Doesn't France look like a fun place to be? Well it's not. At least not in my experience. So here's the thing: I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things, and yet somehow, I've never written of my many misadventures. I think that's a travesty to the world or travel writing because with all my mishaps, I could be the next Bill Bryson (if maybe I'd up my wit game). And besides that, I've got a few actually good recommendations, so, I think I'll try my hand at travel blogging when I'm out of other ideas and just looking to get my fix.
Today is a tale of Spain. And France. Of life and love and adventure and nearly getting stuck in a foreign country with no way of return even though you speak the local language -kind of sort of a little bit. Names other than mine are changed for privacy.
Don’t St. Jean-de-Luz Us
“Do you want to go to France?”
“We’re on vacation in Spain. Why would I want to go to France?”
“Because we could get another country on our list?” Alex doesn’t have to see me raise my eyebrows at her. I lean over. “See, we’re so close to the border here, it’s only about an hour and a half away. Rick Steves says people do it a lot.”
She leans over to look at my already battered blue and yellow guidebook. It started out fresh at the beginning of the trip, but wine and gazpacho have drizzled down its sides while the pages have curled from being bashed against cameras and water bottles in my purse. The map shows the northern border of Spain where the Basque Country meets Bordeaux. We’re just outside of the region in Pamplona, but the trusted guide tells us we can reach Spain by bus in about an hour and a half.
She shrugs. “Are you sure you just don’t want to stay here?”
I ponder. Pamplona -home of my famed and beloved Hemingway, setting of The Sun Also Rises, my favorite novel- has been fantastic. Brilliantly sunny and I’ve discovered my favorite food in the world, crostini with blood sausage, caramelized onions and quail eggs. We’ve wandered throughout the town, I’ve drank brandy where Hemingway drank brandy –rather poorly by comparison, I’d wager. No, I’ve done everything I want to do here. We’ve got an extra day before heading to Barcelona; I might as well get France in.
We leave the next morning bright and early on the bus. Pamplona began our day with rays of sun, but the sky darkens as we travel west towards the Atlantic Coast and north to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the small French beach town we plan on visiting. The bus driver clearly doesn’t speak English, so neither of us sleep as we near our stop. Before we know it, the breaks hit and we’re in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. After a hurried exchange with the driver to ensure that “Yes, the bus will be right back here at 5pm to take us back to Pamplona,” as communicated by many nods and “Si, si”, we step onto French soil having never waved a passport. Point one for France.
The sky is filled with dark clouds just waiting to unleash rain upon us. It’s cold here, maybe 65F to the balmy 85 of Pamplona. I reach into my bag to grab my jacket and realize it’s still curled into a ball on the bus where I left it trying to nap. Point lost for France trip.
We tour the city, but it’s nothing like the fantastic beach town we hoped for. It’s cold and dreary with drizzles periodically breaking out around town. We try going to the beach, but we’re cold and wet. I try to buy a jacket to replace my lost one and almost forget my wallet with passport in the shop. We give up and go to eat French Fries and drink French wine –everything we can find is overpriced tourists’ food. At 3:30pm, Alex and I look at each other. We are so done with France.
It takes us a while to return to the bus stop, and we arrive an hour early. Conveniently, the train station resides in the same plaza and we can wait indoors for our bus. We buy beer and camp out reading the rest of Rick Steves’ suggestions, now with some trepidation given our current circumstances. At 4:45, we set aside the book, eyes locked on the plaza outside. We’re ready to run at everything resembling a bus just so we don’t miss it. We wait. 5pm and still no bus. 5:15, no bus. 5:30, no bus.
“I mean, he did say he’d come right back here, right?” Alex looks at me, concerned.
“I think so. Like seis? Or that’s 6. I mean, cinco? Damn I don’t know. The bus schedule says 5pm too.” We go look at it again to verify. It does say there’s a bus at 5pm to Pamplona. Not crazy.
I venture a trip to the train ticket window thinking maybe they have some information. I work up my best 11th grade French to try at the ticket counter.
"Bonjour!” The attendant stares at me. I continue, “Je voudrais un autobus dans les….I mean, pour le Pamplona, Espagne.” I didn’t nail it, but I used enough French words to get across what I wanted, I’d wager.
“Non,” the clerk replied.
Straight up no? I even tried to speak actual French to you, jerk. “Pardon,” I started again. “Je voudrais un train pour Espagne.”
The clerk again started, only vaguely acknowledging that, indeed, Spain was a country near this region of France, and theoretically we would be able to take a train to it. He showed us train tables and point to signs, and though we didn’t quite understand what the dotted red line between our current city and Hendeya meant, we purchased tickets that would take us to Irun, back to Spain which actually seemed to want us there.
Thrilled 10 minutes later when the train showed up, we clasped hands and shrieked a little, glad to finally go home. 5 minutes later, the train screeched to a halt where Hendeya should be and everyone got off. We looked at each other. Surely we weren’t there yet. Irun should be a good 20 minutes to half hour away, and Hendeya close to that. Since literally everyone else on the train was disembarking, we got off our most recent hope and blindly followed the crowd. We wound up at another, much smaller ticketing station. Essentially, a wide locker room stood on either side of a telephone box with an agent selling tickets. When it was our turn in line I asked timidly, “Pamplona?” Unlike our French cohort, the Spaniard found entertainment in us. He raised his eyebrow and shook his head.
“No” Yet again we were defeated! He slammed keys on a keyboard and titled a monitor to me. Wisely surmising the clueless looking American girl behind me was part of the entourage, he’d typed up two tickets to San Sebastian, one of our connecting cities. “Cinco euro por dos.” He held up five fingers then motioned to both of us. Immediately I forked over a note, and got the tickets.
We were next loaded on what I can only title as an intermediary form of transportation. Not a train or a bus or a metro. It looked vaguely like the sky tram at Disneyworld and was called the EuskoTren solidifying its tenuous state as a legitimate mode of transportation. Another five minute trek at approximately 5 miles an hour and boom! We were finally in Spain.
I’d activated my phone for international travel as a precaution, but had so far avoided its use to steer clear of the astronomical data charges. Knowing it was data charges or pay for a last minute hotel room in San Sebastian, I flipped on GPS and we raced to the train station to find our train back to Pamplona awaiting.
Oh wait, no we didn’t. All the trains for the day were gone. The clerk thought perhaps one more bus for the night would be traveling through on the way to Pamplona soon. The bus station was a good 20 minute walk from the train station so we’d better hurry. We sprinted and sprinted arriving at the bus station with gasping for breath only to watch as the bus backed out of its spot to exit the station. In my last ditch effort, I ran full on in front of the bus to block its path.
Thankfully it stopped. Alex and I clamored on trying to explain our situation in broken Spanish to the driver. The driver responded that the bus was pretty full and it’s unlikely we would be able to find two seats. When it became clear they’d find us seats or we’d have a hysterical meltdown and disrupt everyone’s plans, she called out in Spanish to ask if there were seats. Miraculously, two people raised their hands. We opened our wallets to throw money at the generous bus people, but the driver simply waved us back not wanting anymore fuss. After approximately 50 “Gracias” to our bus mates, Alex and I settled in. An hour later, we arrived in Pamplona.
We walked slowly, haggardly to our hostel. We turned the key and came upstairs to find our host standing and chatting at the desk with one of his friends. “Oh, good! We were worried you wouldn’t come back.”
So were we, Pablo. So were we.