A Simple Jaunt to the 'Burbs

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

PARIS, France — Before immigrating to the U.S. in 1939, Ken's mother and her dad spent nine months in the Paris area en route from Zurich to New York. When she mentioned the small town where they had lived in a boarding house and even told us the street address, we were determined to make a visit.

According to our research, Enghien-les-Bains was just a short train ride away from a major Paris rail station. Hop on the suburban H train that runs every 15 minutes, and in 16 minutes you're there. Google Maps showed us that the house in questions was less than 1,000 meters from the train station. A piece of cake!

Gare du Nord
Though we've passed through many rail terminals on this trip, including some major urban central stations like Zurich and Milan, nothing had prepared us for the frenzied turmoil of Paris's north station, Gare du Nord.  With 190 million passengers going through the station annually, Gare du Nord is the busiest railway station in Europe.  Yes, Virginia, that's half a million people each day.

Our introduction to this behemoth was by way of the number 2 subway line, which we rode to La Chapelle subway station and took the underground passage to Gare du Nord. Multiple subway lines, one train line after another, dozens of platforms, and thousands of people rushing about at a frenetic pace.  What we didn't see was any mention of suburban line H.  And in the midst of all this chaos, we couldn't find a ticket or information booth open to ask what kind of ticket to buy and where to catch the train we needed.

After a couple of aborted attempts to purchase tickets from a machine which assumed you already knew exactly what you needed, we finally found Enghien les Bains on a departure board listed under Creil, the town at the end of the line. The time was 4:24, and the train left at 4:30.  We got back in line at the automated ticket machine for the third time, waiting impatiently for the three people in front of us to finish their transactions.  At last, we spun the ticket roulette wheel and made our choice, hoping we were buying the right kind of ticket.

Grabbing the tickets the moment the machine spit them out, we tore off to the turnstile hoping the tickets we chose would open the magic door to the train platforms. They did! I glanced at my watch: 4:28.

We scanned the signs frantically for platform 36, where the departure board indicated we should go. "There it is!" Ken called. Wading through the river of passengers flooding the corridor, we bolted off  in the direction of the sign. Following directional signs toward our platform, we suddenly ran out of markers for 36.

"Where is it?" I yelled.

"There! Up the stairs!" Ken called behind me.

"Stairs," I moaned. As we reached the bottom of the stairway, we heard the conductor's whistle blowing from the platform above. Panting, we grabbed the handrail and yanked ourselves up a flight of some 40 stairs, careening around the corner at the top and racing the final 100 feet into the open door of the nearest train car.

Before we had a chance to find a seat, the doors slid shut and the train began to roll forward.

"Did we get on the right train?" I gasped.

Consulting the route chart above our heads, Ken confirmed that we had. "It's the fourth stop," he sighed, and we sat back to catch our breaths and marvel about how incredibly lucky we were to make it onto the train.

As we kept our eye on the route map, we waited for the first stop. When we saw signs for the Saint-Denis station flash by outside our window, we both began wondering, though neither of us would say so, whether we had mistakenly boarded an express train that wouldn't stop until it reached Creil, some 50 miles away. After we saw the second and then the third stations blur past, we sat back and relaxed.  Obviously, we were in for a two-hour ride-- to Creil and then back to Paris.

Much to our surprise, the train began to slow before we flew past the Enghien les Bains station.  Could it really be? When some of the other passengers began to collect their belongings and proceed toward the exit, we realized that the train really was stopping, and it actually deposited us exactly where we wanted to go.
After a bit of confusion, we found our way to the house in question.  Since buildings in Europe are usually permanent structures, unlike in so many parts of the U.S., the house was still sitting right where it was in 1938 when Ken's mother was a girl of 18.
The boarding house
We took some photos and walked back to the train station, so glad that we had not inadvertently turned a 16-minute trip into a two and a half hour journey.  As we boarded the train back to Paris, I thought for sure I saw a ticket agent wearing a four-leaf clover pendant wink at me.