I wouldn’t want to say that French trains and I don’t get along, but certainly our relationship has had something of the hit-or-miss about it.
The first miss occurred before I even boarded a train. A Rail Europe agent had crowed about the ease of using an electronic ticket for my trip from Paris to Nîmes, direct from Charles de Gaulle Airport, or CdG to the In Crowd. So simple, he said: You’ll arrive at Terminal 2 with two hours to spare, and the TGV is on the lower level. Just go to the kiosks outside the SNCF [French State Railways] ticket office, then enter your name and file number to print your ticket. Easy as pie, he said.
Some pie. Air France was late taking off, then stacked up over the airport, seriously shrinking my two-hour window. Just before landing I asked the purser to jump-start my exit by letting me move forward from steerage to a vacant seat in the front row of coach. “Impossible,” he said. I cited my tightening connection and asked what I should do. “Run,” he replied. And walked off.
I ran. Ran to passport control, ran for my luggage, and ran to a kiosk. I had 30 minutes in hand. Not enough. The kiosks’ touch-screens proved temperamental. Some had hair-triggers; a mere caress was required and anything firmer was resisted. Others mulishly resisted the caress and needed repeated stabs. When at last I got everything input correctly, I poked ENTER. The screen replied that it had never heard of me. I tried last-name-first and first-name-first. I tried with and without my middle name and middle initial. Nothing. A passing SNCF agent offered help, but without success. Three kiosks later, he shrugged and gave up. So did I: I’d missed my train. After a longish wait at the ticket counter, I got the facts from an agent: 1] SNCF kiosks accept last names only; 2] my reserved-seat ticket was non-refundable; and 3] a new ticket would cost $104.
Still, a half-dozen subsequent trips to Paris went swimmingly. Learning to use the RER suburban trains to and from the airport, for little more than half the bus fare, less than a tenth of cab fare, and no traffic jams, was a mere bagatelle. I savvily bought my Metro tickets in economical carnets of 10, could map routes from one end of the city to the other, and learned which lines were infested with pickpockets (9 and 2).
Thus my wife and I were stunned on our last visit by a young Metro contrôleur demanding our cancelled tickets. We had, of course, tossed them, and now we were threatened, as fraudeurs, with fines of €33. Each.
Indignantly, we said we’d never been questioned on five previous visits. We displayed the remainder of our carnets as proof of good faith. And we demanded to know whether we looked like fare-beaters. Emboldened by his hesitance, we then resorted to that favorite French tool, logic. We protested the fact that the rule about cancelled tickets is nowhere posted in the Metro and is not mentioned even on the Metro’s website (a wild but accurate guess). Ergo, how could strangers be expected to know? And why, just beyond every entrance is there a pourbelle (an elegant name for wastebasket: it means “for beauty”); surely it is for cancelled tickets, as it is usually full of them? Our contrôleur was paralyzed by now, and suddenly three of his colleagues swept down on us. All were older–obviously veterans. They explained that our young man, a trainee under their supervision, had mistaken his target: he should have focused on the commuters who abuse their long-term passes. And they wished us a pleasant stay.
Later our neighbor Pascal, a Parisian living two floors below our borrowed garret in the 15th, explained that fare-beating is rampant and Parisians are divided about it. Some fraudeurs are actually poor, but the sociologist Alain Mergier argues that the motive of the casual or occasional fare-beater may be an assertion of human dignity, of “Frenchness.” Mergier has said the French “demand rules and consider them essential for the smooth working of society, but we also reserve the right to break them.” (Jacques Chirac was photographed asserting his Frenchness when he was mayor of Paris. In December of 1980, irked by delay during an official visit to a Metro station, he gracefully vaulted a turnstile with the two-handed pushup leap that is the fare-dodger’s double axel.) The contrôleurs themselves are divided. Some avert their gaze, especially when fraudeurs are young or seem poor; others simply ignore what occurs before their very eyes. In any event, the consequences can be avoided (there’s at least one app that tracks inspectors’ whereabouts in real time) or at least cushioned (by signing up with one of the mutuelles, syndicates that offer what is, in essence, fine insurance).
Two daytrips, to Fontainebleau and Monet’s water garden at Giverny, involved the dread touch-screen kiosks at the prettily named SNCF Boutique. Those visits, by the way, suggest that my loathing of touch-screens is widely shared: nearly 90 percent of patrons prefer to take numbers and wait in long lines for human assistance. I took a number and, what the hell, tried a kiosk on the off chance. Surprisingly, the one I chose functioned with the speed and efficiency its designers had dreamt of but so rarely achieved. Poking swiftly and easily from screen to screen, I entered the day and time, station of origin, destination, class, and return trip details. Then I swiped my credit card and (voilà! I believe is the favoured interjection) my tickets practically erupted from their little slot.
