Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Geneva, Switzerland—Paris, France—Thoiry, France—Day 227

Rolling over this morning at 5:45am to check my watch, I was sure it wasn’t time to get up. And it wasn’t but I had been awakened by furious thundering and flashes of lightning coming from outside. There seemed to be a huge storm going on but my semi-conscious state just checked my watch, noticed the storm, and fell back asleep.

I woke up again around 7:00 this time ready to get up. I got ready and decided that today I would either go to the Matterhorn (which is in Zermatt which meant taking a train to Lausanne and then to down to Zermatt—according to my guidebook) or try and go back to the zoo in Thoiry.

Now if you remember, my trip to the Thoiry zoo was unsuccessful. The hippos were a fair distance away and I couldn’t find anyone to help me. I decided that it was critical for me to make the effort to go back to the zoo and I would get the pictures there. Damn it.

Because of the thunderstorm this morning, I decided in my subconscious sleep that I would go to Thoiry today since there was no sense in seeing the Matterhorn on a cloudy and rainy day (even though the Matterhorn is a far distance from Geneva—who knew if it was raining there?). So I headed out of the hotel and tried to find a taxi.

I couldn’t find one at the taxi stand that I had seen earlier near my hotel so I started to walk in the general direction of the train station, which wasn’t far but a good distance across the lake from my hotel. I kept walking and walking and couldn’t’ find a tax stand anywhere. OF course there would be the odd taxi zooming by me, but they all seemed to be taken or on the other side of the road which was difficult to cross due to fencing and trams and such.

So just kept walking and walking and made it to the train station with just barely any time to spare to get the three hour train back to Paris. At this point I started to run and went up the steps and down the passage to the international trains to France. I ran up to the entrance to the platforms and found them closed. Because you have to go through customs to go into France you cannot just simply hop on the train with minutes to spare.

I had missed it. And the next train was not until 10am. So, exhausted and overheated, I sat down in a smoky café, got some breakfast and started reading my book to kill two hours.

Looking back on this, I guess I really should have scrapped my plans for France and headed to the Matterhorn anyways since I wasn’t’ going to get into Paris until 1:30 at this rate, let alone into Versailles where I needed to rent a car, let alone the zoo in Thoiry which is a good drive from Versailles. But I was stubborn and had set my mind to it.

I will get those pictures.

So I read my book and when the smoke got too much in the café I wandered and found an internet café in the train station. I had gotten a reservation for this 10 o’clock train to Paris so I wasn’t worried about missing it. When it was time, I headed to customs, was checked through (I don’t think they even looked at my passport) and soon I was sitting on the train heading to Paris.

I was absorbed in my book “Fast Food Nation” and sped through a good chunk of it before reaching Paris around 1:30—and any one who has ever read it will know, in three hours I was put off of meat—for good? Who knows. For now at least.

We pulled into the Gare de Lyon train station and I set about finding the subway station and getting the subway to the Invalides station, where I would then get the commuter train to Versailles. I felt like an old pro and walked with confidence to where I needed to go, getting on the subway and train like a real Parisian—reading my book the whole way.

I couldn’t believe that I was back in Paris—it almost felt like a time warp or something, even though I had just been here just a few days ago. I got off at Invalides and bought my ticket to Versailles and hopped on the next train.

Twenty-odd minutes later, I was in Versailles. Phew! I had made it this far. By this time however, it was going on 3 o’clock—due to all of the walking, switching trains, commuting on the subway, waiting in line, buying tickets, etc. etc. I just had a few hours before the zoo would even close, so I had to get my car and get on my way.

So I walked up to the trusty Avis counter where I had rented the car before but there was a couple ahead of me in line. They seemed to be renting a car (I know this sounds obvious but they could have been returning it) but I couldn’t really tell because the office was so small that I had to wait outside of it since the two of them were taking up most of the waiting area. I waited while the couple and the woman behind the desk (the same one I had before) laughed and laughed. They seemed to be sharing stories and just yapping away. It didn’t take long for me to get antsy.

While they talked on and on about god knows what (I decided at this point that they weren’t talking about renting cars) I grew more and more anxious. Time was ticking away and I knew that I needed o get a car quickly. If only I knew French I could speak out to the girl and ask her, but I had to just stand there and wait in line. Gradually I moved closer and closer to them, despite the lack of space, and they eventually realized I was there and said something along the lines of oh, we should go, she’s waiting. Then they started to fill out the frequent user card to get points for their rentals. The man was writing out his phone number (or address—something with numbers was all I gathered) and was exclaiming each number enthusiastically—taking precise care with each one as his wife and the Avis woman were laughing.

