18-19 Dec 2010
it was supposed to be a relaxing weekend away as it has been manic over the last couple of months and with still not much time for a real getaway. but snow was already threatening to cancel our plans during the latter part of the week. but we were taking the eurostar trains anyway which should hold better than the airports.
started off with a night’s stay a few streets from King’s Cross at Comfort Inn. tiny room. but clean. and cheap for London at £66. dinner was borderline edible at an italian cafe across the street. streets were already icy, but at least the snow let up for the night.
up early on Saturday, checked out quickly and walked to the station at 5:40. Terribly long lines at the eurostar checkin meant no time for breakfast. Train left at 06:22. had to give up our reserved seats so a family can sit together. big seatmates, no table, 30 mins additional journey time because of the speed restrictions on the train. long queue to get a latte and waffles from the buffet car.
it was all white with snow outside the moment we left the channel tunnel and into France. but no sign of snow in Paris. we bought our 2 day metro tickets at the station and made our way to the Latin Quarter across the Seine. Having been to Paris before, we didn’t really care much for the touristy bits. we were just after lounging time at cafes and good food and wine. The Latin quarter was a few streets lined with shops, artsy stuff, old and vintage books. Didn’t manage to see some of the shops I had been looking out for. Walked a bit to look out on the Seine river and Notre Dame in the distance.
We settled at Malongo cafe for coffee and cakes. And started making our way to our hotel. We were staying a Place Saint-Augustin, a quiet Parisian neighbourhood a few blocks from Champs-Élysées. We had a lovely room at the 5th floor with French windows opening to a small terrace overlooking the Saint-Augustin Church and the small park below. It was already cold, so it wasn’t really a time to open the french doors and hang about in the terrace so we contented ourselves to sipping tea in front of the windows.
We had lunch/dinner at around 4pm at a brasserie towards Blvd Haussman. The place was still packed even at that off hour. Food and wine were very good – duck breasts and steak, cheese with raspberry sauce and apple tart. We had planned on walking to Champs-Élysées to see the Christmas lights but it started snowing. biggest snow flakes i’ve ever seen and snow was settling fast. we thought we should go back to the hotel and get umbrellas. but it got really cold quickly and my toes were already frozen. snow was not letting up as well. we abandoned walking to Champs-Élysées and just relaxed at the hotel instead. it was an early day and we were promptly asleep before 7pm. but were awoke at 11 with grumbling stomachs. It was all white outside now and the streets are quiet. We resumed walking to Champs-Élysées as there were no open cafes or restaurants around Saint Agustin.
Champs-Élysées was teeming with people and traffic. Still a number of shops open close to midnight. But not a lot of options to get a snack. we got pastries from a cafe and had hamburgers at a fastfood outlet. Didn’t really like Champs-Élysées like when we were first here. I thought it was more Vegas than Christmas. too much christmas lights with no concept of design. and way too commercial. walked back to the hotel.
Checked out at noon the next day after having coffee. It was puddles of slush and snow in the streets and really cold. Took the Metro to La Fayette even though it was walking distance. Found lunch at a brasserie across the street and had another great meal of escargots, pork ribs and veal and chocolate mousse and ice cream. even the house wine was ok (unlike the undrinkable varieties you get here in london). walked around a bit inside the mall and proceeded to buy bottles of wine to take home. overwhelmed with the chocolates in the food hall.
we had coffee nearby and started planning our route to go back to Gare du Nord as the wine were quite heavy to carry. (still can’t understand the dim lighting at the Magenta line – more than 5 flourescent strips grouped together and then shielded with a huge red diffuser – I think they were going for the Art Deco look but failed miserably).
We reached Gare du Nord before 5pm. Still quite early for our 1813 train. little did we know the adventure is just about to unfold. We were greeted with a long queue that stretched from the bottom of the stairs leading to the eurostar platform to the other end of the station (Gare du Nord is a really huge station). All stairs leading up to the platform was blocked. We checked the eurostar site that morning and were warned of a 60-minute addition to the journey but nothing more. I asked the people queuing and realised it was just to check in. We took our place in line at the other end of the station. An australian couple proceeded talking to us and the couple before us getting information as to what train we’re trying to catch. We were all early for our trains and surprised at this long queue to get in. They, however proceed to talk some more to the couple before us and fell in line with them instead of behind us. I knew it was going to be a long wait, so no point making a fuss when they’re supplying us with information anyway. The queue got longer and longer, but was moving slowly. I hoarded food from Paul and got my fill of hot drinks. Went around the station to get more information – all stairs and lift entrances were blocked by station security who knew nothing. TV screens were still displaying check-in open/closed information. All we knew was that trains were delayed by at least 2 hours, and people are getting on on a first-come first serve basis – everybody holds tickets and you just get on the next available train. No eurostar staff were visible on the floor. We practically were begging for information, and I’m relying on other passengers to translate for me what people are asking and saying as it’s mostly in French. The front of the queue was like a funnel with people queuing and people pushing to get into the queue. It was mayhem and there were alreadya number of raised voices aimed at people not on the queue.
