samedi 30 juillet
Cats, silent as stolen kisses, slink home before light cracks the night sky. A gorgeous day is about to break over the Pyrénées, but not yet. And not for me.
No light shines inside or outside Gare Luchon, but two couples with cases huddle in the dark under the station verandah when The Iceman drops me off. The bike pod and my backpack hold up a wall. A deserted bus squats on the forecourt.
A droog approaches from the left, the town: shaved head, black denims, mohawk slicked back in a lank ponytail. He opens the rear bus-hatch, peers at the mechanicals inside, pokes something. He’s our driver, this bus the train.
At 6:22 it begins its mazy journey on empty roads and village streets narrow as right-wing opinions. Hamlets sleep on after the rigours of the week.
An hour later the seven passengers who embark in Luchon—a mother and teenage son with a kitten in a basket, an age-spotted couple, a young woman, a solid woman who rode in on an old bike, breathless, just in time, and me—disembark at Gare Montréjeau.
Another hour later we disembark into the horded subway and sprawling waiting-hall at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse. Ninety minutes to kill before my slow train to Paris Austerlitz. I buy a baguette stuffed with Brie and a packet of cheap butter biscuits for my seven hours on the non-TGV.
The train grande vitesse rockets through the countryside, but the 10:22 TEOZ service is the TPV—the train petite vitesse. It burrows through the endless tunnels of the Massif Central at worm rather than warp speed. The French have a Freudian thing for tunnels.
French trains are comfortable, practical, and punctual—when they don’t run over and kill people en route. But the right to travel comes at a cost: last-minute platform information; subways like the gory alleys of Pamplona; a crushing human funnel at each carriage door.
Non-TGV French trains are scaled rather than stepped into: it’s a claustrophobic uphill tug-of-war, backwards, lugging awkwardnesses, like a bike pod. (The verb to lug: hence, lugging, lugged, luggage.)
There are trains with living-room-sized luggage compartments. There are trains with luggage racks, baggage bays, and elasticised nets for small items. There are trains with special accommodation for bikes. And there are trains in which a bike pod might as well be a giraffe.
Seating comes in every conceivable configuration: pairs in line, pairs facing, and raised and lowered seats. Most have tables for food, books, computers or maps, and individual bins for wrappers, cans, and personal effluvia. Hooks and handles are thoughtfully located, the toilets clean and functional at departure.
I have a cheap last-minute first-class couchette, number 91, that turns out to be a velour-covered mattress. It has no backrest, no cushion and no table, so you can lie down or you can lie down, which is fine if you require seven hours sleep in the middle of the day.
The compartment is comprised of four couchettes, two up—95 and 96, and two down—91 and 92. The whereabouts of 93 and 94 are a mystery. They are not in the adjoining compartment.
The pod occupies half a skinny corridor. The conductor points to the space under my couchette. My French is not up to this: I shrug and say in English that I tried. He shrugs. I study the mechanics of the couchette and try again, folding it to 60 degrees while juggling the pod and ladder to the upper couchettes. In it goes.
The trip is long and tedious. My companions, a 20 year-old boy with a smartphone and ear-buds and a girl upstairs reading a book titled The men who don’t like the women, if my translation stands up, utter not one word. They sleep while I wake and wake while I sleep.
At Gare Austerlitz a little boy slides on a dog turd in the tiled corridor setting off a stink still clinging to me in the fresh air of the taxi rank. Fifteen minutes later I’m in the Hotel Diana. The fresh young Jewish concierge hands me the key to the room I left 22 days ago, room 32. It feels like home.