Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Of New Ways To Get There

A few days ago ....

"I'm on the Eurostar heading south through France. I have just used my phone to book a rail ticket from Lyon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine for the next part of my journey. Received wisdom is that rail travel is much better in France. It is great if you happen to want to go to one of the main destinations. Experience has proven that reality does not always match the myth on more local services (one six-hour journey on four trains for a ninety mile trip that takes ninety minutes by car comes to mind). This Eurostar and the TGV are very fast and efficient. I still can't get my head round the notion of having to book a seat on a specific train, even for local journeys, though. Miss that train and one loses the money. I'm sure there are probably more open options, but I'm not sure what they are.

I have made the journey between The Fens and Haute-Savoie most months for nearly fifteen years and today is the first time I have done it using the train. I will usually tell anyone that adventure is over-rated, but I have been looking forward to this trip for weeks and now it is happening it is exceeding all expectations ... mind you, I do have a few hours to go yet.

 I have always hated the whole flying experience, but I have endured it all this time because it has been significantly cheaper than the train when I am going to stay with P. First of all I hate the notion of leaving a huge carbon footprint every time I fly. I hate airports, airport security, being separated from my personal belongings (potentially permanently), all the hanging around, the marketing, the airport as shopping mall, the crush, the queuing, the pushing-in, the noise, the resentment of one's fellow travellers, the squashed knees in seats too close together, the reclining seats, the recycled air, the effect I find an hour and a half spent in a pressurised tube a mile up in the air has on me for days afterwards, turbulence, bored children and exhausted parents, children screaming in pain through changes in pressure on their ears and sinuses, the passenger next to you who throws up, the one behind who coughs and splutters over the back of your head the whole journey, not being able to see where you are, where you are going or where you have been, motion sickness ... I'm sure I could go on.

Today's experience, though,  has been a revelation. I've been staying with an old school friend for a few days while I have had things to do in London. I cannot dispute the convenience of being "in town". The transport infrastructure is very easy. Just load up the Oyster Card and go. It took me only half an hour to get from West Hampstead to Tate Britain yesterday. The horror of being crowded in on tube trains and jostled for pavement space in the streets does tend to take something away from the pleasure of convenience though. Standing crushed in a rush-hour tube to get to Notting Hill for a seminar on Thursday was horrible. I began to see the human species as a virus. We fill spaces and crowd out everything else. People piled on people. Like a virus we multiply until we kill the host that supports us. I feel contaminated and grubby by just being in London. I have never felt any pride through having been born there, lived there or worked there. For me, the best part of a visit to London has always been the train journey home when we pass through Ely and I can see real sky and water again!

Today's train trip was made possible through the introduction of a new rail service to the south of France. I'm on the train bound for Marseille, but I'm getting off at the first stop, Lyon Part Dieu. For some reason this service is much cheaper than previous rail journeys to France that I have researched many times over the years. I have been very keen to use the train, but have never been able to afford it. EasyJet flights have generally been at least a quarter of the price of travelling by rail. Of course flying has enabled the relationship that P and I have enjoyed this long to flourish, but I resented being backed into the flying corner.  I found the Eurostar experience to be pretty much the opposite of everything I hate about flying. Even security was painless. Border inspections were rather charming in contrast with airport border control. Once in the "departure lounge" I wasn't hassled to spend money. Caffè Nero and W.H. Smith were my choices. I opted to breakfast at the former.  The very fact that I am sitting in a double seat on the train and typing this is also an unexpected bonus. I opted for a standard 2nd class; extra legroom would have been another £40+, so I thought I would take a chance. Standard seating is painful on easyJet, but was perfectly adequate on Eurostar. As we whispered out of the Channel Tunnel (does anyone still call it "The Chunnel"?) and into France we picked up speed and when I checked the speedometer app on my phone we were flying along the track at 185mph. I had no idea we were going that fast and I could still type. Compared with the twelve minute waltzer ride on the single track section of railway line out of Littleport this was so smooth. It was also quite wonderful to be able to look out of the widow and pass small fields with trees and hedges. It is not until I see such things again at close quarters that I remember how our countryside used to look when I was a child.

I thought again about how I was going to manage the next part of the journey from Lyon to Bellegarde where P was going to meet me in the car. I thought I would see if I could find another app to help. The Trainline Europe app gave me details of times and an option to buy my ticket. I downloaded the app and as already mentioned bought the ticket for the next part of my journey all while travelling south to Lyon. Trainline Europe helpfully informed me that if I waited two and a half hours I could catch a final segment of the Nice to Geneva TGV Lyria which stopped at Bellegarde before it finished its journey in Geneva."

