All photos my own
I am on a Thalys train, sat at Rotterdam Centraal, awaiting the departure to Paris. I have had a very short, end-of-week (as opposed to weekend/week-end), break to see Megan who is studying in The Hague. I am on my way home, and door-to-door, it should take me 11 hours if all goes well. (If all goes well. In sha’Allah). I am two hours into those 11 hours, having already walked, taken a tram, then a regional train to get this far.
I am in the process of making the decision to transition to no longer take flights within Europe. I realise what a convoluted sentence that is… I haven’t yet made the actual decision. Or, if I have, mentally, I know I cannot implement it 100%, in one fell swoop. So, instead, I am reducing my air-travel (significantly), and being much more intentional about when I fly.
It’s about time. Even if I have it on good authority from the spouse of a climatologist that air travel is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 2% of CO2 emissions. Well, yes. And that is because only a minuscule proportion of humanity takes a plane anywhere in a lifetime, let alone on a weekly or monthly basis. It is everything else – fashion, food production and transport, other forms of transport – whatever – that makes up most of the CO2 emissions. But my own flavour of climate anxiety is now so strong that I can no longer, in good conscience, get on a short flight “for pleasure”.
So I booked to go by train. And on Wednesday, travelled from Sergy to Scheveningen by car, multiple trains, metro and tram.
It did not go smoothly.
After enjoying rather a long time in my first station, Bellegarde, listening to an amateur pianist playing the piano that now lives in every train station in France, I looked up to see the time, and had mere minutes before my TGV to Paris left. I raced towards the platforms, dragging wheelie bin suitcase and computer bag with me, searched in vain for an indication as to which platform I needed to be on, then realised that the platform I needed was in the other part of the station – beyond where I had been sitting, where the pianist was still tinkling the ivories.
I caught that first train by the skin of my teeth. The train was moving by the time I found my seat.
All good to Paris. Though the train was forced to stop for a few minutes just before arriving at the Gare de Lyon, minutes that were precious in my 45 minute allowance to take the RER metro from Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord. Normally enough time but…. it was rush hour… a group of about 30 forty-something women wearing matching fluorescent t-shirts and carrying walking backpacks were hovering around the ticket machines. (Will Paris please catch up and allow us to use “contactless” for individual ticket purchases? Do we still need to buy those fiddly, cardboardy tickets to go through the turnstiles?) More precious minutes lost. I got down to the platform to see the metro train doors closing. Normally in Paris, metros come along every few minutes. But there was at least 10 mins before the next came. More precious minutes lost. Then, in the very few stations between Gare de Lyon and Gare du Nord, we stopped, inexplicably, twice. More precious minutes sunk.
The metro was heaving. It was full-on evening rush hour. I was totally in people’s way with my small suitcase and shoulder bag. I am no longer used to big city, rush hour traffic. At least not on the scale of Paris. Or London. It was a struggle for me to remain calm. I practised deep breathing. I felt sure that, could I hear my posh new Garmin watch, it would be beeping at me to say that my heartbeat was over 100. When at rest. It does that sometimes, even when I am, apparently, sitting calmly. Who knew my heart raced so?
Anyway – back to the metro. We sat underground, motionless, for long seconds and even longer minutes. I thought I might still have time, and was willing willing willing – with every ounce of my will – the metro to start up again and carry on. I know enough about capital city underground systems that you can have a five to ten-minute walk to get from the bowels of the metro system to the lofty heights of the mainline railway trains, and time was getting seriously pinched. I was in awe that no-one was shrieking with fear and panic at the delays. Perhaps like me, we were all shrieking inside.
We arrived in Gare du Nord and I searched for signs saying “Grandes Lignes” and ran haphazardly, lurching left and right to avoid people. Signage was not optimal – in my opinion. Not if you’re rushing, unfamiliar with the train station, and more generally now used to a combination of living in the boonies and only taking simple, point to point trips.
I saw where the platforms must be… figured out my train must be the one that went to Amsterdam, and raced along (“raced” being a relative term, but my heart was certainly racing). I got to the end of the platform to find the ticket attendants pulling the red strap across the entrance, effectively closing access.
What? But I still had a few minutes! The train was still standing there. Please please please! There was a young Chinese man in the same predicament as me – arriving just as the platform shut down access to the train. He started yelling and hollering and blinding and effing, while the attendants looked on impassively, perhaps bracing themselves for a bout of fisticuffs.
