Made a comment on Facebook that has resulted in “so you want to explain the “no underpants and 28 pairs of socks bit?” from a couple of folks, so…

(Susan, you already know this one, you were there, so don’t bother to read this…;-) )

A few years ago my friend Susan invited me to barge down the Canal du Midi. That’s barge as in “large, RV-like boat with all the comforts of home and toilets that fill with canal water when flushing” (I didn’t ask where they flushed, but had a sneaking suspicion that the highly perfumed canal water was brown for a reason).

The Canal du Midi is an incredible 17th-century waterway stretching across southern France; it was a major commercial artery until the railroads took over. Nowadays it’s mostly a vacation trip. Susan and her family had rented the barge and invited friends, including me.

I love France and I’d never been to the Languedoc region, so I happily accepted and right away booked air tickets from Boston to Paris via New York. Then I hit up France Train’s online reservation system and bought a round-trip ticket for the five-hour train trip from Paris to Narbonne, where I’d meet the barge.

Shortly before the trip, I accepted a great job in Minneapolis; when the trip rolled around I was living in a Minneapolis hotel during the week and commuting back to Boston on weekends. I planned to leave Minneapolis Friday afternoon and fly back to Boston; I’d spend the night there, head up to New York around lunchtime Saturday and then spend four hours at JFK changing money, reading and relaxing before heading for Paris. No problem.

That Friday, I headed to the Minneapolis airport in pouring rain. My flight, the airline informed me, had been canceled due to thunderstorms; they rescheduled me for the next flight. That, too, was canceled. Hours later, Northwest finally told me to go home; they’d send me out in the morning.

Two problems: First, I’d checked out of my hotel and there wasn’t a room to be had. Second: My passport was at the house in Boston, along with my (unpacked) suitcase. A morning flight meant I’d land in Boston with exactly four hours before the New York plane. I’d have to make a fast trip home, pack, and hurry back or I’d miss my flight.

Solved problem number 1 by “sleeping” on the airport floor. In the morning I blearily boarded the plane…and it broke. We landed two hours late in Boston, I RAN out the door and hit the Mass Turnpike doing about 110mph. Blew into my house, dumped a couple of drawers’ worth of stuff into a suitcase, changed clothes and shoes, grabbed my passport, and speeded back.

Walked onto the plane as the doors were closing…and the flight was delayed. When we arrived in New York my flight to Paris was boarding, so I ran to Amex to buy French money–I only had $12 in my wallet–but my credit card was declined.

(Turned out later that the credit card company had noticed I was “out of pattern,” and suddenly charging a lot in Minneapolis. They called the Boston house for an explanation, and I wasn’t there, of course. So they shut down the card.)

I had no time to argue with Amex, I ran for the plane, again getting there just as the doors were closing (“Madame, you cannot just walk onto ze international flight!” Watch me, buddy.) At that point I hadn’t bathed in 48 hours, slept in 32, eaten in 24 and had worked up a healthy sweat running through three airports; I was not the world’s best seatmate.

The plane landed in Paris without incident and I reeled off, picked up my bags, went through customs and stopped at the ATM for French money. Turned out French armored car guards were on strike and picketing the airport, so the ATMs were empty. I changed my $12 and prayed it would be enough to get me to the train station.

Stood in the curiously empty cab line for about an hour. Nobody came. “Ah,” said a friendly security guard, “The taxi drivers will not cross the picket line at the airport entrance. Perhaps my brother could take you to the train station?”

He could, in exchange for $12, my watch and a Mont Blanc fountain pen. I made it to the train station with 15 minutes to spare and not one franc in my pocket.

The reservations booth didn’t speak English, and my French is…interesting. I could speak it pretty well but understanding a native speaker? Not so much. He confirmed the reservation, asked to see my credit card for verification and shook his head. After about 10 minutes, I finally understood the problem: He needed the card I had used to buy the ticket…and I no longer had it.

I explained that my bank replaced my card number every 12 months for security reasons and the old card had been canceled. “I am sorry,” he said, “But without that card, your ticket is no good. You must buy a new ticket.”

“Fine. Sell it to me.” Since the new card was mysteriously declined, I (ulp) gave him my new company credit card.

“But madame, that train is full. There is no space available!”

“M’sieu, I know of at least ONE seat that will be empty…”

“Ahhhh, but the machines, madame, they don’t know this,” he said patiently, “They will not allow me to sell that seat because it already belongs to you and I cannot cancel it without your card which you no longer possess. It is impossible for you to ride on that train.”

“Sigh. Then when is the NEXT train to Narbonne? I will buy a ticket for that train.”

“Yes, madame. It leaves in eight hours and happily, you may have the same seat as on the old train.”

There is not a lot to do in the Paris Gare de Lyon for eight hours, especially when you have no cash. I found a French note on the floor, enough to purchase a small baguette and a cup of orange juice. I washed as well as I could in the bathroom. While I scrubbed, a woman with a small child approached, smiling, and handed me a few coins. As she left I heard her explaining to the child, “mendiant.”


I finally boarded the TGV, dropped off to sleep immediately and woke up five hours later as the train pulled into Narbonne. In another two I’d finally located Susan, waited at the McDonalds until the boat company could rescue me, and made it onboard the barge. Susan loaned me some cash, all waited patiently to go to dinner until I’d showered…and that’s where the 28 socks comes in.

My hasty packing job produced a curious mix of clothing: 28 pairs of woolen socks, two half-slips, eight pairs of pants, two shirts, six bras, and no underpants or pajamas. I washed my sole pair of underpants every night, put them on wet every morning of that trip. No deodorant, but I made up for it with three bottles of shampoo.

As I said, it was an adventure.