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Archive for September, 2013

France Revisited

The ferry I took to France, which oscillates between the Devon port of Plymouth and the small Brétagne town  of Roscoff (or Rosko in Bréton), is the longest maritime route available between England and France. Crossing the Channel at its very widest point, the voyage lasts roughly 10 hours, compared to the hour it takes on the more traditional route between Dover and Calais. Dover, however, is on the opposite end of the country to the delightful village of Ashburton where I was staying; Plymouth, on the other hand, is just 45 minutes south by train.roscoff601685_520397468038773_264065277_n

My ferry was to leave Plymouth at 10 PM and arrive in Roscoff at 8 AM (Central European Time, which is one hour later than British time). From there, I would activate my Eurail pass – which, unlike my BritRail pass, was continuous, allowing for unlimited travel during a 30-day period), take the 11:40 train to nearby Morlaix, and catch the next train to Paris from there, where a bed and a shower longingly awaited me. The longing was mutual.

This time, I swore to myself, I would not accidentally leave my camera in the checked luggage; and no matter what a lifetime of experience with foreshadowing might suggest, I actually followed through (and did not regret it one bit, either).

The voyage itself – you have journeys in trains, but ships are for voyages – was uneventful. I settled down in the lounge, went online for a while, and eventually even got a little sleep. Given the day I was about to have, this was a very good thing indeed.

I do not know what mental image the word ferry conjures up for you, but, for me, it basically means a profoundly unattractive, flat barge, sort of a floating car park. This is not the image to have in mind here.

Instead, picture a multi-storey shopping centre topped by a series of bars, cinemas, restaurants, duty-free shops, and a hotel. Now picture it floating.

I think it no exaggeration to say that the MV Armorique had space enough for the entire population of Ashburton, and probably neighbouring Widecombe as well. It is a truly titanic thing to behold.

Or perhaps colossal. Yes, I do suppose that works better.

Not long after dawn, I got my first look at Roscoff. The vista was dominated by a beautifully craggy, rocky, rough-hewn coastline, not so much so as the southern English coast, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless. Perfect golden sunlight gilded the small cluster of old stone buildings that made up the town of Roscoff, as well as the mass of metallic unloveliness that was its port.

Roscoff is located in a district of Brétagne known as Finistère, a gallicisation of finis terrae, or Land’s End. And, as in the bit of Cornwall with the corresponding name, the rail connections are not the best.

The last time I’d had to wait for several hours for a train on no sleep in a small French seaside town was nearly three years before, in the southern border village of Cerbère. I arrived there from what may soon become the independent state of Catalunya, physically and emotionally drained from what had been an utter cockup of a visit.

Two days before, in Barcelona, I had managed to get both my computer (read: my livelihood) and my purse with all my cash and cards (read: my lifeline) nicked in the space of two hours in the Rambla dels estudis.

Getting my purse stolen had been particularly embarrassing because I’d actually seen it happen. After filing a police report all concerned knew to be futile, you see, I had decided to have a look round the Rambla to see if anyone might be carrying my distinctive red computer case.

As expected, whoever had taken the case had long since buggered off. Whilst navigating the crowd of tourists and fingersmiths from the world over (the Rambla, it turns out, is Graceland for pickpocket), a young man brushed up against me. I saw him clearly.

Did he just… I thought, but quickly dismissed it. There was just no way – it simply could not be that I would have been robbed twice in one afternoon at the same fucking place. What could the odds on that be?

Not bad at all, I discovered about four hours later when I nipped by a cashpoint to get money for a packet of fags.

Even after emptying my handbag twice in growing panic, the purse wasn’t there. It was gone, and, with it, my access to what money I already had.

Six hours passed before I was able to utter another word.

My only saving grace was that I had several clients who owed me a bit of money, and who were willing to send it to me by Western Union. And, fortunately, my passport and Eurail pass had been in a separate compartment, and were still there. Once I got out of Spain (and I mean no offence to the fine people of Spain when I say that I ached to get out of Spain), I could at least get to my next destination, Sonthofen in Germany.

My journey out of Spain was the sort of adventure it is infinitely more enjoyable to read (or, come to that, write) about than to experience first-hand. I spent the night in a bit of Barcelona that had no transit connections with a Facebook friend called Montse Reynal (name unaltered to protect the innocent), who nearly got me killed twice in traffic, left me stranded in her housing estate with nearly no time to catch my train when she had promised to drive me to the railway station, and spent the thirty hours it took before I could get online again telling all our mutual friends on Facebook that I had nicked her wallet. Fortunately, my friends knew me well enough to know that this was an utter lie.

