Saturday, October 27, 2007

National Train Strike: Nice to Strasbourg

Last week at this time we were starting our journey back to Strasbourg from Nice with some trepidation. Already we were starting out a day later due to Thursday's national train strike. When Mark and I went to the train station in Nice the evening of the strike, we found out that our train for the next day had been canceled. We were told that it would be better to travel on Saturday than Friday, the first day after the strike, so we rebooked our tickets for Saturday and made arrangements to stay one more night at the rental apartment.

We left Nice for Marseille at 8:30 Saturday morning, optimistic about getting back home to Strasbourg about 7:30 p.m. After spending almost three hours on a TER (regional train), we arrived at the Marseille station, which was very cold, windy and unfriendly. We hurried in to the salle d'attente (waiting room), which was packed, and looked on the electronic board for our next train. A minute or two of panicky searching confirmed our fears: our train had been canceled. Mark gamely went to the information counter to check. Within minutes he came rushing over and said, "We have to leave now! Track I, to Lyon." While I composted (validated) the tickets, Mark and the kids ran full-tilt down the track with our baggage. So many things could have gone wrong: Track "I" in French sounds like "E"; the train was due to leave right away but was a few minutes late; and there were actually two TGVs sitting on the same track but bound for different places. Luckily Mark had the presence of mind to ask for the train to Lyon and was directed further down the track.

The trip from Marseille to Lyon was the best part of the day; it just went downhill from there. In Lyon, we waited in a long line to get tickets to Strasbourg. Our train wouldn't leave until 17:48, which meant almost four hours of waiting, but at least we would get home around 9:30 p.m. We waited impatiently to see our train show up on the electronic board, and when it didn't, we were a little upset but not surprised. Mark and I headed back to the ticket office, and that was when it got a little weird. The woman behind the counter didn't even issue us new tickets, but wrote on the back of our old one. We were to take the 17:00 train to Paris Lyon station, get on the Paris metro, transfer to Paris L'est station and take a TGV to Strasbourg. It sounded good in theory, but the timing only gave us 30 minutes to get from one station to the other. With a 20-minute metro ride, we were pretty sure we weren't going to make it. However, it was our best bet at the moment, so we boarded the TGV for Paris just before 5:00 p.m. It was an uncomfortable feeling because we didn't actually have reservations, something that's required on every TGV, and we got kicked out of our first choice of seats by a family. We had only been in our seats for a few minutes when we heard an announcement: passengers for Strasbourg were invited to leave this train and take another train to the Massy station. Luckily I was with several people who understand French much better than I do, or I would have missed the announcement.

After waiting on Track C for the new train, the track was changed at the last minute. By this time we were just rolling with the punches. We had started to identify other passengers who were in the same boat as us (to stick with a travel metaphor!) We all boarded the Paris Massy train, again without reservations or tickets, but by this time we didn't care anymore. Then came the lowest part of the travel day: while on our way to Paris Massy, it started to get dark, and both Mark and I became very anxious about what we would face when we got to the next station. We didn't know if we would be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, or even whether or not our next train would be running. Given our track record that day, we thought not, but we were so out of control of the situation that we had no way to plan our next move.

When we arrived at Paris Massy, we followed our friends off the train, out of the station into the dark, and finally to another TGV station nearby. When we got there, we found out that the train to Strasbourg had been canceled. No surprise there. Now we were 22 people and two large dogs, stuck in an outpost railway station at 8:30 p.m. with nowhere to go. You would think that this would be a low point, but at least I felt that there was security in numbers. Luckily the ticket counter was still open, and a few of the more vocal members of the group negotiated (argued) with the ticket people to find us some place to sleep and new tickets to Strasbourg the next day.

I'm sure it took some coordination of the part of SNCF, but we were taken care of from that point on. They stopped a TGV train for us, and we got off at the Paris Montparnasse station. We left our luggage at the information counter and were marched out of the station and down the street to a restaurant. We were provided with 25€ each to have supper, which was quite generous. Meghan and I didn't quite make it, because we were much more tired than hungry, so we left without eating and made our way back to the train station. We were directed to Track 6, where a TGV train was parked overnight. I had thought to get some extra sleep but was quite spooked by Meghan and I being the only ones on the train. I had visions of the train taking off with only us on it. Also in the back of my mind was the question that Meghan posed to me as we got on the train the first time: "Mom, can rats get on the train? I just saw a couple of them."

After a few cell phone calls to Mark and Cameron to find out how fast they could get back from the restaurant, people started straggling back. We spent the night trying to get comfortable and never really succeeding. At 5:40 a.m. an SNCF employee rousted us and directed us to the waiting room, but we were already off and running. Our large group navigated through the ticket validation gates and labyrinth tunnels of the Paris metro system, and boarded the metro for the Paris L'est station. Our last hurdle before leaving for Strasbourg came when the young woman with the two large dogs was denied boarding the train because only one of the dogs had a muzzle. We heard her burst into tears, and several members of the group, who by now had bonded in a way that only adversity can do, rushed to her defense. We were relieved when we heard that she was able to board, but had to sit in a compartment by herself with the dogs.

