In the wake of yesterday’s national train strike in France, a few thoughts on train journeys on various train journeys I have taken over the years.
Winter JourneyDeparture from Bourges 06h49 Arrival in Paris 08h52
Trains don’t smell of trains, they smell of the people on them. As we pull slowly out of Orleans station, the compartment is suddenly permeated by the “whiff” of cheap lavender toilet water. Clean and inexpensive. Functional without frivolity. It is not unpleasant, though I would not buy it for the wife.
Lavender water, a sensible fragrance for old ladies like the one who has just sat down next to me. Bundle up in knitted layers against the cold (-5°c on this winter’s morning). My new travelling companion is wrinkled but shining with moisturizer – face like a well-polished but slightly worn parquet. She has pink (and inexpensive) lipstick and close, cropped red “out-of-a-bottle” hair to hide the grey. She reads the newspaper, does crosswords whilst listening to her iPod (a modern granny).
Initially, the toilet water odour of my neighbour was tolerable, but with time, the toilet water smells of toilets – or rather the pink round blocks of chemical lavender they sling into urinals to cover the smell of old piss. Is this why old ladies wear toilet water? To cover those unfortunate odours resulting from an impromptu loss of control?
Climbing down from the train at the Gare d’Austerlitz, lost in a gaggle of giggling girls – young North African ladies, all dyed a kind of Beyoncé blonde. Tight jeans (of the spray on variety), thigh length boots, spatula-applied war paint and the overpowering sickly sweet smell of cheap “supermarket” perfume .It hits you with full smack in the face force – like walking into several department store perfumeries at once.
In the Metro, the odour of cheap, standard, public service disinfectant. The national smell of public cleanliness from school canteens to the Paris Métro. The overpowering stench of bleach – a bad smell masking a worse smell – the stink of other humans wrapped up against the cold and now sweltering in the heat of the Metro car.
Spring JourneyDeparture from Bourges 06h49 Arrival in Paris 08h52
Just gone seven. The “express train” to Paris trundles sedately through country stations. Villages so small, that you are, amazed they have stations. No booking hall or waiting room though, just a platform and a ticket machine. These are the unmanned two train-a-day stations – One up and one down – Local trains that stop everywhere and take hours to get anywhere as they take people from the middle of nowhere to somewhere else.
Even at this indecent hour of the morning there are already people on platforms – washed, dressed, pressed, pristine, packed, waiting for trains.
Sunrise over sidings
Sunrise over shunting yards. Lines and lines of goods wagons, tanker wagons lying idle. Nothing to carry? Nowhere to go? Redundant rail
Down the line crossing woods wearing their spring colours.
Passing houses. Gardens where washing is strung out on lines. Clothes gently dangle dance, flop and flail around in the morning breeze.
After an hour the train pulls into Orleans – Gents in suits, bad tied ties and early morning sweaty shirts board the train. Ladies in sensible flat-soled shoes (high heels in the bag) On climb the ticket inspectors. Ah an “inspectoress”. A generous smiling blonde lady drawing admiring glances from those middle age spread sweaty shirt men. How they would like to board her, she’s first class, but even a cheap day return would do. Come and punch my ticket love!!!
From Orleans to Paris. From tundra to suburbia – crossing the plains of La Beauce – indistrial farming at its best. Not a tree, not a hedgerow – just flat fields – summer corn and winter wastelands with occasional “clusters” of dwellings, electricity pylons and grain silos. Nowhere places with no stations from which to escape them.
Arriving at the Gare d’Austerlitz – the terminus. A station named after a battle. – Austerlitz, December 2nd 1805 – the Napoleonic armies beat a combined Russian and Austrian force in an epic nine hour battle near the town of Brno – now in the Czech Republic. Great victories merit great stations, but Austerlitz is the backwater of Parisian stations. Nestling one the banks of the Seine (left or right, I never know) it has a sedate, provincial feel to it, like those sedate, provincial towns it serves.
Austerlitz is far from the hustle and bustle of other Paris stations. It has none of the high-speed buzz and multiple shopping outlets of other Parisian stations and save the overnight sleeper service to Madrid, Austerlitz does not serve the plethora of iconic and exotic European destinations that other Parisian stations do. It is very much the poor cousin of the vast Gare de Lyons that sits on the other side of the Seine. The Gare de Lyons with its high speed trains to almost everywhere. The Gare de Lyons, gateway to the Côte d’Azur.
Austerlitz is almost pleasant in its provincial tranquillity and backwaterness. It is a station on a human scale, a place of sedate transition between the Parisian frenzy and the twilight zone of deepest France.
The backwaterness of this station is reflected in the style of “hangers on” that it attracts. It is not “edgy” like the Gare du Nord where the entrances to the station are peopled by tribes of drug addicts or Romanian children pleading for money in fractured French or broken English. At the Gare d’Austerlitz, a few homeless people asking for cigarettes. This is a quiet station though, apart from the morning and evening rush, the inside of the Gare d’Austerlitz is just a hollow chamber.
For the past thirty years, the tracks of my life have gone through the Gare du Nord. When I first set bum and baggage own on the station concourse at 6am on July 4th 1984, little did I know that Austerlitz would progressively became my gateway to the world in the ensuing years. The Parisian gateway to new adventures and the last leg of any journey home, and when I get to the Gare d’Austerlitz, I already feel at home.
Were I looking for a London equivalent of the Gare d’Austerlitz, I would say it is not unlike Charing Cross or Fenchurch Street.
If you want to see what my train line to Paris looks like … well it looks pretty much like this, especially between Orleans and Paris.