Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Nice bus - anything but nice

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Back to that Nice bus:

We have had friends staying for a few days who returned to the UK on Thursday. So we did our usual thing of going with them as far as the bus stop in Antibes to see them safely off to the airport on the Nice bus.

When we first came to Antibes, the 200 bus between Cannes and Nice was more like a coach, inasmuch as there was a compartment ("coffe") under the floor for passengers' luggage, accessed via a hatch on the outside. That was handy from one point of view - not having to struggle aboard and then down narrow aisles with suitcases. The downside was that it held up the bus , since officially (at any rate) passengers were not supposed to open the hatch themselves, but wait for the driver to come round.

All that changed some two, maybe three years ago. There is no "coffe" on the new buses, and the luggage goes inside, in a space near the centre door of the bus.

So when the bus arrived on Thursday, it seemed a sensible thing to tell our friends to join the queue at the front door, sans baggages, while I saw to dropping the cases inside. That meant waiting for passengers to disembark via the centre door, and then nipping in with the suitcases, thus sparing my friends the customary struggle.

But this time, things went pear -shaped very quickly. First I had one of the exiting passengers, with a marked resemblance to one of Hamlet's witches, telling me I had to use the front door. Not being easily put off, I quickly dropped the cases in the designated area, but immediately noticed that several passengers were looking daggers and getting agitated. I may have got away with this sort of thing before, but this time I had been spotted, and was committing a cardinal sin.

Before I could exit, the way I came in, the central doors closed on me, and I was trapped. The driver then called for me to get off the bus - by the front door. That meant squeezing past all the boarding passengers, with difficulty, since I was taking the suitcases with me (which seemed prudent).

I tried to make light of it, explaining that I was simply trying to help friends, but there were just silent reproving glances, which was embarrassing and humiliating. The final insult , after finally extricating myself, was to see the bus pull away while my friends were still struggling up the narrow aisle to find their seat.
Typical !

Why all the hassle, one may ask ? Is it because the driver, with his mirror and maybe CCTV, is told to be on the lookout for fare dodgers ?

If so, then that is incredibly small-minded. Why ? Because up until about 2 years ago, the fare from Antibes to the airport was quite hefty, over 7 euros. Suddenly it was reduced to its present nominal sum - a mere €1.30, which isn't bad considering it's a 12 mile journey.

The idea is presumably to encourage more people to leave their cars at home and use buses. If so, then it's hardly the end of the world if the occasional fare dodger slips aboard - it's hardly going to alter the finances, given the service must be heavily subsidised as it is

But to prevent that dire calamity, passengers with luggage, of all ages and physical condition, are forced to negotiate the official route via the front door, past the driver-cum-gendarme-, and those hazardous first few seconds when the bus moves away.

But I could cite a far worse example of the official mindset, unable or unwilling to lighten up, to be sensible, to be reasonable.

About 3 years ago, our 200 bus to the airport failed to arrive on time.

After about 15 minutes we assumed it must have been cancelled, and didn't want to wait 40 minutes for the next. Then another Nice bus appeared, one that does not call in at the airport, but stops instead at the Cap 3000 shopping centre about a mile away.

So I made a quick decision, and persuaded another couple behind us in the queue to jump on this bus instead. We paid our (then) extortionate fares, but no sooner were we underway when we spotted our intended 200 bus coming up behind.

So we jumped off at the next stop, boarded the proper bus, and, waving our tickets, explained what had happened, and that we were not expecting to be made to pay a second time.

Now I should explain that the situation was complicated by the fact that we were not permitted to talk to the driver directly. Someone else, apparently a relief driver, decided to handle this situation, but what then happened still amazes and rankles to this day.

He pulled out his mobile phone and began describing our "case" to his superiors back at base. This conversation went on, and on and on, while the bus stayed where it was, loaded with passengers for the airport and elsewhere who seemed bemused.

Each time I and my wife tried to cut in, with words like "please don't hold up the bus on our account" he brusquely waved us aside as if to say, stop, you are distracting me.

You will not believe this, but that bus stayed stationary for at least 15 minutes (I kid thee not), during which time I put my head round the door and apologized to the passengers for the delay, saying I was now quite willing to pay a second time rather than delay their progress. But still C3P0 gabbled on and on into his phone, oblivious to everyone else.

This incident brought home to me aspects of the French national character: a respect for set procedures that overrides all other considerations such as commonsense and reasonableness. And secondly, that there is a resigned acceptance by the French public that no official can be expected to exercise inititative or independent thought if faced with a unfamiliar situation. It all has to be done by the book, or referred to higher authority. It puts one in mind of tourists' experience with the old Soviet Union. But what is it they say: France is the only country to have made a success of communism .

Can you imagine how embarrassed I was - having persuaded that other couple to jump on the first bus, rather than wait for the late one to arrive ?

There was a small consolation: none of us was made to cough up for a second fare . Maybe the decision came finally from the Elysée Palace. But was that good grounds for delaying a bus for some 15 minutes, full of passengers with planes to catch ? But not a single one of them murmured a word of protest ! Make of that what you will .....

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