Lyon Part Dieu was the first stop after Ashurst in Kent. That in itself was pretty amazing. What was distinctly less amazing was the number of ways one may be hassled in a French railway station. Having a good couple of hours before my connection to Bellegarde I thought a sandwich and a wander around this city I have enjoyed a few times over the years would be quite in order. Immediately I set foot outside the station exit I was besieged by people wanting money. One wanted to sell me a newspaper, another - a woman in a headscarf wielding a baby in a pushchair and wearing her most pathetic and imploring expression - was repeating the same phrase over and over, although I didn't get what she was saying. The first time I ever visited Lyon was with P. We saw a number of women who brought, or sent, their children out on to the streets to beg for money. This woman was dressed the same. She kept pointing at the pushchair that she was clutching with her left hand and rolling back and forward as she repeated her words. She had the carriage turned away from me and I wondered if she actually had a child inside. It could have been the week's shopping for all I knew. I never know what to do under these circumstances and she could see my weakness. Whether what she saw was born out of desperation or professional expertise I couldn't make out. I gave her a two Euro coin and fled back into the relative sanctuary of the station building. A trip into the city, hauling thirty-five kilogrammes of luggage - i.e. the things I'd needed for three days in London, assorted computery equipment on my back and a lot of stuff for P. - was never going to be an option at the sort of speed I would require to reach escape velocity. Once inside the station, though, security was on hand to eject anyone soliciting money or favour. That did not prevent a young woman stopping me in my wandering and thrusting a clipboard into my face demanding that I sign whatever it was. This was far easier to reject. I've been hassled by far more professional clipboarders and chuggers on the streets of Manhattan and turned them down when they thought it appropriate to request my bank account details in lieu of cash. I had no intention of entertaining this pushy young woman. I may be a mug for pathos, but over-confidence is not in the least attractive. The next time I saw her she was screaming at a security man as he was ejecting her from the station. Clearly this scene was re-enacted many times daily. I saw her again on my return journey some days later.  

A few days later ...

"I am now on the return journey and, with P in school this morning I have had to undertake the whole trip by train this time. Fortunately P's apartment is only a fifteen minute walk along one street from the station. It's the one that passes through where our little cherry orchard used to be before the trees were uprooted and more apartment buildings grown in their place. I left plenty of time to get there and took a very leisurely stroll down the road.

La gare au bout de notre rue

I did not wish to spend the rest of the day in sweaty clothes. I am looking at six trains to get back to where I left my van over a week ago, on the front drive of a friend in Norfolk. I left P's apartment at 10:36 and I am expecting to arrive home by about 11pm. Long day ahead. The first train was a Rhône-Alpes TER back to Bellegarde.

The new Trainline Europe App on my phone informed me that I would need to get the train from Bellegarde to Lyon from Quai E. Excellent.

Bellegarde has always been a very quiet place whenever I've been there, but today something was going on; it was serious, for sure. Making my way to the end of the platform where train one deposited me there was a bottleneck at the entrance to the slope leading to the underpass between platforms. As I approached some people were being stopped by uniformed militia wielding automatic weapons. I saw a couple of armed police at Lyon on my journey in, but this time there were seven men and women in khaki military camouflage uniforms wielding automatic weaponry protecting the several uniformed police officers who, in turn, were watching over the rail staff checking tickets. I have never seen anything quite like it, specially in such a small and usually quiet town. I slipped through without showing any papers. I was clearly not needed today.  I found my platform for the next train due in six minutes.

I noticed that the next train went through to Lyon Perrache so I had to remember to descend at Part Dieu - no falling asleep allowed. The carriage itself was a delight - old fashioned compartments! I haven't been on a train with compartments for many decades and now I had a whole one, with its eight seats, to myself. I like this.  I am reminded of much loved books from childhood - Emile and the Detectives, The Railway Children - and a very personable controlleur has just been through and scribbled on my ticket (that would have to be a scene from a much more recent story!).

