night transport, Paris rain

The day in question brings the night into question as well. It all starts at 19:57 on Gleis 8 – not to be mistaken with Gleis 7 – of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof – the most expensive building the city’s forked out for recently – … when, after a rushed Pizza Hut mozzarellarama, and wine-run, the tannoy comes on. And the Pomes next to us all start twittering in earnest. Mannheim they are saying. So is that 4 or 5 hours in? Oooooh that’s not much sleep for us… And Eurostar connection, and so on.

It transpires that our service, our months-before-hand pre-booked at-great-expense First Class three-person sleeper compartment service, will come precipitantly to an end. In Mannheim. At 3:10 am.

Q. asks, What’s a strike? Indeed. What’s socialism or the trade union movement? To a Kiwi? History.

The French are on strike. From Mannheim, the tannoy repeats, buses will be available to take passengers to Paris. The dream of overnighting on rail stops there.

The train sweeps into Gleis 8 – not 7 as we’d been told – with minutes to board. Carriage 98 is right in front of us.

The guardette(?), rail-stewardess, German, confirms the story. 3:10 Mannheim. Buses. Arriving in Paris around 11 am. Almost 16 hours travelling. She also apologises for the sleeper compartment. We’d barely noticed, preoccupied with the prospect of boarding buses, but we are in second class. And what she calls a broken carriage. It sounds as if an old aboriginal fulla is sitting on the roof playing a didgeridoo when we pick up speed.

At least I’ve wine. I pop the cork. It’s red. Not the white I wanted.

Nothing to be done now but sit back and watch the colour drain out of the landscape to the lulling clickety-clack. Think of Freud and train journeys.

And for the time we’re on the train, it’s wonderful. A dream landscape passing by, with occasional blasts of staccato, the clickety-clack rising in pitch, and yellow light streaking past the window, when a train passes in the opposite direction.

When the wine’s gone we retire into a sweaty sleep. Fully dressed because of the early rising.

We are awoken by the genial ‘chief’ – guten morgen meine damen und herren (he had wished us a pleasant if short night at the beginning of our journey) – and the entire train, underslept, pours out onto the platform, where red-faced dark-blue uniform-wearing (with red beading) and paunchy guards – some even with tight little mo’s – shout at us to GEHEN SIE UNTEN UND RECHTS UND LINKS UND AUSGANG UND SCHNELL SCHNELL. And swept up by a crowd totally spooked, harried and anxious we find out what night transports feel like. Truly hideous. The guards are barking and the mass does as it’s told – in general. Blindly.

The buses won’t open their doors for the swelling crowd which laps up around them like a sea at high tide. One man is shouting that we cannot be expected to stand up all the way to Paris. And it is true. There are not enough seats. DB – German Rail – is not overseeing, not organising, not calming people down, and people are growing desperate.

I overhear one guard saying to another: Diese Menschen sind scheisslich. Literally, these people are shitty. We are shitty, as in totally pissed off. He means like shit. We were treated like shit too.

It so easily could’ve been more horrific. There might easily have been a stampede. It was out of control. I could barely get the words out to say so.

When at last a bus opens its doors, people don’t bother to stop and stow the luggage below. They take it in with them. General panic prevails. And that strange vulnerability of crowds. Were we going to camps there would’ve been no room to question and no opportunity to protest. Specifically no ability to make oneself heard from within the crowd.

We resist as long as we can. More buses arrive and we find one that not going by the most direct route is less full, although it will get us to Paris at around the same time as the others. Added to which the driver is a soft-spoken man, quietly going about his work. Not like the guards or some of the other drivers who are also swept up in the panic. Shouting and stopping people rather than reassuring them that there is no real cause for alarm, panic, or hurry. That DB has it under control and there will sooner or later be seats for all. No. DB lets itself down badly.

Our coach is an old clunker but does the job. And thankfully we have the rear row to ourselves and room to stretch out a bit and sleep.

We wake up in Metz and later at a truckstop which is the only comfort stop over the eight hours or so we are aboard. Amazingly we survive the endless strike-beating coach ride and are delivered to Gare de L’Est, where there is no DB agency to refund us our booking fee. We will have to do this tomorrow.

We walk from the station through a Paris of boulevards and cigarette sellers, streets devoted to suits and bridal attire, corn on the cob being char-grilled in shopping trolleys, French Algerians and Africans, a mix of skin colours we’ve seen little of in Germany. Dodgy street life but vibrant and exciting.

It’s not too far before we find the cafe where we’re to pick up the key and then the building where we’re to enter the code at the first door and the next code at the second door. But we get stuck with not knowing on what floor we’re supposed to be.

We eventually find it. And throw open the blinds and windows to views of the spires of Sacre Coeur. Lots of light and air. And our ramble through the area, up the hill to the basilica, to the best views over Paris, and the sun suddenly breaking through after heavy rain, has us falling in love with city all over again.

We return to our apartment for roast chicken cooked to perfection in our dual function micro-wave and convection oven and Cuvee des Volcans 2009 from Cotes D’Auvergne, yum.