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Back to France

January 4, 2013

I am in Gare L’Est, a significant point in the novel I started writing ten years ago, Ironically it’s where I am to catch my train up to Verdun and was not a place I was planning on visiting. But here I am in a coffee shop lost in its cavernous halls, drinking crap coffee and eating dry pastries. France is a better place for all its migration though of course over the last twenty years its been a point of internal fraction. But the migrants have taken the menial jobs and so far the folk at the ticket counters have all been migrants with a grip of a few languages including English. I attempt the few words I know in French (funny how two years of bad High School French still help – despite those two years being 1973 and 4) and as is always the case in France the attempt is worth its weight in gold. I stood at the ticket counter at Charles De Gaulle and heard a north African ticket seller handle German and Russian. And all with gentle grace. The last time I was here I met two Russians on a bridge over the Seine. Another story for another time but there are no plans to meet  anyone with such exotic credentials this time around. I think I shall be grateful if I don’t hear any more Russian on this trip.

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16 Hours on an Indian Track

August 18, 2012

Dahl baht and rice looks pretty much the same at either end of the digestive tract. It’s delivered on a silver tray in some sort of order. Delivery at the other end is another matter altogether. At Saugauli Junction train station it seems to me that the vast majority of everyone’s Dahl baht is sprayed across the sleepers and tracks, baking away under the 35 degree heat, putrefying in the 90% humidity. The stench is overpowering but the thousands of Indians here, milling about, with some gathering in a cluster around us (we are objects of some curiosity) don’t seem to mind. Read more

Notes in a Sydney Train

May 11, 2010

train290.jpgScrubbed timber has no smell. The burnt brake pads and the metal wheel flange create their own dust and heat and smell which lifts in the warm afternoon, hangs in the humid air and is pushed aside by the train as it sighs up to the platform. I watch the handful of people who angle towards the last carriage. They walk past the second to last to align with the trailing one as if there is something lucky by being there. Or not being somewhere else. Read more

Train from New York

September 30, 2008

philly290.jpgWe flee from New York at a clickety blur at the end of the day. We have done so for an hour now and the sun is just setting across an industrial landscape that  is old brick buildings (a few soft with refurbishment, the rest hard in broken abandonment), vacant weedgrown lots, rail-tracks, water towers and broken glass. Have I mentioned derelict cars and graffiti? The last tint of gold catches the towers of Philadelphia in the far distance, grey on the horizon against a grey sky threatening rain. Read more

You Have a Foggy Bottom

September 20, 2008

foggy-bottom290.jpgAny town that can straight faced call a Metro stop (and suburb) Foggy Bottom has to have something going for it. That the train line stop is underneath the George Washington University Hospital suggests someone in the planning department might have had a sense of humour as well. Indeed, this town has a lot going for it and my wandering out for a coffee last night and a quick downing of the books for a quick sneak into the Smithsonian Air and Space museum reminds me again how attractive and appealing this town is. Read more

Why Bother Visiting Country Towns?

July 12, 2007

Bruce Elder in the Sydney Morning Herald asks this question and asks for suggestions that might help small communities attract more visitors. What do you want to see when you visit these small places?

Given we are visiting a comparatively small town at the moment, and given that we spent a cosy afternoon in a small bistro in an even smaller town today, the answer to me seems pretty straight forward. I grew up in a town of 800 people and even we knew the attempts at museums and revitalised train stations (with no trains in them) were hopeless and pointless and bleak. In visiting the country towns I am visiting this week I am reminded that the things that attract or deter me here are the same things that attract me or deter me in Sydney. Friendly, hospitable staff/hosts. Quality products. Reasonable pricing. Crap tourist nick knacks made in China. Pubs that smell like they were last cleaned in 1974. 1974 decor!

I stop in small towns to find something that is unique to that place. Something of a local flavour. A friendly chat with the local stock and station outlet has its own rewards and is far better than a poorly presented local crafts centre, or dodgy museum that is only looking to rip me off. Small towns should simply try and be themselves, highlight their points of difference (Ballarat’s colonial/Victorian architecture is outstanding and worth the visit alone – the Ballarat Train station shown here is a case in point) and offer the same hospitality and friendship we all crave wherever we go. Oh, and at this time of the year an open fire helps as well!!

