I wrote an earlier post on walking around Amiens (I have walked a thousand miles), but it doesn’t do justice to a full description of my three odd hours spent in the bus every week. So I’d like to invite you to accompany me on a typical Saturday morning, when I take full advantage of the region’s public transportation system…
It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning…
and instead of sleeping in, faisant la grasse matinée (one of my favorite French expressions, which literally translates as “doing the fatty morning”), I’ve a steaming mug of coffee within inches of my face, as I think over my morning’s lesson plans. Unlike with your average English teacher, my English classes are all a “plus,” meant to complement school, help prepare for an exam, or offer additional “speaking practice” with a native speaker. I review grammar, correct pronunciation, and help with homework. As a result, my teaching is rather idiosyncratic, reflecting a variety of individual needs, and often involves a lot of impromptu explanation or off the cuff teaching. Nevertheless, I have to come prepared to each individual lesson, with the exception of a conversation class with a rather advanced student (where we’re literally just talking), and since I have around ten different students a week, I often find myself early in the morning reproducing my eighth grade English teacher’s verb conjugation chart or looking up obscure terms related to global warming.
This morning, I eat the last of a delicious homemade cake aux pommes (which ironically translates as “apple bread” in American English, although I’d call it a cross between fruitcake and banana bread, altogether delicious) offered to me by my Belgian classmate for helping her study for our upcoming Linguistics exam. I take a quick shower, try to find a semi-presentable outfit (I really need to go to the laundromat!), and blowdry my hair. It’s still in the forties here in the North of France, and I am happy to learn that today lacks the Siberian-like wind that nearly blew me across the street yesterday. I walk the ten minutes to my student’s home, where I spend the next hour and a half teaching English. To my delight, I discover that I will finally be “paid” today (both companies I work for operate on a coupon-based system, so now that my students have finally paid for and received their coupons, I can register them on the company website… I won’t get paid until the beginning of May for classes I have taught up till now, starting in the middle of March), as I receive coupons from both of my students, worth nine cumulative hours of class. Once I finish, I idle over to my favorite sandwicherie on the main pedestrian-only shopping street that runs through the heart of downtown Amiens. I have a good thirty minutes to kill before I need to catch my train. I order my customary bagnat au thon (I don’t eat most French meat, so thank goodness tuna is ubiquitous) and splurge on a croissant aux amandes, my mother’s favorite French pastry, with its gooey croissant goodness and its flaky, powdered almonds.
I carry my bundle over to the train station, which is about an eight minute walk away from the sandwicherie/ pâtisserie. [French food vendors are typically designated by what they sell, which is why the same place can be called a boucherie/charcuterie (butcher and seller of cooked meats and pork products) or a pâtisserie/boulangerie (pastry shop and bakery), and France is known for its various specialty shops, from an épicerie (grocer's), poissonnerie (fish shop), brasserie (brewery, but also often bar) to a chocolaterie (chocolat shop) and confiserie (sweet shop/candy store)].
I know the train station by heart, so I walk over to the automatic ticket distributor and begin my coded ritual: Départ immédiat, Autres, Bov-, Adultes 1, Cartes 12-25, Oui, [insert rewards card], [insert credit card], [enter pin], Non, [prints out ticket]. I then look up at the overhead screen where my 12:30 p.m. train is mentioned, to see whether or not my voie (platform) is indicated. I am on the early side today, so I have to wait until I know at which platform my train will be arriving. I then validate (composter) my ticket, which proves that I took my train at the indicated time. If you forget this little “validation” step while in France, it can cost you a fine up to €25, even if you bought the right ticket! (If you do forget, you can always look for the ticket inspector on the train as soon as you board, as he can “validate” it for you, without you having to pay a fee). While waiting for my platform to be announced, I eat my round bagnat, made of a soft white bread with sesame seeds, unlike the distinctive crusty French baguette. I save my croissant aux amandes for the train. Once I know the platform, I can finally make my way to my train, a regional TER which stops at the nearby towns on its way to a bigger metropolis such as Lille, Reims, or Paris.
