06.49am ; on a train, in a station. What an UNGODLY HOUR. I’m not even sure that the Almighty himself is yet up and about and moving in his mysterious ways. No matter , even if the Good Lord is still fumbling round for his slippers and wondering what to have for breakfast, there are already plenty of people about at this time of day. It seems almost miraculous that anyone can be up and about at this hour, however the station platform is thronged with people, all wide awake; gentlemen as fresh as their freshly pressed shirts and razor sharp as the crease in their trousers; ladies made up in their workplace warpaint, decked out in their professional finery and all smelling of popular, but not inexpensive perfume.
ANTI SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR – As the train pulls out the station, those stragglers who have clambered on at the last minute, lurch their way into the long compartment, in search of a seat. I spread myself out across my double seat, hoping and praying that no one will sit next to me, especially another member of the human race who wants to engage in some form of polite but meaningless conversation.
To look more anti-social than I really am, I have earphones firmly clamped into both auditive orifices, and I am snuggled up under my jacket, feigning sleep – hoping in this way to send out signals that I am really not the person you want to sit next to on this two hour journey to Paris.
I am not a “morning” person.
PING – Lurching out the station and picking up speed, the PA system pings into life with a bland, synthetic “ping”. In the ensuing broadcast, the train driver welcomes us aboard our” Intercity” train to Paris, calling at Vierzon, Salbris, and Orléans. I must say that I appreciate the welcome, but for the traveler who has boarded the wrong train, it is just too late. The driver wishes us all a pleasant journey and cuts the microphone. Good, I’m on the right train going to the right place. And what If I had boarded the wrong train? Not much chance of that at our local station, there aren’t that many trains – a few local services, but this is hardly Grand Central or Waterloo, with trains zapping in and out and hundreds of commuters scuttling round like hermit crabs on amphetamines*.
*Not the best choice of metaphor. Observe carefully and you will see that any mainline station at rush hour, however chaotic it may seem, is in fact well-ordered. Commuters walk in habitual and purposeful lines like long columns of ants. Were we to trace “official” paths on the station concourse for commuters to follow, then, the place would fall into chaos.
So, I am on the daily direct service from Bourges to Paris. 1 hour and fifty minutes from the green heart of provincial France up to the nation’s bustling capital. Bored of music, I open up the morning paper with mild interest. On the inside pages I come across a story about impending change on the nation’s railways – a good choice of story to be reading on a train.
The finances of our state-owned, national railway company la Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) are well and truly in the red. Public money is poured to keep the SNCF on the right track, but the company is GOING OFF THE RAILS. . SNCF bosses have been told to balance their books, therefore, unprofitable train services are going to be axed and replaced with buses. A couple of years ago, my town had four daily direct “Intercity” services to Paris, then, two were “phased out” in what the SNCF termed a “rationalization” of services. French railway bosses are now talking about axing more Intercity services. Will my town be losing its last two direct rail links with the capital?
If this happens, in the future, I will have to take a slow local train up to Orléans and then connect with a faster service to Paris. This could easily add an hour to my journey, making the prospect of a trip to Paris a lengthy inconvenience. Guess I better enjoy my day in Paris whilst it is still physically possible to get there and back in the same day.
In any future rail reform, there is also talk of scrapping night trains like the service from Calais in northern France to Ventimille (or Vintimille or Venntimiglia)* in Italy. That must be a great journey. Night trains are curious things. You never know they exist until you actually take them. You never think that France is actually big enough to have overnight trains. Is anywhere so far from somewhere else in this country that you have to travel all night to get there?
*Quick research reveals that the once direct Calais to Vintimille service is no longer direct. The first leg of the jouney is from Calais to Paris (Gare du Nord), the second and nocturnal leg goes from Paris Austerlitz to Nice and the final part of the journey is by a local train from Nice to Ventimille. The one nTravellers for the night train begine their journey in Calais at 16h30. The nocturnal leg from Paris Austerlitz to Nice leaves Paris just after 10.20pm, arriving in Nice at 8.47am the next morning
We pull into Orléans. Hordes of commuters pour into the compartment and not even my antisocial posture manages to deter someone from sitting next to me. A fiftysomething man reeking of cheap supermarket aftershave plonks himself down next to me. . I sneak a look at this guy from behind my newspaper. He didn’t even ask if the seat next to me was free. Only when he has fully established himself do I get a full whiff of what the cheap aftershave is really hiding – A SWEATY KEBAB, WET DOG NICOTINE AND GARLIC REEK. He is offensive and he should be kicked out first class. Yes, on my rare trips to Paris, I sometimes treat myself to the luxury of travelling first class, specifically to avoid second class citizens such as this mal odorant individual.
