Sunday, 21 April 2013

An Englishwoman abroad (just)

Gare du l'Est in the damp.
It was Friday 12 April – the start of what can only be described as My Great Adventure. Slight aside – I will try to keep the hyperbole to a minimum, but this one is permissible, as will become clearer.

Leaving the office just before 1.30pm, with little over an hour until my train left for Paris, and as my colleagues wished me luck as they waved me goodbye, I felt a surge of nerves that was reminiscent of the moments before stepping out of the wings and onto the lighted stage in my theatrical days.

I wanted to turn back, forget it all, have everyone else forget it – and snuggle down once again into my comfort zone.

And there is a perfect illustration of why this trip – this 'adventure' – had a certain importance.

Check-in was easy: security a breeze and passport control the usual glance and nod.

There was a moment's panic as the cash machine proved particularly reluctant to return my card, but then I could sit down and wait the short time until boarding. And that too went as smoothly as anything.

There was, I soon discovered, the inevitable posh, elderly couple near me. The carrying-voice variety, of which species I never seem to do a Eurostar trip without finding myself in close proximity to an example.

This particular pair had a very quiet female in turquoise cardy with a male in assorted blues, the latter of whose speciality was clearly professional old codgeriness.

"It's disgusting!" he proclaimed of his food as we sped toward the tunnel. Well, there wasn't  much of it, but "disgusting" was a bit harsh. My caramel panacotta with gingered pear was very enjoyable, and I like to think that I know a thing or two about matters culinary.

The weather was like a pair of feuding lovers; one minute hailing down on the passing carriages, the next, sun beating through the banks of grey cloud. And then back to the hail.

Yet after the tunnel came sun in Calais.

And here we were. Or, more pertinently, here I was. The first time out of the UK on my own. The nerves calming further as I began to observe – and to remind myself that this was my very first solo holiday. The important word there being that it was a holiday – a word that, until that moment, I had not remotely attached to this venture.

As it happens, I was the first member of my immediate family to leave the shores of the UK. It was 1982 and I made a day trip across to Dieppe with a friend from polytechnic. I remember standing on the ferry, looking back at old Blighty and feeling frightfully dramatic.

Mind, I was studying drama at the time, so it was only to be expected.

The rather smart station bar at Gare du l'Est.
But back to the rather more recent past.

The nerves had faded. A beer didn't hamper the process, even as Thomas Mann stared ironically at me from the book in the magazine sleeve.

Somehow I cannot imagine TM drinking beer – wine, of course, but not beer. Although Mann is not the oh-so-unrelentingly-serious figure it's rather easy to imagine (if you forget Felix Krull).

Only recently, a batch of postcards exchanged by Thomas and his older brother, Heinrich, have revealed someone who could write in gossipy fashion about slippers and dentists.

Slippers and dentists! It's hardly Schopenhauer and scholars are said to be stunned.

My fellow passengers seemed smart and trendy and really rather bourgeois. I comfort myself that I am not. I may have had The Cambridge Companion to TM in front of me, but I was also wearing a football shirt.

It happened to be the 20th anniversary of England's World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore's death and Football Shirt Friday was to mark that and use it to raise money for cancer research and, in particular, research into bowel cancer, which killed him at just 51. Just a year older than I am now.

I sat just one seat down from Moore once, in what passed for a press box at Plough Lane, the dump that was home to Wimbledon FC many years ago. The press conference was in the gym afterwards and chairman Sam Hammam brought in a tray of cans of beer by way of refreshments for our merry little band of hacks. The Dons' opponents that day were City. We lost.

I had sat there, though, in absolute awe. But that awe prevented me saying anything. A short while later, he was dead. When I saw George Best in the press lounge at the old Wembley, a few years later, I didn't make the same mistake. Even if he wasn't overly impressed.

But there was an extra reason for that. My father, when we'd lived just outside Manchester, had come home twice, late at night, and insisted on waking his daughters to announce that he'd had a drink with George Best.