The rest of the trip was rather mundane. Meghan and I snoozed, and we were home in the apartment before 10 a.m., as we live only a seven-minute walk from the train station. We were exhausted and amazed that we had survived the trip home. Unfortunately, the trip home overshadowed our trip to Nice, the two of which will be forever linked in our minds.

For more on our trip to Nice, see our Flickr photos:

Email us at
christinateskey @

Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Fête des Vendages in Barr

Last weekend we attended La Fête des Vendages in Barr, a 45-minute train ride from Strasbourg. I found out about the festival earlier in the week from my instructors at the French language school. Not only did I pick up quite a bit of French during the two weeks, but we also had impromptu lessons about the local food and wine. This comes in handy for festivals this time of year, which include a lot of wine! (Maybe all French festivals do).

In preparation for Saturday’s trip to Barr, we went to the train station on Thursday to get tickets and scout out the tracks. Luckily we have Meghan, because she entitled us to a Carte Enfant+ which gives us discounts on some train fares, including a whopping 50% discount on travel in the Alsace region. Cameron, to his delight (but not ours), is considered an adult at 12 for the purposes of train travel.

It was a good thing that we went to the train station early, because we were very confused by the schedule. Barr is a very small station on the way to somewhere else, and it wasn't listed on the screen. The other thing we didn't know is that they don't post the track numbers for the trains until about 20 minutes before the train is about to depart. It turned out that we had to take the "Selestat via Molsheim" train - how do you get Barr out of that?? We felt a little silly going to the information booth twice to ask which train to take, but we finally figured it out. It's helpful to know that if your train says it's departing at 9:30, it's the only train leaving at that time (at least in Strasbourg), even if your actual destination is not listed. We felt much better when we got out to the track, where all of the small station stops were listed, including Barr. Before we left, we memorized the names of the two stations ahead of Barr, and on the train, we kept a close eye on the stations, as none of them are announced.

When we got to Barr, we did a couple of smart things. First, when it finally dawned on us that many French fêtes consist of wandering through stalls of things to buy (marchés), which our kids hate, we went to the candy stall and let them each pick out a bag of candy (read: bribed them). It's amazing how that will perk a kid up! 12€ later and we were good to go until lunch (ok, so some of that candy was Mark's and mine). The other smart thing we did that day was go for a hike in the hills above the town. We had a wonderful view of the village and surrounding area; we got to see grape vines up close (and even steal a few of the sweetest grapes I've ever had); and the kids got to clamber up and down a rock wall that guided us most of the way up the steep hill. The combination of the beautiful weather, the excitement of a train trip, and the different activities we undertook made for a great day for all of us.

A lesson we took from this day is that no matter how mature our kids are, they're still kids, and they like to play. While Mark and I enjoy walking around the city looking at buildings, or looking at all of the strange and wonderful items available for sale at a marché, our kids get a little bored by this. When we're out for the day or on our travels, we have to remember to make time for kids' play. It makes it easier for all of us.

email us
christinateskey @

view our pictures

We hope to hear from you! How are things going in your part of the world?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chimney woes

After the events of the last few weeks, Mark has a new title: The Pigeonator.

When we first moved into the apartment, we heard a flapping noise in the chimney, and we thought, "Oh, great, we have pigeons living in the chimney." After a while, it became apparent that they weren't living in there so much as trapped... (Don't ask.) After three weeks of alternating flapping noises and silence, we managed to phone the apartment owner, who arranged for someone to come over and depigeonize the chimney. I wasn't at the apartment at the time (I was attending my first day of French language school) but Mark was disgusted that it was just a guy with a broom and a pail. After the guy removed two dead pigeons with his high-tech equipment, Mark said, "I could have done that!"

So this week, Mark had a chance to prove himself. After hearing more flapping and cooing in the chimney, he went in to investigate. He removed the cover from the hole in the back of the chimney and used the handy cane to drag out... two more dead pigeons. But he really outdid himself yesterday. While the kids and I were gone getting Cameron's first French haircut, Mark launched himself into action. He took the printer box, cut a hole in one side toward the end, and covered it with some clear plastic. Then he cut another hole in the other end to match the one at the back of the chimney. He also cut two flat pieces of cardboard, one for the back of the chimney and one for the box. When it was ready, he removed the cover at the back of the chimney, put the box against it and waited... but not for long. The light shining through the clear plastic attracted the pigeon, who, according to Mark, "...was pretty assertive about getting out of the chimney and investigating the light." After that it was a simple matter of putting cardboard over the hole in the box and the back of the chimney and moving the pigeon - still in the box - out onto the balcony. Mark reported that it took a while for the pigeon to come out of the box. He followed the pigeon's progress from the box to the balcony railing to the roof of the apartment building next door. I was surprised that it could still fly.

So how long can a pigeon survive in a chimney with no water? At least four days, we figure. And now when we hear the familiar flapping and cooing, we know who to call - The Pigeonator!