into a train car only to discover that the car was wildly overfull and that the passageway to the seats was only about 24 inches. There was no way I was getting into that train car, or at least that is what I thought. In the meantime Cheryl looked at the platform agent, appealing for help. He merely shrugged and walked away, done with us.

After a number struggles and appeals, a woman in a seat right next to the door gave the seat to me, and with some danger and prodigious effort, I transferred into that seat. My wheelchair disappeared into the inter-car storage area, an area also jammed with other luggage and other people. Cheryl had to stand initially but eventually found a place to sit on a mid-car luggage rack. Others were three to a two person seat, sitting on the floor, sitting on bags and luggage, jammed in like refugees fleeing a battle. There were shouting matches and police interventions as fights broke out over seating assignments. Some people were even tossed of the train! It was mayhem galore.

In this state the train then sat for almost an hour, doubly loaded and steaming with frustration. That's when details began to emerge from other passengers. There had been a strike in the morning and the morning train had been cancelled. All passengers from the morning train were transferred to the afternoon train. All reserved seating assignments were waived. It was a free for all. Oh, and by the way, the washrooms were broken. So it was 7 hours on a doubly crowded train with no access to washrooms that were broken anyways.

On the other hand, there are people who arise in moments like this, people with good hearts and a powerful willingness to make things work for the people around them. One young man helped me and others to get settled, dealing with our luggage and organizing as best he could. He went so far as to appeal the the crowd to allow the elderly to have seats, something that happened upon his appeal. Others worked out re-positioning and re-seating, changing and sharing the space as best as possible.

The train finally left the station and people settled in for the long, long, long ride. After a few hours and a couple of stops, there was a bit more space. There were still people in every space imaginable, crying babies and crowded cars, but it was less and less as more and more left at each station. Finally, in the last hour of the ride, Cheryl managed to get a seat with me. She even fought her way through to the dining car to get us a sandwich, an adventure which she described as taking her life in her hands.

We finally arrived at Milan. As we pulled up beside the platform the station crew had a wheelchair lift waiting. They were friendly and helpful, even trying to figure out how to get me over the gap from the seat to my chair. Finally another passenger just lifted me up and moved me to my wheelchair. I was surprised at his strength and insistence. He was just going to get me off the train, and he did. I was grateful.

By this time it was nearly 11:00 PM at night. We hailed a cab; there would be no wheelchair cab at this time of night. I transferred with the transfer board and some help from Cheryl and the cab driver, reversing the process once we got to our hotel. We were, and are, safely in Milan, our train adventure behind us.

1 comment:

  1. Adventure! More to come.... After all it is Europe.