By Jim Ferri
It started innocently enough on Saturday afternoon when I went to the Gare de l’Est station in Paris to make my train reservation. I was en route to Montreux, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where I was expected midday Sunday.
I went to the international ticket desk and told the woman I needed a reservation to Montreux, Switzerland. She scrolled through several screens on her computer and asked what time I’d like to leave – I told her about 7:30am – and she put me on the 7:42 AM train the next morning.
The next morning I got to the station a half-hour early to get coffee and a croissant before boarding the train to Belfort, where I would make the connection for a 15-minute train ride on to Montreux.
From Belfort we made a few quick stops in small villages and when I heard the announcement we were approaching Montreux I grabbed my bags and waited by the door. Since the previous stops had been so short, as soon as the doors opened I hopped off.
I then looked around thinking it looked odd that the town appeared tiny and the old station looked closed. The sign said Montreux-Vieux and I wondered if, perhaps, this train came into the old station of Montreux. Then the train doors closed behind me and the train moved out of the station.
I walked to the little station, and finding it abandoned walked around to the side and across a small street and looked around some more. Although it was 12:30pm on a Sunday there was not a single person in sight. There also was not a sound, and all the houses had their metal shutters rolled down. There were a few cars parked here and there and all had French license plates. It was not a good sign.
I was wandering up the street with my luggage rolling behind me, when I saw the first sign of life: a cat on a windowsill eating from a bowl. “There has to be life in there,” I thought, so I walked up to house and rang the doorbell.
A young woman, twenty-ish, came to the door and I asked if she spoke English (she didn’t) and she called to her husband. After a minute or so he opened the window where the cat was eating. At the very moment he looked over at me and nodded, a dog jumped out the window to grab the cat. They both took off down the street with the wife yelling and running in pursuit.
After watching this all unfurl, I though it better to move on. I said au revoir and headed to the corner. There I saw a church steeple. “A church on Sunday morning,” I thought. “There must be a priest there I can ask for help.”
A few blocks on I found the church but it was closed also. In fact, I found everything was closed including all the houses. The place seemed deserted. Then up ahead I saw a car coming and flagged it down.
There were two women in the car, a mother and her daughter who was driving, and the daughter said she spoke English.
I brought my head down to window level and asked the inevitable question.
“What country am I in?” I said.
“France,” she replied.
“I’m supposed to be in Montreux, Switzerland,” I told them. “How far away is it?”
“Oh, Monsieur,” she said, “that’s at least a four-hour drive.”
After I questioned her more in an attempt to find any means of transportation, I learned that there are no taxis in Montreux-Vieux, no rental car companies, nothing but the regional train that links the little commune to Belfort and Mulhouse.
“Mulhouse will be the best place to go,” she told me, “since you have more of a chance of getting a train to Switzerland from there. Here we are only a tiny town with no trains to Switzerland.”
I took her advice and headed back to the deserted train station. There I found a single bench, upon which I put my luggage to get out a sweater since it was getting cool. And then I waited for the train while pacing the platform.
I had to wait a couple of hours, and to make matters worse I kept fixating on how hungry I was getting. Then, from one of the few small houses across the tracks, I smelled the dinner someone was cooking. It was torture and for a few minutes I fantasized that maybe they’d see me standing there for so long and bring me out something to eat. It never happened.
But the train to Mulhouse finally came. When I got there I ran to the ticket office and told the clerk where I needed to go. He was very good and fast and worked out a schedule involving three train connections to get me there only about seven hours beyond my scheduled time.
When he handed me the schedule I asked “this is for Montreux – in Switzerland – right?”
“Oui, Monsieur, in Switzerland,” he said.
I looked him in the eye and asked one last question.
“Are you really sure?”