*these rules apply for most train stations in Continental Europe, especially those of France and Italy.
1. When arriving to pick someone up, make sure to check out the façade of the building.
This might prove difficult, because there are usually several exits and entrances around the Gare, all intertwined with the surrounding underground metro stations and streets above. Try to arrive from the front, as the façade is worth it. Even in small towns, the central train station is usually worth a gander for the average architecture-phile.
2. When entering the main arrivals hall, make sure to look up.
If you’re lucky, there will be a vaulted ceiling floating above your head. These are the pride of European stations, and for a time of New York before the antique Penn Station was knocked to the ground years ago. That station was done in the ‘grand European style,’ and to see that style one has but to walk into a station like the Gare de Lyon in eastern Paris: a nice wrought-iron-and-glass overhang under which to have a reunion, or a departure, that stays with you.
3. Enjoy the noise, have a drink.
If lucky enough to be in an atrium as described above, surrender yourself to the atmosphere. It might not all be pleasant, it might not be in any way peaceful, but here is a chance to observe a slice of life that has made the culture of ‘Europe’ what it is and has been for hundreds of years. There is something about a train station here that doesn’t change, or at least it hasn’t yet. You hope it never does. The bustle, the tourists, the beggars, the businessmen – these all contribute to an intricate play of movement forever unfolding underneath all that space and between those monstrous metal snakes sleeping their final minutes before lurching back out into the cities and hills. The soundscape of a train station in Paris – and that’s what it is, a landscape of sound – is like no other you have ever heard. The seemingly unlimited and unrecognizable mix, marked only by that regular, monotonous female French voice announcing train arrivals and departures, has been tapped by several mod and stylized pop stars, bands and films – listen again, closely, to Kelly Osbourne’s One Word (whose video was shot in Paris), or Garbage’s cover of the Wilco song Thirteen. Try to sit at a café situated in the middle of it all, and just watch and listen. You have some time to kill before he or she arrives.
4. Leave yourself time.
Although trains are generally efficient and dependable, there are a fair share of mishaps, scheduling disasters and other inconveniences. Like anything else, in France at least, it’s an inexact science. The only really efficient thing is planning a train trip – way before you board. SNCF (Société Nationale Chemins de Fer) boutiques, which are found throughout Paris, can boast friendly people and efficient service – a Parisian rarity as we all know. Plus, if you call 36 35 from a ligne fixe, you can obtain your reservation number and usually you have a week to change or cancel your plans before committing with payment. And even then you are not bound – you can change tickets after printing them out, even during travel-heavy peak times like late June. But once you’re at the station, all bets are off. At least you know, as you were informed early on, that if your train fails to get you to your destination within an hour of the time printed on your ticket, you are entitled to an Envelope T. This postal peculiarity is an envelope that needs no postage, in which you insert the ticket stub of the failed journey and include your address. The front is already noted and addressed to the SNCF. These envelopes are found at the Accueil of any major station. The employee there might try to give you a hard time when you ask for one, but persist. They are not allowed to deny you one. If you’re lucky, the SNCF might smile upon you and send you some Bons de voyage, or gift certificates for travel. This is true especially of their TGVs (Trains à Grande Vitesse, or High Speed Trains) which are under guarantee to arrive at the desired terminus. But guarantees are made to be broken. And here you are, on the other end this time, waiting. So have another coffee.
5. Look at the board to find the proper platform.
Get ready. He/she’ll be here soon. You start to wonder if you’re really ready to see this person again, even if it only has been a few days. You smile at yourself for this sudden bout of emotion, as you look to the ticker board. Often these boards are in the same vein (if not simply the same) as the boards of long ago. This strikes you with a nostalgia you didn’t know you had, for a time so long ago you might only recognize it from smoky black and white films or maybe the collective hand-me-down memory of older relatives who left a great impression on you. Even if one board has been updated and computerized and digitized, sometimes off to one side an older board hangs, doggedly ticking through the alphabet and number schemes to give you the correct and updated information. If you’re meeting a third party for the pick-up, you might very well arrange to meet under that board.
6. Once at the correct spot, make room and look around.
The train will be pulling in in a couple of minutes. Try to imagine the look on his or her face, especially if it’s a lover. You’re here, you showed up, and you did so for them, to make their re-entry that much easier and more fun. Observe the others that are surely waiting at your sides – the lit figures at night under the arched blue night ceiling. There is a whole smattering of different people, all there for the same reason. As people descend from the train, make room and observe the reunions of others. Some might be less explosive than you might expect – Europeans are notably less demonstrative emotionally than their American counterparts. But there is more often than not that one heterosexual couple who jump on and all over each other and nearly fall to the ground in old-fashioned passion. C’est comme ça.
7. Savor the moment.
When he or she arrives, enjoy the moment when their eyes find you in the crowd. Who knows how many more moments like this you’ll have, especially in this transient, expatriate, comings-and-goings existence that is ‘living in Europe’. There is a certain summarizing, or clarification, that happens when picking up a lover at the station (or at the airport for that matter): you can observe your relationship, however fresh or long-term or passionate or comfortable it is, in the look on his face. In the muscles of your own face, flexing in happiness for being able to see this person again. It might have only been two days since you last saw each other, but no matter, this moment on the train platform can be a distillation of everything you’ve been feeling. Maybe because (especially because) you know you’re leaving soon yourself – another going in all those arrivals and departures – and from where you are now it looks to be for good. So don’t minimize here – take the opportunity, hug unabashedly and enjoy this moment on the platform.
8. Leave the immediate area of the train station.
Unless near the Gare de Lyon, most immediate areas around big-city train stations are less than desirable places to linger and catch up. Get on the metro, go home, go to dinner, or take a long walk – find a nicer place to continue the time of being together in the same place.
Copyright © Dan Heching