Entirely possible. He never got me an autograph, though, which always struck me as rather mean. And Best himself didn't remember the man in the dog collar. But that day, at Wembley, I came away with an autograph.

Mind, my father never got me an autograph either when, years later, he went on the razz with Brian Clough in Nottingham.

Anyway, that was the reason for the footy shirt. It was this season's away one; number four; Kompany, on the back.

(I'll let you into a secret: there have been some funny expression over the years and I rather like the idea that some people see a football shirt and think one thing and then a literary work and think another – and then find themselves confused. Which makes it, in part at least, a pose, I confess.)

Anyway, we sped through France, blue breaking through the layers of cloud, sun casting bold shadows on ground that was finally coming back to life.

Vast wind turbines moved elegantly around – sudden memories of being in the choir at Fairfield and singing, at the Free Trade Hall one speech day, Michel Legrand's Windmills of Your Mind, and our teachers telling us beforehand: 'Keep your knees together, girls!'

Cars made their way along a bright thread of motorway nearby.

As Paris neared, the sky darkened and it was easy to see why storms were the dominant feature of the weather forecast.

That certainly did explain the fork lightening. Quite spectacular too. And then almost as suddenly, a shaft of sunlight again, piercing the cloud.

A war cemetery passed – neat rows of bright, bone-white headstones; a vast French tricolour fluttering in the wind.

A farmhouse, bright in the sun, standing on flat land with a sky behind so grey that it almost seemed blue.

Entry to the platforms at Gare du l'Est.
Then, almost before we knew it, Paris was hoving into view.

And here was new territory indeed.

I had decided to get a cab to Gare du l'Est, on the basis of my case being heavy, the forecast being bad and assorted acquaintances pointing out that it 'wasn't a very nice area' between that station and Gard du Nord.

In the event, the cabby refused (politely) to take me, and pointed down the road, telling me that it was mere five-minute walk. So I walked. And a couple of minutes into what was somewhat longer than a five-minute one (although I do have short legs), a hail storm hit. The drains become instant torrents.

By the time I made it to the station, my lower legs were drenched. Otherwise, it was a case of thanking the sartorial gods for a leather jacket, Doc Martens and a sturdy baseball cap.

I sat at a cafe and watched the world go by for a while. Then I dragged my case across the cobbles and into the station. With an hour to go, I was planted in the poshest station bar I've ever seen and playing games on my iPad until it was time to head to the train.

Here was another slight panic – along the lines of trying to work out what carriage I was in. But on much closer inspection, the paperwork coughed up the answer and the guard was a delight. He also noted my badges straight away.

"I don't think we're in Kansas any more," he quoted from one. "Well no – you're in Paris! And yet your hat says Berlin ... I think you may be perhaps a little confused!" Straight up – I love that dry, rather quirky German humour.

An ironic travelling companion.
He was delightfully helpful and escorted me to the cabin, where I met the charming (younger) French businesswomen who was to be my companion for the journey – or much of it, at any rate.

She spoke wonderful English and seemed to actually enjoy chatting – including asking about the dear, recently departed Margaret Thatcher – before calling it a night rather early.

I assume I got the lower bunk because I was older. See – impending decrepitude can work in your favour, and Deutsche Bahn had asked my age and sex when I had booked.

We pulled out of Paris on time, a rainbow visible against the moody sky. Wherever we were, it certainly wasn't Kansas.

Two lads, having seen my shirt, decided to pop their heads into our cabin and josh me about City – they were, respectively, a United and a Chelsea fan, although not remotely English. I teased a little – it turned out that they were Austrians, so perhaps such peculiarities are understandable.

My compartmental companion retired by 9.30 – but then she had to get up and leave rather earlier than me. I was left in a bubble of darkness, with just a small light and the movement and sound of the train.

It was both rather soothing and rather romantic.

And there, on the wall of the cabin as I sat and wrote, was the magazine rack, with TM looking ironically at me – again. And the nerves were gone and I was beginning very much to feel as though the world was my Aster.

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