Archive for September, 2010

Sixth leg Paris to London

September 9, 2010

Sixth leg Paris to London

Sunday September 5, 2010:

My neighbour is grumpy. She growls as I ask her to move out of the way, I have the inside seat. She gets her own back as soon as the train moves off by opening up a smelly ham sandwich and eating it painstakingly slowly. I settle down with yet another cup of coffee and some M and Ms. Coffee and chocolate. Aah!

I listen to my book. The words dance around in my mind and make no sense. My head droops. I sleep.

Inaudible announcements wake me. I wonder where I am. I open my watch but my fingertips have grown woolly and I can’t read it. I pull out my phone and am confused about the time as I don’t know if we are in France or England. I ask my neighbour.

We’re still in France and about to go into the tunnel. I close my eyes and go back to sleep.

I’ve just worked out that we’re half an hour away from London. I lay bets with myself as to whether the promised assistance will materialize. Well I’ll soon find out.

It’s turned up! I alight and am born away by a helpful soul; once more inevitably I am in search of a toilet!

Ugh, I wish I hadn’t found it! I have to do a fingertip search to find the bog roll as it is not in the holder. I then discover that the sink is blocked by something unspeakable.

The tube staff at Kings Cross are happy to assist. I hear them radioing to Finsbury Park as the train pulls out of the station.

And no, there are no staff at Finsbury Park. I make my own way out to the buses. And soon, I’m walking down my street.

And here I am, home and safe. I put the kettle on to make a nice cup of Lady Gray. I’ve done it! My victory is sweet, but my heart is sad. Rowen will never know I did this.


Fifth leg Madrid to Paris

September 9, 2010

Fifth leg Madrid to Paris

Saturday September 4, and Sunday September 5, 2010

My ticket says U. I discover that means the top bunk. Theres no way Im going to be able to get up there! The sleeping compartment attendant speaks enough English for me to explain what I need. . I am helped by one of the dorm companions who is a bit of a linguist.

Im starving. All Ive had to eat today is two butch but small cheese sandwiches which I took from Cortijo Romero. I go in search of the restaurant car.

All I can find to eat though is a soggy cold vegetable sandwich and a small plate of cheese. I contemplate a whisky but cant bring myself to ask. I get a cup of tea instead and sit at the bar in the café drinking it and listening to the chatter all around me.

I return to the sleeping compartment and strike up a conversation with the German woman. She has been making a long pilgrimage which has taken her five years to complete. She has written a book about her journey. We talk of walking and how for both of us we feel it feeds the soul and stimulates creativity.

Its time to put the beds down. A certain amount of strategic stowing goes on and we politely negotiate with each other over the use of space. The sleeping car assistant is obviously used to squeezing huge pieces of luggage into small spaces. Within a few minutes and with a certain amount of climbing up on the sink, accompanied by heaving and puffing, she has arranged everything.

Bridget, the linguist, gamefully scales the precarious metal ladder, bashing her head on a handrail on the way up. She laughs manically.

I climb into my bunk and have a fight with the confining sheets. Its so darned hot! There are four of us in this tiny compartment. Theres no way to open the window. Were going to boil!

I allow the motion of the train to rock me, but I cant get comfortable. Soon the others drop off to sleep. I try to lose myself in the concert of comforting snores but its no good. I am wide awake.

I listen to the bashing and crashing of the train. Its like trying to sleep in an MRI scanner! We draw up at a station and I hear doors slam.

Later, about 2 pm, the train stops again. I listen out for voices and imagine the train attendants talking to boarder officials standing in the cool mountain air of the Pyrenees. What do they do if they spy a passport of a fugitive? I imagine them marching along the train corridor, flinging open doors and peering at anonymous humps shrouded in constricting sheets which they poke vigorously into revealing their identities. But no doors are flung open; no cold hard nose of a gun is poked at a defensively turned shoulder. Bar the soothing snores of my dorm mates, all is quiet.

At six am, I climb stiffly from my bed, dress and head off to the dining car for breakfast. Two strong black coffees, some fruit, a half cooked piece of toast and a slightly stale croissant later, Im feeling a bit more civilized. I go back to the sleeping compartment where there is still no sign of life. I hunch down on the bed and take out my knitting.

