Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Big...Finish? aka Dharma Initiative, Eurostar style

Jokes that are funny when your co-prisoners/passengers tell them at 5am:

Q: What do you call a Nun sitting on a Clown?

A: Virgin on the ridiculous

The following post takes place between about 8:43pm and 10:00am, although with two European time zones and daylight savings time thrown in, I can't really be sure.

It's 4AM or 5AM, depending on what country I'm in, and I'm on a half-filled coach bus on the French side of the EuroTunnel, lost in a maze of a parking lot that resembles something like a Disneyworld lot mixed with those back and forth lines the same park uses for crowd control----oh, nevermind. We just found ourselves. Right by border control, who is doing a full search of the car in front of us.

We have been in (or will have been, once this journey is done) - four distinct time zones/periods over 12 hours. I catch a plane back to America in 6 hours.

[A French DOUANES border agent just came on board the bus and is looking around with a flashlight, scouring the bus with a distinctly French attitude.]

Here is the basic story until this point, just so I don't lose any details in my expected exhaustion. ("This is just like the Odyssey," - one of my co-passengers)

We got to Paris at...[Another f-in gate to go through...British Passport control this time.
And shit. To make the entire situation more confusing, we just found out that after all this time with him, that our driver doesn't speak English.)

Let's try that again.

Anyway...we(Dan, Emily, Me) got to Paris at 12:15AM yesterday and left at....
[We have to get off the bus for Passport control now.]

30 minutes later....

I'm back. I ever tell you about the time I got two British immigration stamps in five hours and my coach bus full of angry people almost killed a portly, friendly Eurotunnel official trying to help us?

Oh, right. That's this.

As I was saying, we got to Paris at 12:15AM local time and left at 8:45PM. I'll tell the Paris story later. It's a good one on it's own, but nothing compared to what's happening.

This was/is our journey out of France: Remember that France is an hour ahead, time zone wise, of England, and that at 2am the clocks in both countries were springing forward, and that we were all travelling between the two zones as that happened. And that the US has already gone through daylight savings time, making the time difference change as the clocks change.

8:43PM: We depart Paris-Nord train station by Eurostar.
9:50PM: We slow to a stop. No one worries immediately.
9:55PM: Train starts. There is a bang. The train shuts down.
10:05: Train revs up. Starts. Bang. Shut down.
Over the next twenty-five minutes, we start and stop several times, each time accompanied by what sounds like the train shutting down completely. The train manager makes announcements, usually in French and English, sometimes delaying the English just enough to piss us off, that there are "electrical problems."

Electrical problems? Here's what he meant:

While making the most vital Sam Adams Good Decision of my life when I raided the food car for food, drink, etc, (as soon as the train passengers realized what was going on, they sold out.) , someone told me they had seen a spark of some sort out a window. With that in mind, I was looking out a window about four cars in front of the electric/engine when I saw a huge spark/flash fly up the side of the train as they tried to start it.

We weren't going anywhere.

Here's the short version: With only one power supply working, the Chunnel staff wouldn't let us through. We were about 30 minutes before the tunnel, so just about halfway between Paris and London. But without being able to go through the tunnel, we were forced to go forward 15 minutes to Calais, where the captain turned off the train completely(including all lights), walked the length of the train(outside of course, in order to avoid the quickly angering passengers), got in on the other side, and brought us BACK into France, to Lille, where I learned a life lesson in mob mentality.

Here's the scene at Lille.

1. First we are told that there will be customer agents waiting to assist us -- all 500 passengers or so -- in the train station when we got off. Nope. Hundreds of people essentially locked in a departure area with one or two service reps being verbally assaulted at every turn, and giving contradictory information every minute. There's nothing quite like being a Jew locked in a French train station in a huge crowd. Disturbing.

2. Every time a few people moved off in one direction, 100 would follow, thinking it was some sort of new development. After 40 minutes of this, and befriending a girl flying back to Israel around the time of my flight, and listening to a couple half-assed announcements that said 'agents would be out soon,' the entire crowd breached a door and shifted outside the waiting area....the couple agents that braved us were getting absolutely physically abused at this point, which didn't really improve anything. But it was amusing.

The lack of coordination and information was ridiculous. First an agent said there would be a train to England at 6am, perfect for those of us with early flights. Then we were told there was nothing until 8:30, and that there wasn't a lot of room on that train, but there were no other options until, potentially, later in the week. Finally, the entire crowd was simply told to take a piece of paper with some hotel information on it, and go outside to get buses to the assigned hotels.

While the mad dash for the "magical hotel sheets" was going on, they had to call in security(very French, of course) to help...I was getting elbowed while I was grabbing reservations for two double rooms...some French dude in a white 90's era track suit was absolutely berating an older guy for not getting the right hotel or something. Intense shit.

And the entire time, no word on how anyone is supposed to get back to London, if we're supposed to pay, or if we're making it back at any point. Dan and I are kind of enjoying ourselves through all of it, although I wasn't looking forward to paying the $1300 to take the next available flight if I missed mine.

So Dan, Emily, Shir(Israel girl), and I go outside...and the Crowne Plaza is across the street, thereby negating the need for the bus. At the hotel, we grab rooms, and are told by a chill Eurostar rep that "something is being arranged[for your flights], but go to your rooms and come back down." Sick.

