I’m belted into the claustrophobic hell of an airplane seat, flying United from Chicago to San Francisco, and I’m writing about train travel. Masochism at its cruelest. I’ve managed to create a temporary sense of wellbeing by hovering just a bit over my airplane seat (a sensation induced by a fake mimosa – California Chardonnay and orange juice – which I self-injected a few minutes ago). The sky shines a glimmering blue outside my narrow window, and distant below me is a bumpy and peaked earth crowned by intermittent patches of white. It’s pretty – but not at all connected to me. I feel suspended up here in this box, floating and hardly moving, watching the world from a separate place.
I remember a very different kind of travel experience a few weeks earlier – the stuff of dreams: my most recent round trip from Paris and back, on the train.
I had visited the SCNF web site (www.voyages-sncf.com) and purchased a second class ticket for Saturday, May 6th (97.70 euros) leaving at 9:34 a.m. from the Gare de Lyon, bound for Aix-en-Provence. The return was for that evening at 6:47 p.m. (a first class ticket on sale for 54.90 euros). One was downloaded, the other mailed to my Paris hotel for my arrival.
Arriving in France on May 4th, I exchanged the outgoing ticket for one leaving Friday afternoon at 4:20 (deciding six hours was too short for my first visit to Cezanne’s birthplace, in the centenary of his death) and booked a room for the night online through the Aix Office de Tourisme website. http://www.aixenprovencetourism.com/
Now in my torturous airline seat, I achingly remember the immediacy of moving through the middle of the landscape – not high above it – and experiencing the fast forward of a changing countryside outside my large TGV window while leaning back comfortably in a wide seat, legs stretched under a table holding my journal, a book and a glass of Bordeaux. I watch as the Paris suburbs morph into fields of astonishingly vivid greens and chartreuses, which quickly metamorphose into rolling land and then hills sprinkled with tiny villages of red roofs and church steeples, and the distant shadowy hints of mountains rapidly turn into the green carpeted peaks of the Luberon. In less than three hours after leaving Paris, I arrive in Aix-en-Provence, a charming and bustling place of schools, churches, fountains, and narrow medieval streets, nestled in the green carpeted Luberon.
Even the weather is up close and personal on the train. About two hours outside of Paris, the blue sky suddenly disappeared under black clouds. It felt as if we had moved into a dark, windowless cave, sounds of heavy rain reverberating against the metal around us as the sky spewed loud torrents and crystalline drops raced sideways across my window. However, a moment later the black turned to grey, then silver and white, and the sky reappeared, as bright and bold as before.
Each time I visit Paris (drawn by an indescribable yearning, perhaps from a past life with Ernest Hemingway or Jean Paul Sartre), I create a self-led daytrip by train to somewhere new. The joy is not only in the journey, but also the pleasure of taking off (to use a phrase from a different mode of travel) from one of the six gems of architectural history placed in a circle around the center of Paris – the main gares .
I adore walking the streets of Paris, and (sometimes by adding a short metro or bus ride) a civilized 15-30 minutes later I arrive at my departure point – a 19th century station of perhaps neo-classic or neo-Corinthian style in the heart of the city (except, of course, that ugly tower built over Gare Montparnasse in 1969, but it too is at least in the center of town). This is not about boarding a subway or taxi or shuttle to some characterless and crowded metallic building located miles from the heart of anything.
French train stations have a feel of another, slower time with charm amid the bustle – kiosks to purchase baguettes, a casual restaurant dressed out with typical Parisian wicker chairs, tiny round tables peopled with folk in close conversation, and surly waiters wearing white cloths wrapped around their wastes, ready to serve you a croque monsieur and wine or a coffee and croissant.
That Friday felt special even en route to the Gare de Lyon (my first visit there) when I changed trains at the Bastille metro on a sunlit platform with huge viewing windows overlooking the Bassin de l’Arsenal.
I arrived at the Gare early, purchased a baguette and some water, and waited for the number of my train track to appear on the overhead board.
As I stood there, my eyes were pulled to the other side of the large room and I spotted a set of curved and filigreed staircases rising up to a platform high above the station, and a blue lit sign that read: “Le Train Bleu”. I checked my watch, noted that I had some time to explore, climbed to the top and entered a door into another century – crystal chandeliers hanging from a high ceiling frescoed with beautiful paintings. Patrons (some dressed for a night out) were seated at white linen-covered tables, being served quietly by waiters and waitresses in black suits.
The restaurant is a gem – a turn of the century dream world. The famous belle époque interior (decorated by Marius Toudoire and 30 artists) has been listed as an historic monument since 1972, and has not changed since it opened in 1901. I could not stop there that first day, but noted that it did not close until 11:00 at night so I decided to return Saturday night.
(Just now, my neighbor angled her seat back almost into my lap and my laptop leaned precariously toward me, as did my tasteless bag of United Airline nuts. I remember that on the TGV, my table was wide and stable and immovable, my seat wide and comfortable. I think I need some more bad airline wine.)
Aix had been a lovely evening and day, with dinner at Les Deux Garcons on Cour Mirabeau (the restaurant where Cezanne hung with Emile Zola), a late night walk down narrow medieval streets, a full day of exploring the medieval and more modern sections of that lovely town, and a visit to an open-air market on the way back to the bus for the 10 minute trip to the Aix TGV station.
Returning to Paris that cold Saturday night, I dragged my middle-aged ass off the TGV at 10:00 looking like a bag lady, with chunks of Aix-en-Provence hanging from my back and shoulders and midsection in back packs, purses and a fanny pack. Not even the wet air could dampen my thrill as I rushed off the train into the station, shivering and weighted down like a lumpy humanoid pack animal. I sped past the other travelers to the staircase, then forced myself to use a more staid pace as I remembered that for the next hour I was going to be a “belle époque” sophisticate. Head high, back as straight as I could make it under the load, I took a deep breath and slowly climbed towards the bright blue-lit “Le Train Bleu” sign.
Entering the restaurant this time to stay for a while, the feeling hit me again – akin to a remembered scene in some movie where the twentieth century characters in jeans opened a door and found themselves in the carpeted lobby of a nineteenth century hotel, surrounded by low music, men in tuxes and women in long dresses.
Since it was late, I walked through the restaurant area towards the “Big Ben Bar”, where I dropped my bags onto one of the red leather couches across from an antique mirror and a lovely painting in muted blues and pinks. I sunk comfortably into the cushion and looked at the bar menu: a menu with foie gras for 25 euros and smoked salmon for 28!
I imagined myself to be a traveler at the turn of the century, with porters to carry my expensive designer bags and my slim body (I’m always slim in my daydreams) clothed in a gorgeous belle époque dress purchased somewhere on the rue Faubourg St. Honoré. I ignored the view from within the gilt edged mirror of my fanny pack protruding from my midsection like a black growth, and my back pack, large blue shoulder bag, and the bright orange canvas bag I had purchased for 19 euros in a little shop in Aix.
But this was a fitting close to yet another day of travel out of and back to my beloved Paris.
So now, I’ll close my eyes and float again a bit and pretend I am sipping expensive champagne at the Gare de Lyon, and I’ll wish that I could arrive at the City by the Bay not via this airborne hunk of annoying junk, but in a car with a wide aisle leading to somewhere with tables and wine and large windows to look out of…
C. Michele S. Kurlander