This is the story of a journey which became a farce. It is not as bad as some beginnings. I did not, for example, return home one day to find my house burnt to the ground and myself orphaned along with my younger brother and carnivorous infant sister, only to be sent to live with a distant monobrowed uncle, so all things considered, perhaps I got off lucky.
Things started at 3:30am, the time that nothing good happens. 3:30am is for crying at parties, going on the run from the law, eating questionable fast food, and apparently standing at bus stops in Pimlico in the lashing drizzle, waiting for a bus that did not show up until 20 anxiety ridden minutes later. The late bus meant a missed connection, so a jog in the rain from Warren Street to Calendonian Road to pick up my backpack from the luggage drop off left me trudging damply into St Pancras. I was quickly realising that the weight of my pack was exceeding what I could comfortably carry. Staff at check in had failed to pull out all the barriers and were now angrily trying to herd the swarm into something resembling a queue, without much luck. Screens had started flashing up with rumours of Eurostar issues. Everyone looked worried. I worked out that if I leaned forward and adopted the pose of a slack marionette, I could breathe better. The people around me looked more worried.
On the other side of check-in it seemed prudent to work out where I’d put my travel money. I checked my small pack. I checked the easily accessible pockets of my big pack. I checked the small pack again. I began to unpack my big pack as neatly and quickly as one can on a bench in a waiting room. The call for boarding chimed. I started to panic. My brain told me very loudly and in completely certain terms that I was a complete fucking moron who had left their money on their bed in Slough.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that at this point I had had about 2 hours of actual sleep on the floor of a friend’s house the night before after she’d cooked me an absolutely lush curry. A lack of pillows meant I’d slept with my head on a quilted tea cosy stuffed with trousers, which is neither whimsical nor comfy. It’s also worth pointing out that I’m not one of those people who can magically function on caffeine and wishes. As soon as my hours of sleep drop below 6/24, my IQ drops below 90.
On the train I tried to sleep. The man behind me snored like a walrus. The hen party in front of me animatedly planned their day at Disneyland. The seat next to me remained empty, so I kicked off my boots and failed at sleeping in a different pose. On the other side of the channel tunnel I sent my mother a “help I am an idiot I have left my money at home” message, which did wonders for my belief in myself as an independent capable adult. An hour later she sent one back saying she couldn’t find it either. In my mind, 200 euro and 25,000 yen tumbled into a void never to be seen again and the future unfolded, leaving me living off a single conbini onigiri a day until I walked from Tokyo to my placement on the Izu Peninsula on the 3rd of April. Mum sent me an emergency hold-over £200. I felt guilty and anxious and like a colossal fuck-up.
As the screens had foretold at St Pancras, the train kept stopping in the middle of nowhere for random delays due to “traffic” as the announcer put it. This greatly displeased the hen party on their way to Disneyland, who had now run out of Bucks Fizz. I felt for them, really I did, there’s nothing better than spending the day queuing around screaming children and paying 10€ for a vermin shaped pretzel, but secretly I was pleased to be spending more time on the train. A few weeks before my departure, the train company had moved my Paris-Turin train back by 2 hours, leaving me with almost 4 hours stuck in a city I don’t like with too much luggage to do anything. Luckily a friend was flying into Paris the day before, at the start of his year abroad, and we’d planned to meet up for coffee, macarons, and Japanese practice. Unluckily, this had happened:
He was now stuck in the middle of an angry mob in Brazil, reading Lord of the Rings and trying to work out how to sue the airline.
I meanwhile, was gliding into the beautiful suburbs of Paris.
Paris darling, this is my fourth visit and having seen some other, prettier parts of Europe (Vienna springs to mind), I can categorically say you are an overpriced, piss soaked, grey misery pit. Sorry.
Like London, it was raining. My over-encumbered form drudged itself onto the badly signposted Metro to a station with a name my brain translated as “Grated Quail” and onward through the drizzle to Gare de Lyon where I sat under a drip for 15 minutes before realising the roof was leaking.
In the centre of the station, a man tinkled out rhythmless attempts at Chopin. Soldiers armed with machine guns strolled around for added ambiance. My broken French managed to refill my water bottle at Starbucks and direct me to the right station hall where passengers attempting to get on my platform in a swarm were proving my belief that civilisation is only one food shortage away from full on rampage.
The train to Turin was uneventful. I tried to nap but kept getting woken either by the nearby door opening and closing or by my own fat head lolling forward. The announcement chime sounded eerily reminiscent of the Professor Layton puzzle theme as we sped through sparse French villages, each house well stocked with firewood, cows milling around by the tracks.
At some point the flat fields yielded to grey dark mountains, villages jammed against sheer cliffs where power lines crawled like spider’s webs. Until then I had little idea that places could be both alluring and foreboding.
Here is the thing about train travel. More than anything, it forces you as a passenger to live in the moment. You look out the window and might only catch seconds of a beautiful vista or interesting building, then have it instantly wrenched away from you. There is no “hey, why don’t we pull up over there and get a better look?” There is often neither the time nor possibility of capturing the moment on camera (every time I tried to get a shot of the view, the camera would focus on either the raindrops on the window or the internal train lights). Everything I wanted to remember, I had to focus on committing to memory. One image that stuck with me was the sight of a dark and powerful cliff, bathed in mist, the only building below it glowing white and otherworldly with steam swirling out of the back and little pink neon sign screaming out that it was a bowling alley. I swore I’d been there in a dream.
