Labor Pains. Making the Most of a French Strike

It was bound to happen. Living in and around France for the past several months yielded plenty of opportunities to have life disrupted by one of the frequent French strikes. The labor unions of France regularly stage work slowdowns or stoppages to protest what they consider to be unfair regulations, mostly those which the government is imparting, or is considering imparting, to cut down the huge social program deficits in the country.

National strikes have been recently carried out by postal workers, sanitation workers, teachers, cab drivers, bus drivers, flight controllers and railroad workers. The strikes are usually well-publicized ahead of time, acknowledged by the public with a shrug, and seldom very disruptive.

Over the course of nine months, several of which have been spent in the area of Nice, we avoided any problems due to strikes. Oh, once, we left the tram and walked because it wasn’t going anywhere until the noon “manifestation” ended at 12:15. But that was it. Most train strikes were held on Wednesdays, affected only local and regional trains and usually ended by rush hour. So, why worry?

By mid-May, we had made plans to rent a car in Nice, drive to Piedmont for work, stay two-plus weeks there, then take our luggage to Verbier, Switzerland, where we are now, and return the car to Nice, hop on the train next to the car rental drop-off and come back through Geneva to Verbier. Therefore, we purchased rail tickets, Nice to Geneva for last Thursday, well ahead of time for the best price. After all, it was most likely that rail strikes would not happen on a Thursday, and, certainly not on an international route.

By the way, take note of renting the car in France. If you don’t already know, the rates in France, through almost any company, are dramatically lower than in, for instance, Italy. And, drop charges are high if you want to leave the car somewhere else. French cars are better, too. So, Nice always makes sense. The trains are convenient. Most days.

A few days before our scheduled car return/rail trip, news started to break about a planned labor disruption in France. This time, though they got more serious…and disruptive. French flight controllers were going out for three days. Rail workers were going out for 36 hours, on all routes, including ours. So, you think, well, just wait it out and then go. But, the French railroad also scheduled track maintenance for the following four days, completely shutting down any westbound trains out of Nice, including ours. Spending several days in a hotel in Nice would be nice, but cost a small fortune at this time of year.

So, on last Friday morning, we started another adventure…an all-day rail trip through Italy, the Simplon tunnel, down the Rhone Valley, and, eventually up the hill to Verbier, finishing with a cold beer and pasta. Spectacular. And, actually more fun than just taking the train from Nice to Geneva probably would have been.

We knew enough about the routes and the possibilities that we could, more or less, navigate the train changes on the fly. First, just leave Nice, early in the morning, and take the now-running local to Ventimiglia, the first stop back in Italy. From there, with a few minutes, you can find a ticket either to Torino or Milano and continue on the Italian rail system, Trenitalia. Milano was the best choice, leaving soonest after our arrival. But, not too soon, and that gave us a chance to wander out of the station though the fabulous Friday market in that town, and have a fine coffee. It also gave us the opportunity to pick up two of the best panini we have had for the train ride to Milano Centrale.

The train hugged the Mediterranean coast all the way to Genoa, then turned north to Milan. Once there, we noticed a possible, but very short connection to Domodossolo, just where we wanted to go, on the way back to Switzerland. But, we had no ticket. The line at the station ticket office was, literally, over a hundred deep. Vending machines saved the day, though, and, just in time, we had two tickets to Domodossolo, dashed out the door and found our train.

If you remember the scene from, I believe, Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories”, we were on the shabby train on the next track from the black-tie party train. No cooling. All windows open. Every seat full. Curtains blowing out the window. But, fast. And, arriving in Domodossolo, the last northern outpost of Italy, we had adequate time to get our next tickets to Brig, on the Swiss side of the tunnel, then another train (slick Swiss stock this time) to Martigny for a beer before the little, but efficient mountain train to Le Chable, and, finally, the post bus up the hill to Verbier. Whew!

And, that was our trip from sea level back up to what Hemingway called the “roof of the world”. We can only hope that our next encounter with a French labor strike…and there is bound to be one…will be just as much fun! Travel safe!