The journey passes along valleys and cuttings with steep wooded mountains towering above us on both sides before flattening out as we approach Lyon. I know we must be near because we are running alongside the Rhône which, as always, is its distinctive chalky green colour. We cross the river before we arrive in the city at Part Dieu station. I make my way along the carriage to an exit door and stand back so someone else can deal with the handle. All train handles are different and I am in mind of the embarrassment I felt when I could not get out of a Swiss train. Handles that push up, push down, turn clockwise or anti, automatic doors or buttons to find and press. I prefer someone else to deal with the door rather than cause a queue of passengers impatient to escape the train. Horror or horrors, though. I have chosen the wrong side and I have to open the door! This one seems to have a turny handle, like the crank handle on the Lister Engine I had on my first boat, Loretta. It looks like there is a choice of two directions in which to turn the handle. Naturally I choose the wrong one first and nothing happens. Of course getting the door to unlatch is only the first challenge on attempting to alight a train. What happens next is usually just as confusing. In this case I get the door open halfway and it took me a moment to work out what indeed ought to happen next. The platform was a few feet below me and I think I was trying to get some steps to unfold which also involved folding the door back into the frame. Eventually I half-fell off the train followed by a stream of passengers alighting as elegantly as you like. I made my way along the platform and down more steps into the main concourse of la Gare de Lyon Part Dieu. Food outlets and shoe shops. It was lunch time. I walked up and down and the queues were very long everywhere, except for in the shoe shops. There is no way I was going to attempt exiting through Sortie Porte Rhône again. I could see chuggers, beggars and any number of people desperate to ask me for something. I went to the food kiosk where I had bought a nice filled baguette on my journey in. When I eventually arrived at the front of the queue I asked whether they had quelquechose vegetarien. No, nothing today, I was informed. Oh must be just on Saturday afternoons then! The man behind the counter pointed across the concourse at La Croissanterie. There was a short queue there this time, so I waited my turn while squinting at the tiny labels to see if I could determine what was in each filled delicacy. I failed and resolved to try out my French again in order to ask. Somehow my place in the queue became usurped by at least four people behind me, but eventually I was served. The vegetarian option today turned out to be a baguette filled with goat's cheese and apricot. Mmmm! Not something I would have thought of myself, but it was rather delicious.

Naturally my journey could never have all been roses! The first challenge once on the Lyon to Paris TGV was to find the correct carriage. Then I had to find my seat. The seat I thought must have been mine was already occupied, so I was obliged to ask an earnest and amorous young man to move away from the young lady he was engaging in conversation. He wanted to swap seats with me. I was quite happy with the one I had been assigned. It was facing forward and there weren't any others available. His would have been facing the wrong way.  The trip from Lyon to Paris Gare de Lyon found me sitting beside the young woman who was carrying some kind of document or art folder that she put on the floor by her feet. It spread halfway across my leg space. Being a double-decker train, the over seat rack space was very narrow and very limited, barely wide enough for a coat so my back pack also had to sit on the floor. Normally this would not have been a problem and I would have placed a foot either side of my bag. However, I discovered her artistic proclivities after I reclaimed my seat from her young male would-be suitor and spent the couple of hours trying to get comfortable, which probably didn't help the painful pulled muscle in my lower back that I had been not particularly stoic about for the past few weeks.

Arriving at Paris confirmed that the French have a cavalier attitude to vegetarian food and, in the main, either don't understand or simply don't bother. I couldn't find anything to eat at Gare de Lyon. I remembered a meal at C's house many years ago. She knew that P. and I were both vegetarian so had thoughtfully left one quarter of family-sized dish of lasagne free of meat ... 

I had researched that the connection for the Eurostar at Gare du Nord involved a two-stop journey on the "green line" ... at least it was green on the map. I later found out that this was also known as route D on the RER. I stood in line to buy a ticket from the self-service machine and watching the woman in front of me struggle with the touch screen I realised I would be unlikely to manage it either so, bumping a few ankles on the way, I excused myself from the queue and found a ticket kiosk where a helpful woman was conducting face to face sales. Thankfully she understood where I wanted to go and even told me I needed platform two. I couldn't find any signs with platform numbers.

Considering there must be a zillion first timers who have to connect between la Gare du Nord and the other Paris termini every week there is a surprising lack of information. Another plus for London, I think. Somewhere between the stations of Lyon and North my phone failed. The battery didn't die, the phone did. It's six months old. It's an iPhone. It shouldn't die; certainly not this soon into its life. No more timely alerts to trains and their platforms of departure. Maybe more importantly, no alarm clock tomorrow morning when I have to be in a school by nine. I had been taking photographs to provide you with some evidence of my door-to-door journey. I may lose all those photographs. The Gare du Nord also failed to provide any veggie sustenance. It was to be a long time till London, even longer when the train arrived late.

Paris Gare du NordParis Gare du Nord

I was afraid that I would miss the connection back to the Fens from King's Cross, but the exit from the Eurostar was as painless as the entry a few days ago.

This is definitely the way to travel. After six trains today I shall be home fourteen hours after I left P's apartment. Yes it is tiring, but I don't feel the kind of unhealthy exhaustion that air travel has always induced. Three more stops, a half-hour walk to my van, another half-hour drive back to the farm and I'll be home. I hope it isn't so cold I need to light a fire, but I might just do it anyway, because I can."

P.S. I resurrected my phone, halleluia! The external battery pack I carry for emergencies seemed not to be able to provide the required power to charge the phone. It simply failed to address the task even though the level of charge was showing as full. A quick burst of solar magic once back on the boat brought it back to life and has saved me a trip down to Cambridge to seek advice or redress. That also means that there are some photographs of the trip.

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