We all have one of those days from time to time, but having them on a Sunday in provincial France is never a good idea. Mobile phone technology, SNCF and monsoon weather combine to give The Slog a Sunday to remember.
My hip-hop and happening Samsung phone alarm (the one that has a ghost alarm set to midnight nobody can find) decided not to work yesterday morning. I had set, saved, coordinated and checked the alarm against the phone’s real time setting, but probably Sunday is its day off….a sort of jour de repos specially designed for the French market.
So I missed the first train I’d had in mind. This didn’t matter a whole helluva lot because the train was cancelled. In France, you don’t get those pathetic excuses offered up in Britain – “Suicidal armadillos on the line at East Chipping” and so forth – it just says ‘annulé’. As in, “there’s no train, get over it”.
There was also nobody in the ticket office, no drinks in the drink machine, and the snack machine was out of order. It was completely out of order, and thus very much in need of some gangland discipline along the lines of being kicked very hard several times and then being hung upside down from a meat hook. But being a pacifist, I merely stared at the four 50-cent coins it had given me in return for the two euros I’d inserted. It was a one-armed bandit designed for people with a fear of gambling. It was not a drinks dispenser for dehydrated people whose alarm hadn’t gone off.
Also absent from the station was a sign telling passengers there is an automatic ticket machine round the side from the gare facade, handily positioned behind the lavatories. I found it with five minutes to go before the next train, only to discover that it was not a dispenser at all, but an IQ test for trainee surrealists. A huddle of people were fiddling with the machine and variously mouthing “what the fuck is this?”, “this is impenetrable”, “what was wrong with the old machine?” and “how the hell do I know whether I’m after a blue or a white zone ticket?” Giving up in favour of paying on the train, I earned a severe dressing down from the ticket collector for this act of sedition. I asked him if he thought I’d escape the guillotine. “C’est contre le loi” he asserted, pronouncing the key word “loo-waah” in a way that reminded me of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther movies: “It eez the loo-wah, you av to av a leesarnse fer yer minkey and the address of the rirm where yer air staayeeng”. I began to giggle. It was a bad call on my part: he became more animated, so I was forced to fall back on my standard defence of being an Anglo-Saxon barbarian. “Je sweez innicent, vouz avvi moi tout tort faire, honettement”.
The absence of staff or valid tickets at the station meant I had to shlep (with all baggage) into Bordeaux St Jean station to buy a separate ticket for Paris and yes, I was on my way back and no, we’re not going into why.
At the billeterie, passengers queued to use the machines as staff hovered by said dispensers in order to explain their eccentricities. SNCF announced that there would be no restaurant on the TGV to Paris (it being lunchtime an’ all) so after queuing to use a machine in a manner indistinguishable from queuing to deal with a severely disabled human teller, I entered the snack shop.
Somehow, I had stumbled through a wormhole onto the set of The Towering Poseidon Inferno. People were fighting over beetroot vegetable Camargue-salted crisps and Rosemary flavour cashew nuts, while various pieces of wheeled luggage careered around the floor. Bags of bon-bons were torn asunder by hordes of passengers fresh in from thirty or more provincial stops where none of the confectionery machines were working. Meanwhile, terrified staff cringed behind the their tills as pensioners coshed each other with the few remaining bottles of water available to rehydrate those let down by local station drinks machines from Seyches to Langon.
I quite like travelling by train. None of the foregoing events can compete with the dehumanising anarchy of airport security and terminal check-in procedures, and as yet the Sons of Allah have shown little interest in blowing up locomotives. Also, when a train engine fails, you don’t die – a feature I’ve long felt to be a distinct advantage over planes.
Every time an airline pilot tells me we are travelling at an altitude of 35,000 feet, I wonder why. I like the take off and landing views, but at six miles up the view is nothing more than unchanging blue rayon and white cotton-wool. The TGV travels at an altitude of four centimetres and zooms from Bordeaux to Paris in 2 hours 8 minutes. As it cuts through the cartography, wheatfields, chateaux and idling wind-generators flash past, offering a different horizon every ten seconds. There’s plenty of legroom. You don’t have to ask a football team of people to move every time the need to pee arrives. And nobody stands there waving life jackets around while trying to convince bored fliers that, in the event of ditching in the sea, a tin whistle is likely to save your life.
The downside of French intercity travel is that it’s expensive. It’s possible to avoid this, although that does involve booking a return ticket to Nantes for March 11th 2031, subject to weather conditions. But even with this disadvantage, there are no hidden extras like baggage weight, insurance, airport taxes, café menus charging €20 for a lettuce leaf, long-term car parks and airline staff demanding €70 because one’s luggage is a kilo too heavy, late for check-in, or a funny shape. Yesterday’s journey was €105 one way, but my last equivalent journey by air cost €85 for the ticket, with €35 for unadvertised hold luggage, plus €32 for parking. And at no time in this train journey did a female official ask me to remove my shoes, belt, jacket and watch. More’s the pity.
While the news media beyond France seem to have ignored this, last night Paris had a month’s rain in one evening. My friend and I were at a Cambodian restaurant in Chinatown when it began, and I have to report that, except for African monsoons, I have never seen a deluge like it. After waiting half an hour for the downpour to stop (we were dressed for summer) caution was abandoned in favour of the pair of us doing a passable Gene Kelly impression on the way back to the Metro.
But the restaurant meal itself was a huge success. We shared rice medallions with shrimps in coconut milk followed by grilled beef in fish sauce. Almost everyone in the place was Asian (always a good sign) the service was friendly, and the whole thing plus drinks came to under forty quid.
Hang Meas 7 Rue Gandon 75013 Paris. Open seven days a week. Tel: 01 45 86 80 06
Booking for lunch essential
This morning has dawned to reveal 17 Metro stations inundated, and consequent commuter chaos. Doubtless some searching questions will be put down as to why – even as we entered the Metro to return home – waterfalls were already pouring into the system from the upper levels. Those enquiries having been made, everyone will forget all about it , nobody will be fired….and of course, nobody will go to jail.