I took a taxi to the station, and just barely managed to board the train to Cerbère, the French border town from which I was going to take a train to Paris and then on to Germany.

Two separate, but equally disastrous, things happened once I had boarded the train to Cerbère.

First, my body informed me that I was operating on borrowed blood sugar.

Then, an announcement came over the PA system that, due to a railway strike in France, the train would not be able to cross the border. The border hamlet of Portbou was to be the end of the line.

Then, to make the evening complete, a woman with a two-year-old in tow decided to shame me out of my seat, not caring that I was feeling so weak I could barely sand. I spent the remaining 90 minutes of the journey on my feet, silently willing her little son to grow up to pawn everything she owns in order to fund an ill-advised music career. I have rarely loathed anyone quite as intensely as, in that moment, I loathed the woman who forced me to spend an hour and a half being tossed about on legs that threatened to fold at any minute.

I decided to get off at Figueres, one stop before Portbou, because I had been through there once before and it seemed big enough that I would find something to eat there, which, fortunately, I did (at a pizzeria near the station called Augustea, which I highly recommend for the excellent, generously proportioned pizza).

However, I also found that rail service to France would not resume until 8 the next morning, and that the station in Figueres closed at 11:30 PM. I seem to have been the last to understand the implications of this, because every hotel room in the entire city turned out to be booked.

I would, in other words, have to roam around a strange city in the middle of the night, until the station opened at 6 AM.

I found a Texmex-themed bar called El Dorado that was open until 3 AM, and decided to kill some time there. However, it was so smoky and unventilated that I could barely breathe, and I ended up leaving at 1 AM, with five hours left to go.

For lack of a better idea, I decided to sit on the bench opposite the station, which was well lit, came with a clear view of the station clock, and had a phone box nearby, just in case.

When I had been there about an hour and a half, I saw a group of local youths arrive in the playground about 100 metres behind the bench. I turned to get a closer look, to see whether this was anything to be concerned about.

They saw this, and started advancing towards me, laughing in a decidedly uncomforting manner.

I decided to run for it, in profoundly inappropriate footwear and with my heavy suitcase in tow. They gave chase, still laughing nastily. I managed to turn two corners before the three could see me, and, o9ut of breath, hid between two vans.

The acoustics of these narrow streets and thin walls meant that I could almost certainly wake up the whole neighbourhood if necessary. Luckily, however, the youths had lost interest. I remained in my hiding place long enough to catch my breath and listen for footsteps. Once I was sure they had pissed off in search of more rewarding pursuits, I resumed walking.

The problem, however, was that I now had nowhere at all to be. I certainly wasn’t going to return to the station, but had no idea where else to go. So, I walked around aimlessly.

Three hours and thirty minutes to go.

I wandered, trying to stay close enough to the station that I would not be utterly lost. I have no idea how long I had been wondering thus when my next bit of excitement decided to make its appearance in the form of a white Citroen.

The Citroen stopped in the cross street in front of me, and the window opened to reveal a driver in his mid-20s with a nondescript face.

Oye nena, ¿necesitas ayuda?‘ (Hey, babe, need help?), he asked. I said I was fine. In my state of exhaustion, however, I was rather more informative than I ought to have been. I explained why I was rambling about and that I had no place to be. After I told him once again that I was not in need of help, he rolled up the window and drove on.

A few blocks further on, the Citroen reappeared in another cross street.

‘Sure you don’t need help, love?’

Yes, I was sure. He continued his travels, and I continued mine, Thinking of something I had once read in an old CIA manual from the 1950s.

The CIA, you see, had developed a series of rules of thumb, called the Moscow Rules, for agents operating in the Soviet Union.

One rule in particular stood out as relevant to my current predicament: If you see a Soviet agent once, think nothing of it. Twice is probably a coincidence. If, however, you see the same agent a third time, something bad is in the offing. I may not have reproduced the exact phrasing, but this was certainly the basic idea of the thing.

I had this rule firmly in mind when the Citroen approached via yet another cross street a few blocks later. again, the window opened.

This time, however, the driver had evidently decided to abandon futile pretexts.

Venga, nena, ¡súbete, que lo vamos a pasar bien!’ (Come on, babe, get in and we can have a good time!).

I decided to meet his candour with my own: ‘¡Ni cagando, weón!’ (No fucking way, arsehole!).

The good thing about the narrow streets of Figueres is that they make it impossible to execute a U-turn in a car. On foot, however, there is no such impediment. I made an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction, turning multiple random corners in order to make it harder for him to work out my route.