The sun shines through the corridor windows. I stand by a door and imagine the countryside speeding past beyond. Were 40 minutes away from Paris.

Were here. A different pal of a pal of a pal yells my name from the platform. Passengers eager to alight, flock clumsily, jamming their luggage and themselves in the narrow corridor like confused sheep. I wait till they move off and then emerge onto the platform.

I have instructions to take you straight to breakfast, says the pal of a pal of a pal, marching me off towards the river. I omit to mention the breakfast previously eaten on the train and follow her gratefully. Ive got room for more coffee and croissants, I am sure.

The café is on the left bank of the Seine, hard by the Jardin de Plant. We sit in the sunshine on the pavement in proper continental style. I ignore the Sunday traffic rumbling by on the road nearby and the grumbling of the subway opposite. For a moment, I am an artist, reviving my spirits after a hard night on the razz, with stimulants and carbohydrates.

We drink coffee and eat baguette with butter and croissants. I know Im going to regret this breakfast as my digestion doesnt appreciate refined wheat and so much fat. Still, its nice whilst Im eating it and frankly, I dont care.

We descend down to the Metro. It is quiet. I feed the biting automatic gates with my stiff card subway ticket and dodge the snapping jaws of the automatic barriers.

At Gare De Norde, the pal of a pal of a pal hands me over to euro star assistance and we bid each other farewell. I follow the speedily scuttling assistance onto the train. Next stop, London.

Forth leg Malaga to Madrid

September 9, 2010

Forth leg Malaga to Madrid

Thursday September 2, 2010:

Compliantly, via a native Spanish speaker, negotiations have opened with the Train Company re assistance back. It helps that the negotiators boyfriend has something to do with the rail company. She comes running across the orchard to tell me that there will be assistance, at least at Malaga, Atocha and Chamartin. They cant answer for what might happen in Paris. Fortunately, Ive moved to plan B for the Paris bit and a friend of a friend of a friend will meet me and take me to the Euro star.

So thats settled. Theres nothing to worry about. I roll over and lie back under the fierce sun. Lifes hard and then you fry, I think as I drift off to sleep.

Saturday September 4, 2010:

I dont dare eat. I fear my digestive system might wake up at some completely inconvenient moment. I stash my breakfast in my rucksack for future eating.

Well the moment of truth has arrived. Ive got to get myself across Europe and go home and face the music, and really have the What am I going to do when I grow up? conversation with myself.

I ride down a bumpy mountain side in a badly sprung coach with my course colleagues. Its a beautiful day and I like the turbulence. A colleague takes me to Malaga station. I am early.

The slim metal train hurtles at 250 miles an hour across Southern Spain. I listen to my book and read. The bloke next to me is playing with his I-book. My phone trumpets a text has come in.

At first, I dont understand. Then I read the message again more slowly.

Sorry to be bearer of bad news , the text begins it goes on to tell me of the untimely death of Rowen Jade, a friend and colleague.

I put the phone away and pick up my knitting. I wont believe it. I cant believe it. It must be a misunderstanding.

I put my knitting down and pick up the phone. I listen again to the text. I spell out the name to make sure it is who I think it is. And its true. Rowen is dead!

I retreat to the toilet. I sit on the loo and think of her and cry. I dont seem to be able to stop, so I dont try.

Ive got to get a grip, I think as I follow the assistance person from the train at Atocha and down into the subway. She puts me on a tube train and I sit down by the door and cry. English speaking passengers help me alight.

Do you have an allergy to something, the woman says. I explain. She is carrying my bag. We are following the assistance person up to Chamartin Railway station.

I know that my internal state may mean that the assistance I get is not what I might need. Ive discovered that being in a state of trust and calm, gets a better service. Right now, I am numb as I compliantly trail along behind the minder.

My English speaking companions explain to her why I am crying. Kindly, they ask me what I need. I ask for coffee and chocolate. The assistance woman takes me to the café where she helps me get a cup of coffee and leaves me alone to be with my grief.

My coffee drunk, I wait quietly, the assistant is back. I follow her into the information office and sit down meekly to wait for the time to board my train. Ive stopped crying but I have a fierce headache.

It is time. Another assistant comes and helps me to board and find my compartment. In less than 24 hours, I will be home.

