Tuesday, October 11, 2016

left behind

Cash is slowly dying.  I love to just touch my Swiss credit card for purchases up to 40 Franc.  No need for swiping, no need for a pin, and no signature either.  In the US, you still need to swipe, but up to 25 dollars, your signature isn't required anymore.  A tad more complicated maybe, but it doesn't require any new hardware.  Once the phone can be used for payment reliably and universally, everything will change again.

The only reason my four trips to the US this year weren't entirely cashless was the San Francisco Bay Bridge where you can't pay the toll by card.  In Sweden, cash has all but disappeared.  There are shops where you can't trade pieces of paper or metal for goods or services anymore.  It's electronic transactions only.  As long as the electronics are working, this is all fine.

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself at the main train station in Nice – a little bit in conflict with my plans, but all right.  I had flown into Nice to attend a workshop on detectors and X-ray sources in a town an hour west of the airport.  It made sense to take the train there.  According to online maps, the station closest to the airport is Nice-St. Augustin.  The airport website itself was silent on the subject.

The bus I took to the station, after consulting with the airport information service, cost more and took much longer than I expected.  The driver ignored all signs to St. Augustin and stopped his bus only in front of Nice main station.  This is a wonderful place, straight from the glory days of railroad travel, with a glass awning on delicate wrought-iron supports all around the building.

I didn't mind being at the wrong train station because no matter where you start, when it comes to traveling, it doesn't get much better than taking a train along the Mediterranean coast from Nice towards Marseille.  The tracks run along the water half of the time, and the views are like being on vacation, but before I could enjoy this, I needed to obtain a ticket.

I tried one machine, I tried another machine.  Both offered me a ticket for the next slow train, half an hour away, but refused my card.  At the third machine, I tried a bit harder.  But punching the screen with my fist instead of touching it with my fingers didn't improve things.  The screen seemed impervious to violence.  I got the same offer and was met with the same refusal.  There was no option of paying in cash.

There was a second type of machine, for long-distance trains.  I learned that one was to leave in ten minutes that would stop at my destination.  Lucky me, I thought, as I inserted my card.  The fare was even a few euros lower.  At the third machine I realized I should have wailed.  How do you pay when your cards keep being refused and there is no alternative?

There were ticket counters, but they were few and the waiting customers many.  No way I could advance towards a ticket within the seven minutes that remained until the departure of what I hoped would be my train.  I tried a couple more times on machines I had ignored earlier but didn't make progress.

The maintenance workers that kept rebooting select machines didn't have words of encouragement.  The network is down and foreign card tend not to work were their explanations.  Possible but not satisfactory.  Cash I can exchange at the bureau de change.  Two employees were sitting there waiting for my business.  But what do I do with a foreign card?  If electronic payment systems aren't universal they're for the bin.

All of a sudden and for no reason at all, one card worked and I got my ticket with a minute to spare.  It was luck against all odds.  The last thing I saw before dashing off to the platform was a sign on the machine that read, "For your convenience, we've restricted the ways of paying for your ticket".  If that's how a cashless world will be, I rather stay behind.