I couldn’t take it. I was just about to leave when finally, finally, finally they were done. They left and I almost collided with them as they went out of the office and I tried my best to dash in. I asked the girl if there were any cars available and she told me no.


I looked at my watch—almost 25 minutes had passed—what was I doing? It was now going on 3:25 pm and I needed to get a car and make it to the zoo. I glanced across the road and saw a Hertz rental agency and ran across it.

Luckily they did have cars available but it took some time filling out paperwork, getting the car ready, before they handed me the keys. The woman obviously couldn’t tell from the pleading look on my face or the stamping of my foot to realize that I was in a hurry. Oh! She says, you are from America! Ohhh….she talks enthusiastically with her coworker. I didn’t have time for this, I just needed a car.

Finally I was handed keys, given the car and was heading out of the parking lot. Only when I got on the main road did I realize that the tank to the car wasn’t full—it was only ¾ full which was annoying. How was I going to explain this to them when I returned the car—I didn’t want to pay for gas I didn’t use.

I didn’t have time to go back and sort this out so I kept driving and made it on to the freeway, double backed and was soon heading towards Thoiry. Funny that I actually remembered how to get there and also funny that I didn’t bring with me (due to forgetfulness) the maps to the zoo OR the street maps and also funny that the Hertz agency didn’t’ have any of these.

I followed the signs again, just when I got to that point of wondering where on earth the zoo was, I saw signs for Thoiry. I turned off of the main road, went through some small villages, and coasted down to the entrance to the zoo.

Glancing at my watch it read 4:45—perfect. Now I have at least an hour to get some pictures of the hippos and to get their names.

I pulled up to the ticket window, thrust out my credit card (for lack of cash—which I had also forgot) and the guy just looked at me. He took my card, went to swipe it and then said (in good but broken English) I can’t use this and hands the card back to me.

Good god, why?? I looked at him desperately and asked. Well, he says, the zoo closes in 15 minutes.

Oh man. The zoo closes at five?? Not six?? I looked at the times and sure enough, closes at 5pm on week days during September. Great. Just great. I took my card back and heaved a great big sigh but then decided, well, at least I will get their names. So I handed over my prepared and in French statement, “I love hippos—what are their names?” over to the guy.

He took it and thought it was hilarious. There was another guy in the booth with him and they both just shook their heads, but thankfully wrote down some names: Paulo, Paloma, Martine and Junior. I took the pad of paper back and thanked them, clarifying with them the names and the fact that there were just four hippos—which was weird cause I could have sworn that I saw five.

Never mind, at least I go their names. So I pulled a U-turn and headed back to—well, where? What was I going to do? According to my contact for the car, I was allowed only 100 kilometers to drive (which is like an hour’s worth of driving which is nothing-but I couldn’t’ refuse it since the rental was so last minute) and already I have put on something along the lines of 65 kilometers. There was no use me driving all the way back to Versailles to get a hotel—or to call it quits and go back to Geneva.

I needed to find a hotel in the area.

So I drove around more (adding more kilometers to the car) and eventually found a sign that read “Hotel, Restaurant.” So I pulled up, went in and completely took the owner by surprise in the fact that they probably hadn’t had anyone in a long time check into the hotel. There was a larger man behind the counter was like, are you sure? The hotel? And I was like, umm, yes, please.

A younger guy was sitting on a bar stool up at the bar and he just whistled—whatever that meant, I don’t know. I was shown to my room with the big man and his equally big dog who came up to my hips and the room turned out to be quite nice—two small beds, a bathroom and the peachy painted walls that I have been accustomed to in hotel rooms. He asked me if I wanted dinner (I said no thank you before I even thought which I regretted later) and he left me.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was just about 5:30 now so not only did I have time to kill but needed to now find some dinner. I finished up my book but only had about a chapter left anyways so this didn’t take long, tried to take a nap and then around 7 o’clock went in search of food.

I drove up to the main village of Thoiry, parked my car and set about finding dinner. There were three or so “restaurants” in the little main area bit—a pizzeria which was closed—another hotel that I must have passed by earlier that I didn’t see who refused to feed me since I wasn’t a hotel guest—and another bar which looked way too local for me to even approach without getting some good stares. I got back in the car and drove around a bit more—eventually finding another small town with its own grocery store where I bought a package of cookies, two sandwiches and pre-made salad. I bought my things, headed to my car (ignoring the stares and whistles) and drove back to my hotel where I ate my dinner in bed, fiddled with the TV that didn’t work, and eventually fell asleep.

(c) 2004 Sarah Galbraith. All Rights Reserved.