29 Sep Train lines
There was a moment yesterday when the scattered pieces of my dwindling family collided. Sitting on the concourse at Paris Gare de Lyon waiting for a train to take me to northern Spain for a visit to my sister, I took up my phone and booked a ticket that, a few days hence, will take me to southwest Scotland for the funeral of my aunt. It was one of those moments of displacement. So much of life is conducted over the invisible wire of ether that distances and closeness sometimes get muddled up.
Paris and the splendid Gare de Lyon – soaring glass canopy arched over the concourse streaming light onto hundreds of passengers, many chomping on un sandwich from the PAUL booth by Quai 23. I started the journey on the 06.28 Southwest train from Teddington to Vauxhall and the Victoria line tube, a long underground walk to the vast international hall at St Pancras, boarding the Eurostar, first stop Paris Gare du Nord, slipping downstairs to the RER (I must find out what the letters stand for) Line D Platform 44 to take me the couple of stops to Gare de Lyon. I admit to researching this last step in advance for fear of getting lost in subterranean Paris. A YouTube video by seat61.com took me, virtually, every step of the way. Sorted.
Much too early at Gare de Lyon. Time to people watch. Security guards, darkly uniformed, trousers tucked into boots, pistol in holster, radio clipped to breast pocket, hair clipped to oblivion, have cordoned off a section of the concourse. One officer is inside the cordon with an eager dog, tail wagging furiously, sniffing out explosives. I assume it’s a training event, at least I hope so since we are watching from quite close by. I find an empty seat and watch as languages, cultures, fashions and generations walk past, distracted, anxious, excited, ponderous, furtive. So many stories.
Quai 15 for the train to Barcelona, my train. A double decker. A lithe young man is on the platform doing handstands. He’s very good and can stay on his hands for quite a while. He tucks his tee-shirt into his jeans in between each one, but still it drops down around his ears as soon as he launches his legs into the air to reveal a slim, hairless, evenly-tanned chest.
I am on the lower deck beside a man, wearing a cross between a cap and beret, made of boiled wool perhaps, or felt, black, exceedingly French. He’s sitting in the window seat, my seat, but I don’t challenge him. The view from the aisle seat is perfectly good and the numbering system on the wall above the window, intended to indicate which seat is which, is not up to the task. About half an hour into the journey the heat in the carriage is building. He takes his hat off and hangs it on the hook just behind him below the luggage rack.
The man gets out at Valence leaving his hat behind. I didn’t notice at first. When I do, I wonder to myself, what kind of Frenchman leaves his hat behind? He’ll miss it. I would have called to him had I realised he was getting off for good and not, like the man facing him across the table, just jumping off for a quick smoke while the train was at the station. That man, with his grey, stubbly face and sallow skin, did this at every opportunity, returning at the last moment as the doors closed, scalding the air with smells of tobacco and smoke.
Opposite me, sitting beside the smoker, an earnest man of about 50 scours pages of figures, marking them with a red fountain pen. He shakes his head and a grimace of outrage frequently passes across his face, an audible “tut” trips from his lips as if he is appalled by the errors and absurdities etched in black and white in front of him. He is not amused. But very amusing.
I have slipped across to the window seat, reclaiming my rightful place from the lately disembarked and hatless man. A older woman takes the seat I vacated, pulls out an iPad or tablet and plays Bridge, clicking on cards, swiping on tricks. She is completely absorbed. At Nîmes she gets off.
The smoker shifts across to the other side of the carriage when three seats come free opposite a young woman he’s been eyeing regularly throughout the journey. I have caught him looking at her and it makes me uncomfortable. She is about 18 years old, an awkward child-woman; she giggles nervously at everyone who passes. She spent the first hour of the journey pasting tickets into a large scrapbook. I felt a tug as I watched remembering my younger self on those first journeys alone to Europe, gathering every ticket or brochure, each a precious artefact of the journey, proof of something deep inside, some coming of age childishly evidenced by ‘sticking in’.
A young man takes the place of the smoker, easing past the man with the red pen and depositing his enormous rucksack on the floor so that it rests against my knees. I feel cross momentarily until I see how his face expresses apology. He is the double of Lewis Hamilton only younger, softer, a kinder demeanour and two bare, un-studded ears. His nose runs constantly and he wipes it with his hand, as unobtrusively as he can. I am desperate to offer him a tissue but he might feel patronised. Yes, I tell myself, it would be patronising – or matronising. I resist.
The man with the red pen leaves at Montpellier and the young man with the nasal drip gets off at Narbonne along with at least half the carriage. For a few moments I have the entire four seats to myself and can stretch out my legs. Then a gaggle of people climb on, heavily suit-cased, noisy, bustly. They try to squeeze suitcases into the space under the tables in seats that are empty but are not the ones they reserved. They have taken up the three seats beside and in front of me. They speak a language I don’t understand and avoid any eye contact. A woman and her young daughter have reserved these seats. She speaks calmly and firmly to them showing them her tickets; they have to move across the aisle. They do so reluctantly, placing their suitcases in the middle of the aisle so that nobody can pass. There is much exchanging of disapproving glances. It bothers me that the transgressors are Indian or Pakistani, I can’t tell which, and that silent judgements may be being made.
Things settle down. The suitcases are finally lodged in some empty seats further up the carriage, piled high. Smiles all around. All seems to be forgiven. Perhaps I need not have worried. The young daughter sits opposite me, pulls out a puzzle book and spends the rest of the journey working on wordsearch or numbers or spotting the difference. She is utterly charming. So is her mother. They speak Spanish with inflection from South America – I hear echoes of my daughter.
We pull into Barcelona Sants. For the last leg of my journey I am too late for a train and have hired a car, driving tentatively through the city under streetlights alongside taxis and buses, nosing my way using roughly memorised directions out to the Tarragona road. I tell myself again, I must learn to use onboard Satnav. When I have tried in the past I find the icons confusing and end up with unintended and obscure radio stations or destinations that don’t exist.
A long blogpost, much longer than my usual, reflects the long journey. At the beginning of the year I made a promise to myself to fly only once a year. That flight has already been taken. This 14-hour journey instead. I could have flown to Brazil, Argentina, maybe further. But still, I arrived.