(Aside: French trendy decor in a Crowne Plaza involves clear acrylic chairs offset by brown leather benches at the foot of the beds. Bon.)

It's 2:30 or so at this point. We go back downstairs, and are told that the plan is that a Coach bus is going to bring us to Calais, where we will hop the shuttle to England; from there taxis and ANOTHER bus are going to be waiting to take us anywhere we want to go in the airport directly, or to our places to get luggage first. SALVATION.

Except...remember the French Tracksuit Screamer?

Yeah, you got it. He was the bus driver.

* * *

FTS gets us to Calais (that's where we had STARTED hours earlier when we turned the train around) where the plan was to put the bus on a DIFFERENT train that goes through the tunnel. Fantastic, except that we managed to miss the planned train at 4am and the next one doesn't leave until 6:30. AAAAAND now you get the beginning of this entry.

(Added postscript: It got better. We had to clear immigration, passport, French border security for the second time on this trip. Immigration/border didn't know what to do with us, because we hadn't technically ever left France. We got lost in the border compound. We're told that because we missed the initial train, it is unknown if the bus or taxis will be waiting for us on the other side.
The bus natives turned restless, and one stupid American kept asking if we could 'screw the train, and just drive through on our own.' And--to repeat--our driver doesn't speak English, leaving an Israeli woman to translate between French and English for us. Like any good Israeli, she has taken total control, including insulting the driver in French, and translating it for us so we know what variation of 'asshole' she used.)

Now, our bus is loaded into a coach at the head of the train, waiting to go to England were busses or taxis or llamas are waiting to bring us to Waterloo station in the heart of London. Or maybe it's another bus to Waterloo where the llamas will be waiting? I don't even know anymore.

I still don't know if I'm making my flight. I think I will, but we're cutting it close. If the train leaves 6:30 French time, and arrives at 6:10 English time...and we can get to London in 60 minutes total...20 minutes to Emily's, 10 minutes to get ready, and 40 to the airport...I might just make it.

Regardless, I'm enjoying my Real World/Lost/Survivor/the Terminal cast of characters and vibe. And by enjoying, I could stand for a few of them to get caught in immigration. Which, by the way, was a very real possibility in France.

* * *
Everyone's getting punchy. People are telling bizarre stories like, "I once got arrested for stealing a rock in Cambodia," and "I once went swimming on one side of a dam and was found five days later on the other side. I don't remember a thing."

* * *
6:24AM, Brit time
I feel like we're in the process of entering something of a no man's land. We got into England ok, and pulled into the 'Total' petrol/gas station in the exit area of the big depot to meet the other bus. Which wasn't there. Somewhat egged on and convinced by a couple passengers, FTS decided to drive on to see if there was another 'Total Petrol' right outside the compound. Kind of made sense...there is no way the other bus would be allowed into the Eurotunnel compound just to go to the exit area to meet us.

Ah, but a problem: Our driver a)doesn't know how to drive in England; b)Is exhausted; c)isn't really allowed to drive more than a certain distance overall and in England. Oh, right. THE BUS ISN'T DESIGNED FOR THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD!

But we go on, can't find another station, so turn around to go back into the complex to search for the other bus. Now we're about to convince security to let us in, even though we just left and have no desire to cross back to France. This could get interesting to explain.

WE ARE THE 25 LOST ONES...WE ARE THE 25....It's been about a nine hour journey so far. I could have swam the channel at this rate.

* * *

So we were let in past the initial security, but had to pull off to the side (imagine a big toll plaza) while they found an official vehicle to lead us back to the exit area....this all sounds silly, but it is a border crossing, so security is understandable. Anyway, a few key passengers managed to berate the hell - again - out of some British Eurotunnel people who had nothing to do with our problem, and were just trying to help.

We sat on the bus unmoving - again - for about 30 minutes before a worker hopped in her personal Toyota two door and brought us to the gas station we had been at earlier...where there was now the other bus and a taxi waiting. The Israeli translate lady gets on the bus driver's cell phone and tells us that the Eurostar officials are still saying we will still make it back in time, that cabs are waiting for us at this point I'm heavily considering calling Sky News or the BBC. It's been 11 hours or so since we left Paris. I think Ill barely make my flight, but by the time we get to Waterloo at 9am, there are no cabs....

Emily and I take the tube home; Dan goes home to get his car to pick us up...Emily calls to check-in for me while I throw the last of the French stuff in my luggage, and they tell her it is going to be too late for me to check-in. To fly out tonight would cost over $1600...even if I convince Eurostar to pay for it, I can't front that. I take a Monday night flight for an additional $200 or so, Ill work it out later....

Anyway, this is the SHORT version...there are hilarious side anecdotes I left out, like the Cambodian rock girl convinced she was bleeding out from a finger cut she got on the Eurostar...or Shir not realizing the crossing was underwater...or Emily singing the wheels on the bus...or the guy at Lille shouting "DOES ANYONE KNOW ANYTHING," and hearing 500 people shout "NO" at once...but the point is, I am in London until tomorrow night, and my body clock is going to be absolutely FUBAR.

But, a hell of a story, huh?

CUZ DAN, circa 7:30AM British Time: "If there's one thing that symbolizes the British of the 21st century, it's the high-visibility jacket."

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