Third leg Madrid to Malaga

September 9, 2010

Third leg Madrid to Malaga

Saturday August 28, 2010:

At last I am on the Malaga bound train. I decide to go back to sleep for a while.

Everyone in this carriage is chuckling to themselves. It reminds me of student parties where everyone has had too much dope and is laughing at nothing. I wonder why, until I realize they are all watching a film, whose soundtrack is relayed through earphones.
This train thinks it’s a plane. It has 600 miles to traverse which it appears to be doing at great speed, via many tunnels, judging by the popping of my ears. I wonder what the landscape is like outside,

My neighbour is engrossed in the film. He is also annoyingly taking up far too much of my seat as well as his. I consider how I can surreptitiously lower the arm of my seat to make the demarcation line between us clearer, but think this might be a bit rude. I wait till after I’ve returned from the toilet to do so.

Oh and about that toilet. This is a modern train and the toilet is fully automated. Helpfully, there are Braille signs for all the buttons, only, I forgot to learn the words in Spanish for “door lock” and am exposed on my throne half way through a pee! Finally, we arrive in Malaga and I nearly forget to get off the train, so softly does it ooze up to the platform.

It has been seamless assistance to the end. As I walk along the platform, I briefly encounter a work colleague, which is bizarre.

Finally, I am allowed to pile into a taxi to head for the hotel to pick up the transfer up the mountain.

He end of the journey is nigh. The hotel receptionist is surprisingly welcoming and cheerfully marches me off to find refreshments. Astonishingly, a waiter appears to take my order. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a waiter before at this hotel. He is relatively pleasant and remarkably efficient.

I drink very strong coffee and coke in the hotel garden. I mention that I’m hungry to the waiter who reappears a few minutes later with a cheese and ham sandwich! The Spanish don’t seem to understand about vegetarians either!

A fellow course participant appears and I enlist her aid to negotiate about the sandwich. We chat for a while about our journeys and our expectation of the week to come. I am attending a singing course at Cortijo ROMERO, high up in the Alpuharas.

The first half of my journey is complete. I feel quietly satisfied with how it has gone.

Second leg – Paris to Madrid:

September 9, 2010

Second leg – Paris to Madrid:

Friday August 27, 2010:

United with the pal of a pal of a pal, we chance the subway ticket machines and take a remarkably uncluttered if noisy metro to Austerlitz.

At information, my companion talks rapidly for some time with the man behind the desk. Then she tells me we must sit down and wait, assistance will come in due time.

She goes off to find some vegetarian food. This is a more difficult task than might be thought; vegetarians are a hard done by breed in France. However she comes back with a delicious pasta, cheese and vegetable salad with a little piece of baguette, which I wolf down hungrily. Sod the avoidance of cheese and wheat, I’m starving!

It is time to board the train. My companion accompanies me, helping me to find my cramped couchette. Better still, she negotiates with the sleeping car member of staff about my onward assistance. At least he’s been told. I don’t hold out much hope though.

Two fierce Spanish ladies with whom I am sharing the couchette invite me to go to the restaurant. Still full of salad and baguette, I decline.

I sit alone in the couchette and wonder what to do. I know where the toilet is. I’ve got apples, oatcakes and nutty protein bars, so I won’t starve.

I get out my knitting and set to worrying. I’m not able to communicate with the train staff. This is frustrating and I feel cross with myself at my lack of French or Spanish. I brood on as I knit.

Whilst the two fierce ladies dine, I make friends with Cecile, the other dorm mate. We bond over Jaffa cakes.

The two ladies return from dinner. They have a mountain of luggage. I don’t know how we are all going to squeeze in, especially as Cecile also has a huge bag.

The guard comes and shows Cecile and myself to another compartment. We fall to discussing our respective journeys and onward activities. I learn that she is a business student who is going to spend six months studying at the oldest university in Europe, based in Madrid. She tells me that the guard will come and transform our couchette at ten pm.

At last, I climb into bed and settle to sleep. The train shakes and vibrates. From time to time, there are mysterious bangs and the train jerks violently and my head crashes against the compartment wall.

I assume the
“sleeping-in-a-couchette-on-a-train-taking-tight-corners-too-fast” position. I lie on my stomach and jam my right foot between the mattress and wall. I clutch the mattress with both fists and hang on like grim death? This is not comfortable and soon my neck is protesting. I make a mental note not to do the couchette again. I’d rather snooze on an airline seat (which they also boast they have) than be flung about like this.