As we pulled into an alpine village, it began to snow.
I’ve taken a train through this kind of landscape before– Vienna to Graz and back- but that was in late spring when other than a touch of snow above ski resorts, the whole world seemed lush and leafy. This time of year, the palette was a study in chiaroscuro. Deep greys of rock formed a background against dark pine greens, highlighted by white rushing rivers and ever present mist. The overall effect was like living in a charcoal drawing.
Arrival at Turin was 18:17. My train to Bologna was at 18:22. The online ticket did not say which platform out of the 20. I couldn’t hear the station announcements over everything. I’d been up since 7am on the 13th, it was now 34 hours later and I’d only had 4 hours of sleep. Carrying all my stuff I could only move at about 2 miles an hour.
Unsurprisingly, I missed my train.
Cool, cool, I thought. I knew my ticket was valid on the next train, because when my earlier train had been rescheduled the company had sent me an email saying so. I headed to the info desk to confirm the platform number and make sure everything was 100% okay, praying that there would be a rep who spoke English because my Italian is entirely limited to “grazie”, “scusi” and “prego”. After 15 minutes of swaying back and forth in a queue, the guy waved me over. Sheepishly, I showed him the ticket reference and mumbled “Inglese”. He took my phone, typed with one finger, and chewed his mouth before turning back to me.
“Not valid this train”, he said. I don’t remember the back and forth that followed other than his insistence that my ticket was not valid and that if I wanted to get to Bologna it’d cost me 66€. “Okay”, I croaked back, failing at holding back a leaky dam of brain shit and starting to cry as I pulled out my credit card. “You keep this ticket and get a refund from the other company, okay?” he insisted. I nodded, thanked him and took the new ticket and my phone. Round the corner, I sat at a cafe table, took off my bag, rested my head on my arm and let myself cry for a solid 5 minutes. My feet and back and wisdom teeth hurt. I was beyond tired. I had no water or snacks left and a third of my money, which wasn’t even my money, had just gone on a train ticket I’d already paid for once.
Thankfully we live in a magical age of smartphones and unlimited European data packages, so I could reach friends online who talked me down from feeling like a worthless puddle of failure juice. After updating my host friend that I’d be an hour later than planned, he confirmed that it was no worry and there was beer and French onion soup waiting for me.
The Italian train was sleek and beautiful, but lacking in the luggage rack space. An Italian schoolboy and 3 of his mates sat around a table, one of them in my seat. They all stared as I slid in next to him and balanced my massive bag on my knees. His teacher appeared and started speaking rapid fire Italian at me until wincing, I broke out the “scusi, Inglese”, and showed her my seat number on my ticket. She left, only for a colleague to repeat the process moments later. After a while, a third teacher patted me on the shoulder and gestured to the seat behind me.
“Sit, sit”, she said and then pointed at the child in front of me. “He sick.” I nodded as she mimed puking, and poured myself into the vacant seat.
It wasn’t long before the ticket inspector arrived. He looked at my ticket, narrowed his eyes, checked the ticket of the guy next to me, smiled, looked back at my ticket and started speaking a language I now massively regretted not studying at any point in my life. Once the “I am an awful tourist mode” had been employed, he explained the problem.
“This ticket is for tomorrow”, he said. I looked at the date.
I told him the story as best and simply as I could, bringing up the ticket on my phone which he confirmed wasn’t valid. I think by this point I must have looked like my soul had oozed out somewhere a few hundred kilometres back, leaving a pasty tear-stained husk that barely qualified as human, because he looked concerned, tapped a few times on his screen, waived the 50€ penalty and told me to switch to the seat behind me at Milan because my current seat was booked but that one would be vacant.
If you are a train conductor or in a similar public facing role where you apply empathy like this, on behalf of all hot messes the world over, you are an angel and we appreciate you in ways you will never know.
Mr Angel the conductor walked off. I’d started to actively fantasise about the beer waiting for me in Bologna when from a little way in front of me came a sound somewhere between a burp and cough, followed by wet chunks slapping the aisle.
Teachers flew into action, making exasperated noises and flying back and forth from the toilets with tissue and a bin bag, mopping ineffectually at this poor child who’d spewed all over himself as well at the table, seat, and aisle. Another kid chundered into a bag. Several other children retched with their hands over their mouths. I wrapped my scarf around my head, breathed through my mouth, and choked back hysterical laughter at how farcical my entire day had been.
Eventually a train janitor appeared and did a full wipe down, spraying sickly sweet pink cleaner around. At Milan, the school group disembarked, and I switched to my new seat, trying not to grimace as a man in an incredibly expensive looking suit plonked himself down in the epicentre of the puke fiasco and put his Macbook on the table.
Thankfully, that was the end of the trials on the way to Bologna. I managed to somehow stay conscious the rest of the way, and let me tell you, greeting E on the platform at the end I’ve never been so glad to see an astrophysicist in all my life.
I’d soon change my mind when he got us lost in a park after dark and nearly chased by guard dogs, but that’s a story for another time.
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