That was the last I saw of him.

And after all that, I still had two and a half hours left to go.

Fortunately, the evening’s entertainment was at an end. I happened upon a park bench and had a seat. Nearby, the local fruit and veg vendors were setting up their market stalls. pleased to encounter some legitimate late-night goings on, I watched for an hour, until I caught myself dozing off.

I returned to the station, where I found a group of women sat outside, waiting for it to open, and joined them.

One of them offered me a cigarette, and we sat together, talking and counting the minutes.

At long last, the doors opened, and I eagerly went inside, greeted by the smell of coffee. I bought my ticket to Cerbère, got a cup of coffee and a packet of Ducados, and waited the two hours before my train in relative comfort.

Another hour later, I alighted in Cerbère, delighted to be anywhere but Spain. In saying this, I do not mean to malign a lovely country full of people who neither robbed me nor stalked me, and likely would not do, even given the opportunity. However, in that moment, I could only think, Free at last!

Cerbère station was full of travellers looking for tickets elsewhere, most of whom did not speak French. I decided to visit the loo before joining the queue. Discovering that there was no toilet seat, I stood outside and waited for the occupant of the other toilet to leave. The other loo, as it happened, was also seatless.

After much acrobatics, I joined the queue of English speakers with evidently impossible requests. Half an hour later, the woman at the ticket window, visibly relieved that I spoke French, sorted my reservations. I would have to wait two hours for my train.

‘One question’, I began after the reservations were made, ‘you wouldn’t happen to know where I might have a cup of coffee whilst I wait?’

‘There’s a vending machine over there,’ she replied.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I mean a café, some nice little place where I might sit down and have an espresso. Are there any cafés nearby?’

Désolée,’ she answered, ‘the vending machine is all we’ve got here.’

After the night I’d had, I was in no mood to drink vending machine coffee, so I went outside to have a smoke and wait. There, I found a wall with ‘Cerbère is a shithole’ written on it in at least ten languages.

Roscoff, I am happy to report, comfortably exceeds the decidedly low standard set by Cerbère. It is, based on my few hours there, a pretty seaside town that – above all in the circumstances of my arrival there – has actual cafés where actual people brew you actual fresh coffee.

At the port’s information desk, I ascertained that I would need to go to the railway station to activate my Eurail pass. The station, as it happened, was quite nearby, but separated from the port by a steep incline. A taxi it would be.

As I was waiting out front for the taxi, a young man with blond hair and a friendly face approached me to ask if I would mind sharing the cab to the station. I didn’t mind at all, and so we sat and waited together. My companion, Quentin, was from Nantes, and was just returning from a few months’ work experience in Plymouth. There, he had become a fan of the Plymouth Argyle football club, and carried with him a great deal of merchandise attesting to that fact.

The taxi ride lasted about five minutes, and cost us three euros each.

At the station, we found Bob, a Plymouth native, who was puzzling over why the station door was locked. I had a look at a small notice posted on the door and explained to him that the French railway workers were on strike. There would be trains, albeit on a reduced schedule, but no station staff to activate his Interrail and my Eurail pass.

Bob didn’t speak French, though he was making valiant efforts to overcome this. He bonded immediately with Quentin over their shared tragic love of Argyle, and thus we became a trio.

Since we all had two hours until the train to Morlaix, I suggested we look for a source of coffee. We didn’t have to look very far. About a block away from the station, we found a convivial little café/restaurant/bar/convenience store, where we spent a thoroughly enjoyable hour caffeinating ourselves and getting to know each other.

Bob endeared himself to all and sundry with his efforts to pronounce French words properly, with dedicated assistance from Quentin and myself.

After we had reached adequate serum caffeine levels, we made our way back to the station, with an hour or so to go until the train to Morlaix (or so we thought).

Various people began to show up at the station to see about the next train elsewhere. In response to their perplexity upon finding the station locked, Quentin and I informed them of the strike in whatever language happened to be appropriate, reassuring them that the modified timetable still had the train to Morlaix leaving at 11:4 and that tickets could be purchased at the ticket machine by the platform.

As 11:41 approached and the Morlaix train did not follow suit, the new arrivals began to show signs of doubt, returning to the front of the station. Taxis had begun to show up to take people to Morlaix, and they ultimately picked up everyone.

Except the three of us. It seemed such a waste to pay for a taxi to Morlaix when a train was on the way, especially when both Bob and I could take the train for free.

