Jun 30 2010

SNCF’d

Ever since getting to Paris three weeks ago, I’ve had one logistical task in mind: how to get out. Not because I dislike this city of croissants and fine cheese, but rather because we need to be in Turin on July 2nd, and we didn’t have any means to get there.

I usually like to plan things ahead of time, so when we arrived on June 14th, I looked online to see if I could buy train tickets, thus taking advantage of advance-purchase rates. I checked out the cheerful Artesia train website, which proudly proclaimed that there were two trains a day to Turin and, what’s more, they were only 60 euros a piece. What a deal! The website, however, did not offer any means to book these tickets.

After an hour or so of investigation, I determined that I needed to buy them through France’s train network, known as SNCF. But, despite recommending that you purchase tickets more than 45 days in advance, their website did not list the Artesia trains; the itineraries they offered were much longer, and almost 250 euros a piece. This was odd. Convinced that it was my understanding of French railway websites that was at fault, I set off on a cross-city quest to go to an SNCF “boutique,” as they’re called, to buy the tickets in person.

A 30-minute Metro ride and a 35-minute line later, I finally spoke to a ticket agent, who politely informed me that there were only tickets available through June 30th because the Italians had not sent the ones for July yet. “Oh, the Italians,” I said. “Toujours les Italiens!” attempting to make a joke, while at the same time wondering why it was necessary, in this day of online ticket sales, for Italy to “send” the tickets. Couldn’t they set up a system where the tickets automatically loaded into the database 45 days or so before departure? You know, like how they do with airlines or, for that matter, most trains?

No. This was not possible. I went back to the apartment, tired and dejected, but figured that if tickets were available till June 30th, it would be a mere two days or so before those for July 2nd were as well. So I dutifully went back to checking the SNCF website.

A week passed. No tickets. Worrying again that this might be my fault, I sent a message to the SNCF support staff asking if there were another way to buy them. What if there were a cabal of train-hopping, Italian-bound Parisians snatching up all the seats? Was I missing something? No, they wrote back. There are no tickets yet. But they should be listed soon. Keep checking.

And so I did. At some point, my quest for the tickets went beyond a mere desire for logistical resolution and became a personal compulsion — a ticket tic, if you will — to check for them at any possible point during the day. Every morning and evening, I tried online. Every time we passed a SNCF automatic ticket machine,  I tried it as well — despite the fact that I already know that my Visa card does not work in French ticket machines.  I asked in person at the SNCF booth beneath the Musee D’Orsay. I asked again outside the Eiffel Tower, during a day in which a country-wide SNCF strike pre-guaranteed failure. No tickets.

By this point it was Saturday, less than a week before our train was scheduled to depart. I went on a walk that afternoon through a park near our apartment, and was in the midst of admiring some beautiful hydrageas when I saw it: an SNCF sign beckoning me from across the street. My mind told me I should ignore it in favor of taking a leisurely stroll through the park’s manicured grounds. I had just checked the train schedule that morning online — I knew there were no tickets. But I couldn’t help myself — lured by SNCF’s siren song, I crossed the street, walked past the train tracks, and took a number in the small office, where a single ticket seller was working his way through a line of people.

Having already waited in line in three SNCF offices, I knew how slowly things progress: from what I can tell, the ticket sellers act as personal internet tour guides, working with customers to do exactly the same searches that one could do at home, patiently researching endless combinations of dates and times before the customer finally settles on an itinerary and buys a ticket. It’s painful to watch, actually, each transaction taking a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes.

As I sat there, I recognized that I was in essence putting myself through a foregone conclusion, waiting in line to have an agent tell me in person information that I already knew. Staying there was, then, objectively absurd. And yet, I couldn’t get up. The office was air conditioned, and besides, I was beginning to almost enjoy the ridiculousness of the situation — both the lack of tickets, and my own compulsion to track them down. It was as if I’d become obsessed with hunting a unicorn.

Sure enough, when my time finally came, Jean — a very patient, very sweet man who turned out to be the manager of the office — told me that the tickets were not yet available but that, in true SNCF style, he would search for them anyway (thereby guaranteeing that our interaction would be at least 3 minutes longer, much to the delight of the people behind me in line). He typed something into his computer, squinted at it, and gasped.

“Attendez!” he said with excitement — my heart fluttered — could it be? Then his face fell.

“Ma coeur, ma couer m’a parle,” he said, gesturing toward his heart. “My heart, it spoke to me!” But alas, his heart had been mistaken.

Jean showed me how I could put in a request to be emailed when the tickets became available — a nice gesture, except that when you’re checking four times a day on your own, an email alert becomes a bit superfluous. I then went back into the streets and drowned my sorrow in a goat cheese salad.

But the story did not end there: after three more days of checking, the tickets — again, for the train that leaves in three days (I might be crazy, but so is this system) — suddenly appeared online yesterday afternoon, the second time I’d checked that day. My heart did indeed speak to me, and I attempted to book them — before realizing that they were 40 euros more than I’d anticipated.

Since I knew I’d have to pick them up in person anyway (not so big on etickets, the Europeans), I went back to my friend Jean, and waited in another half-hour line. While there, I listened to another woman who was trying to get from Paris to Turin — on July 12th — speak to Jean, and learned that while the tickets had been available just that morning, they had since been taken back for all trips starting after July 8th. That was fine for me, seeing as how we leave July 2nd — but not so much for the woman, who departed from the office 40 minutes poorer and with no tickets to show for it. I began to think of the Italian train office as some sort of coquettish tease, flashing her tickets at her suitors before tucking them back underneath her clothes.

But luckily, my tickets were available. Albeit, not at the price advertised (according to Jean, there had been none offered to begin with) — but still, after 16 days of effort, I have two seats on the train to Turin, safely stowed in my bag.

Here’s hoping I don’t lose them.