Monday, May 30, 2016

Another day in Rouen and more train-related angst

Last night, before I went to bed, I'd established that there would be more train strikes before I left France – in fact, there would definitely be some in the next few days; this was a problem for me 'cause the next leg of my journey (Rouen to Dijon, via Paris) was on Wednesday.

It occurred to me that they might already know which lines were going to be disrupted. So, I got onto the website (on my phone; I'm on the fifth floor of an hotel and the wifi isn't strong enough up here most of the time to actually do anything but taunt me by connecting and dropping out soon afterwards) and checked. Yep, the Paris to Dijon train had been cancelled.


Okay, contigency plans. Let's see if there are any other trains from Paris to Dijon. I checked: there was. Great. I'll just book myself a ticket. Select the train – done. Select the class – I really don't care; I just want a seat. 2 is fine. Enter name and email and phone number: check, check and (after consulting my phone's address book) check. Now all I need to do is pay. Enter credit card number, expiry date, extra security number: done.

I hit 'purchase'.

Redericted. To a Mastercard page that told me CBA wanted to double-check it wasn't fraud by sending an sms. TO MY FUCKING AUSTRALIAN PHONE NUMBER. YOU FUCKING IDIOTS; I TOLD YOU I WAS GOING OVERSEAS.


Okay, I still have several options – I can ring one of the banks and either get that confirmation that way or give them my French phone number to use for confirmation – probably something I could do online (with CBA at least) if I had internet access, but I don't. So, phone it is. [Looks at antique phone next to bed in hotel; there's no + sign on it] Okay, I have no idea how to call another country from this phone, or even if I'd be able to. I've made fewer international phone calls in my life than I have kidneys, so that maybe a little bit complicated.

I could get Rochelle to buy a ticket in my name with my email address for an e-ticket? Okay, that's another option, but I'll consider that a backup. Ah. Duh. I could just go to the train station I arrived at – Gare Rouen – which was only ten minutes walk away and buy one there. Heck, chances were I'd be able to exchange my existing one to cover at least some of the cost of the new one, since day-before tickets are always more than ones bought months ago by people who thought they were being sensible and didn't realise how risky that actually was when they did it.

So, I walked up to the station and looked around. They were renovating the building, so a lot of the signs weren't where they should be. But I asked a liveried person where to go (in French and everything: Où est l'information, s'il vous plaît?) and got pointed in the right direction. There was a queue, but I was okay with that 'cause I wasn't in a terrible hurry since from my aborted attempt and online purchasing I knew there were still seats available. Whether that means my train and the one after it were both less than full or that everyone else booked on my train is still to realise they ain't catching the 11.23 from Gare Lyon to Dijon Ville unless some miracle happens.

Got to the person behind the desk. Asked her if she spoke English. She didn't. I tried to explain in my broken French, but didn't get far before she decided she'd ask the person who did speak English to help. Then it didn't take long to sort out what I needed, and they cancelled my old ticket and issued me a new one (cost me an extra 20.50, but at that point I really didn't care), which I had a cursory glimpse at just to make sure – 'paranoid' is now my default setting.

"Depart 05H26 de Rouen Rive Droite"

05H26? That's 5.26am. What had she done? I was perfectly happy with my previous trip from Rouen leaving at 9.12, a perfectly sensible time – and, more importantly, one that wouldn't mean me having to have an awkward conversation with the hotel people about checking out at some obscene time of the morning.

I don't know why she did this, and I couldn't explain to her that I hadn't wanted her to do that and I needed it changed back to my previous departure time – so, we got the translator back for another go on the English/French merry-go-round. Fortunately it didn't take too long to sort this out, and before long I had a shiny new ticket with the previous train from Rouen to Paris (depart 9:12, arrive 10:40) and a non-cancelled train from Paris to Dijon (depart 11:57, arrive 13:32).

Despite the agony, the energy and the time involved, this was actually better for me than my previous combination, since it gave me twenty minutes more breathing room for the change of stations in Paris – I had to get from Gare  St Lazare in the north-east to Gare Lyon in the south-east, requiring a 4-stop journey on the metro. And, while I'm fairly confident about travelling on the metro itself, my last experience had taught me that finding where to get on that metro train, and, once off it, where to get to the next inter-city train was almost certainly going to be less straightforward. An extra twenty minutes might make the difference between catching it and missing it – or, at the very least, catching it without having my blood pressure raised to 'stroke imminent' level.

