I checked out of my comfortable hotel in the center of London at 9am Monday morning and embarked on the unknown. I felt excited that I was finally doing something. I made a conscious effort though to keep myself calm. I had a long trip ahead of me and I needed my energy. I did not have the luxury of wasting precious energy on excited emotions.
My train trip to Paris was scheduled for 11:30am. I decided it would be best to reach the train station early. I wasn’t sure my online ticket would actually work. I knew that there were hundreds of thousands of travelers trying to get out of the UK. I did not know what to expect at the train station. I needed some buffer time for unexpected circumstances.
Everything went surprisingly smoothly at the train station.
My e-ticket did work. I swiped it against the electronic scanner and I was in. The bag security check went smoothly. Passport control took less than five minutes. Inside the terminal, there were an average number of people waiting for their trains. I had traveled by train before to and from London so I knew. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The people inside the terminal were the people who were actually able to get a train ticket. The stranded ones were outside the terminal; standing in the lines in front of the ticket office or roaming somewhere on the streets of London.
Stranded with the Stranded
While waiting for my platform to open (the train station equivalent of airport gates), I spoke with an American man and a German woman who were also stranded and trying to get home. The American decided only that morning to buy an online ticket out of London to Paris. He also had no idea what he’d do afterwards. His thoughts were focused on heading towards Barcelona. The German woman would find a way to get back to Germany once she was in Paris. Her worries, of course, were much less than ours. The German woman told us that trains to major European cities were jam-packed. She suggested we might want to consider finding a train to the south of France and renting a car from there, where there would be much less competition, to Barcelona or Madrid. Earlier at the hotel I had also heard from the French concierge that car rentals out of Paris would be almost impossible.
As the platform opened and we stood in line to go up to the trains, an Israeli man in front of me told me he was trying to get to Israel by land. He had a plane ticket to Tel Aviv from Cyprus. He planned a rather exciting train journey from Paris all the way to Cyprus. He’d have to switch trains time and time again to get there. While we were standing in line, he decided to call El Al Airlines and find out which European airports they were flying out of that day. He whispered to me that Marseilles Airport in the south of France was opening today. I left him still on the phone wondering whether I should try to go to Marseilles.
The train ride to Paris was uneventful, except, perhaps, for a heart-lifting phone call I got while I was half-way to Paris. Dr Abdallah Daar, professor of public health sciences and professor of surgery at the University of Toronto and a trustee with SciDev.net who was in London with me for our trustee meetings, had heard that I was venturing onto the European continent and was inspired to try to do the same. He would arrive in Paris at 5:30pm; about three hours after my arrival. He also had no plan on what to do afterwards. Once I knew what I’d do I’d call him to see if we might stick together through the ordeal.
Paris Train Station: Gare du Nord
I arrived in Paris on time. On time for what, though? What was I to do next?
I headed towards the TGV information center. TGV is the main train company that operates trains all over Europe. While standing in line I heard Arabic spoken by the two men standing right in front of me. I was so excited! I had heard so many stories before I left London about stranded folk coming together to help each other on their journeys home. I was hoping to find Arabs or Egyptians and hook up with them. Together as a group it might be easier to figure out how to get home.
“Arabs!”, I exclaimed out loud in Arabic, addressing the two men in front of me. They looked back at me decidedly uninterested. “Where are you going?” I asked. Egypt, they told me. “Your Egyptians!” I exclaimed! I was so excited! I couldn’t have been luckier! Yes, they told me. So how are you planning on getting back to Egypt? “We have plane tickets out of Rome,” they answered in a monotone voice. How did you manage to get those, I asked. They had friends in a travel agency back in Egypt who helped them out. They reached the information desk, asked a question, and just left me. Following them were a woman and two children. My shocked eyes followed them as they left. They didn’t even look back at me.
I spoke with the woman at the TGV information desk. “Where do I buy train tickets?” I asked. She pointed to the ticket-selling office just off to the right. There was a very long line in front of the office. It would be at least an hour’s wait to get to the head of that line. I’d use that time to figure out where to go, I decided.
Get Me Out of France!
I spent the first 15 minutes in line extremely de-motivated. I was so disappointed that the Egyptian family didn’t even think of asking me how I was planning on getting home or if I needed any help. In our culture that is very strange, at least according to my experience. Egyptians feel a need to protected women on their own. Or have I just romanticized Egyptians for long enough and it was time for me to learn the cold reality?
I needed to collect my thoughts. When I reach the head of the line, where do I tell the ticket salesperson where I want to go?
Do I ask for a ticket to a Spanish city like Barcelona or Madrid where there are functioning airports? If I get to Spain, what if there are no flights to Egypt for days? Do I ask for a ticket to Milan or Rome? At least if I get to Italy and all flights are booked I’d have the option of looking for other ways over land or sea back to Cairo. What if I don’t find train tickets to either country? Where do I tell the salesperson I want to go?
