January 1, 2011

May 22 & 23| Getting There

But before we left we needed to pack everything up. From internet journals I had learned that bikes and French trains are not always a happy combination, especially on the modern, very fast TGV, which we had tickets for. This is strange in the country of the Tour de France, a country where so many people cycle. The TGV website said that bicycles needed to be in bags, but I did not know what kind of bags, or how to make or buy them. When I called the American TGV offices, I was told that boxes would be fine. And boxing the bikes seemed to be a good idea to protect them on the flight.  Arcadian Shop in Lenox, MA saved cardboard shipping boxes for us and helped us to disassemble and pack the bikes. Both wheels came off, along with the seat post, pedals and handlebars (all the cables remained attached to the bars.) They were a huge, terrific help.

Ken at Arcadian Shop helped pack bikes
From the Berkshires in Massachusetts, we drove to JFK in NYC and flew on Aer Lingus, New York to Paris, with a stop in Dublin. Not only did they offer the lowest fares, but they did not charge additional fees to move the cycles and allowed 2 free pieces of checked luggage. From Roissy CDG we immediately took the TGV to Avignon. The train left directly from Terminal 2 in the airport. A very good price for train travel was offered on the web, available only if purchased outside of France. We did, and it made the TGV affordable, and offered us flexibility of using trains during the trip. We didn't do that, but it was our back up. 

Because we planned on staying in hotels and bed&breakfasts, I had only 2 panniers, which I put in a stuff sack and checked, along with the bike. My handlebar bag was my carry-on. It was an overnight flight and I slept the entire trip. Customs was easy, Roissy was not crowded, the shuttle train moved us to the Terminal 2 for the TGV and we had lots of time, too much. But then, everything had gone smoothly.

Bike boxes and gear, TGV station at Roissy-CDG
Getting the awkward, heavy boxes onto the TGV and figuring out where to put them was another story. The only place possible was between the cars, where there were already two bikes. Just bikes, not in boxes or bags. The four bikes made it very difficult to move in that passage way, or get into the restroom. Our boxes blocked the door exiting the train to the far platform. Perhaps an hour after the conductor passed by, two gray-flannel-suited train officials were in the passageway looking at the bikes. And not looking happy. Roy was sleeping, but I rushed over and tried to explain in my poor French that the two in boxes were our bikes, we didn't know where else to put them, and about a hundred times that I was sorry. Roy appeared and looked on, as I searched for words, managing to explain that the U.S.-TGV office told me that boxes were ok. They told me, in no uncertain terms “Pas boites, sacs!” i.e. they were supposed to be in bags, not boxes. I don’t know what happened to me, but for some reason when they told me “Pas boites, sacs!” I asked “Comme ca?” “Like that?” and pointed to the two unpackaged bikes. Eventually the owners of the other two bikes appeared, and then the conductor who had ignored them all. We were very, very crowded together, everyone talking at once. Or so it seemed to me. Happily for all of us, the train officials allowed all bikes to remain there, as long as we got them out of the way when people needed to get on or off, or use the men’s room. Reasonable, enough, I thought. At each stop, other passengers helped me, unasked, with the unwieldy bike box. On the return trip, from Toulouse, we would buy bags if we could find them.

At the Avignon train station we took the shuttle bus to the entrance to the medieval walled city. From there to the hotel felt like a long walk, and I was pretty worn out, carrying and dragging 75 pounds of cardboard, panniers, and bike. I asked Roy to wait while I took my panniers to the hotel, then came back to get the bike. While I was gone two strangers, again unasked, helped him carry both boxes to the hotel. 

We were to discover throughout our trip that the French public was always incredibly helpful, even when I could only sort of speak French and Roy relied on sign language.  No one, but no one, we met deserved the reputation for abrupt or unhelpful that you so often hear about.
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