Actually the strike on SNCF, the French national railways, happened on Wednesday, right after Easter, but it could have been Tuesday. The one event caused no trains (the French railworkers went to get cafe and pastis), the other caused the trains to be overcrowded (because Europeans, unlike most Americans, travel by train on holiday weekends). So much for a whizzbang, smooth-as-a-train-track Eurail trip through Europe that I had planned.
But if anything, traveling reminds you not only of the bumps in the road – sorry, on the platform – but also of what home is (or isn’t) like. Yes, people everywhere complain about their hometowns and their countries! And they have lots that they complain about.
I took the Eurostar from London to Paris (a measly 240 pounds return!), tried to buy a Eurail ticket in St. Pancras (although the English had no idea what I was talking about, and said it could only be bought via the Internet and mailed to you a month before your trip), but eventually managed to buy a Eurail ticket from a very helpful woman at the Gare du Nord in Paris (so much for sulky, useless Parisians – per the British).
By the time I had caught the nighttrain from Paris to Barcelona, I was ready to meet a bunch of nice people – expats mostly, seeing Barcelona has lots of expats – who talked about their Spanish city being the pickpocket capital of the world. One South African among the group recounted how his mom in Johannesburg always complained of the bad service she got over the phone from government employees at home. He told her: Mom, come live in Spain and see what you get. It’s exactly the same.
Personally, I was more struck by Barcelona’s dirty roads, although they paled in comparison next to the dirt, graffiti (you have never seen such avid street artists in your life) and potholes in Rome, which has caused an Italian friend of mine there to consider moving to Australia.
On the train to Rome from Nice, a young woman behind me was telling her friend via cell phone about how she’d been harassed by some guys the previous night before they tried to get into her apartment. In Paris, a young friend told me about how a group of her women friends, all in their twenties, had gone out the previous night, and all they could do was trade stories about having been mugged.
In London, the couple I stayed with – in a very nice suburb, I might add – barred their downstairs floor at nighttime. They also told me that if you have a country house in France, you cannot leave it for two weeks without an alarm, or it will be stripped bare by robbers.
Yes, it’s the same the world over. People complain, and this was especially true for the chap opposite me on the train from Barcelona to Montpellier. His version of the Rain in Spain was was to Complain in Spain (And Everywhere Else Too).
A Frenchman who had emigrated to Canada fifty years ago, he ascribed the downfall of the world to the Haitians, the Chinese, the strikers at SNCF. “The world is going to war,” he said, and all he wanted to do was to move to Florida. This diatribe I (and everyone else in our coach, which was nice and quiet before he arrived) heard him tell his neighbor, a woman from England who complained on those plains of Spain just as much as he did.
Thankfully, we arrived in France, she got off, and he had no one to talk to anymore. And the rest of us were left to enjoy one of the best pleasures in the world (when there isn’t a strike, potholes, barred windows, harassed young women, or robberies) – and that is train travel in Europe.