Part of me wished to punch the lights out of the train attendants (as the Chinese man was doing orally). Part of me wished – and was so close to – bursting into tears, to sob out my story, to say how I had to get to see my big girl, that she was so precious, that I had lost lots of people. But it’s an old story now. It’s always close to the surface – it IS the surface story when I am super-stressed, tired, anxious and scared – but I know that even if all of the deaths had happened that morning, the idea of getting on that train was a goner. The SNCF attendants looked on impassively. Clearly they are used to people missing connections.
I haven’t missed a train – or a plane – in a long time. But it’s horrible – especially when – as is the case with these trains, they are like planes in that they (a) require a reservation, (b) get fully booked up, and (c) cost a lot of money.
I headed over to the place to buy/exchange/refund my ticket, but the queue was very long, and there was a sign, about 20 people from the end, saying, “we cannot commit to serving beyond this point today”. Hmm. I headed to one of the few working “bornes” to see if I could simply buy a new ticket, jettisoning the first one. A young man was p a i n f u l l y a n d s l o w l y purchasing his ticket. He took about 10 minutes. I was trying to hurry him up, explaining what buttons to press, and how to pay for his ticket. He was slow, he said, because he had never bought a long-distance train ticket before. He did look young.
I finally got to the front of that queue, searched for new tickets to Rotterdam (my interim destination) and found… nothing. All trains for the next almost 24 hours completely sold out. I came away from the machine, started texting a friend who lives half in Paris, half in Milan (so to speak), but she was in Milan. I don’t really know people in Paris I can just “descend” on, last minute, for the night.
I started to look at AirBnb and Booking.com and other sites. I came close to booking a room in a nearby hotel, but the final room was sold to someone else just before I got to it. I started over, scrolling through hotel listings, and rejoined the ticket machine queue, figuring I still had to get a train ticket onwards to see Megan, so might as get on and buy one for the next day.
More scrolling through hotel listings.
A kind woman helping an elderly man in front of me. (These ticket machines are NOT intuitively simple!)
Then finally the kind woman’s turn. She gave up, possibly because no tickets were available.
And finally finally it was my turn at the ticket borne.
All the while, my then current hotel reservation was slowly scrolling through the part where I was confirming credit card details on my phone… taking an age. Phone in one hand, index finger pressing menu buttons… other hand going through the interminably slow train ticket machine menus. And suddenly – what?! One remaining first class ticket on the next train to Rotterdam.
Oh Joy! Sweet Relief!
(200 euros, mind. More than many flights).
But I grabbed it. Not caring or knowing if I would be able to get a refund on the train I had missed-not-missed. Quick, quick, quick! Tiny receipt in hand (not even a proper ticket), I dashed to the platform, for it was nearly time for this train, a whole hour after my original one, to leave.
The relief! I sat down in my plush red velvet chair (seriously, the Thalys trains are like the inside of a brothel – not that I have been inside a brothel). Even the soft lighting is red.
A woman came around serving meals and drinks. I assumed I would have to pay for it, and as I still had a half-eaten sandwich from home with me, I declined. But she seemed to encourage me to have a drink, so in the end I enquired, in a bit of a student-y tone, if it was included in the fee. Yes, it was.
Oh how I wanted a small bottle of wine. A gin and tonic. Anything alcoholic. To accompany my rather bland-looking orzo salad. It would have been my habit of old to have a drink on an evening flight. Or a long, evening train journey. Or during times of significant stress. But I am working on developing new habits around drinking and eating.
Not to drink alone (which I am most of the time).
Not to drink just because I am away from home.
And not to drink “just because” I am stressed.
Well, all of those conditions cover over 99% of my life.
But I held fast, and asked for a tomato juice.
Then a glass of water.
Then a herbal tea.
For the drinks lady came around many times during that journey.
I was proud of myself.
I hadn’t bawled at the gate when the train attendants pulled the red barrier in front of my nose and looked at me impassively (a polite word for “coldly”).
I hadn’t succumbed to the comfort of a glass of red wine (in proper glass) on a first-class evening train from Paris, through Belgium, on to the Netherlands.
And I hadn’t succumbed to eating everything that was put on the tray in front of me.
Good girl, Em Bem!
(yes – I really do have these voices in my head).
My travel turmoil was not over though.
When I arrived in Rotterdam, I still had one more train to catch, to The Hague, and from there, a tram or bus up to Scheveningen where my AirBnb was. Curfew was 23h00. Anna, the AirBnb hostess, knew by then that I had missed the train from Paris, but that I would arrive as soon as I could. She seemed very accommodating, but urged me to get a cab or Uber, rather than the tram, from the station to her house.
