One of the true wonders of my visit to France this past spring was the TGV. My previous exposure to so-called bullet trains was the Amtrak Acela Express, which was unveiled during the time I was commuting daily from New York to Philadelphia. The hype was tremendous: Speeds up to 150 mph! Comfort beyond compare! 21st century amenities! The reality was and is far less spectacular: Track limitations and regulations reducing average speed to under 80 mph. Ticket prices rivaling commuter flights. The look of a Star Trek set, but all style and no substance - not even wireless internet, which even buses have these days.
The TGV, which took me from Auxerre to Lyon and then back to Paris at the end of my trip, was a completely different story. Capable of reaching speeds in excess of 350 mph and having some trips with an average start to stop speed of more than 250 mph, the quiet-as-a-Prius TGV truly lives up to the bullet train moniker.
My friend and host Hether had accompanied me to the station and helped me buy my ticket, for I had yet to take even my first French class. She got the track and departure time, handed me my ticket, and sent me on my way. The train arrived, I boarded and took my assigned seat, and proceeded to spend two extremely comfortable hours watching the glorious French countryside fly past my window.
All the while, I was waiting for a conductor to stop by my seat and check my ticket, yet I arrived in Lyon and departed the train without encountering a single TGV employee other than in the cafe car when I got my coffee. When I brought this up to my colleagues in Lyon - How can they simply let people travel without checking their tickets? - I found out that I was lucky not to have had my ticket checked.
As many of you probably know, what I had failed to do was composter my ticket. At the entrance to every track is a machine into which each passenger is meant to insert their ticket for validation, and failure to do so subjects the traveller to potentially significant fines.
While some of the content will be beyond my learning level, I'm looking forward to the arrival next week of Bon Voyage !, one of our two new audio learning guides. How and when to composter is one of the cultural notes in the guide, which covers all of the essential elements of traveling in France from your arrival at Charles de Gaulle to picking up your rental car to asking for directions.