It was close to 8pm when we were at the bottom of the stairs. There were police in riot gears looking on at us from the stairs. They were shuffling around but would not secure the queues. I think they were rather amused with all these desperate looking passengers. People were shouting to get information. People in the queue were translating. And finally, someone cordoned off the front of the queue after several hours of people asking for more security to the lines. Police changed shifts and were making beso-beso in front of the thousands of commuters who had been queuing for hours now. A lot of people felt insulted, they were just there, looking on, and looking like they were at a party air-kissing colleagues whilst we were left to fend for ourselves to secure the lines so people pushing their way will not get in.
Looks like the police were actually powerless here. they cannot get between the people in the queue and those not in the queue as the station is a commercial place – not a public place. They are looking on just in case a riot breaks out. But they cannot do anything unless someone starts getting hurt.
Eurostar bosses started coming down the stairs armed with a megaphone. Megaphone fails to work. and he just shouts out that there are 2 more trains coming, but they are still waiting for the drivers. No estimated arrival time. No idea how long we’d be in the queue for. People are already hungry, thirsty and unable to go to the loo. People not in the queue keeps coming in at both sides and are promptly shouted at. There are those who would back away, feeling shame. But there are those with a story of being pregnant that the security staff forced into the front of the queue even with people protesting. There’s a ‘pleading line’ forming at the left side and everytime a person is let through, people protested. It was getting a bit tense at the front of the queue because people on the sides looks like they’re readying to push in the moment a train becomes available.
And then it happened. These mad elderly couple started forcing their way to the queue. I was semi-crushed against people’s luggages and trying to help prop up people in front of me who were being pushed as well. People were screaming for help as the police looked on for another minute. Then she hit another passenger queing with us and keeps pointing at him to the police who was all set to take him out of the queue. Al was in front of him preventing the police as it was the madwoman who started the scuffle, he was innocent. We reasoned out at the police and kept pointing at the mad couple to get them out. It was a tense few minutes. The police were very calm though and listening to everyone and explaining what they can or cannot do. The woman was already shouting and slumped on the floor in front of me refusing to move. But the police managed to drag them out. Turns out, they were causing the commotion to get their daughter in the front of the queue. she was desperate to get to london as she is about to start a job. her mad parents were taken aside but were still hovering. and the daughter remained in the queue! so their plan was a success! People were already asking the daughter to leave the queue, but she was too thick faced to move. police have no right to force her out as she didn’t cause the trouble herself. but we were assured that she will not be allowed to get on the train – whether that really happened, I have no idea, as I still saw her making her way up the stairs to the eurostar platform.
I was already shivering from the cold at that time (in spite of not hardly having any breathing space as people were packed). And the atmosphere remained tense as there are still plenty of people who can start another incident.
I can’t get over how desperate people can get that they’re willing to abandon their morals just to get ahead. everybody wants to get to their destinations, but it’s not a matter of life and death. why do people think their journeys are much more important than everyone elses? there are the subtle ones, who inch their way to move inside the cordoned area. they get shouted at and they slink back in shame. the lady and her companion who pleaded to the security and told him she was pregnant. they get interrogated by the people in the queue but just ignored everyone and refused to leave. This british couple who moved in as people were ushered up the stairs. he gets shouted at, he stopped but did not move back. Police went down the stairs and he promptly shouted at the police to not touch him. The nerve. and that mad couple and their daughter. i pity her for having such parents. but really, i wish i knew which company she’ll be working for so i can write to their CEO. and that woman who tried to jump the queue, but when people explained calmly that she needed to queue, she left but not after shouting and calling people muppets for queuing for long hours. maybe deep inside, people still long to be uncivilised and that is worrying for humanity.
i am apalled at how eurostar treats their customers and the lack of leadership and their inability to take charge. this is happening every year and they have never learnt their lessons. there was no one managing the queue or at least someone who can run up and down the queue to see if there are any vulnerable passengers in need of assistance. information was very infrequent and they did not even tried to make use of the loudspeakers at the station nor their tv screens (actually not even their website). their staff were hiding away, most likely because they have not been fed any information either. a lack of sensitivity as well as staff make their way through a hungry crowd with meals for themselves. people were cheering sarcastically. someone handed in small bottles of mineral water when people were already in the waiting lounge (after 5-7 hour wait).