Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Train trip to Oporto (a true story)

I am sorry for a long silence, dear reader. I was gone for a few days. And since I find it ever harder to drag along the old portable Blickensderfer while travelling, my literary output was reduced to a picture postcard to good old Shimon Perez for his birthday, and a rhymed denunciation of Spotted Owls along the lines of Zola’s J’accuse, written by fountain pen (look up what that is on Wikipedia…)

The beautiful Blickensderfer

Anyway. I am back and I’m exhausted. Lisbon can be such a demanding place at this old age! Especially their unbearable habit of putting the best Fado places on opposite hilltops with a needless valley in between, which the old aficionado has to descend and climb at 3 in the morning because he cannot find an affordable taxi no more, now that VAT on transport has been raised to 36 % on the orders – I mean: the recommendations – of the Brussels Mafia.

So: no new texts for a while. The best I can do today is to reprint (repost?) an old text, first published on Colin Davies’s blog two years ago, about the adventure of taking train trips to Oporto, which tells a lot about the mental state of Iberia and how things are done over here.

A Train Trip to Oporto

I subscribe to your opinion, my dear Colin, that where systems or institutions in Spain are often callously inefficient (for the customer, that is), the personal sympathy of individual employees frequently compensates for the mess.

Allow me to illustrate the phenomenon with what must be the most brazen example I remember, from a towering heap collected over the decades. I think it happened in the spring of 2002. Being an unhurried traveller, who appreciates the advantages of a train-ride, I made the grave mistake of wanting to take a TRAIN from Santiago de Compostela to Oporto. You ought to have known better, Al, I hear many folks now sigh. And they are right. In Spain, one takes long-distance busses, which work well enough. Once does not get closer to RENFE than one absolutely needs to.

But Alfie is an idealist, so off he went at the ungodly hour of 6.30 a.m. and presented himself at the ticket-window of Santiago Central. He was received by an attendant who looked most like an old retirement-craving postman whose flat feet hurt him even on his barstool, and who deeply hated the world and humanity for Being There and having written so many love-letters which demand delivery. There was no smile. There was no good morning. There was just a frozen stare.

Alfred, however, is an experienced traveller and not easily disheartened. So I took out my VISA card and asked the good fellow to sell me a ticket to Oporto. Note that I had done this before, without any trouble. But the system had changed. And what system remained, was out to lunch.
‘I cannot do that,’ my grumpy postal clerk told me, leaving the plastic money untouched in the tray. ‘The machine is not turned on. You cannot pay by credit card.’ This was something of an aggravation, because at the time, paying your fare by Visa automatically activated some sort of travel insurance which I did not mind having. There were, however, impatient people waiting behind me, so I did not try the obvious ‘How About Turning Your Machine On?’ but merely raised my eyebrows, pulled my wallet and told him: ‘Well, in that case, give me a ticket to Oporto for cash.’
            ‘I cannot do that,’ he told me as he pushed the VISA card back through the tray. ‘I can only give you a ticket to Vigo. There you must change trains. And you can buy a ticket to Oporto. You have seven minutes for that.’
            ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ I exclaimed, remembering the time I bought a one way ticket from Alès to Vladivostok at the train station of Auxèrre-sur-Bloise (which a assure you, readers, is a fifth the size of RENFE Santiago and gets only 167 passengers a year).
            But working folks were waiting… And getting impatient. WITH ME!
            ‘So give me a bloody ticket to Vigo!’ I said tersely, as I pushed a 50 Euro bill towards the fellow over the tray.
            He looked at me with a blank stare. And I knew what that stare meant. A ticket to Vigo cost 3 or 4 Euros. He did not want to break my 50 Euro banknote.
            It was then that I growled, and tried to remember the exact motions of the kick I had learned during Paratrooper training, and which our sergeant-mayor assured us would take bullet-proof glass out of its frame, so that I might pull him over his counter, and do to him what his mother should never have done to his daddy. At 80, however, one no longer does such things lightly. So I merely looked at him like Nessy on a bad day, and vinegared into his face: ‘Now don’t you give me MORE trouble still…’
And that is where he started giving me lip. He told a paying customer whom he was mistreating that I had no right to abuse him. That he would like to sell me a ticket to Oporto and let me pay by VISA card, but that he was only a worker and following orders and that the Estatut del Trabajador entitled him to…
The train was to leave in 4 minutes. I still had to schlepp my suitcase up and down staircases. The crowd behind me was getting restless. It was either take care of this UGT apparatchik or get to Oporto for my date…
So I simple gave him the Mittington Stare. That, the fact that he had thrown the full Union Manifesto at me in the verbal way, and the fact that I did not make to evaporate and let him attend Nice Customers, finally made him decide to accept the 50 Euro bill, and to sell me a ticket to Vigo.