I Was an RSM in the Scottish Blagoons

May 22, 2007

On a train from Liverpool to London and a short while after leaving Lime Street we pull into a suburban station. Into the carriage climbed a wild eyed man in his late forties, mop of hair coiffed back onto his collar, rings in his ears, spare tire around his waist and shirt hanging out. Stumbling as if the train was in motion. With his missus. Looking for a seat. Which he never took but on which he propped his case. She took a seat and roused at the lively “Billy” who proceed to swear his way up and down the carriage as he made conversation. Nothing violent at all – more in the vein o f another Scottish comedian called Billy. They fuelled themselves up with more vodka and proceeded to keep us entertained for a large portion of the trip. When they discovered they had missed their stop they simply laughed.

In fact the couple were a perpetual laugh machine. He had the dry wit of a Glaswegian and the swearing to match. Not in an offensive way (most of the time) but she was alternating between scolding him for swearing and bursting into giggles. Which only encouraged him some more. He refused to sit down and paraded up and down the aisle provoking and prodding with his wit to get responses from us. Her giggles only fuelled him on. Both of these folk were in their late forties but were giving the inner child free rein. Despite this she was concerned at one point that they might get kicked off ‘again”. It tempered his madness very little. Turns out he was a truck driver who drove all over Europe but had lost his license due to drink driving. Was a little over three weeks from having it reinstated. He was going to have to work very hard to be sober in time to pick it up.

There are numerous highlights from that trip which are almost impossible to translate onto the page. One gem went thus: in a moment of complete seriousness he informed us he was a former Regimental Sergeant Major of the Scottish Blagoons. Hissed out three or four times as he very earnestly strained to get his drunken tongue around the words. But the “you had to be there moment” was the moment Billy’s heart stopped when one of the women sitting opposite us informed him she was a vicar. The tone of the trip changed, the swearing vanished (though it was still noisy) and Billy set about convincing her he was not a bad person. Somehow atoning for all the madness that had gone on before – especially given he had just been telling her he could bring any woman to the best orgasm she ever had (in the background his missus was decrying his claims, amidst much giggling). Later, as we disembarked we complimented the vicar on how well she handled Billy. She fessed up to being a prison chaplain, so Billy was no challenge at all.

Space Age Train in a Paddock

March 30, 2007

Today I had a slightly weird experience. I am not too sure what to make of it. I departed early in the morning on a diesel powered passenger train out of Bern after a F5 slice of pizza for breakfast (it was better than the F25 can of XXXX beer I found last night – that can had been out of Queensland for at least a decade!!). We had a beautiful, clear day and the rumbling train took us through classic postcard scenery of Switzerland, tracing a train preferred route though valleys and across plains with snowcapped mountain backdrops. As the valleys narrowed we were pushed more and more into farmer’s yards and each “clickety click” took us in and out of small farms, and chalets, and firs, and poultry and goats, sheep and cattle. And all very green. I think an indication of ones “Australianness” is how much you notice green fields. I see them everywhere.

I had a ticket that said I was on the French TGV so was a little disappointed in Bern to find myself on a more plain and ordinary carriage. Comfortable. But stock standard. A short time after we crossed the Swiss border our train slowed and then stopped. Everyone started to get off. I stayed in my seat – there was no station! We were stopped in the middle of an open meadow, covered in knee deep grass. I was the only remaining passenger before a guard insisted I get my luggage and get off – or risk going back to Bern. I did as I was told.

For about fifteen minutes we all stood in the field. There was a low grass covered rectangular mound that hinted at an earlier platform perhaps. But other than this, a small crowd of fellow passengers (all very relaxed) there was nothing, from horizon to horizon, to suggest this was a other than a normal part of the trip. Conscious of the unseen larks in the sky twittering away I was gazing to the West when to my surprise a TGV slowly slid into view, coming through the grass, around a bend and eventually gliding to a silent stop beside us. I followed what everyone else did and climbed aboard. Once we were seated the TGV quickly took itself to blast speed and we did not stop again until we reached Paris.

That was very bizarre. No marked stop. Open paddock. TGV appearing out of nowhere. All very well if there was no snow or rain. The experience would have been something else if it had not been a beautiful day. I could see nothing on the map that shows where we stopped. Bizarre.

May 1995

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