I was aware of going through Delft, close to The Hague, and was busy recording messages for Megan for next day planning. All of a sudden, the train stopped, and lots of people started to get out. I figured I must be in The Hague – after all, it’s right next door to Delft. I grabbed my bags and rushed out on to the platform. I searched along the platform, but couldn’t see any station signs – nothing to confirm – or deny – my being in The Hague’s central station. A train attendant was on the platform outside a door just ahead of me, looking up and down to see if people were safely on and off the train, and she was about to get back inside the train. I asked her if we were in Den Haag Centraal, and she turned and looked at me as if I were slightly mad, pressed the door button to close it, and shook her head “no”. I pressed the button on the outside of the train, but it wouldn’t open. And it slid off, outside the station. I laughed at my (bad) luck.
Meanwhile, well past 22h30, and hurtling towards my 23h00 curfew at the AirBnb… train carriages and taxis turn into pumpkins at that time…. I think I might have allowed myself a choice f-word (like “Oh fuckety-fuck”), rolled my eyes at my own incompetence and inattention for getting out of a train TOO EARLY, and pulled out my phone and pressed the Uber icon.
After that all was well. It turned out that I had got off the train two stops early! (The train stopped in every little hamlet between Rotterdam and wherever it was eventually terminating). But Uber being Uber, it just cost more and took a bit longer. No biggy.
And – a final highlight after my rather tumultuous day of car-train-metro-train-train-cab travel – I had a truly inspiring conversation with my Yemeni driver, Sam, who wholeheartedly agreed with me that, in all probability, Yemen would be safer, richer, and more attractive if there were female leaders, like in times of old with the Queen of Sheba and Queen Arwa.
And – bonus – my Lebanese hostess, Anna, was most gracious despite my 23h02 arrival.
All good. I slept where I was meant to, that night.
There’s something I notice, though, about these kinds of upheavals in my “life of now”. I lurch, stagger, swing wildly – so much more wildly than I did in my life of old – when travel does not go according to plan. My emotions are so much closer to the surface – especially when I am aiming to see a precious member of my much diminished family. And I feel distraught and bereft on a scale that most people would probably not experience. The idea of having 24 hours less with Megan – in what was just to be a 48-hour trip – felt devastating.
Out of proportion devastating. I feel such pain and loss. I want to crumple into a heap and have someone wave a magic wand and fix everything for me.
And, in parallel, I am speedily processing the experience with my go-to method of keeping drama and turmoil in perspective – asking myself, “Will this matter in five minutes? (Yes!) Five hours? (Yes!) Five days? (er… no). Five weeks? (nope). Five months? (nah). Five years? (pfff!) Five decades?” (yeah, right). And invariably, my answer is “no” after the first couple of questions…
Not too many of the mishaps that commonly arise during my day-to-day are not going to be resolved in five weeks, five months, five years, or five decades. Death is an exception, but not a lot else.
So I can feel distraught and devastated, and practise self-calming. Simultaneously – or almost.
This is how I live. Much of the time.
No longer with some of the extremes – at least, no longer constantly.
But the general pattern of…
…out of control stuff happening…
…wanting to crumple in a pile…
…having to pick up pieces and figure out alternative solutions…
…desperation for comfort (a hug from Mike, his calm, soothing voice)…
…in his absence, a glass of wine or something to eat…
…and somehow being able to shift to a more healthy strategy.
At least more of the time.
It’s becoming a new skill.
An ongoing practice to practise.
In time, I might even get there.
As I post this, my journey home was also disrupted. There was an “incident” on the train – and we made an unscheduled stop in Arras. We were told, “There is a young man in the train’s restaurant-bar carriage who is mentally unstable and being physically violent. The police in Arras have been called to settle things or take him off”.
We were not allowed to leave our seats for quite a while. In Arras, I saw him being led away by the police. He looked thin, pale and docile. Poor man. We were 40 minutes late arriving into Paris as a result, and again I raced through the bowels of the city to catch my connecting train. And perhaps because I had already bought my metro ticket, managed to catch my train to Lyon with a few minutes to spare.
This train travel life is certainly full of travails. I think I will post this up before anything else happens.
(and despite the travel travails, my big girl and I had a lovely time with concert, cinema, meals out, a run on the beach in wind and rain, and more)