I’m generally not a huge fan of trams (the street kind, not the alpine mountain kind) as I think of them as buses with limitations, especially when talking about the ones in Zagreb where I think you can reach the Hungarian border by car faster than you can traverse the city by tram. But, with going up to Montpellier last week for Vinisud I came face to face with their tram system that is quite new, runs frequently, and looks a helluva lot better than their buses.
It covers great swaths of the city and is easy to use, even as a non-French speaker. The announcements for each station are clear, without the horrid far southern French accent and when saying, “Voltaire” dare I say the lady tram voice is even a bit sexy? I do. Damned French, I hate you for finding your automated tram voices sexy. And your cheese, I hate you for that too… but it’s so good.
This tram is in general rather speedy. It suffers from the same problems as all trams in that at various spots, traffic can hose it. But, they’ve done a very good job of giving it a separate track pretty much everywere. As it winds through the very center of town, this often means that bastard moto drivers and random bicyclists will make use of the path, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem and the trams keep flowing.
The cost isn’t terrible at 1.40€ a trip or 2.50€ if you buy a round trip ticket and it goes down from there with the more bulk-oriented tickets you buy. This is of course where we run in to problems though: buying tickets.
Upon arriving via the TGV I wanted to get a three day ticket. Looking around I found a machine to buy the tickets in the main train station. The only problem was that it was 15€ for a ticket and the machine only accepted coins. Who in the world walks around with 15€ worth of change in their pockets? No one, that’s who.
I popped across the station hall to the information office for Montpellier and immediately found that at the information office, no one speaks English, or Castilian, or pretty much anything but French. Okay, no gigantic problem as je parle un peu française. After several exchanges in which the woman must have thought I was asking where to eat the freshest belts she told me that there was an office near the train station for the tram and that I could go there to buy a ticket. Fantastic, three day pass, here I come!
Upon entering the office I quickly discovered that while this may be a place to buy tickets it’s also a place for the Montpellier residents to come, take a number, sit for who knows how long and resolve their issues with their monthly passes or what have you. As a tourist, it was not the place to buy a pass. I bailed, scraped up my last few cents and bought a ticket via the machine at the train station out to the expo grounds for Vinisud.
The next day proved something of a problem as I had nearly no change left and the machines still demanded exact change and no bills nor credit cards to be used (there are times I wonder what the fucking point of the open market of the EU is supposed to be?) So I went to the tram office thing again and left just as quickly again. I realized that in digging through my backpack I had exactly 2.50€ and could buy the round trip ticket I so desperately needed. I put in my money and at that point I realized that French tram ticket machines are more fussy than the girls working at a Parisian perfume counter.
This piece of merde kept kicking out my coins and it was then that a “helpful” gypsy girl popped out of the shadows and offered to exchange my non-working change for working change. As I didn’t care at that moment, I let her do it, seeing if she had cast some curse that she could un-cast on the machine, all-the-while watching my pockets for some shit eating accomplish to come pick my pockets. But lo and behold she was having problems with the machine as well. Her solution, for some inexplicable reason was to rub the coins on the machine and then insert them. I was curious if rubbing my ass in the face of whomever created this machine might work as well or just make me feel better.
The only problem with the coin rubbing trick is that it didn’t work. The other problem with the coin rubbing is that some Russian woman appeared who wanted to buy a ticket and couldn’t because myself and the gypsy girl were deeply involved in warding off the evil spirits from this ticket machine that was most likely built in the spot where this gypsy girl’s ancestors had been burned at the stake. Then of course the other and most pressing problem was that the tram that both I and the Russian woman needed was rolling in to the station and the next one wasn’t going to be for 15 minutes. Oh, and it was raining, and cold, don’t forget the cold.
Once the tram arrived and the doors closed without my being on it, I gave up, grabbed my change from the gypsy girl and left. There was something about my Zagreb tram training that came back in to my head only once I saw a tobacco show in that in Croatia you buy tram and bus tickets from the tobacconist. On a whim, I went it and yes, it was possible and yes, they had them and yes, you could pay with euro bills. I slapped down a fiver and feeling like a god, bought not one, but two round trip tram tickets which then served me for the last two days of the fair.
Ultimately this didn’t come as much of a surprise. I’ve lived in Francophone West Africa and this weird idolatry of coin money is persistent there and I can only assume it comes from their original French colonizers. You see, it’s something like 500 African francs to one US dollar so you rarely see change and when you do, it’s photo worthy. Trying to get change is impossible and everyone works in full bill amounts, yet you need to pay in smaller denominations. Obviously we’re seeing that in France as well because in Spain I can pay for a public transport ticket with change, bills, credit cards, at a counter, or possibly even with performance art. It’s insanely easy. But France, no, it’s this damned change thing as if change is the only true money that there is. I don’t get it as the French gave us the Metric system. The seem like a reasonable if not haughty people and so why, why the fucking insistence on change?!!
I assume that in the end these questions will never be answered given that it’s the same thing when arriving in Paris. Visitors need to be aware that if you don’t have euro coins in France, you will be walking.