Fumbling My Way Through France

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Flag of France  , Rhône-Alpes,
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The flight to Geneva was uneventful, since I slept the entire time. Before the plane took off, the guy sitting next to me looked over and said in a thick German accent, "It's not because of you," and moved to an empty row.  Too funny!  I fully supported this plan because it gave me two seats to stretch out on. 

Nicely settled into my two seats, I popped an Ambien but woke up in two hours with no trace of sleepiness whatsoever, so I took another.  I’ve doubled up on them in the past (Asia, last summer), but this time the results were mixed.  Pro: I slept through the entire flight.  Con: Not much memory of the hour or so after we landed.  I remember the flight attendant waking me up for landing, and I remember changing money at AmEx and buying my bus ticket to Annecy, but not much in between.  In fact, a couple of days later, I had a moment of panic thinking I had somehow missed customs.  Perhaps in my stupor I had wandered down some dimly-lit back hallway and managed to evade them?  Would this be a problem when I tried to leave the country?  Checked my passport when I got back to the hotel.  Found a Swiss stamp.  Thank god, but yikes!  In the future, I will bite the second Ambien in half.

Took the bus to Annecy, for no reason other than the fact that it was relatively close to Chamonix (usually an hour and a half) and I’d read it was beautiful.  Sounded good to me!  Arrived at the bus/train station to discover that French train stations no longer have left luggage facilities, thanks to security concerns related to terrorism.  Excellent.  Toddled off into the village with my 35-pound backpack and a carry-on that had to weigh at least 10 pounds.  Received sympathetic looks from other tourists all day long, occasionally accompanied by exclamations of, “You poor thing!” or, “Wow, look at those bags!”  Did I mention it was raining?  And that I got lost a lot?

Annecy was gorgeous and totally worth the effort it took to see it.  It looked like the town from Beauty and the Beast, full of narrow houses with peaked roofs and window boxes full of geraniums.  Here and there, I found canals that provided the perfect photo-op.  A large lake on the edge of the old town was dotted with sailboats and paddle boats.  Up on the hillside, a small castle looked down on the town.  I ate a ham and cheese crepe and wished I never had to leave.

Exploring Annecy, even with 45 pounds of luggage, was easy compared to what was coming.  When I got back to the bus station, exhausted and wet, I discovered that all of the trains in France were on strike that day.  The very friendly and sweet French girl working at the bus station told me that the bus could only get me as far as St. Gervais, half an hour outside of Chamonix.  She had no idea how I could get into town from there.  The safer, sure route involved doubling all the way back to Geneva on a bus and then taking a shuttle to Chamonix, but it would have been expensive and time-consuming.  Taking risks was what this trip was about, right?  With a deep breath, I bought a bus ticket and decided to figure out the rest of the way when I got to St. Gervais. 

Easier said than done.  The ticket machine declined my credit card.  With a start and a swear, I realized I’d forgotten to call my bank and warn them of foreign charges.  Now, I had to find a way to do it without a cell phone. 

I found a kiosk and tried to explain, in French, that I wanted a phone card.  No go.  Found a cell phone store and bought one there, a process involving long lines and a half hour wait.  Tried my new “card” (actually just numbers printed on a receipt) at the pay phone.  No go.  Back at the store, I entertained the other customers in line with a creative combination of broken French (“For phone that goes on wall!  With euros in it!  Not a mobile!”) and a game of charades with the lady behind the desk, who spoke no English.  My reward was the correct card, although it had taken another half hour. 

Back at the pay phone, the fiasco continued.  After roughly six attempts to figure out how to dial out (*808, then the first set of numbers on the paper, and you can thank me later), it worked.  To celebrate my small victory, I called home and cried.  At this point, I was wet and my shoulders were throbbing from my pack.  I was fed up with the situation and with myself. 

I asked my dad, “How the hell am I going to make it through a year on the road alone?  I’m not tough enough for this!  I’m going to accidentally kill myself doing something stupid.”

My dad calmed me down from full freak-out mode, reassuring me that this was an adjustment and I’d find my way eventually.  He then called the bank for me, since the card, for whatever reason, wasn’t allowing me to do so.  Tip: Ask your credit card company for a pin number before you go.  Many European cards have both chips and pin numbers and your trusty American Visa or MasterCard won’t be so trusty once you get to Europe.  The best part is, I knew this.  My anxiety-driven research binges in the months leading up to my travels had turned up this warning, but I stupidly hadn’t called my bank to request a pin.

After my day in Annecy, I was never so glad to sit down in an itchy bus seat in all my life.  I fell asleep and awoke to find myself in an alpine valley.  Big, dark mountains loomed over us, their tops lost in clouds.

At the St. Gervais bus/train station, the helpful attendant kept pointing at the train schedule, which indicated that the next train was at 8 a.m. the next day.  Not ok.  Inside the station, I was relieved to find a huddle of confused looking travelers in the same boat as me.  Two of these travelers, British backpackers my age named Bridget and Lindy, turned out to be really cool and we clicked right away.  Together, we figured out how to call cabs and we shared them to Chamonix.

By the time we arrived safely in Chamonix, the three of us had made dinner plans for the following evening.  I interpreted this happy ending as my reward from the universe for surviving this exhausting situation.

The happy ending continued as I checked into my hotel, the adorable Vallee Blanches.  The hotel building itself is an old mill, set right up against a churning turquoise river.  The desk clerk couldn’t have been nicer, and my room?  Precious.  It was paneled in honey-colored wood, with hot pink roses painted here and there.  One window faced the town, and another looked toward the mountains, complete with a cushioned window seat for really taking in the views.  Oh, but I am a sucker for a nice window seat! 

To make matters even better, the room was spotless.  This, I learned from performing my usual paranoid checking of the room - for murderers in the shower, dirt under the beds or bed bug specks on the mattress.  Fully content,  I fell asleep in the extra comfy bed in about fifteen seconds.  Bliss!
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Erin L-K on

Betsy!!! What an anxiety-ridden start to the trip, but with an incredible payoff in the end! After reading about your slightly terrifying Ambien-sleepwalking experience, I'm definitely making a mental note never to take more than 1.5 pills of that stuff. I'm so impressed at how you navigated through all those obstacles (why are the French always on strike??), and kept right on going. I've totally been there with calling my family while traveling alone and crying my eyes out--more times than I'd like to admit, actually :-) The quaint hotel you described at the end of this post was so wonderfully detailed, I felt like I was sitting right there with you, enjoying the view out the windows. I'm so happy for you that you're doing exactly what you've wanted for so long, and that you're writing about all of these experiences so we can share in them with you. It's been too long since I read your writing back in the Sarah Duncan days, and I'm so glad to have a chance to read your fantastic descriptions again. Love you and miss you!

wanderingblonde on

Erin!! Thank you so much for your supportive comments and specific feedback :) It's been really fun writing this blog so far. It was definitely a bit nerve-wracking to tell the truth about my struggles... I'd like to pretend I'm coordinated and that I make fewer mistakes than I do :) Ultimately, I decided that the truth would a) show my growth process over time and b) encourage people who think, "I could never do that" by showing that you absolutely CAN travel by yourself, as long as you don't expect perfection and think things through instead of panicking. It's ok to be scared and to go anyway!

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