Believe whatever people say about SNCF

I’ve written a lot about traveling to the south of France in the last few years as I’ve been spending a lot of time with my extended family. It’s a straight shot from Geneva to Marseille – a 3-hour hop on the TGV, France’s high-speed railway, which can go over 300km/hr, and then a quick change onto a regional train and I’m “home” in just over 4 hours. Like most things, it’s great when everything works, but then Murphy’s Law kicks in and all hell breaks loose. This weekend was one of those… the trip going down took over 9 hours!

France’s rail system is run by the state-owned SNCF and it covers pretty much the whole country with lines connecting to Italy, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. It is probably one of the fastest and most convenient ways to get from Geneva to France, including Paris in the north and Marseille in the south. The only issue is that when the lines aren’t working, it really pisses people off, especially when the company doesn’t communicate or plan for the disruptions. Here are some photos (all taken with an iPhone) and a bit of the story…

On Sunday, I was planning to take the train and only received an email the night before telling me that my train from Geneva to Marseille was cancelled. Instead, I would need to take bus from Bellegarde, 20-minutes outside of Geneva, to Lyon, the main connection point to get an onward connection. The only problem was that there wasn’t any information about the leg from Geneva to Bellegarde. I arrived at the train station on Sunday morning trying to find any indication of how I would get to Bellegarde. I found out (accidentally) that the line to Bellegarde wasn’t working and that I had to catch a bus instead – and at that point I was told to run as the bus was leaving.

Just outside the St. Julien train station were things are already looking bleak.
Just outside the St. Julien train station were things were already looking bleak.

When I finally got on the bus, like everyone else, I was dazed and confused (remember this was also around 8am on a Sunday). We arrived at St. Julien a small station outside Geneva where we were told this was the end of the line and had to wait for half an hour for another bus which would take us to Lyon – actually no one really knew and when we finally left St. Julien, we were told that this bus would take us only up to Bellegarde where we would have to catch another bus to Lyon. I could tell that people were already losing patience. The normal 20-minute train trip from Geneva to Bellegarde ended up being a 2-hour trip on two buses.

Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!
Chilling out at the Bellegarde train station for the bus to Lyon before being told that we had to run to catch the train!

At least the sun was shining when we arrived in Bellegarde which helped to calm people down – it was going to be a nice Sunday after all. This feeling didn’t last very long. Stepping off the bus many of us went to the train official to get the latest word – he didn’t know anything other than just telling us to wait for the bus. But in a split second he turned to everyone and said that a train was actually leaving from Bellegarde to Lyon RIGHT NOW! So everyone started to panic, especially because many of them were trying to get back to Paris for work, etc., and we all ran to catch the train.

Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.
Culoz station where all the passengers to Paris were struggling to find their way.

The train from Bellegarde didn’t end up going to Lyon as we were told (surprise surprise). Instead, we were being driven to somewhere else to catch our connections. At Culoz, a small stop in the middle of nowhere, most of the people got off the train to go to Paris. A few of us stayed on to catch our connection in Valence, a 2-hour trip on a regional line, to the south of France. Once we were back on the main line, all went smoothly – I changed at Valence for a 1-hour trip to Marseille and then made my connection right away for another hour-long trip to finally get to Sanary Sur Mer.

Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.
Waiting in Valence TGV station for an hour before getting the train to Marseille.

I wasn’t too fazed by the whole thing and actually found it to be quite an adventure – a little like my 22-hour trip from Bangkok to Vientiane. The mind-blowing thing was that I can understand that this can happen in Southeast Asia, but I was in one of the most developed countries in the world and where other countries looked at as an example. The lack of service, misinformation, and poor communication by SNCF was just something I couldn’t believe even after being told by French people.

Finally reached my destination just in time to see the sunset at the beach.
Finally reached my destination and just in time to see the sunset at the beach.

One of the nicest things in the whole trip was how people bonded over the whole situation (until it was time to run to their next connection) and talked to each other. It’s something that you don’t see nowadays where people are on their phones, iPods, or tablets. I hope this type of kinship continues because it’s going to be tested with a lot of construction and upgrades taking place from now until the beginning of summer along the southern train lines – check the TER SNCF website for more updates… and make sure to triple check the times for trains (or buses).

We survived 2012

The world was suppose to end on 21 December 2012. On the morning of 22 December, I was happy to find that Muriel and I didn’t wake up to a world where the sky was falling or the earth opening up to swallow all of human life. But, like probably a lot of people, it made me think of how lucky we were to have had an exciting and interesting 2012. From skiing and hiking in Switzerland, peeking into Amsterdam’s nightlife, visiting the “motherland”, tasting tapas in Barcelona, to fine-dining in Paris, it was a good year – and hoping that 2013 will be the same or even better.

Here’s a few photos of how we ended 2012 (alive and well)…

Admiring the Eiffel Tower a few days before Christmas
“Le meilleur burger” by the New York Times at Le Meurice Hotel in Paris
Ending 2012 in style with a 1930s-themed French party filled with wine, champagne, oysters…

By the way, if you’re thinking that the Mayan’s predicted our doom, it’s not true according to National Geographic. They did a bit of digging around and found that the Mayan prediction might have been slightly off… by thousands of years.

The future of a nation rests on… Helvetica?

