Monday, May 05, 2008

The Emigrant's Dilemma, Chapter 1: Get Outta Town

In which we begin a long series on moving to France.

And we start with the visit to find an apartment. This, I thought, would be ultra-convenient: I'd been invited to the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco, an event I almost went to last year, but was forced to cancel because I couldn't interest any magazines in the story. This year, though, I've found one, and it even pays okay. Now, you can get to Fes on Royal Moroccan Air, which will be picking up the flight, via a number of different cities. In Germany, you can fly from Frankfurt or Düsseldorf; in France from Paris...or Marseille. The flight from Marseille is non-stop, leaving at 11:25 in the morning and arriving at 6:30 at night, plenty of time to get to the hotel and make the opening concert. I'd return the day after the final concert, overnight in Marseille, take a train to Montpellier, and look at apartments.

So far so good.

But...I'd have to get to Marseille. I've managed relatively inexpensive travel to France in the past, and didn't see why this should be any different. Checking this and that, I discovered that the Marseille airport is actually the Marseille-Provence airport, and not far from Aix-en-Provence, easy enough to get to via Deutsche Bahn and the French TGV. So I'd take the train to Aix, overnight there, and catch a bus to the airport the next morning.

Then, upon my return, I could take a train from Montpellier to Paris and thence to Berlin. Easy, right?

Well, no. For a start, as I knew, you can research like crazy on the Deutsche Bahn website, but as soon as it involves crossing (most) borders, you won't get a price. So I found a convenient train to Aix and noted it down, then did the same for the Montpellier-Berlin leg.

Uh, but now what? Go down to Hauptbahnhof, stand in line for thirty minutes to get a quote, and then walk away? Talking to the Dancer on the phone the other night, she hit on the obvious: "Go to a travel agency. They don't mind answering questions. And then you can go in there to buy your ticket instead of standing in line."

So that's what I decided to do with this afternoon. Mondays are slow: America doesn't really get working until what's the end of the afternoon here, so I had lots of time to work with. There was a travel agency nearby; I'd go there. But when I got there, there was no DB insignia in the window. The guy inside confirmed that they didn't handle train tickets. "In the Center," he said, gesturing to the mall known as the Schönhauser Arkaden. So I walked over there, went into the travel agency I see when I head to the store there, and waited for the guy to get off the phone. There was also a woman waiting, and she was there first. When he finally hung up with whoever he was talking with, she said "I have to make a trip, but it's got about 10,000 connections." I looked around the shop to see if the other two desks would be occupied anytime soon, but nobody else was there. But the guy was nice enough to ask what my question was, and immediately confirmed that they didn't sell train tickets, either. There was, however, another travel agency on the top floor, so I headed up there.

At this agency, there was a nice woman who had trouble with the French names, but was otherwise very competent. Unfortnately, she couldn't get any data up on her screen. "We have a lot of trouble with the French railroads..." she said. And no wonder. I mean, if you're in the Gare d'Est in Paris sometime with a few minutes to kill, read the memorial plaques there. German trains arriving in France usually meant bad, bad news, and I'd had no idea that hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen had been worked to death by the Nazis. I'd be reluctant to give up information, too.

At long last, the woman gave up. "Go to Gesundbrunnen," she suggested. "They have a pavillion there." And she was right: I'd forgotten there was a "DB Store" at the other nearby gigantic shopping mall.

It was a nice day; I decided to walk. As I walked, I remembered the horoscope Yahoo put up on the page I start the day with, urging me to make a budget for a big dream project: it might cost less than I thought! Of course, that was sometime last week. I've been trying to avoid running the numbers on this for fear the final sum would be unattainable. But then, over the weekend, a friend told me she knew a couple who'd moved to Brittany from Berlin, and it had cost either 1200 or 1500 Euros, she couldn't remember. That gave me hope: I'd estimated twice to three times that. The distance is slightly longer, but that suddenly made this look more affordable.

I finally got to the DB Store, and a harrassed young woman asked me what I wanted. I had the times of the trains I wanted, and asked if she could give me a price. The names of the French towns gave her conniptions. I had to repeat "Aix en Provence" six times. She refused to even say it, calling it "your destination" or "this town here." She was actually sweating trying to get the price out of the machine. Finally, we had part one: a 5-stop train leaving here at 7:37, changing in Mannheim, Offenburg, Strasbourg, Marne la Valée-Chessy, and, finally, Aix en Provence TGV station and a bus into the city.

Total price: €283.60. Which, I reflected, was ridiculous.

She then set to work on the Montpellier-Berlin leg. This was a quickie: Montpellier-Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport-Brussels-Cologne-Berlin.

A mere €258.50.

She printed it up and glared me farewell. Stunned, I walked back to the house. On the way, I did some more thinking. How much, I wondered, would it cost to fly these legs?

Back at the house I puttered with the SNCF website to see if I could do better. Not only could I not do better, it was impossible to find the trains I'd found on the DB site. I kept getting offered sleeper trains, something I will never, ever do again. Okay, then, plan B.

I can fly from here to Marseille for €139. I hate flying, but boy, I hate spending money worse. Plus, I bet I could get a cheap airport hotel, take a bus into Aix or Marseille for dinner and/or some sightseeing, and have a good time. (I also noted that some of the flights were on Air Brussels out of Tempelhof, the airport they're shutting down. I wonder if those flights are still going...)

A flight to Berlin from Montpellier, on the other hand, costs upwards of €375. So it's the train on that one.