But that was a problem for tomorrow. For now I could go back to my hotel, lie down for a bit and think about where I wanted to go in Rouen. But first I wanted breakfast, and on my way up to the station I'd spotted a place that looked like it had a nice range of pastries, so I went in there and ordered a cup of tea and, after a quick peruse, a brioche. I've decided I quite like brioche – it's like a somewhat sweetened, rich bread that's not as heavy as cake. I didn't want anything too sweet 'cause I like my tea bit sweet and the two sometime conflict. But this was a good combination, and I felt much better soon afterwards.

After a quick stop off at the hotel - I'd forgotten my headphones and MP3 player for starters; that's an indication of just how flustered I'd been when I left because as those of you who regularly see me in meatspace know that I rarely go anywhere outside by myself without an audio device and the means with which to listen to it – I went wandering. And the first destination was Notre Dame.

Now, some of you might be thinking, "Wait, isn't that in Paris?" Yes, it is. Confusing? A bit. But it helps when you know the language, since 'notre dame' literally means 'our lady' - it's essentially a generic term for a cathedral, and there's more than one. Lots more. I think it's possible there's at least on in every major town.

Anyway, the one in Rouen is an important one, because Rouen was at one point the second most significant city in France after (obviously) Paris. When something like that happens, you can be fairly sure the local religious order is going to want to show off by building a massive place of worship. Because, you know, that's what their god was supposed to be about, architectural dick-measuring contests.

Enough sniping. Particularly since it resulted in more than a few buildings I've quite like looking at. If you want to read about the history of the cathedral, go here. It's quite interesting. It's been a damaged a few times over the years (fires, natural degradation, the Germans) but continually rebuilt.

Some pictures.

This wall is one of the oldest parts of the building; it dates back to the 1300s.

I do like a big organ.

Now, the thing about Rouen is that it is by no means a one-church town. On the contrary, the damn things are everywhere, even though – to my eye at least – they tend to look a bit the same, and I wasn't able to specify which was which when I was taking photos. But the main ones are Notre Dame de Rouen, Saint Ouen Monastery, Saint Maclou.

I didn't go inside any of the others, mostly because they didn't appear to be open. But Saint Maclou had very nice carved wooden doors.

Oh, and there was this interesting chessboard-patterned house.

Next place I was going inside was the Joan of Arc Historial Tour. It's an interactive kind of experience, with lots of projections and video; you go from room to room and a beautiful old building that was around back during that time (early-mid 1400s) and go through a bunch of chapters in her story, from fervently religious farm girl, to leading the loyalist French army against the English and their French allies (it's a long story), to being tried for heresy and (spoiler alert) burnt at the stake.

They dragged it out maybe a little too long for my liking, but I can't imagine non-French speaking Australian tourists are really the target audience (I did have a device that spoke the dialogue bits to me in English) – it's quite obviously aimed at French students. But it was entertaining and illuminating, and made me want to read up some more about French history.

By this time I was hungry, and very determined to enjoy more French pastry. Just up from the Joan of Arc centre was a cake and tea house, so I went in there and – once again, after some fun with languages – got a seat in the dining area and ordered a slice of lemon tart and a hot chocolate. The former was excellent, the latter was - lacking sugar. And, looking around, I didn't see any sachets - and I didn't want to have another awkward exchange, so I went without. It wasn't bad by any means; I'm just used to it being sweeter. It would appear that's how the French have it.

That place had a lovely façade;

Next stop was the two museums in the one building: the natural history museum and the museum of antiquities. The natural history museum was a bit...rough; to an extent it felt like it was one person's massive collection of stuffed animals and fossils and the like that they'd donated. But there were some interesting pieces, and some (possibly unintentionally) hilarious taxidermy.

Some pictures.

A kakapo from New Zealand. As described by the late Douglas Adams: "The world's largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot." His book Last Chance to See is worth reading just for his section on the kakapo.

The antiquities museum was a bit more professional. It had some very interesting bits and pieces in it, some of it in a garden in the middle of the building.

A cat sarcophagus.

Not an actual wild boar but a stuffed one. Perhaps it escaped from the natural history section.

A statue featuring the now-extinct carnivorous Judean sheep.

I don't know what this...thing is. But it was too hilarious to leave out.

And then I wandered around for a while, taking too many photos. As I do.

I couldn't work out what this building was, exactly. But it has had some serious damage.

Presumably not a store they'll try to export to the UK.

For dinner that night I tried a local dish, Normandy chicken - which, it turned out, was chicken in a cider-based sauce. That was pretty good, but the bread was amazing. I had been planning to have a dessert that night (I'd been alternating) but this time I went with cheese instead, just so I could have more of that bread.

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