"I'm afraid you now owe a fine of €10," the benevolent French ticket controller stated matter-of-factly.
"What? For not stamping our stupid train tickets? We didn't even know we had to!" retorted the Barbie-like girl seated in front of me.
"There's really no way around it, Madame"
For those unfamiliar with the French transport system, when you purchase a train ticket, it must be date-stamped at a special machine before boarding the train; something I had fortunately remembered to do beforehand. This typically French procedure, which exists for reasons not entirely clear to the French public itself, is known as "composter votre billet" (when taken literally, "composting your ticket").
Seeing that feigning ignorance was getting her nowhere, the young lady, now beside herself, let on that, in their hurry, she and her boyfriend had forgotten to stamp their tickets. At this point, her rather rugged partner decided it was time to take the lead. He ceremoniously stood up, booming that he had paid €40 for their tickets and was by no means parting with another cent. Tension escalated as the controller’s efforts to make him listen to reason began to prove unfruitful. Now blue in the face, Macho Boyfriend violently reached out, grabbed the official by the wrist and started menacingly waving his fist at him. This was clearly the last straw for the official who calmly edged through the carriage door, warning that he would be back.
Macho Boyfriend sat down and there followed an outpouring of words that I had certainly never been taught in French class. For the next half-hour his girlfriend tried to calm him down with lots of “Come on, mon cheri" and the like. The initial entertainment value had, by now, begun to wear off and I was quite relieved to see the uncomposted pair frantically grab their bags and head for the exit when the train pulled into its first station. I rested my head on my seat and closed my eyes, waiting for the train to leave for more peaceful pastures; I was contentedly tired after a day of sight-seeing in Paris and was looking forward to getting back to my student flat in Rennes for some battery-recharging sleep before an early start to church the following morning. The train, however, showed no signs of moving and several minutes later a chorus of hysterical shrieks were heard from the platform. I glanced up to see both culprits outside, surrounded by train officials and adamantly refusing to cooperate.
Several passengers rushed to the train doorway for a better view; arms folded, they stood unashamedly watching and laughing at the whole spectacle. This went on for some ten minutes, until the now furious woman behind me decided she had been patient for long enough. So, off she went to the open door, shouting out that if the guilty duo wouldn't mind, she had work to do when she got home and could they pay up because the passengers weren't going to sit around waiting forever. Another passenger, who resembled Che Guevara in African print trousers, and who had apparently joined forces with the pair on the platform, yelled back something unrepeatable regarding his concern for the work she had to do. This was the cue for the remaining passengers at the door to launch into a loud, hand-gesturing argument amid the existing chaos.
Eventually, the noise died down and I could make out Barbie and her man walking away, having, at long last, handed over their fine. The ticket fiasco settled,officials and frantic passengers alike filed back onto the train. Nonetheless, French Che Guevara and Impatient Lady had not yet gotten over their disagreement. As they walked past me, I could hear him accusing her of "standing up for the system" which gave way to yet another exchange of unutterable comments.
Their journey having already been delayed by fifteen minutes, most of the passengers seemed eager to sit back, ready for a peaceful and swift journey home. Alas, as we all soon found out, Impatient Lady had other plans. Once comfortably settled in her seat, out came her mobile phone for what turned out to be thirty minutes of an extremely loud, animated and overly exaggerated recount of her harrowing tale of peril and bravery on the train. By the time she had finished, I was back in Rennes with my own story to tell of yet another encounter with true French spirit on (and off) the rails.