Thus, so far, we have €397.50 to get in and out of France, overnight at a hotel on the way out and on the way back in, an as-yet-unresearched ticket from Marseille to Montpellier, five nights at the hotel there at €58 a night if I can get a reservation (and I'd better get on that), about €30/day expenses in Morocco, and two or maybe three months' rent to secure an apartment lease that starts on July 1. I'm not sure what this adds up to (not forgetting meals in Montpellier, either, as well as the June rent here), but I can guesstimate just enough of it to know that if everyone pays up on time I'll have most of it just from what I'm owed so far, and that's not counting work I haven't done yet -- and will be starting this week.

Of course, that's if everyone pays up. Let us pray.

Meanwhile, what are the chances of my being able to find what I want when I get to Montpellier? Well, I've already had one firm offer, and I'm waiting on another, and you'll never believe where they came from: Facebook. There are two Montpellier groups there (well, actually three, but the third one is debates on what are the best restaurants in town), and I posted in both of them in March. Never heard anything while I was there, but when I got back here, I heard from a guy with two places, and then last week from another guy who said his father has some places for rent. All are pretty much just where I want to be, too. The one guy who made me a firm offer has given me the address of the place, and I used this neat gizmo that the French Yellow Pages has to type in the address of the place and "walk" around it and look at the neighborhood. I guess Google Maps can offer much the same thing, but this'll do for the moment.

There's more -- I still do need to get estimates from the movers, and no, I have no idea where that money will come from -- and I'll need to find someone to take over my lease here, and I also need to go through some of the stuff I moved to see just what the hell it is and whether I really need it. I don't want this move to be as chaotic as the last one, especially since I can't hop into a taxi and go back to the old place in ten minutes because I forgot something.

But, even though I'm no further ahead than I was this morning, at least I feel like I made some progress.

17 comments:

William Thirteen said...

Tempelhof won't be shuttered until Oktober so you are safe there - and if you have never flown to or from the mother of all airports it's definitely worth it. i am planning a useless trip to Brussels soon just to get my final Tempelhofer thrills...

Ed Ward said...

Oh, I've flown out of Tempelhof. Once to Bulgaria (via Prague) and once to the U.S. It was way cool to get on this tiny Saab prop plane with two weeks' worth of luggage for the States and then fly to Brussels and get on a gahongous airliner. Also loved flying back into Tempelhof. You got so close to those apartment buildings you could almost read the headlines on the papers the people were reading at their kitchen tables. If we'd been going any slower, I *could* have read them...

Ted Carrisey said...

For the record, a 4-day France-Germany railpass costs 300 Euros. This allows you hin and zuruck travel from Berlin to Montpellier, and you still have two additional days of unlimited travel within 60 days of starting the pass. And its first class:
http://www.raileurope.com/us/rail/passes/eurail_france_germany_pass.htm

Ed Ward said...

Uh, yeah, Ted, but I already live in Europe, which means I can't buy one of those.

Do read the blog before commenting.

Bowleserised said...

Did you make use of The Man in Seat 61?

Anonymous said...

Do you need a work visa to live in France? Or do you already have EU citizenship?

Ed Ward said...

b, I'm not leaving from nor going to the UK, so Seat 61 doesn't do me much good.

And anon, I'm going to have to get a Carte de Séjour like any other American citizen.

Ed Ward said...
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Bowleserised said...

I don't think he only does to and from the UK.

ted Carrisey said...

I have purchased Eurailpasses at German train stations many times. You can buy a german rail pass at Berlin Hauptbahnhof if you carry a U.S. passport and you tell them you live in the U.S. I'm pretty certain you can also buy multi-country rail passes from major stations in Germany. Here's a link:
http://germany-travel.suite101.com/article.cfm/travel_on_the_german_rail_pass

If I were in Berlin and wanted to take the train to Montpelier, I could probably do so for less than 100 Euros each way. Thats simply because I live outside of Germany and carry a U.S. passport. For all practical purposes, so do you, Ed.

William Thirteen said...

one of my sweetest Tempelhof memories is taking off and landing in Iron Annie, an old Junkers 52 built in 1936 and maintained by the Deutsche Lufthansa Berlin-Stiftung. Sixteen seats of pure prop driven pleasure!

Olivier said...

Why didn't you try that Kopfbahnhof outfit that someone recommended right here a while back?

Ed Ward said...

Ted, sorry to snark at you. You're right, but the big problem is I have to use rail from Marseille-Montpellier-Berlin, with a four-or-five-day stopover in Montpellier (or less if I get lucky and nail an apartment quickly). The German-French pass costs (converted) €241.42, which isn't enough less than the €258.50 I was quoted MTP-Berlin to make it make a difference. Definitely worth knowing about, though, once I'm down there if I want to make a visit back here (hard as that is to conceive of just at the moment)>

And Olivier, you're right; that was a couple of years ago, and it was Karl-Marx-Strasse aka Daggi, wasn't it? Totally forgot about it. Well, I've got one leg yet to buy...

Ed Ward said...
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Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Kopfbahnhof (send a fax/email first, so they will probably have done it by the time you get to their office)!
And/or, ask the international railway travel (and cheapest fare) freaks at http://groups.google.de/group/de.etc.bahn.tarif+service/topics

They're probably even better than Kopfbahnhof - but, here's the down side, it's all in German, as you might expect. In this usenetgroup they recommend one or two rail travel agencies as well. None of them in Berlin, mind you.

Ed Ward said...

Well, Kopfbahnhof's all in German, too, isn't it? I can't get tgv-europe.com to book my my last Montpellier-Brussels leg ("erreur technique"), so I'm headed down there on Tuesday.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Yes, but they're doing it as their job, and not as a hobby (like on usenet)... But I'd still recommend sending an email or a fax first so they can do a fair amount of the work before you get there...