While I should really be working on my five-page paper that’s due at midnight on Wednesday, I thought I’d take advantage of a spare moment to talk about my trip back to France. For the first time in about five years, nothing strange or unusual happened to me. No late departures or arrivals, no strikes, no dogs sniffing the luggage or an overnight stay in a posh hotel. Just one very long trip home on very very little sleep. And, I had to deal with the intricacies of European train stations.
For those of you who have seen the film Hugo, train stations in Europe bring to mind adorable ten-year-olds, old-fashioned travelers, sleek super-fast trains, and the occasional flower seller. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find a lot of that, but you’ll also find peddlers, policemen, creepy single men who sit down next to you uninvited, and, when it gets closer to dusk, a somewhat “rougher” crowd mixed in with your average backpacker or travel-worn business person. I suppose Americans have such a glam image of European train stations precisely because our own are so terrible. I remember taking the Amtrak at 5:00 am in Omaha once, a train station that is open a mere three hours a day, from around 5-6 am, for the one departing train, and 10-11 pm for the daily incoming train. And it’s located next to a dark and scary abandoned parking lot, underneath a bridge. No wonder we tend to envision ax murderers.
Train stations in Europe, I know several of them. Geneva’s, Lausanne’s, Zürich’s, Bern’s, Paris’s, Amiens’s, Lille’s, and now Bruxelles Midi, to name a few. And good thing I had a minimum of seven hours to figure out the Brussels train station, because I felt completely out of my element in it.
Layout of Bruxelles Midi train station
My journey to Brussels was pretty straightforward: one forty-five minute flight from St. Louis to Chicago O’Hare, a brief layover, one hour and a half flight on one of United’s awesome new Dreamliners to Washington Dulles, a longer layover, and one seven-hour flight to Brussels. Plus a very loud baby behind me, little to no sleep, and a wonderful opportunity to watch The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen in German), which I highly recommend. Everything went so smoothly I was amazed. The man working at Border Control looked at my passport and stamped it 5 seconds later, which makes me still angry about the whole Belgian woman incident on my way out of the country (see Home for the Holidays for more on that story).
Once I got to the main part of the airport, that’s when things started getting confusing. I had two suitcases to drag, and luckily I had read up on where to find the airport train station (do your research on the Brussels Airport Website). It’s located on the lower level, which confused me, as you couldn’t take the main escalator to reach it (I eventually found an elevator that went downstairs). They had a little ticket counter, which was luckily open on a Sunday, where you could buy the train ticket to Bruxelles Midi for 7,70€. There are about four stops until you get to the Midi train station, so the whole trip took a little over 30 minutes, including wait time. Once at the train station, I had one of those freak out moments where all the train departures are written in a foreign language – that is to say, in Flemish instead of French. To make matters worse, I had originally bought myself a ticket that left at 16:55, whereas my flight arrived in the Brussels airport at 7:10. I was not about to wait around on no sleep, so I tried not to panickly call Hedi (not too many times at least) and figure out when the next train to Lille would be and where to change my ticket.
Thanks to the power of the internet, Hedi told me that there was a TGV headed for Lille leaving at 10:18. The only train I saw was listed as Perpignan, in the South of France. Was it passing through Lille? No way to tell on the departure screen. I eventually ventured over to the ticket counter for le service national, where the man rudely told me in French that I would have to go over to the service international in order to change my ticket. It, unfortunately, did not open until 10:15 on Sundays. Dragging my two bags behind me, I eventually found the Thalys information center, hoping to at least pass through Paris if I couldn’t get my tickets changed. The woman and man working there listened to me, laughed, told me quite clearly that the counter for buying new tickets was not yet open, but changing tickets already sold was possible. “You are not in France, we work here on Sundays,” he told me confidently. Whatever, I just wanted to change my ticket. I finally arrived at the fourth ticket counter/information desk, where, to my pleasant surprise, the woman told me that it would only cost me an additional euro to change my ticket to the 10:18 train for Perpignan, with the first stop at Lille Europe. A mere thirty-minute train which I still had to wait another hour for.
Luckily I’ve taken a train to London before, and I’ve had to change train stations between Lille Flandres and Lille Europe when taking a Eurostar to London. For those of you who are unaware, if you pass through Lille to another European city outside of France, your tickets will reflect two train stations but not tell you how to get from one to the next. Rest assured, they are a mere 200m apart from one another, with certain helpful signs or helpful individuals ready to direct you when you ask, like an idiot, what you’re supposed to do. No platform 9 and 3/4, however, but an eight-minute walk or 15-minute tram ride (depending on if there’s one already waiting for you) from one train station to another. Kinda sucks when you have to drag two heavy suitcases behind you.
How to get to Platform 9 3/4, I mean, from Lille Flandres to Lille Europe
Apparently there was no problem changing my next ticket back to Amiens to an earlier train, although the earliest train was two hours later, at 13:00. The woman working the ticket counter basically told me that there was no point in changing the ticket, as it was cheaper to leave four hours earlier than scheduled. The worst part of this whole train-changing business? No one checked my ticket on either train!
Finally, I arrived home-sweet-home, to the Amiens train station. An ugly piece of work, but a familiar one.