Zurich, Friday 30th November 2012.
Derek and I get to the waiting TGV Lyra in Zurich Hauptbahnhof with five minutes to spare, something I would never have risked with British public transport. Derek has now been in Switzerland long enough to have become used to the more reliable tram network and doesn’t see what I was worried about.
The TGV is much more modern and sleek than I expected, having imagined one of the earlier hulking square cut silver models that looks like the sides are made of corrugated steel. The wheels and pipework under the train are covered in curved streamlined chunks of ice. Inside the seats are smaller and more cramped than the other recent trains, the style is more airline style seating, as is usual in Britain. I settle into my seat just in time to wave Derek goodbye as the train starts to pull away.
Outside the sky is a flat light grey and patches of snow hide in crevices and on shaded patches of grass. We quickly pass through the northern parts of Switzerland and reach Basel where most of the people in the carriage get off before we cross the boarder. Shortly inside France the train stops again and we pick up a large group of middle aged people on an outing and a few young, thin and tired looking soldiers. The soldiers quickly show one of the most important skills that anyone in the military must acquire by falling asleep in their seats; the travelling party on the other hand opens some bottles of wine and shares it amongst themselves in plastic cups.
The passing chef du board doesn’t seem phased in the slightest by the rapidly growing number of empty wine bottles that gather on the table at the end of the carriage and asks for my ticket, InterRail pass and passport; the first time my passport has been checked since the Hungarian boarder. After careful consideration and a few sceptical looks that I’m probably the same person as in the passport photo, but only just, he returns my documents. Once past Dijon the train accelerates and rushes along the high speed track towards Paris. The lines of snow and shadow on the ploughed fields merge into one rapidly vibrating barcode.
As we approach Paris the wine drinking group point out of the right of the train at some tower blocks and speak to each other of “banlieues” in earnest and almost excited tones. They talk and make honest and concerned faces that only middle class people can when talking about the less fortunate. Sympathy mixed with a barely concealed fascination for an existence they fear above almost everything else.
In the Gare Du Lyon I am quickly swallowed by the metro system as I try to find a cross town train in the maze of tunnels and platforms. At the second corner of a blue tiled tunnel sits an accordion player with a beret, who I assume has been placed there by the French Tourist Board to ensure that stereotypes are maintained. I buy a metro ticket, but seem to be the only one doing so. Many of metro passengers are happy with jumping over the barriers or just pushing their way through the gates.
The hotel is hidden down a small dead end that I walk past twice before realising that’s where it’s hidden. Inside it’s everything you hope for in a small Parisian hotel; dark, busy decorative lampshades, assorted classic furniture and a small old cage lift with a red carpeted staircase winding around it like a flat marble snake. Hung on the wall behind the reception is a series of old glamour magazine covers, 1970’s topless women smiling at all the new guests.
I drop my bags in the room, which like the rest of the hotel is invitingly under-lit. Between the bedroom and the bathroom sits an unexpected small kitchen with a two hob cooker. I check the empty cupboards and find the fridge is stocked with the usual miniature drinks, whose tiny single-serving stature can only make a solo traveller feel more lonely if they choose to drink one. But nothing to cook on the hob.
Back outside I head to the nearby Gare du Nord to meet my Girlfriend’s incoming Eurostar train. The station is incredibly busy, with everyone in a rush to be somewhere else. Just as the small group of waiting relations I’ve joined is most expectant to see the train arrive a procession of luggage carts is parked right across the end of the platform.
If Paris is a city of romantic encounters and reunions it doesn’t look like the baggage handlers have been told, everyone’s longing and eager looks are now focused on some dirty canvas covered carts. After ten minutes the luggage carts move, just in time for the slightly delayed train to pull in and three hundred people to spill onto the platform. This turns into a long stream of scarves and hats being rapidly put on in the cold air, with many wheeled suitcases using this as a chance to try and escape their owner’s distracted grasp and attack the ankles of other travellers.
Eventually Sara appears in the crowd and we meet with a hug and a kiss. On the way back to the hotel we try to catch each other up by both speaking at the same time, then stopping and waiting for the other to start first, leaving us with unexpected blocks of silence.
After stopping at the hotel we walk to the Boulevard de Clichy and the Moulin Rouge where Sara wants to get tickets for tomorrow night. After seeing the film years ago she’s wanted to go and see the real show, having almost managed it on a school trip, but was frustrated by her friend’s baulking at the prices.
The prices are still high, but Sara insists that it’s her treat. I make a few mumbled ‘If you insist’ and ‘I’m not that hot on musicals’ remarks as to not sound too eager on my girlfriend paying for us to see a lot of pretty dancing semi-naked ladies. Sara gives me a look like I’m protesting a bit too much, but luckily something on the other side of the road catches my attention and I avoid any incriminating eye contact.
When we try and buy tickets the bouncer at the door just gives us a leaflet and tells us to book by phone. We then wander into the smaller streets around Mon Martre looking for a restaurant, but being Paris there is no end of restaurants, almost all of which would be great. After thirty minutes of paralysis through choice; not wanting to go into any restaurant as we always imaging that we’ll miss something better just a little further on, we settle on a little simple place that still has a space for two.
The food is traditional uncomplicated French food, duck, beef, potatoes etc. As we’re eating many people seem to be checking the time and at nine most of the other diners are gone, we assume to a theatre or show somewhere nearby. By ten we’re the only two left, but after asking as only British people would if we’re troubling them and should we leave, the waitress assures us that we’re not.
We walk back to the hotel through the small street that seem familiar, even thought I’ve never been to Paris before, from hundreds of films and books. Perhaps it’s also that Paris is so multi-cultural, the mixed crowds of European, Asian, African and other people mean it could easily be London, Manchester or Birmingham; making the city seem less unusual.
The other thing that helps is that my poor French has always been my fall-back foreign language. It’s the only foreign language that I’ve tried to learn as an adult, when I’m abroad anywhere and am asked something my default is always to “oui” or “non” to a question; from Malaysia to Poland many have received an errant “pardon” while my brain was struggling to find the right language.