Alarm bells went off in my brain when, 30 minutes into what I thought was an overnight party train from Paris to Nice, people around me started to snooze. I double-checked my ticket, then verified again with my seatmate.
I was on iDNight, the night train run by iDTGV, France's low-cost train service designed to attract younger passengers. These overnight trains, started in 2008, have replaced beds and private compartments with cheaper ticket prices, musical ambiance and a lively bar scene. Its double-entendre tagline — le train qui bouge la nuit, or the train that moves the night — piqued my interest.
A nightclub on a train? Leave it to the French to raise the bar on partying.
But after imagining one big fiesta in the aisles and instead finding the bar and lounge scene confined to two cars, I realized with disappointment that even the French aren't that hard core.
Only iDNight trains departing from Paris on Friday nights and returning to Paris on Sunday nights have DJs, I learned from the bartender, after I finally found her in Car 14. On those nights, passengers can also win movie tickets and T-shirts and partake in body painting and other events. It made sense for the DJ to spin on only the busiest nights of the week, but I felt slightly deceived about missing the fine print on that one.
If you want to avoid my mistake (and your French is more than passable), check the iDNight blog at blog.idtgv.com/category/idnight/ before booking, which also announces special events. (English speakers can contact iDTGV customer service at http://www.idtgv.com/en/formulaire-de-contact.)
As I experienced that night, and again on the train returning to Paris the next weekend, you don't need a DJ to take advantage of the social perks. Pop, house and hip-hop blare from loudspeakers in the party cars until shortly after 2 a.m., when the bartender closes up for a few hours. Though I didn't see people dancing, the bar and lounge were veritable social scenes with people flirting, groups merging and conversations starting.
All it took was a bonsoir, and I was unleashing my still-developing French on someone who wanted to work on his English. Our hybrid language skills eventually drew the attention of three American girls on vacation, and voilà, we had a party of five.
What makes the iDNight special — because in many ways it's just another train — is the ease with which people experience the camaraderie of train travel.
With decent music, open-minded passengers and an all-night lounge, I found sleep no longer the best way to make it through a long train ride. Every new exchange fueled the conviviality, and while you might quickly tire of some encounters, I was amazed at how quickly the hours passed with others.
That was my experience with Nassim, a friendly 27-year-old veteran of the iDNight I met on my return train to Paris. Nassim has taken the iDNight train between Paris and Cannes 16 times. I assumed it was because of the cheap tickets (they begin at 15 euros, about $20 one way), but he said that although the low prices were an important factor, it was the ambiance that kept him coming back.
"The principle of this train is intriguing," he said. "On my first ride, there was a huge party on the train with a DJ. There were a lot of people dancing and drinking. Then on my next ride, I played poker with people on the train. Overall, I like it when it's a little more tranquil, like right now."
As he said that, we turned to the window and a stunning view of the Mediterranean. For a few minutes, we quietly watched the sun set over the azure water until a Bob Sinclar track brought us back to the conversation.
Later that night, after exchanging e-mail addresses with Nassim and another Parisian (and, of course, promising to Facebook them), I left the bar for a few hours of uncomfortable shut-eye. When I returned at dawn, bleary-eyed, the indefatigable bartenders were blessedly serving complimentary coffee.
As we pulled into Paris' Gare de Lyon, I wasn't too upset about missing the DJ-accompanied Friday night excitement. After all, the experience was special enough to become postcard material the next day. "Hi! I met some awesome people on a party train to Paris last night. Wish you could have ridden with me."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times