WHY THOUGH, IN THIS REVOLUTIONARY LAND OF LIBERTY, EQUALITY AND FRATERNITY SHOULD THERE BE ANY CLASS BARRIERS ON TRAINS AT ALL? In the name of Equality and Fraternity we should all be lumped together in the same class. Were this the case however, would it be first class or second class? In any republican railway model, no one wants to be a second class citizen, so let us all travel in first class. Of course there are many people who pay the price of a second class ticket and then travel first class, meaning that the first class compartments are often so crowded, you are better travelling second class – almost as comfy, but less leg room. Perhaps in the future I should buy a first class ticket and ask for a “downgrade.”
And so to Paris – at least in the newspaper. Page 4 – City Mayor, Annie Hidalgo is pushing for the MAXIMUM SPEED LIMIT on the city’s streets TO BE CUT from 50km to 30km per hour – all in the name of…
… Well, we all know why the Powers-that-Be reduce those speeds at which we are legally authorized to drive – it is all in the name of road safety and also cutting pollution. Drive more slowly and less people will be killed on the roads. Drive more slowly and we will cut down exhaust gas emissions. Drive more slowly and the hundreds of thousands of cars that pile into Paris everyday will spend longer in jams with their motors running and releasing even more exhaust gas into the atmosphere. 50km per hour, that’s about 30mph in old money.
I’m not a cynical guy, I just think that lowering the speed limit is just an opportunity to raise even more money in traffic fines. In the years that I have been driving in and around Paris, most speed limits have dropped by about 20km/h, whilst speed cameras have bloomed like unwanted and uncontrollable weeds taking over your garden. Lower speed limits and raise more money in fines. Lower speed limits to such a point that taking your car anywhere is futile. To this end, why not also double parking charges? This was the first thing Ms Hidalgo did when she took office about two years ago.
The Mayor of Paris is also known for her “anti-diesel” stance, arguing for a Paris-wide ban on diesel-powered vehicles. Such a ban would certainly be unpopular with motorists, but when you think that the majority of delivery vehicles (truck and vans) and tourist buses run on diesel …
DIESEL. THE NATION’s FAVOURITE – Back in the late 60’s the French government made a historic choice – the nation’s oil refineries would produce more diesel than petrol, meaning that for over fifty years, two thirds of the French have been running their cars on the fuel that the rest of the civilized world use for tractors. So, diesel has always been cheaper than petrol in France and diesel gets you more miles per gallon and diesel motors have improved over the years. Suddenly, the favourite fuel of the French motorist has been declared as a dangerous. Bad for health, bad for the environment, it’s all in the particles. It is not simply Paris, many of France’s big cities are looking to banning diesel vehicles from their streets.
In the late eighties and early nineties there was the furore over the lead content in petrol. When The world finally went unleaded, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief, however nothing was said about diesel. Now though sales of diesel cars are starting to plunge in France, as we switch back to good old petrol – you might get less miles to the gallon, but your car won’t be banned from the nation’s major cities.
Here’s a thought. IF TRAIN SERVICES FROM MY SMALL TOWN TO PARIS ARE AXED, AND MY CAR IS BANNED FROM THE PARISIAN STREETS, HOW THE HELL DO I GET TO PARIS???? I could go by bus, when there is a bus service, BUT, don’t buses run on diesel???
