The Parisian Birthday Disaster

City Travel, Extras — By on October 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm

By Leland Strott
Special to the Lost Girls

I hate my birthday.  I don’t know if it’s a rule or just a really awful coincidence, but I tend to spend at least some of my “special” day in tears.

That’s why last year, since I was studying abroad in the UK, I wanted to make my birthday fail-proof and go on an adventure instead, and what better place to explore than Paris?

Two weeks before my birthday I booked the trip solo — the train ticket and a single bed hotel room for three nights, right in the center of the action.  But then I asked my friend Katie to come with me too, for company and for fun.  Thinking ahead, we double checked the arrangements before she bought her ticket.  I called, where I booked my hotel, and they informed me we could show up as two people, pay a fee, and we’d be fine.  Katie called too, and they gave her the same story.  So with this information, we thought we were set.  But who was I to think I could escape disaster this birthday as well?

Katie and I arrived at Gard du Nord at 6 pm, absolutely bursting with excitement.  It lasted for about 45 minutes, as long as it took us to walk from the station to the hotel.  We then spent the next eight hours translating, arguing, pleading, and on the verge of tears.

Apparently it’s a thing in Paris that they don’t let you add people to your room.  So when we walked in the door of the hotel, we didn’t expect to be told by the concierge that it couldn’t be done. I could have still taken the room, but that would have left Katie totally on her own, which I wasn’t about to do.

Two hours, many s’il vous plaits, and a handful of phone calls to the manager later, Katie and I were still out of luck.  Three helpful bilingual business people that passed through called a few other hotels for us, but everywhere else in town was booked full or way out of our budget.  We were stranded in Paris.  Happy Birthday to me.

We went back to the train station hoping to get tickets back to Birmingham that night, but the ticket office was closed.  We found out that the train station closed from 1 to 5 am, so we couldn’t stay there.  A man at an information desk told us that “other people had more issues than we did.”

We found temporary solace in a cafe open until 2 am.  It was there where I started an extensive battle with the hotel website — questioning why they gave us bogus information, demanding that they work it out with the hotel or find us somewhere else to stay.  I was thrown around to multiple operators, put on hold for 45 minutes and promised several phone calls back. Most egregious customer service, if you ask me.

The last person I spoke to said they had almost worked something out with the hotel, but hadn’t called me back to confirm by 1:30 am.  With the cafe about to close, Katie and I crossed our fingers and hopped into a cab back to the hotel.  The concierge, looked thrilled to see us as he unlocked the glass doors, but unfortunately had no good news for us.

I almost started bawling right there.  “We have nowhere to go!  The train station is closed, and there’s nowhere else we can go.  Can we at least stay here, in the lobby, until the train station opens at 5 am?”  The concierge, finally feeling sorry for us, agreed.  So from 2 am to 5 am, we passed out on a leather sofa in the sub-zero lobby. I spent most of the time shivering, swearing off Paris and everything French for the rest of my life.

Around 5 am, all of the sudden — my sense of adventure!  I found it somewhere under all the anger and frustration of the previous eight hours.  I figured, to heck with it, we were already in Paris, why not explore before we go!

The rest of the trip was spectacular. We walked the streets of Paris before sunrise. We took pictures of everything. The courtyard of the Palais du Louvre was open so we walked around the glass pyramids with no crowd of tourists in the way. We walked along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower, where we watched a rather cloudy, but still pretty amazing, sunrise. We didn’t get to see everything, but by 11 am we were so exhausted that we were ready to go back to Birmingham.  And by 6 pm, that’s where we were.

So yes, Paris was almost a total disaster.  I have not the strongest desire to go back without someone who speaks fluent French that can argue better than I could.  But, I now know I can survive another travel disaster, but I’m also proud of myself for making the best of the situation we got.  We took the merde but didn’t let it ruin the whole adventure.  And that, if you ask me, is a great lesson for life.

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  • Emma says:

    Oh, I’m so sorry that your first experience of Paris was so eventful – poor you! It’s appalling that the website people gave you false information – I hope you’ve really given them hell for it. But I’m glad you managed to see something of the city. I do think that this was a complete one-off situation though and that you could quite easily go back without a fluent French speaker and not have to argue or have any problems. It’s a wonderful city – just a shame that the website screwed things up for you.

  • Jack Norell says:

    That’s really bad. Wish you’d publicize which hotel, as they truly deserve the bad PR.