The train jerks to a stop. Doors slam. I check my watch. It’s two in the morning. I guess we must be crossing the border. Vaguely I reflect on the romance of this until I am bought to an awareness that I need a pee. I struggle out of bed and down the narrow corridor to the loo.

It’s eight Am; I struggle out of bed, wash, and pack and settle down to wait. I’ve no idea where we are but Cecile tells me it’s a lovely day and we’re passing through mountains.

I eat an apple and wonder about breakfast, but it does not materialize. In time, the guard comes back with our passports and tickets. We are only thirty minutes away from Madrid.

Cecile and I climb out of the train and are just negotiating the mechanics of trailing luggage whilst being guided, when an efficient Spanish assistance person appears. We tell her the plan is to take a taxi to Atocha. She firmly pooh-poohs this idea, informing Cecile (who translates) that it will be better to get the tube. I submit, bid a grateful farewell to Cecile, and follow the assistance off towards the tube.

I am plonked on the tube and the assistance disappears. “Blimy,” I think to myself, “now what!” Then I remember the bloke at Raileurope told me it is 3 stops. I wave the bit of card with the word “Atocha written on it” at some fellow passengers. As I do so, the remarkably clear on train announcements declares “Atocha” and off I climb, almost into the arms of the waiting assistance, a cheerful bloke, who bears me away at high speed.

I’m impressed. The Spanish are frighteningly efficient. I am happy to comply with their tendency to march me back and forth and sit me down to wait. The only thing is that what with all this movement and the apple I had for breakfast, I’m in desperate need of the loo!

First Leg London to Paris:

September 9, 2010

First Leg London to Paris:

Friday August 27, 2010:

It has stopped raining at last. I seize my bag and dash out of the house. Garden hedges still heavy with rain, tenderly release their bourdon upon me as I hurry by. But I don’t care. I trot down the road, skimming the puddles that my stick detects and splashing through those it doesn’t! Damply, I arrive at the bus stop.

Everything feels easy. My bag and I board the bus and I chat to a helpful passenger. We both (the bag and I) remember to get off and march purposefully into the station.

And here’s the first hurdle. The station is like the Marie Celeste, staff wise. I look in all four of their known hiding places but to no avail. In the end, a helpful passenger assists me.

We chat away whilst riding to Kings Cross. I tell her about my trip, she tells me about her two jobs, her hormonal daughter and her philosophy of life.

She helps me out at Kings Cross and takes me to a member of staff.

Now, I * love * LU staff, but this one is a grumpy sod! Loudly, he complains that I should have found a member of staff at Finsbury Park, and they should have rung ahead. He is deaf to my explanation of my unheralded arrival. I give up and change gear, enquiring for directions to Euro star. But he’s not having any of it; I fear he is suffering from whatever it is that ails staff at airports. In the end, grudgingly, he marches me off to Euro star.

I am taken away by some chap who shows me where to sit and wait. I duly sit and wait, and am just thinking about sauntering up to what I hope my be a member of staff, when another one appears.

He bears my bag and I away to quick check-in via the business class area, for St Pancras is heaving today for some reason.

And before long, I am on the Euro star train and we are humming and swaying our way along.

I’m too shy to ask my neighbour about the view or what we are passing. My ears pop, my nose feels constricted. I guess we are snaking our way through East London in an underground tunnel.

I like the idea of the train snaking. Its sway seems friendly somehow.

I encounter the EUROSTAR toilets and wish I hadn’t. Once again, I fail to get the tap to work, although the soap has easily plopped into my unwilling hand and the dryer, eager to dry it! Thank goodness for medicated hand rub, I just so happen to have some about my person.

My fellow passengers are remarkably quiet. They sit contentedly gazing out of the window, reading newspapers, or quietly chatting. Even the children aren’t demanding.

I get talking to my companion. She says the fields are green but the sky is dull, as we emerge from the tunnel and speed our way through the French countryside.

The sun shines in Paris, but there is no sign of a member of staff. A fellow passenger, (a French man who works in the UK) gives me a hand and rings the pal of a pal of a pal who has been sent to meet me. At last united, we set off to do battle with the Paris metro automated ticket machines.