On the subject of tweaking the rules to raise more money, it is now illegal to stub out on Parisian pavements. STUBBING OUT YOUR CIGARETTE ON A PARISIAN SIDEWALK WILL NOW INCUR THE GUILTY PARTY A 68 EURO FINE – fair enough. So, provide places for smokers to stub out. The Parisian authorities have ordered 30,000 brand new ashtray equipped, fire resistant, smoker friendly dustbins for the centre of the capital. That’s a lot of bins and a lot of cash to provide them. I guess they’ll have a massive crackdown on smokers with a policeman on every corner, to raise enough money from fines to pay for the bins. Fair enough, but I have one question – who, amongst Ms Hidalgo’s friends will get the contract to manufacture the bins? I just hope they are “Made in France”
Flicking through the rest of the newspaper. A STORY ON PICKPOCKETS – Over the weekend (23/24 May 2015) the parisian Police have had a city-wide crackdown on pickpockets. According to the story, the main Parisian tourist attractions are plagued by gangs of nimble fingered eastern Europeans (mainly Romanians) who are busy dipping into the bags and pockets of tourists – the city’s major pickpocket blackspot is the emblematic Eiffel Tower. Gangs of pickpockets prey on tourists as they patiently stand in line for hours on end to get up the tower. However, gangs have also made their way on to the tower itself and they are now threatening staff who try to intervene to stop the thefts. Some staff have been injured in “incidents” with pickpockets and others have even received death threats. Enough is enough even too much, so Eiffel Tower staff appealed to the city constabulary to intervene, hence the crackdown. Suspected pickpockets, rounded up, led away, charged and then later released pending a court appearance. The crackdown will only have a limited and temporary effect. The gangs will be back sooner rather than later. Other than threat to tourists and the Eiffel tower staff, another issue of concern is the very violent and very public turf war that rival gangs are fighting in and around and on the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower crackdown is not the first. In 2013 Parisian police raided the Louvre and arrested gangs of pickpockets, operating within the gallery itself. Security staff at the Louvre, overwhelmed and unable to cope with the problem called in the police after a reported 13000 “pickpocketing” incidents on the premises. Preferred targets of the Parisian pickpockets are the Chinese. They carry all their holiday spending money in, cash – up to several thousand Euros a time.
As usual with my right wing broadsheet, the article on pickpockets descends into an anti-Rom rant. There are supposed to 17,000 Roms (and other Eastern Europeans) in France, though the journalist reports that it is easily double that number.
Cruising sedately into Paris on the first tracks of the suburban network. The neat leafy outer suburbs give way to the inner city sprawl. Abandoned buildings, overgrown former industrial sites, the general desolation of economic decline – THE SHABBY ARCHITECTURAL UNDERBELLY OF A CITY. There is no doubt, if you want to see the worst side of any city, just ride the train. The journalist continues his Rom Rant in the paper – reporting that many of them live in insalubrious, makeshift camps around Paris – I know, I can see them from the train window. Here and there between the high rise blocks in the urban wasteland, there are “shanty” villages. Drive into Paris and you’ll see “colonies” that have sprung up along the roadside, around the pillars, under the bridges and flyovers.
In Paris itself the problem is not shanty towns, but whole colonies of the homeless living in tent villages; along the banks of the Seine or the Canal St Martin, under railway arches, bridges … ten, twenty, thirty dome tents, there are “colonies” just visible, just tolerated as long as they remain on the periphery of the “nice” parts.
It’s surreal, walking along the banks of the Seine,near the Gare d’Austerlitz, on my way to a new modern art and design centre, amongst the outside art installations there are “dome” tents “peppered” around the place. The occupants have strung up washing lines between the trees – jeans, T shirts, underwear pegged up on the line, jig and dance as they dry in the wind. I’m not sure if the tents and the laundry aren’t actually part of the “art”.
SAD AND SOMBRE MODERN REALITIES THAT TINGE THE EDGES OF THE CITY OF LIGHT. But there has always been poverty in Paris – Montmartre is an example. Once beyond the city limits and home to the Parisian poor, home to those who had deserted their rural idyll and heade to Paris in search of work during the late nineteenth century. Changed times – Montmarte is now an exclusive and much prized place to live.
This is the first time I have been to Paris since the Charlie Hebdo massacre. THE CITY STREETS ARE NOW PATROLLED BY GROUPS OF ARMED SOLDIERS, all decked out in combat battledress with assault rifles at the ready. As much as the soldiers are there to reassure the public, their presence shocks me more than the very visible signs of poverty.
I suppose we all have this image of Paris conjoured up in perfume adverts – a glistening and shimmering Eiffel Tower shining out in the darkness and the air thick with Chanel N°5 as Dior Dames saunter their way along the Champs Elysées – the world’s longest catwalk. I suppose this image will endure because it is reassuring and I suppose that it is this image that attracts thousands of migrants to the capital, all in search of the same dream – THE PARISIAN DAZE.