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Last train out of Paris

October 26, 2010

Avant-propos: I am blogging the Italy trip here because it is a serious, cerebral, work-related, career-enhancing experience; nay, an investment, whose expense is thus entirely justifiable despite my present impoverished situation. Any pleasure I take from it will be used solely to further my understanding of the role of taste and the senses in food policy-making and in nutrition and sustainable diets. (Also, because I have, in the course of my short life, started many blogs in various places on the internet, peppered them with pretentious quotations, and subsequently abandoned them, and it’s an irritating habit which I must break myself of.)

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Okay, so I don’t read the news anymore because it depresses me too much. I’m sort of vaguely aware that most of Europe is falling apart at the seams, but a bit hazy on the details. So, I was cheerfully bragging to everyone I met about my ENORMOUSLY SOPHISTICATED TRAIN JOURNEY TO ITALY which was going to be REALLY EXCITING and just like a 1930s novel/Joni Mitchell song (depending on my mood), and which was going to be SO MUCH MORE RELAXING THAN GODDAMN EASYJET. After about half a dozen people nodded politely and questioned the wisdom of getting a train via Paris, I thought something might be up and read the news. Strike. France grinding to a halt. No end in sight. Gaah.

I was rushing around like a mad thing anyway during the couple of days before I left, trying to sort out stuff like travel insurance and credit cards, and the volunteer rota at the anthropology library and this term’s music for choir so that everything was set up before I left and everyone didn’t think I was shit. (I’m still a bit concerned it might all fall apart while I’m away and they’ll still think I’m shit and hold it against me that I went away for 2 1/2 weeks right at the start of the academic year. But anyway.) The rushing-around-like-a-mad-thing was then intensified by the fear that I would get stuck in Paris. Normally, this would be no bad thing, but this is a serious, cerebral work-related trip (TM) and I would have been heartbroken if I hadn’t got to go to Terra Madre. Also, the irony that a general strike might prevent me from going to what is essentially a gathering of Marxist foodies, using a mode of transport I’d deliberately chosen because it doesn’t treat people and planet like sh*t, was just too irritating. It would be like the time I refused to buy an iPod in a protest against faddy technology and planned obsolescence, only to find that four years later my MP3 player was still going strong but wasn’t compatible with my new laptop. Hubris. You can’t beat the system.

Reassuringly, Rail Europe’s updates had informed me that the 15h24 to Milan was running, despite the almost total absence of functional trains in France. However, one never knows….

On Wednesday, after a civilised breakfast and a frantic last-minute pack, I got the train to King’s Cross. I nearly couldn’t get on the train with my bag and it stopped at one of the proper platforms rather than the Harry Potter bit off to the side where the suburban trains normally stop, so there was no ticket barrier and I thought I’d get charged loads for not swiping out properly. I wasn’t. They’d hidden the machines somewhere completely random in the station. *sigh* This leg would later turn out to be the single most stressful part of my journey (save for my arrival in Turin, but that was self-inflicted). Foreign trains 1 – 0 First Capital Connect.

I would like, eventually, to be the kind of grown-up person who doesn’t have to post the direct debit form to pay off their credit card from the other side of Eurostar passport control before they leave the country for weeks. That aside, I arrived in Paris with no problems at all. Got fleeced by the terrible exchange rates at the Gare du Nord, and Metro tickets had gone up to an eye-watering €1.70 (bet there was blood flowing through the streets of Paris after that one), but I arrived at Bercy station fine. Turns out my train didn’t leave from there after all, so it was lucky I’d left plenty of time. I subsequently arrived at the Gare de Lyon fine.

Weary of lugging my enormous bag around French rail termini and wanting to remain in proximity to vital train-related announcements, I decided to eat at the station instead of finding a cosy bistrot somewhere. Okay, so it wasn’t amazing, but in Paris the ‘Formule Express’ at a station restaurant is still eaten at an actual table. With real cutlery. And a glass of wine. Which helps you fall asleep on the train. Win. And pudding. And it all costs €10.90. Why do I still live in England? Why?

My train was ready for boarding after that, so I checked about 20 times that it was the right train, I’d validated my ticket properly, I was in the right carriage and I had my passport, I settled down with a book. People were friendly to each other, laughing and joking and helping poor foreigners understand how seat reservations worked. The women next to me offered me a chocolate digestive. People being friendly to strangers! Why do I still live in London? Why?

Then, at precisely 15h24, the train pulled out of the station. Bathed in relief, I attempted to read, but promptly fell asleep instead.

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