French Railroad System Angels Save Our Vacation

The kindness of others—Keith Schiller (front) pictured with Coraline and Thibault Couture and their two children on the train in France.

Keith Schiller

Incredible but true … losing my backpack on a train in France gave rise to the most joyous events and memories over the course of a spectacular month-long European vacation. The heroes of this saga were French railroad workers, some of whom I met and others unknown. Their integrity, professionalism, empathy, and humanity turned worrisome loss and a stressful series of events into a wondrous conclusion.

My wife, Jane, and I sojourned this April and May on two Viking river cruises and our own land tour through the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and France. We visited magnificent castles, olden towns, tulip and mustard fields, historic sights, wineries, churches, works of art, and dined on sumptuous meals with fine people. Yet, none of that comes close to ecstatic joy and relief availed by the French railroad employees.

The Loss

I lost my backpack when disembarking a train from Basel, Switzerland, to Dijon, France, before making our connection for Lyon, France. Foolishly, I placed the backpack on the floor before helping another extricate heavy, entrapped luggage from the storage shelf. Realizing my error, I raced back to the train but could not locate the backpack. Had I really misplaced it? … or was I the victim of a deception? Distress overwhelmed me. The backpack contained copies of my passport, both sides of all three credit cards, a duplicate of my driver’s license, International Driver’s Permit, 600 Euros, all of my prescription medications, and extensive other important papers and valuables. In other words, it was THE bag for the trip. In the hands of an evil doer, my identity and privacy would lay bare.

Having lost my International Driver’s Permit, we were forced to pivot our tour from Lyon to Bordeaux from auto to train. We booked an additional night in Lyon and made a train reservation to Bordeaux to connect with our next cruise. I could not locate these new tickets in my email as the hotel with which I booked the tickets inverted my name. About this time, we received two notices that the backpack had been located. One notice did not match the report number we made for the missing backpack. The other notice matched but did not make clear the location of the backpack. Was it in Lyon, in Dijon, Paris, or somewhere else?

May 3: The Day of Reckoning and Relief

On our last full day in Lyon, I went to the train station to obtain our written tickets to Bordeaux and retrieve the backpack if possible. I met Yann Rakotomalala, a ticket agent who spoke fluent English. I was lucky. He worked first to tackle the problem of the missing ticket. It could not be located through normal channels and railroad records did not show us as booked passengers. After a half hour of trying, Yann tracked down the tickets using the email account the railroad system had. One problem solved, one to go.

Yann could not ascertain the location of the backpack from the notices I had received. We then walked to the Lyon lost and found office. The lady agent spoke only French. Together they worked to locate the backpack. Evidently, lost and found offices are not supplied with the phone numbers of the offices of similar purpose in many other train stations. She called a friend to obtain phone numbers for possible leads. However, in the end it was determined that the backpack had to be at the lost and found office at the main Paris station, Gare d Lyon. He also asked me if the backpack contained money. That was a hopeful lead. After replying that it did, we booked tickets for the 11:05 LTG train to Paris due to arrive at 1 p.m.

I went over to board and met Arib Zarbi, a train manager, with the rail system. He spoke English, Spanish, and French. We hit it off as I speak decent Spanish and could tell him the purpose of my quick trip to Paris.

The train left on time. However, shortly thereafter the train stopped … and a notice (the first of several) came over the loudspeaker, solely in French, that there was a delay due to an electrical problem. The stress of the delay and fog created from notices in the native language were eased by the passenger across from me, Victor Karcher, who spoke fluent English and French. Victor is a nuclear engineer. The initial delay was over one hour before the train returned to Lyon to reboard another train.

That was not the end of the delays. We encountered another delay about an hour after re-departure. An incident involving someone at a station up the line halted a slew of trains that shared our line to Paris. The indeterminate delay turned out to be greater than an additional two-andone-half hours. Now, we would arrive in Paris after 4:30 p.m. … over 3.5 hours late. Even worse, a train worker told me the lost and found office would close at 4:30. I then checked the closing time on the internet. It showed a 5 p.m. closing. Still a close call … and more delays could still arise.

I searched for Mr. Zarbi to find out if anything could be done. In a stroke of great fortune and kindness, he led me to the lost and found office to locate an agent to help even if the office was closed! After all passengers disembarked, we walked to the lost and found office. Without his guidance, I could not have located and maneuvered my way through this packed station on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday.


We arrived at the lost and found office about four minutes before closing. As I entered, the agent behind the window knew my name. I was expected. Several other agents were in the public area awaiting closing. After signing a receipt and showing my identification papers, I was handed the backpack plus a sealed envelope that showed the denominations of cash enclosed. It included ALL of the money and every other possession and content I left in the bag when I last possessed it.

I gave a lost and found agent 50 euros (they would not accept more) and requested that they share it to buy wine or beer for the lost and found agents.

Return Trip Savior

After enabling me to retrieve my backpack, Mr. Zarbi guided me to the ticket office to obtain a new ticket for a return trip to Lyon. My original return ticket was for 4 p.m. and that train departed over an hour ago. He persuaded the ticket office security to let me bypass the long waiting line given exigent circumstances … and then introduced me to the ticket agent who handed me a ticket for the return train leaving for Lyon in a few minutes. I was close to the goal but not there yet.

The station was jam packed. In fact, I learned from a French family that I would next meet that it was among the most crowded ever. People were wall to wall in every direction. Finally, I wedged through and boarded the return train in a profuse sweat.

Meet the Wonderful Couture Family

The seat assigned to me was adjacent to a young lady in her 20s. I thought it may be easier for her and me if she had the two-seat row to herself, and there were four empty seats in the back of the car beside a couple (Thibault and Coraline Couture) and their two children ages 4 and 1. The Coutures spoke fluent English having lived in New Jersey for three years as part of their employment with a major spirits company. Their young children were endearing. As a surprise, Thibault bought me a beer and a bag of nuts. The family, their kindness, interaction, and the children proved pure medicine to end a stressful but rejuvenating day.

French Humanity

It is so easy for anyone to become cynical or judgmental … at any age … and typecast people. Unflattering stereotypes can be attributed to any nationality, religion, or anyone else for that matter. These superficial assessments, however, miss the point of our shared humanity and the strong cable of common decency that runs through most people. In fact, recognizing and experiencing universal decency creates the truest benefit of travel. It is more memorable than any structures and most natural sights we have seen. In the instance of my European vacation, the humanity, integrity, and going the extra yard offered me by several employees of the French railroad system created the greatest memory and warmest feeling from an outstanding European vacation otherwise measured by highpoints displayed in photographs, tours, and meals.

Vive la France.