So we settled in. Fortunately, the weather was – as it had been for nearly the entire trip – gorgeous, gently warm without a cloud in sight.

Gradually, our belief that a train would be coming in the foreseeable future began to falter. A taxi was starting to seem a very good idea indeed, an epiphany that arrived not long after the last taxi had departed, leaving us alone. Alone and knackered in Roscoff.

To pass the time, Quentin began kicking the football around that he’d brought back from Plymouth, an activity in which Bob happily joined.

After some hesitation – my sandals were not exactly made for football – I, too, joined in.

I have never seen the point of watching or following the football; it always struck me as rather dull. However, I do enjoy playing the game, although – with the exception of kicking the ball back and forth with my delightful four-year-old niece Ella – I had not actually played since sometime in Bill Clinton’s first term, a few years before either of my companions had been born.

Apart from a few nervous moments involving the ball hitting precarious-looking plumbing installations and coming dangerously close to the odd window, I discovered still enjoyed the game as much as I did back in those innocent times when we thought Clinton was as unimpressive as a Democrat could get. Despite my utterly inappropriate footwear, it turned out that my aim was as accurate as ever (I hasten to add here that I mean by this that my aim was quite good, with the ball generally going exactly where I hoped it would).

One thing we did not have to worry about hitting, however, was a train. Or a taxi, come to that.

Sometime about an hour after we had been meant to arrive in Morlaix, a rail replacement bus arrived. The driver alighted and promptly disappeared to parts unknown.

Quentin rang SNCF to see what was going on. From, these conversations, we learnt that there would likely be no more taxis, and that the earliest we could leave Roscoff was 1:30 PM. This news we took with aplomb, having long ago resigned ourselves to spending the rest of our lives in Roscoff.

Eventually, the bus driver returned, and, after having a protracted smoko, turned on the display to indicate that actual passengers would be taken on board.

Roughly half an hour later, we alighted at Morlaix station. Bob and I proceeded to the ticket office to reserve seats and activate our rail passes.

To activate a rail pass, a station employee must merely affix the station’s stamp to the appropriate part of the pass. No one had apparently explained this to the SNCF staff working in Morlaix.

Nor, I discovered after I had already boarded the train to Paris, had anyone explained to them how to make reservations. The reservation card I had been handed contained no actual reservation.

I also discovered on the train that, unlike most other railways I have frequented, the SNCF does not in any way mark reserved seats.

After finding a location for my monster suitcase and stowing the rest of my things, I sat down in what appeared to be a free seat, and settled in with my laptop to get a bit of work done. Once I was sufficiently comfortable, a woman who looked to be in her seventies appeared, looked at her reservation card, and hesitantly remarked that I appeared to be in her seat.

I made my apologies, explaining that I had not seen any indication that the seat was reserved, and moved to the nearest free seat, which happened to be directly opposite.

About half an hour later, a middle-aged man showed up to announce that I was in his spot. I gathered my things and took another look at my reservation card, hoping I had merely overlooked the seat assignment. I hadn’t done. I had indeed been given a reservation card that contained no reservation.

Not wanting a repeat of this scene, I ultimately settled in on one of the folding overflow seats in the space between the carriages. These seats are just spring-loaded cushions that fold back into the wall when a passenger stands up. Needless to say, they offer nothing in the way of assurance that one will not fall down if one falls asleep. I had planned on supplementing the sleep I didn’t get on the ferry during the three-hour train raid to Paris. This was not going to happen.

Instead, I bounced along with the train through the French countryside, hoping desperately that Paris would not be long in coming. Not far from me was the stowage compartment for heavy and bulky luggage.

At one point, a woman decided to ‘stow’ an ironing board by simply leaning it against the wall. Not long thereafter, the ironing board, along with nearly everything else in the baggage compartment, fell into the walkway with a most impressive sound, rendering it impassable.

Having nothing else to do, I decided to move at least enough of the suitcases to ensure that people could get through, laying the ironing board horizontally behind a few suitcases to ensure it wouldn’t crash again.

About twenty minutes later, the woman returned, and, seeing that a safe way of storing her ironing board had been found, immediately proceeded to stand the fucking thing up again.

Shortly before we reached Rennes, a man in SNCF uniform boarded the train, and, seeing my state of overall misery, asked why I was so uncomfortably seated. I explained about my reservationless reservation card, and we ended up talking for a while before he made his rounds.

Eventually, a couple who were alighting in Rennes took pity on me and gave me their seat numbers, allowing me to spend the last hour until my arrival in Paris in relative comfort.

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