I arrived at the train station and felt like I was a part of something truly exciting. This was Europe, I was backpacking, I was gaining a valuable life experience, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, I was like a first-year student fumbling to get my bearings straight and utterly lost.
There was only one option for me: ask for help. I was not a North American male in a car, asking for help was a perfectly acceptable option and was far more acceptable than missing my train or getting on the wrong one. Like a child flying alone for the first time I felt a need to be escorted or given an infographic explaining the process to me. I knew how to get on a plane like the back of my hand, it was easy and straightforward, and I’d done it a million times. Somewhere in all the romanticism of backpacking across Europe no one had actually mentioned how the train system worked. It was like having an excellent hostel recommended for you and then finding out it was haunted. Not exactly what I had been expecting.
Luckily, I was in France and spoke French fluently. I was not scrambling completely, and was at least as capable of treading water. I found an information booth and asked a series of questions that were like asking how to tie one’s shoe laces. I left with a vague idea of how to get on the right train, and where to catch it. I then hauled my bag — I gave up on the backpacking aspect of backpacking when I hoisted my immense backpack on at the Paris airport, in that moment I decided that lugging fifty pounds on my back was not for me — across the station and was finally feeling a minor sense of accomplishment. This was easy as pie. I was close to taking my first train ride, but there was some information that eluded me. For example trains often arrive at the station only a couple of minutes before departing. This was news to airport accustomed me.
I naively boarded a train that was parked at the right platform — only after asking a station employee if it was in fact the right train — fifteen minutes before my train was set to depart. Big mistake. I knew I was in trouble when the train left ten minutes before my scheduled time of departure. When the conductor came around to ask for tickets I asked, “Where is this train going?” — this served as a valid explanation for not having a ticket. I was back in kindergarten fumbling with my shoelaces and wanting desperately to just go back to velcro. He kindly helped me find trains that would take me to my intended destination and I gratefully got off at the next station — a small town in the middle of nowhere.
I made my way back to Paris and this time like a pro I went straight to my platform, and waited until five minutes before it was set to leave. I figured I was in the clear. Wrong. I had once again managed to get on the wrong train. A sense of frustration overtook me like a grey cloud hanging over me. The conductor was once again understanding and helpful, but I had already managed to re-plan my trip and was hoping that I would make it to my destination before nightfall. I was giving up hope and devising a backup plan. If things got truly screwed up I would simply check in at a hotel after the last train had left for the day. Not a good situation. My cloud grew darker.
As we pulled into Paris once again, it was like seeing an old friend, I was growing far too familiar with the inner workings of this train station. I knew exactly the platform I was supposed to be at, and miraculously we pulled in right across from it. I had two minutes before my train left. I had two thoughts in my head. First, please please let me make it. Second, please let me get on the right train. Both worked like a charm. After asking four passengers — one can never be too sure — I found a seat and breathed a sigh of relief. The clouds were slowly lifting and I had made it through the first test of my backpacking adventure, with only a minor amount of despair.