Soeur Catastrophe: A European Catastrophe Part I

recently made some connections with some former missionary friends on Facebook and it took me waaaaaaaay back.


The year was 1993 and my nickname was Soeur Catastrophe (pronounced Sir Cat-as-trof), which, loosely translated means “Sister Catastrophe.”

Some things never change, right?

I was 21 years old and serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Geneva, Switzerland. The mission boundaries took in all of French-speaking Switzerland and Eastern France. For six days a week, we taught the gospel and served at various local charities while P-days were spent hiking in the Alps. It was the most defining 18 months of my life as I looked outside of myself to figure out who I was on the inside.

We had a mission president who presided over us. He would place missionaries together who would serve in “companionships” in a specified region that we were required to stay in. Every few months, we would either get transferred to a new area or have a new companion come to us.

I had been in the mission field for about six months when I received a transfer from Geneva to a little town in France called Chalon-sur-Saone. I met up with another missionary, Soeur Tate (with whom I recently connected on Facebook) and we would travel to France together to meet up with our respective companions.

Sound easy? This is me we’re talking about.

Soeur Tate was what we call “a bleu”–she was new to the mission so it made perfect sense for her to travel with a more seasoned and capable missionary such as myself.

Stop. Laughing. Now.

Soeur Tate and I had cleared Customs and were waiting on the platform to board our train to Lyons, France. I struck up a conversation with a bunch of traveling Canucks and before we knew it, our train pulled up. I glanced at the sign, confirmed it was going to Lyon and Soeur Tate and I hopped on.

The first things I noticed that seemed out of place were pertaining to the train itself. 1) It left a bit early, which never happened in Switzerland 2) It was a much nicer train than the regional ones we were used to and 3) It went fast. Really fast.

We settled into some seats. A few minutes into our journey, the train made a stop. Some people boarded and kicked us out of our seats.

Problem #4) There were not usually reserved seats.

I wasn’t worried. I was a Swiss Miss and knew this whole international travel thing like the back of my hand. We simply relocated but within minutes, were booted again. Unsure of what to do, we went back to the luggage area and situated ourselves on some little pull-out seats. Undaunted, I pulled out some headphones to listen to a sappy tape from my then-boyfriend. There were a number of announcements made over the loudspeaker but I ignored them (note: potential spoiler).

We soared across the French countryside for over an hour when the train conductor came around to check tickets. I nonchalantly handed him mine. He closely examined it, turned it over and then menacingly sneered at me.

“This train is going directly to Paris,” he said in French.

I stopped. Paris was not Lyons. In fact, Paris was on the other side of the country, far outside of my mission boundaries. We must have erroneously boarded a TGV (France’s high-speed train). And worst of all: We did not have train tickets to Paris.

I weakly asked, “Quoi?”

He repeated himself, this time emphasizing the gravity of the situation with the kind of ill-humor that has made the French famous.

Faintly, I repeated, “Quoi?”

He must have decided I was a stupid American because he then resorted to shouting it in broken English: “DIS TRAIN, GO DIRECTLY A PARIS!!!!”

At this point, innocent Soeur Tate started tugging on my sleeve, “Soeur, did he just say we’re going to PARIS?”

As I said, she was new to the whole French thing.

We quickly learned that the name of the “Gare” (train station) in Paris is called the “Gare de Lyon.” Hence the sign I had seen at a moment’s glance. Monsieur Conductor was not sympathetic and pointed out that there had been several announcements about the train going directly to Paris. You know, the ones I ignored.

It got worse when he made us pay the difference we owed for the train ticket on the spot. We emptied out every last penny French franc we had.

And there we were. We were in a foreign country. We had no cell phone. No cash. No credit cards. No connections. And we were on the fast track to PARIS!!!

Be sure to read Part II of Soeur Catastrophe: An International Terror is Born where you will learn about just how close I came to murdering the French population.

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