Travel lesson learned on a wrong-way train to Brussels

The train station in Nice, France, was crowded while airline strikes grounded flights out of the city in July 2010. Plans had to change, including itinerary and mode of transportation, and a new traveler learned about the surprises and adjustments of a journey.
The train station in Nice, France, was crowded while airline strikes grounded flights out of the city in July 2010. Plans had to change, including itinerary and mode of transportation, and a new traveler learned about the surprises and adjustments of a journey.
Posted: May 13, 2012

In July 2010, my boyfriend Eric and I were five days into our first trip together. After two days in Marseille, France, we planned to take a train to Nice. From there, we’d fly to Rome. When we got to the train station, Eric asked a conductor (in French!) which train went to Nice. We boarded, settled into comfortable seats, and pulled out our books for the trip.

As we pulled away from the platform, the conductor began announcing the stops. After a minute, I realized the cities were going the wrong direction. Then he announced the final destination: Brussels.

I put down my book. Brussels? That wasn’t in France at all! We weren’t just going to the wrong city; we were going to the wrong country!

Eric noticed my immediate panic. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “Let me go check on it.” While I tried to calm down, he asked in the snack car if the train would stop in Nice. It wouldn’t. As my mind rapidly listed all the consequences — now we wouldn’t make our flight, we’d lose our deposit on the hostel in Rome, we’d be stranded in Belgium — Eric was unworried. “We can get off at the next stop and get new tickets. It will work out.” He rubbed my arm and went back to reading while I pretended not to think about missing our flight.

We got off at Avignon and bought tickets on the next train to Nice. It was already delayed, and we wouldn’t get into the city until after our flight had taken off. “It will be fine,” Eric assured me. We sat in the station and waited.

By the time we got into Nice, our flight was long since in the air. At least, it was supposed to be. Thanks to a French airline strike, the flight to Rome had been canceled. Rather than wait for the strike to end two days later, we decided to take a train to Italy the next day. We spent the rest of the night exploring Nice, partly out of curiosity and partly because nearly every hostel and hotel was booked. (I guess strikes sometimes boost other areas of the economy?)

The next day we took trains from Nice to Monaco, Monaco to Ventimiglia, Ventimiglia to Pisa, Pisa to Florence. It was a long day, but we got where we wanted to be eventually and saw an extra (small) country along the way. We still had a great few days, which in the end is the point of traveling. I was so focused on the plan — train to Nice, flight to Rome, see Italy from there — that I didn’t appreciate that I was in Europe, on vacation. Aside from catching flights back to the United States in August, we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be. Eric already knew that mistakes are part of the trip and just lead to something new. It took a miniature crisis on a train to Brussels for me to learn.

Since then I’ve been able to relax and enjoy the surprises of travel. Now, we’re headed to Southeast Asia, starting in Cambodia. I’m excited to discover our plan along the way.

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