La SNCF et toute l’équipe TER vous souhaitent la bienvenue à bord ce TER à destination de Paris gare du Nord. Notre TER desservira Longueuil, Boves, …
There’s always a group of students in the train from the neighboring towns, which heightens the feeling I get that Amiens empties in the evenings and on the weekend. You can sit wherever you want on a regional train, unlike the TGV (train de grande vitesse, high-speed rail), and I rarely have my ticket inspected between Amiens and Paris, let alone a town ten minutes outside of Amiens. It is the most direct and effective way for me to get to my next lesson, but unlike the bus, it’s not “free” (that is, I paid for an entire year’s bus access back in September). There are few trains to and from Boves, a small commune in the department of the Somme with a population of about 2,600 inhabitants. I settle down in my seat, munch on my croissant aux amandes, and arrive at my destination in the blink of an eye. Not even enough time to read a full article of The Economist.
I have a ten-minute walk to the student’s home from the train station, which allows me to get a feel for small-town France. There is one main street through the center of town, which I walk along, passing a cemetery, the town hall, a hairdresser’s and a few other shops. I can see from one end of the street to the other, about a ten-minute’s walk in length. In a way, it reminds me of small-town Nebraska, one of my only other experiences of small towns except that of Missouri, which is a whole different story, except here it is utterly devoid of the rugged and Western feeling of the Nebraskan Sand Hills. I’m afraid of getting lost, so I tend not to explore more than this direct route to and from the train station.
Once the lesson is finished, I sprint towards the bus stop, one of two on this main street. It is 14:12, and I know that the bus is scheduled to appear in two minutes. I run on the opposite side of the street, into the incoming traffic, if there were any incoming traffic, so that when the bus turns the corner, the bus driver is sure to see me. He sits at the stop for a full two minutes as I approach huffing and puffing. The doors swing open and I mumble a “Merci“ for waiting and a perfunctory “Bonjour.” I swipe my green and yellow bus pass at the scanner below the ticket feeder, and I make my way towards the middle of the bus, and am jolted forward as the bus takes off down the road, not stopping until I finally push the button “Arrêt demandé.” I have to wait for a mere four stops (but too far to walk) before getting off the bus, as this is the only bus that takes me away from Boves. I must next take another bus in order to get back to the center of Amiens. Today, lost in thought, I almost miss getting off at my stop, but I get off at the following stop, which is on the other side of the roundabout from where I need to be. It’s the terminus of this other bus line, so I always have to wait for a good ten minutes before the bus begins its next round. As usual, I am the only person on the bus, so I take out my Samsung phone and read through this week’s The Economist. It’ll be another thirty minutes before I arrive back at the train station, compared to the ten minutes it took me to get out here.
Finally the bus starts up and we are circling around the periphery of Amiens, with its shopping malls and HLMs (high-rise apartment complexes) and with its distinctly rural population and pronounced Picard accent. I’m not used to taking the bus, back in the United States, although I have taken the Greyhound and Megabus several times over the past few years. I’m familiar with the mixing of socioeconomic backgrounds that occurs on U.S. public transportation – that is to say, I am familiar with putting myself in a situation where most of the other bus users belong to an entirely different socioeconomic class – but I am not entirely sure what to make of the situation here in the North of France, in the department of la Somme, with much of its population rural, its unique infrastructure issues, and its less densely populated communes. It serves in some regards as a commuter region, a cheaper almost-suburb to the sprawling, high cost of living that is Paris. And yet it’s character is altogether different from the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic melting pot of Paris. Picards tend to stay in Picardie, and they are highly attached to their region, which is all the more surprising given its less than stellar reputation throughout France.
I once met a local who studied for a semester in Toulouse – you’d think that with its sunshine, colored rooftops and Southern France/north of Spain vibe, it would appeal to a French girl accustomed to partly cloudy skies and a chance of rain ten months out of the year… but she told me that no, Southerners were much more superficial, much less open and friendly than people back at home. Part of this must have been due to a feeling of dépaysement, of being out of one’s comfort zone and away from one’s network of family and friends, but I have to confirm her description of the Picards people that I have met up until now. Very friendly, somewhat loud, big drinkers, very community-oriented.
I get off the bus at the train station and walk the fifteen minutes back to my apartment, where I relax for the first time in what feels like a week. Parts of speech are flitting through my brain as I try to forget about English grammar, about moving here and there and everywhere, and anchor myself to my bed, not moving anywhere.