26th August 2006 I am on my way down to the south of France for the bank holiday weekend. This is the first time that I have managed to get down to Agen for a long weekend without flying. The difference is being able to stay the night in Paris on the way down. Having stayed the night somewhat fleetingly at the apartment – leaving before I arrived sort of thing – I had the chance to enact Phase 2 of the Move to Paris (the first being the random collection of posters, blankets and books last March described in a previous entry). In the end, I didn’t have the strength of character to take only my computer, underwear and a sharp pencil. Yes, in addition I packed a more predictable assortment of clothes and engineering notes. These were packed into my now-famous US Army surplus army bag. A bag of such enormous dimensions that if for some awful reason Mary and I get turfed out of our apartment, we could easily invert the thing and turn it into a three bedroom teepee on the Place de la Republique. While this bag presents tremendous advantages in terms of the sheer volume of stuff it can take, it is also impossible to lift when full. Presumably the US Army uses Hercules aircraft to move theirs. In March I had to rely on my own Herculean strength to carry that thing up the four flights of steps – sans ascenceur – to the flat, and compacted my spine in the process. This time I was more cautious and only half filled it. I had to leave out my pencil sharpener, which means my sharp pencil won’t stay sharp for long… And now I am zooming south on the train. They’re a sophisitcated bunch on the TGV (train de Grand Valise – train of big suitcase as I like to call it). Apart from the half of the occupants of the carriage who were asleep, the rest fell into one of three catagories: those who were reading a white folio french novel, those engaged in that French game – i’ve only seen it in France – where they have to fill in a completely empty grid with words, and the rest who were almost certainly students because they were copying out almost word for word notes from lectures, carefully underlining words in lots of different colours. No one was heard talking too loudly on their mobiles, and no one was drinking Stella. Bliss.
As I left Paris, I could see the tower who’s engineer is the namesake of this blog, somewhere in the mist. Later on, as the train approaches Bordeaux St-Jean station it slows to a crawl in order to cross the enormous truss bridge across the swollen brown waters of the Gironde. It was only recently that I discovered that this bridge was where Gustav Eiffel first made his name as an engineer in charge of this building site. Arriving at Bordeaux St-Jean, I was presented an exciting array of alternative destinations: the Basin de Arcachon for some Atlantic waves, Nice for the Med and Irun which is only one vowel away from one of my dream train destinations… Only last night I heard the story of two similarly train-minded friends who were enroute to Istanbul by rail. Initially flumuxed at not being able to find their train at the station in Budpapest, they found their single Turkey-bound sleeper carriage hooked up to a train to Bucharest. Their tickets matched the carriage number and so with a certain degree of trepidation they boarded the carriage which was empty apart from a conductor with whom they shared no common language. The next day, their carriage wsa unhooked from the rest of the train and left standing alone – tracks stretching out in either direction in the searing midday heat, Istanbul somewhere in the distance. They waited several hours with no information as to where they were, or when they were going to be leaving. It struck me as quite romantic. Now you don’t get that on a plane.