After an hour, I reached the head of the line. “I’d like a ticket to Barcelona,” I told the salesperson, simply the first city that jumped into my undecided head. “There are no tickets to any cities in Spain at least until the day after tomorrow,” the man informed me. This was expected. How about Italy, I asked? It was clear he was used to this by now. He was not surprised that I was pretty much willing to go anywhere. No tickets to Italy today or tomorrow either. “What if I wanted to rent a car from the south of France and drive to Spain there?” I asked, remembering the German woman’s advice. “Which French city would you recommend I go to? Give me a touristic city where I’d be more likely to find many rental cars.” He looked at his map and suggested a city. He checked the system. There were no trains there either. Then just get me out of Paris to any other country in Europe, I begged. “How about Lausanne, Switzerland,” he eventually asked. There was a train to the south of Switzerland that night at 6pm. I called Abdallah. He was already on the train to Paris. “Abdallah, I can buy two tickets to Lausanne for tonight. From there we can rent a car and perhaps go to Italy. I’ll buy the more expensive fully refundable tickets in case we find a better option in the meantime. What do you think?” Abdallah gave me the go-ahead. I bought two tickets to Lausanne.
Is Car Rental an Option?
Now that I had secured train tickets to anywhere in Europe, I decided to explore the possibility of renting a car from Paris. By that time, I was leaning towards heading to Italy, where I’d have more options of getting off the European continent. If airports weren’t an option, I could head to the south of Italy and explore travel by ferry to Northern Africa. Or perhaps I could drive to Turkey, try to get a visa at the border (not very likely but perhaps worth a desperate woman’s try) and get a flight from there. This last option was very far-fetched, especially since I had just heard earlier that Istanbul had shut down its airport as well. But at least in Italy I’d have options. If I went to Spain, I thought, I’d be stuck in south-western Europe and it would take longer to go east if I decided I needed to.
The car rental offices were downstairs. Hertz, Sixt, Europcar, and another office were only accepting customers who had made previous online reservations. The only office that had people standing in front of it was Avis. So I stood in line. It seemed that they were giving cars away to the people standing there.
There were three salespeople working the desk. I stood in one of the three lines. In front of me standing at the desk were two men who looked very different from each other and who were renting a car together. I watched and tried to guess in my head – as I normally do – who they were, where they were from, and what their stories were. I was wondering if they were Arab. I tried to listen to see what language they spoke to each other in. I could only hear bits and pieces of English being spoken and they didn’t seem to speak with each other much. In the meanwhile, I was trying to think of a plan for renting a car. So where do I go? Can I just tell the salesperson I want a car but I don’t know where I want to take it? Is that even an option? Car rental offices usually need to know how many days you’ll need the car and where you’ll leave it at the end of your journey. I didn’t really have a plan. I decided I’ll wing it when I reach the front of the line like I did at the train ticket-selling office.
As my mind was wandering off in those many directions, the man in front of me to my left turned back to me and the people behind me. “Are any of you going to Milan?” he asked. I jumped at it. I am! I suddenly decided. The man behind me shook his head. He was headed elsewhere. Man-in-front asked, “Do you drive?” I said quite excitedly, “Yes! Yes I do!” He invited me to join them. I did a quick study of the two men once more. The man to my left sounded European. The man to my right looked and sounded Indian. The first looked younger while the second looked a bit older. I told them I have a friend who will be arriving in one hour and would be joining us if that was all right. They agreed. And that was that.
The Avis salesperson took my driver’s license information and the Indian man’s information. The Indian man and I would share driving. We’d all share the costs. I called Abdallah and filled him in. Go ahead, he told me. I’m with you!
We finished the paper-work and I made sure we had a fully insured car. “Can we rent a GPS,” I asked the salesperson. There are none at the moment, he said. He further explained it would cost 200 Euros even if they did have one. It would be cheaper to buy one, he explained. He took out a map of Paris and explained how we’d set out on our way. Once we reach a gas station outside of Paris we could buy a map of Europe and find our way to Milan from there.
I went about refunding my train tickets, making a last bathroom visit, and buying a sandwich and juice to start out on my journey with the two strangers. I asked them both to give me their names and mobile numbers so we could always be in touch in case we lost each other while I was doing all that. I left my small suitcase with them to save the energy of lugging it around. They were kind enough to keep it with them and wait while I finished my errands and Abdallah arrived. In the meantime, I called my family to ask them to start searching online for tickets for me from Milan or Rome airports to Cairo. I also called Thomas Cook in Cairo and asked them to find tickets for me. They were very unhelpful. I will get back to this later in my story and tell you what I thought of that.
One might think it was rather naïve and perhaps reckless of me to decide to ride in a car with two strange men. Perhaps it was. But this was not a normal situation. Stranded travelers across Europe were doing the same in this time of crisis. People were pooling resources and helping each other out to get home (with the one exception of that mean Egyptian family, that is. And I must admit that I secretly wished they were unable to find train tickets and did not have the astute mental abilities I thought I had to find other innovative ways to get to where they were going). I also pride myself in having the ability to judge people’s characters. The man-on-my-left was from Italy, I learned at the car rental office, and the man-on-my-right was from India. The chances that those two were together standing in front of a car rental office on the lookout for women in hijab traveling with an unknown-to-them male friend to rape and murder were thin, I decided.