Train Strike? Le Français or ¡El Español? You’ll Get Used to It

I was killing some time watching various things and activities being reflected on the Miroir d’Eau, while a father and a son were playing catch and throw on one corner of the water. How fascinating The Water Mirror was. The blue sky and the white, fluffy, cottony clouds were suddenly at the bottom of your feet. Dipping your toe into the water felt surreal.

Bordeaux was warm and I felt light-headed. Was it the heat? Or was it the wines? I just came back from Medoc where I lost count of the number of glasses of red I had imbibed.

Worry started gnawing at me. In a couple of hours, I was about to embark on my first overnight train experience in Europe. To call it simple was an understatement. My journey from Bordeaux to Madrid was supposed to take nearly 24 hours, and involve 2 changes. The first leg was due to leave Bordeaux for Irun at 17.03, followed by 22.40 night train from Irun arriving at Tarragona at 7.30, and lastly 12pm train from Tarragona arriving at Madrid at 15.30. My heart skipped a bit just from dreading the confusion and the jostling among the crowds in those stations, trying to figure out which platform my subsequent train was due to leave from.

Being the control freak that I am, I started making a list of things that could have gone wrong and what I would have done if any of them really happened. The thought of missing one of my connections and having the spend the night in a train station in a town I’d barely heard of was enough to make me start chewing my nails.

I took the tram to the train station and found out upon arriving that the thing I had been dreading the most had really happened. There was a train strike that afternoon and hence, there wasn’t going to be any train coming or leaving, including my 17.03 train to Irun. Talk about the law of attraction!

Ironically, I had read about the infamous train strike in Europe during my preparation months and I recalled thinking to myself what the odds were of something like this happening during my 2 months there.

So I joined the long queue of passengers inside the ticket office, all desperate to know what would happen to their travel plan. With a mixture of broken French, simple English, and some sign language, I tried to explain my situation to the customer service officer. She gave me the only alternative I could take if I still wished to proceed with my journey to Spain, that is to take the next available TGV to Hendaye (a town which I had no idea where) and look for a local train from Hendaye to Irun so I could still catch my night train to Tarragona. She said the night train wasn’t supposed to be affected by the strike, but the worst part was that she had no idea what time the connecting train from Hendaye to Irun would be. When I asked how long the journey between Hendaye and Irun would be, she simply shrugged and said “20 or 30 minutes, perhaps.” That’s hardly convincing.

Despite my trepidation, I did manage to reach Irun in time for my night train. My TGV ride from Bordeaux to Hendaye was surprisingly pleasant. I was seated next to a very kind French gentleman, who seemed old enough to be my grandfather. He politely stood up when I stopped next to his seat along the aisle and helped me lift my bag into the overhead rack. After 2 weeks in Europe, that was the first time someone helped me lift my bag into the overhead rack on a train.

He spoke some passable English and we quickly got acquainted. Through the train window, he pointed out to me the gradual scenery change as we got closer to the Spanish border. The houses turned from Georgian and Romaneque to white stucco while the landscape turned from green pasture to seaside on the right and mountainous on the left. We could even see several snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. For a while, I totally forgot about my worries.

Not too long after my arrival at Hendaye, a train leaving for Irun arrived and thankfully the trip only took 15 minutes. But I wasn’t prepared at all for the cultural shock that welcomed me as I stepped on Irun. A moustached man in a police uniform suddenly stopped all the pessangers from entering the station and started talking fiercely and rapidly in Spanish. Gosh, had I even entered Spain? Is Irun actually in Spain? The people around me who seemed to understand what he was saying quickly took out something from their bags and showed them to him, who then waved them into the station one by one. Upon seeing my bewildered face, he bellowed fiercely in a heavily-accented English “Passport! Passport!” He flipped through my passport page by page until he found my Schengen visa. He grunted and allowed me into the station.

The scene inside Irun train station reminded me so much of the Mexican border in Hollywood movies. Everyone suddenly looked Hispanic, some were even wearing straw hats and the women were in long skirts. They carried a bundle wrapped in cloth on their backs. The signs and writings were all incomprehensibly in Spanish. It was such a sudden change for me that for a moment, I simply stood there frozen.

When I finally remembered what I was supposed to do, I quickly looked around trying to find the usual screen or board depicting departure schedule and its corresponding platform. There wasn’t any. Reluctantly, I joined the queue in front of the only counter that was open. The moment I reached the front of the line, I suddenly couldn’t remember a single word in Spanish. My head was still swimming in French and my Spanish just refused to come out despite many nights of practicing it before going to bed. Was this going to happen every time I crossed border to a different country?

Eventually I simply showed the officer my ticket and asked “Donde?”. He bellowed “Número dos” and pointed to the door leading to the train tracks. I had barely stepped foot in Spain for 5 minutes and I had been shouted at by 2 Spanish men.

I settled down inside my compartment long before the other passengers arrived. After reading plenty of warning about thieves on board overnight trains especially in southern Europe, I didn’t dare to close my eyes for too long. My train chugged slowly through the night. Between stops, travelers came in and out banging the doors behind them. A group of Spanish men and women entered my compartment and settled down noisily without caring if I was asleep or not.

At the first hint of daybreak several hours later, I took a peek from between the curtains. I was welcomed by acres over acres of arid land. How different the Spanish terrain was from its French counterpart. The blue sky being such a stark contrast to the yellow soil and the sparse green grass. This was exactly the kind of view that accompanied me all through my train and bus rides across Spain.

I alighted at a station called Tarragona and learned that my train to Madrid was supposed to leave from a different, newer station called Camp de Tarragona, which served all high-speed trains between Madrid and Barcelona. After my little ‘adventure’ last night, I had exhausted all my anxiousness and couldn’t even feel worried at the prospect of transferring to another train station. I decided to blow my budget and take a cab since I had no more energy for another round of ‘adventure’.

Twenty minutes later and 24 euro lighter, I sat in a cafe in Camp de Tarragona gobbling down chocolate pastries and gulping down my first cup of café con leche. Only then could I muster the energy to queue up and confirm my train to Madrid.

I spent the next couple of hours updating my journal while contemplating. I just survived my first train strike in Europe and my first border crossing where none of the countries speak English. I thought hard and wondered what I was going to do if I came across another train strike. The next time I was due to spend another 20 or so hours on board the train was when I moved from Seville to Avignon.  Was it gonna be as ‘challenging’ as going from Bordeaux to Madrid?

As a matter of fact, in the next 1.5 months I did survive a few more train strikes. I also crossed from Spain back to France, from France to Italy, Italy to Austria, then to Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, and finally back to France, smoothly without any shocking cultural differences. I guess I learned to get used to it.

I put my journal inside my backpack as my final train for the day arrived. The soft rumbling of its engine was singing ‘Bienvenido a Madrid’ to my ears. After 22 hours of train travel, I whispered to myself, “Finally!”

Statue of King Phillips III at Plaza Mayor

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