Thursday morning, I arrived so much earlier than expected at the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris that I had to modify all my carefully made plans for getting back to Saint-Aignan by train. The plane had landed early, and it took me less than 30 minutes to get through passport control, pick up my suitcase, and waltz through customs. The RER into Paris ride was fast, and it was only eight o'clock when I walked into the train station. I had planned take a 9:30 train to Blois.
Looking at the Départs board, I saw that there was an 8:42 train to Vierzon. I called Walt and told him. I tried to buy a ticket from a vending machine, but I couldn't find one at the reduced price we over-sixty voyageurs are generally accorded. So I decided to go stand in line and buy my ticket from a person rather than from a machine. Luckily, the line was very short.
That's when I saw the old man that I ended up sitting across from and talking (or listening) to on the train. He was buying his ticket, and he seemed to be taking a long time to complete the transaction. The clerk waiting on him had that "okay, let's stop talking and get moving" expression on her face. The man continued chatting — he obviously wasn't in a hurry.
I got my ticket — there was no over-sixty reduction for the train to Vierzon; who knows why? I called Walt again to confirm my 10:15 arrival at Vierzon instead of the planned noon arrival at Blois, and I headed for the train. I threw my carry-on bag up into the wagon, and then managed to climb up the two steps onto the train with my big, heavy suitcase. Problem is, I proceeded to trip over my carry-on fall onto all fours as I got in. People rushed to help me, but I didn't need help. "I just got off an overnight flight and I'm exhausted and jet-lagged," I told them. It was embarrassing but no harm was done.
I went to my assigned seat and found it occupied by the old man I'd noticed in the ticket office. I asked him if he'd been assigned seat number 32 (côté fenêtre, sens de la marche) and he said no, he had no. 33. Oh well, I told him, I'll just take no. 33 and you can stay where you are. But he wouldn't have it. He made a big production of getting up and moving to the other seat. As he sat down, he complained about having to ride facing backwards, but never mind.
"I hardly ever take the train any more," the man started telling me. "And everything in the train station has been moved around. I had a hard time finding the ticket office." I didn't really feel like chatting, but he gave no sign of stopping.
"I'm 82 years old now, and I have to go back to Guéret by train," he continued. "Did you know that Guéret is the only ville préfectorale in France that doesn't have a train station?" No, I didn't. The man said he had to take a train to the nearby town called La Souterraine, then catch a bus to Guéret, and finally get a taxi to his house. I was glad I didn't have to do all that.
The story continued. The man had driven to Paris the day before — did you know that it's 540 kilometers from Guéret to Paris? (actually it's not that far...) — to receive a decoration from the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls. He had just bought a new Renault Clio for the drive. He had applied for the decoration for 17 years in a row and the new Interior minister had finally said yes. The man said he had a placard that he carried in his car allowing him to park in the courtyard of any Paris ministry where he had business.
When he drove into the courtyard at the Ministère de l'Intérieur, he was informed by an attendant that he couldn't park his car there. "But I have this placard," the man said. That might have been valid in days past, but no longer, he was told. He'd have to go park elsewhere.
The man drove around looking for a parking place but couldn't find one. It was getting late and he was going to miss the ceremony if he didn't park somewhere soon. So he left his car parked illegally at a taxi stand, with the emergency flashers on, and he walked more than a kilometer back to the ministry. He got his decoration from the minister, and headed back to his car for the return trip to Guéret. But the car was gone. He figured it had been towed, so he set out to find a hotel room for the night. He walked for two hours all around the neighborhood, from hotel to hotel, but in vain. All the hotels were complets.
He ended up in a commissariat de police, where he learned that there was no record of his car having been towed to an impoundment lot. It had probably been stolen. At that point, he told the police that he hadn't been able to find a hotel room. They told him they had a room where he could spend the night. He didn't get any sleep, though, because he had left his sleeping pills in the car, and they too had been stolen. Stolen along with a nice new set of tools in a toolbox that he had left in the trunk of the car. Now he'd have to go back to Guéret and buy a new car.
As he recounted this tale of woe, he kept interjecting « C'est dingue, non? » — it's crazy, don't you agree? All I could do was nod. The man wasn't really interested in anything I might have to say. He was talking, not listening. Earlier that morning, the police had arranged to have him driven to the train station in a police car, blue lights flashing, so that he wouldn't miss the 8:42 train. They probably couldn't wait to get him out of the commissariat and send him on his way.
The Renault Clio had cost him 8,500 euros. It only had 41,000 kilometers on it. And on and on. Why had he needed to buy a car? Well, his Mercedes had been totaled when a big Jeep Cherokee driven by a Manouche — a gypsy — had crashed into him in Guéret. The other driver had no insurance and no driver's license. Besides, the Jeep had been reported stolen. The old man had no recourse but to sue, without much hope of success. Now the Clio had been stolen, and he wasn't insured against theft.
Les Manouches... it was all ex-President Sarkozy's fault. He had given them welfare and arranged for them to get a retirement pension. We all have to work for a living, and those people get a free ride, the man said. This was turning into a rant. Other passengers were looking the other away, trying to pretend they weren't listening. I hadn't said more than five words, but the man didn't seem to notice.
Soon we were approaching Vierzon. I got up out of my seat and went to get my bags ready for the descent from the train. The man had fallen silent by then. I told him I hoped he had a better afternoon than on the day before.