Bad luck, you say? Aaaaahh, we have the same in Britain? Perhaps. But it was Bad Luck with Bad Manners. It was Below Freezing Customer Service with Great Pride at our Asinine Behaviour. In my near 80 years I never had to deal with that in any other country, except (take care now!) in SOVIET republics! Any other place you know you can appeal. But I knew such a line of action was futile in a place where the customer is fair game. And that in a town which prides itself on receiving half a million foreign pilgrims a year!

Portuguese railway passage

But now for the Good News!

Clutching my one way ticket to Vigo between my lips, I rushed over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds (Escalators? Who needs escalators? Old folks and invalids should not travel anyway!) I arrived panting at the platform. The train did not. Arrive, I mean. Of a sudden, there was an announcement over the loudspeakers, most politely put – for the benefit of half a million money-spending foreign pilgrims that visit Santiago each summer - in profound AND mechanized Gallego. Forgive me for not getting the drift, ye Galleguistas of the world! I asked for a translation from a student girl standing next to me who explained in remarkably correct English that the Vigo train would leave from platform 7 today. I rushed to platform 7 over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds. I arrived panting. So did the train. Arrive, I mean. We all boarded. We found seats. We settled in. And then… nothing happened. The minutes passed. More minutes passed. TWENTY minutes passed. The train, as they say, was a little late. Normally that is quite okay for me. But I distinctly remembered my Oblomov Sovietovich Apparatchik telling me that I had only 7 minutes at Vigo station to change trains AFTER buying a ticket! No way I was going to do that, at my octogenarian pace. I was just considering hauling myself out of the train again, and raise All Hell in this City of God, when the train moved. Now what was I to do? I did not want to spend the night in Vigo, but it looked as if I would. And I was just considering getting out at Padron and call one of my co-padrinos who lives nearby to pick me up, when the ticket-checker appeared. She was a sturdy Wagnerian lady, who probably owed her job to some sort of Ministry of Equality program to get women to work in RENFE. But Bless the Ministry’s Feminists for that! I explained to her my dilemma. She frowned deeply. She looked at her watch. And she told me she’d call (somehow) to Vigo station, and tell them there were passengers for Oporto on this train who’d arrive late and needed time to secure their tickets.

In Britain, I’d have laughed in her face at the mere idea. Fool around with the train schedule to accommodate half a dozen customers? Getoutahere! But life, dear reader, is full of surprises…

We got to Vigo. We got out of our car. A train was waiting on the opposite platform. Incredulously, I went to the ticket-window. Me and six others were dispatched, faster than I had ever seen, being given pre-printed tickets to Oporto. That train, that steaming, impatient train on platform 2, it was still there as I paid. It was still there as I rushed out of the building. It was still there when I put my old foot on the steps and hauled my old frame to the safety of travel… I turned around. There, across the rails on the other platform, was my Brunhilde who owed her job to the Equality Program. She waved. I waved back. I even blew her a kiss. And I seriously considered stepping down again, and asking her to marry me.

But then, I figured there must be a clause in the Estatut dos Trabajadores which categorically forbids Employees to tie the knot with Customers (those mud stains on the gene-pool). So I went to Oporto instead, to sing Fados with an old girlfriend from my days in the Revoluciaoao das Claveles (or however the Lusitanians spell their recent history).

Aaah... Oporto! 

Efficiency? There you have Spanish efficiency, my dear Colin. And – of course – Portuguese, Italian, Southern French, and more such countries who take their cues from Ancient Rome. It works because of the personal sympathy of some. Which compensates for the below-zero planning, foresight and uppity attitudes of others.

Daily it surprises me that the place still keeps afloat!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like it was quite an adventure. I have to wonder if you'll be making a return trip any time soon :)