Next day we validated those tickets, using the little yellow composteur or cancellation machine on the platform, and boarded the train. On arrival about an hour later we were headed shuttle-busward when struck by a dolt from the blue. An official and officious conductress demanded my wife’s ticket and with a triumphant glance declared it unvalidated and she subject to a fine. How big a fine wasn’t specified but the Metro’s €33 penalty suggested SNCF fines of dizzying heights. Fortunately, la conductress didn’t check my ticket, which doubtless wasn’t validated either.
My wife protested that she had indeed validated her ticket, even heard a beep from the composteur, just as she’d always done all over France and in Italy too. Mme. la conductress was having none of it: “You are in violation and must pay a fine. If you have the problem,” she said, “I am always on the platform to assist.” How could I know there was ‘the’ problem? my wife asked: the machine beeped, even displayed retrouvez votre billet on its tiny screen. Our conductress stubbornly gave the same answer, verbatim. And twice more after that, unyieldingly insisting that we were responsible for detecting a problem we didn’t know existed.
Finally, putting her hands on her hips and rising slowly from her seat, my wife said, in a voice just a little louder than normal but a great deal harder, “You know, I’m beginning to get very angry!”
La conductress was taken aback—literally. She leaned back and then stepped back, then began waving frantically to someone in the next car. That proved to be a male colleague, a nice young man who quickly assumed command. In the word ‘beep’ he detected the problem: we innocents had not properly romanced the composteur. And so all four of us descended to the platform for a lesson, Validation 101. First, we learned, the ticket must be inserted at an angle, not shoved straight in. And it must be inserted slowly–quite slowly. The device is evidently insistent on civilities, much like the Frenchman who requires a pro forma bon jour! before any further conversation, up to and including ‘Fire!’ and ‘Incoming!’ Last, it must then be straightened for the final leisurely push. All eyes, we observed his technique. The result was not a meek beep but a convincing CHUNK!
He suggested that we now try it ourselves, and we did, several times each. Soon we were past masters of the validational art. He demonstrated a few more times, drawing out the situation, lording it over his female colleague, who sulked near by. The angled insertion, it became clear, was necessary to finesse the small, barely visible lip inside the slot of the older model composteur. It was that lip which had prevented validation earlier. The machine’s resulting beep meant not “OK” but “try again.”
We thanked our rescuer, who wished us bon rest of voyage. The grumpy conductress took my wife’s ticket and scribbled thereon a cryptic notation, probably against further use. A sop for her amour propre, I’m sure: the ticket was by now too battered by multiple validations to fool anyone. She not-too-sullenly returned it to my wife, and we were off.
Now so far as the actual combat was concerned, I played no part, none; I let my wife handle it. Said not a word. Feigned invisibility. Ungentlemanly? Unchivalrous? Perhaps, but I consider my silence a shrewd vote for situational sexism. “Absolutely right,” said Pascal later at dinner. “Your wife took control, and she was winning. Instead of meekly submitting, she showed her claws. That forced the conductress to call her colleague—a male colleague—and so the game was up. She was afraid your wife would make a scene. It’s the old prejudice: women will become hysterical; they are beyond reason, irrational. Chaos will follow.” And if I had intervened? “You would have been the brutal male, bullying a poor woman trying to do her job. Her colleague would have been forced to support her, and you would have paid big fines.” Across the table, his wife nodded—vigorously, as if from experience. “Those train women,” she said. “They are the worst, absolutely.”
Well, not always. Not absolutely. The woman who sold me tickets for our next trip was a delight: “Here’s a tourist; why don’t I help him?” was her m.o. She carefully pointed out, to my surprise, that these tickets, being on a suburban line, covered the entire trip: Metro to Gare Montparnasse, suburban train to Fontainebleau-Avon and even the palace shuttle-bus at the station. Prodding her keyboard, she winkled out a discounted fare, and then explained that the tickets, although nearly identical to Metro tickets, differed slightly: passengers had to sign and date them on the day of use. So clear! So helpful! I practically high-fived her through the glass. Then the next day at Gare Montparnasse some confusion about departure time led me to inquire at a small glass box-office containing a small red-haired young woman in SNCF livery. She inspected my ticket and was immediately concerned, even shocked: the date was incorrect! “Is this not May 12th, 2016?” I asked. “That is what I have written, no? 05/12/16?” Recognizing American backwardness, she explained: “But you must write the date as we do, 12/05/16: day first, month second.” Reaching for my pen I offered emendations, but non! That would be tantamount to forgery. “A moment, please,” she said. Then she stood up and smoothed her skirt, carefully donned her little red pillbox hat, and came out to meet me.
To a leaf from her notebook she fastened my ticket and began writing in neat round cursive a message to any dubious conductor; the gist of it was that the bearer had [doltishly] entered the date incorrectly, “dans le style americaine,” and should be excused. She signed it, then with a small object resembling a lipstick stamped her note with what amounted to her Privy Seal. Would that also cover my wife’s ticket? She took out her seal and applied another stamp.
Handing both note and ticket to me she came to attention, fixed me with a high-beam smile, and said she was delighted to be of service. “Bon voyage!” Really, I think I made her day. She certainly made mine.