Poor Planning: Sleeping on the Street in France

It began with a missed bus in London and ended with a sleepless night tucked into a corner on the outside of the Bordeaux train station.

In June of 2013, I attempted to make the solo journey from London to Lille, France by bus in order to catch a flight to Bordeaux, to catch a train to Bayonne, to meet up with my dad and get a bus to St. Jean Pied-de-Port to start walking the Camino de Santiago.

I had been studying and traveling in Europe for the previous six months and had no qualms about traveling alone. I had often traveled by bus in order to cut down on transportation costs, so that was familiar to me too. This time though, I made one mistake: I didn’t double check the time my bus left until the morning I was set to leave. A rookie mistake.

I’ll spare the details, but by the time I had looked at my ticket, the bus was long gone, along with the possibility of a smooth trip to southern border of France. I looked online and found a train that would get me to Lille shortly before my flight left, but I was almost out of money and the ticket was over $200. I was forced to call Mom for some help (something I try to avoid at all costs). She booked my ticket online and I ran (literally ran) to the tube in order to make it to the train station just before the train left. Literally just before. They held the train a few extra minutes while I was expedited through security.

I made it onto the train and must have dozed off, because when I looked out the window next, I was met with the familiar signs of the Lille train station I had traveled through a few weeks earlier on my way into London. I sped over to an information desk and was told that the next shuttle to the airport wouldn’t leave for another 30 minutes and my flight was set to leave in 60…. time for Plan C (D? E?). I made my way over to the train ticket window and asked how I could get to Bayonne the quickest. The ticket lady said that there was a train to Bordeaux leaving in four hours and from there I could get another train to Bayonne. The catch? The only seats available on the train to Bordeaux were in first class. Luckily my Eurail pass was still valid, so the upgrade only ended up costing 50 euros, which I still had.

A quiet bench in the train station was my refuge while I waited for those four long hours to pass, but soon enough I found myself alone in a first class carriage (while the rest of the train was packed??). The train got into the Bordeaux train station around 10PM and I foolishly asked the ticket agents when the next train to Bayonne would be (already having pissed them off with my lack of French), to which they said that there wouldn’t be another one until 6AM. So I had 8 hours to kill… could be worse. I had spend a night or two in a train station waiting on an early train, so I found a seat and made myself comfortable.

About two hours into my wait for dawn, I was approached by security and told that the train station would be closed from 12-4AM and that I couldn’t stay inside. Okay, so I guess they could get worse. I walked outside and scanned the streets, looking to see if there were any hostels or hotels close by. I hated to pay for a room I would barely use, but it would beat staying out in the street. I went into one hostel and was told that a room would be about $100 for the night… nah, I thought. I can survive the next few hours. So I walked back to the station doors and found a bench, glancing around defensively.

A few minutes into that, I was approached by two men. One looked at me and said “You didn’t know either?” in broken English. I said that no, I had no idea the station would close and I planned to stick it out until it re-opened at 4. I learned through a mix of English and Spanish that they were Portuguese and were headed to Paris to join the French army. One spoke some English and Spanish, but the other only spoke Portuguese and French.

A few minutes after our meeting, the English/Spanish-speaking soldier asked if I wanted to take a walk with him and his friend to stay warm. I asked the obligatory question: “This isn’t the part where you kill me right?” and was met with a concerned “No, of course not!”. I think that’s what they all would say, but it was either go with them or sit on the street and fend off drunken wanderers– they seemed like the safer option.

Once we made our way back to the train station after an hour or so of aimlessly walking, we tucked ourselves into a corner of the station’s exterior walls and attempted to rest our eyes for the remaining three hours. That is much easier said than done when you’re sitting under bright lights, on cold pavement, trying to avoid the attention of the previously-mentioned wanderers.

Between my shivering and all-around fear, my eyes were shut for maybe 4 solid minutes, but after what felt like 12 hours, the doors finally reopened. My new friends and I made our way into the warmth and parked ourselves on a bench inside, again attempting to avoid the unwanted attention of the drunks who had also sought refuge in the warmth.

I left our small pack to charge my phone across the room and was approached by a man speaking in very slurred French, and then again by one of my new friends who shouted something at the man, grabbed my hand, and took me back to our bench. He didn’t let go until we parted ways and I boarded my highly-anticipated train to Bayonne. Although it was a short-ish trip, I sunk into my seat and took a deep breath, exhaling the anxiety that had built up within the previous 20 hours.

I had been in such a whirlwind trying to figure things out, I realized that I had no idea how to find my dad when I arrived. I had sent him the directions to a hotel I had booked, but hadn’t kept them for myself, and neither of our phones were set up to work in Europe. To make matters worse, I was supposed to be on the last train last night, so he had to be worried about why I hadn’t arrived on that night’s train. As the implications of that realization began to unfold in my mind, my anxiety returned, just as the train pulled into the Bayonne train station. I looked out the window and saw my dad standing there, scanning each window to see if I had made it and was a passenger on the incoming train, and I took a deep sigh of relief, the anxiety dissipating as quickly as it came.



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