Simple, yet powerful, the above photo is all about making a choice that decided the future of a nation… It’s funny how black text on a white background is still the ‘go to’ way to communicate despite all the technology and different ways we can share information and communicate. Sure, there’s instant messaging, facebook-ing, tweeting, and who knows what else, but the simple act of writing or printing a few words on a piece of paper is still so powerful.

Google's Doodle for May 6 - the 2nd round of elections in France

The same goes with signs – they are practical, useful, yet simple in helping us understand and make decisions. You’ve seen them in shops, at the airport, when you’re driving and there’s a science and art behind these everyday things that help you live your life. Ever heard of “wayfinding”? Check out this article for a brief intro into the “The Surprisingly Complex Art of Urban Wayfinding“.

Voting stations during 2012 French Presidential elections

I’ve noticed people fumbling with the phones and/or other hi-tech gear to take someones phone number. There’s plenty of ways to take down someone’s digits – Bluetooth data transfer, digital signatures, manual entry into your phonebook, calling a person so they have your number – actually we’re pretty creative when trying to save a phone number! BUT it’s just so much easier (and faster) to have a pen and a piece of paper. Here’s an experiment: the next time you’re talking to someone, ask them for a pen and see if they have one or if they turn to their mobile phone or tablet to take down notes!


Living in a grey period – enjoying the black and the white

I was just visiting my blog and realized that it’s been about a month since I last wrote something. Well, let’s see, what’s been happening? For one thing, we went to a cooking class last night to learn a few French dishes. If you’re in Geneva and want to go to a cooking course, check out Katrépices. They have lunch, afternoon and evening classes. Book early as many classes fill up!

Here’s the menu. The menu sounds better in French, but whether in English or French, the taste was amazing.

  1. Gravlax de saumon, daïkon & mangue, vinaigrette ciboulette crémeuse – Dill-rice vinegar marinated salmon sashimi and mango-carrot-radish salad with a chive vinaigrette
  2. Cuisse de canard braisée aux chicons et rutabaga confits – Roasted duck and sesasonal vegetables, truffle-oil infused mashed potatoes topped with a port reduction sauce
  3. Gratin d’ananas & gingembre, sorbet banane au sirop de vanille – Caramelized ginger and pineapple topped with baked custard and homemade banana sorbet

Rather than bore you with the finer details of the past month, here are some photos:

The port of Sanary looking from the town tower
Chinese New Year in Toulon with some suprisingly decent Chinese red wine!
Studio photography class with a photogenic model - this reminds me of MJ.
This was really interesting shot I took while the model with preparing for another barrage of photos

A new year, a new set…

2011 started off with a big bang in a Copacabana-style new year’s party and new resolutions. Going skiing was one of them for me given that I haven’t been to a snow-capped mountain in over 5 years. I was hoping to go after coming back from France for the holidays, but unfortunately the weather has turned for the “worse”… having a lot of sun for the winter isn’t so much the problem. It’s been the mild temperatures and rain. Instead of hopping on a bus to the nearest mountain, we decided to visit the infamous Evian in France – you know, the place for the “water”. An hour away from Geneva by train, we went to visit an interesting exhibition on animals in photography. The town’s waterfront is surprisingly like Vancouver, and it’s also a jumping-off point for skiing in the French Alps. Here are my first photos for 2011…

Scary sculptures along the waterfront… kinda creepy.

Looking towards the Hotel de Ville and the Palais Lumière where they had the photo exhibition.

Free bags for dog poop! The sign of a wealthy community?

The photo exhibition…

happy 2011

A lot changes in one year and this year was not any different. A year ago today, I was waking up in Timor-Leste soaking in the sun, heat and humidity in one of the world’s poorest countries. A year later, here I am waking up in another strange and exotic place in the south of France looking out the window at the temperate landscape of the Mediterranean. 2010 was a whirlwind tour hopping from one country to another, exchanging beach wear for polar wear, and over-indulging on delicious food with excellent company… and to top it off, I became a husband. A lot has changed in one year and I hope 2011 will bring even more luck, adventure, and happiness for everyone.

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Winters can be beautiful

It’s amazing how winter can be beautiful. The last couple of weekends in Geneva have been an absolute treat… the sun was shining and the temperature was balmy. With an average of 16C, the weekends were warmer than normal and that meant people were out walking, drinking, running, shopping, etc. – any way to get out to soak up the sunshine before the grey and dreary Geneva winter starts. It was as though the weekends were holding back the cold and rainy weather that we have been getting during the weekdays. Last weekend was especially excellent and I was happy to join a tour to go and visit the town of Annecy, about an hour train/bus ride south of Geneva into France. Other than the rude waitress at the train station and a small shouting match in French between our eccentric organizer and some locals, the day was a highlight so far in my 2-month stay in Switzerland.

You can find the photos of my trip to Annecy, France here:

Re-bienvenue Sanary

Sanary Sur Mer

I’ve written about Sanary sur Mer before (here and here), I can’t say enough good things about it. We spent the last 2 weeks in France after leaving Timor-Leste – one week in Paris (photos are here) and one week in Sanary. Although Paris was great with food, museums, cafes, and people watching, it was also great to have a week in the south of France in the small town appreciating a different kind of French culture, where people still like the finer things in life, albeit with a bit more sun, relaxation, and small-town sensibilities. The timing was great as there were less tourists filling the town streets and there was a lot of opportunity to feel like we were “home”, especially with all the traveling we’ve been doing.