In May, my work of teaching business English slows down to snail’s pace. Most of my students have finished their hours or are taking holidays. One time I thought this could be a great month to get caught up on things that I needed to do that could only be done in Paris. I also thought this might be a good time to see some exhibitions, lunch with some friends … and generally enjoy myself. What I didn’t bargain for were those dreaded words in the French language—grève, mouvement sociale.
This time the issue was retraite (retirement). Most French people, I believe, think that the French retraite system needs to be changed. The problem has been finding a solution that the majority can live with. At that time, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was determined to change this system and the unions are determined to give him a fight. And so began the Mouvement Sociale, which then turned into a grand strike of monumental consequences.
The news said the Mouvement Sociale was going to be on Tuesday. So naturally, I thought, "Fine, I will be able to go to my French lesson Wednesday, pick up my ticket for the Chagall exhibition from FNAC … maybe even see a movie. But, it was not to be. I learned that Le Mouvement Sociale was just what it sounds like. It encompassed more movement than I had bargained for and it was quite social, speaking to people I will never see again in my life. I have experienced other grèves (Strikes) in France and survived them even when my French was cruder than it was then, but this one, this one was for the books.
We live in the Ile-de-France in Zone 5 of the RER. That is equivalent to a 40 minute trip to Paris. My trouble began when my husband dropped me off at the station that Wednesday morning. Lucky man, he was not working that day.
There was only one train at 8:30 a.m., which I was fortunate enough to get on. There were many irregular stops and starts, but the problem really became serious as we approached the Gare du Nord. Suddenly, I heard the announcement "terminus." In English it is what it kind of sounds like…terminate. I tried not to panic as I consulted my metro map. I calculated that I could catch a metro on the 4 line, transfer to the 12 and “voila”, I would be at my destination of Convention in the 15th arrondissement.
What I didn’t anticipate was that from this point forward life would become one of chaos and rampage! Everyone in the whole of Paris was trying to get on the different metro lines in the Gare du Nord. The 4 line, one of the principal lines, had people waiting all the way up the stairs (they could not even access the platform). So the 4 to the 12 idea was out. No other RER lines were going to Chatelet (my normal stop). So the Gare du Nord connections were exhausted.
I walked out of the Gare du Nord, looking for alternatives to metro lines. People on the streets were walking everywhere with metro maps or ‘plans de rues’, trying to figure out a way to get where they were supposed to be. I ended up at the Chateau d’eau metro stop. It turned out that was the 4 line. Not as many people were waiting to get on. However, the train came completely packed with passengers.
When I say packed, visualize this picture: someone dies on the metro and no one knows until the cars empty and the person has the opportunity to drop to the floor. I was one of the lucky ones. I got on the train and the doors just barely closed without pinching my behind. I made it to the next stop to catch the 8 line. I started thinking I had licked the system. I called my French teacher to tell her I would be there a little late.
But the system was not to be "licked" that day. After several minutes the train arrived and this one was worse than the previous line. There were so many people in the train, so many people waiting on the platform and the train was about 2 cars short. That was it. I wasn’t going to risk going to my French course in the 15th arrondisement and then attempt going home afterwards. So I telephoned my teacher, explained to her my dilemma, and she, of course, understood. After all she is French and has lived with these sort of things all of her life.
I left the metro thinking that this day should not be a total loss. It turned out I was about 10 minutes from FNAC in Les Halles. Perfect, I would go there and pick up my ticket to the Chagall exhibition for next week. From there I could go straight to Chatelet and take the RER home and leave this mess behind. But again, that was not to be.
I entered Chatelet and read on the screens that there were no RERs and very few metros. Still fairly calm, I walked to the information kiosk and told the clerks where I wanted to go. It was as if they were laughing at me and thinking, "Listen, honey, just get a reservation in a hotel … you ain't gettin' home by our watches!" But there was this one guy who told me that I could go from Chatelet on the 4 to the 3 line and then to the 13 line to get to St Denis. Guy could pick me up at the Basilic St. Denis (near the end of the line).
I finally got to St. Lazare (it felt like via Germany!) and I arrived at the 13 line platform, sat down waited for the next train, only to hear an announcement that there were no trains in the direction of St. Denis for the rest of the day. Mon Dieu!
Just when I started thinking that I might really have to get a hotel room, I suddenly had an epiphany. St. Lazare was not far from the Opéra. And at the Opéra, on rue Scribe, was the Roissy bus that takes tourists to the airport. I called my husband to tell him the happy news. There are “more than one way to skin a cat” as the saying goes. And I found it and in the my own way, I had a French lesson that day, “Learning transportation in French”.