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.
The crap food has revived me. I have staggered into France with a savage migraine which has lingered ever since the day before I left, bashed me up through a few in flight movies and kept me awake through the last evening. Though the shagging couple next door did not help either. At precisely 0238 I wanted to shout as well, given the bed through the wall finally and abruptly stopped its groaning and crashing. At least I learned something about Japanese art thanks to a TV documentary (the only thing in English) while those neighbours of mine kept me awake. Maybe he was thinking about that art too – the doco seemed to run for a while.
I took my shower in a cubical, the door of which needed some contortions to close. Think about that – I tend not to have child bearing hips. But the hot water on my scalp was good therapy for the head, and the walk through darkened Parisian streets helped as well. The street cleaners are out, the plumbers flush drains and a shadow asks if I can parles vous Francais? I am on guard anyway but am already stepped away and position my pack between us as he approaches, swinging his hands. It’s nothing and he moves on and I suddenly find myself in the station precinct with a lot of people standing around rugged up and waiting for their TGV trains. The transition is a little startling and I walk back out to the empty streets to confirm it. It’s a Narnia wardrobe shift between worlds. Out here the streets are quiet and dark. A fog hangs over the apartments of Rue Chateau du Landon, its belly lit by the soft orange glow of city lights. The cobblestones and bitumen are shiny wet, lit by solitary lampposts, but there is no one about. I turn around and take a step through the door and there are bright lights and milling people, the light background pulse of engines, the smell of coffee and garishly bright screens broadcasting timetables.
I’ve taken the last of the Nurofen and am feeling a little perkier. We will do the run up to Verdun shortly (assuming I get on the right train) and see if I can buy something similar there. Maybe a long walk will help – the last time I had this problem a ten kilometer chase after a mob of goats did the trick. Those mongrels suckered me, though I knew it even as I went – always just another ridge away . Another ridge. Another ridge. And in the end they were so perfectly lost in the dusky dark light of the evening and the saltbush I literally ran into them when they paused on their 5km gallop. It was so dark I could only shoot the white ones. Natural selection re-defined. If you want to blend in here you need to buy black. A TGV has just disgorged it passengers beside me and a woman in a red jacket and a man in white jeans are the exceptions. I wonder what that is. A reflection of a European winter perhaps? A reflection of their disposition and character? A European thing? A winter thing? Oops, an olive green scarf. So out of step dear lady. She looks like she couldn’t care less. Black shoes. Black jackets. Black scarves, beanies, coats, jerseys. Black luggage. Even a black dog! There’s been one of those hanging around a few months now but this one looks very tame and manageable.
So far so good. Carriage 15, seat 38 and I’m parked among a bunch of very quiet passengers. The sound of this keyboard is about all that can be heard. They are nearly as reserved as the passengers out of Princeton to New York – everyone focused on their phones and laptops. We are due out of here at 0813 and are off to Nancy. I like that. Let’s catch the train to Nancy. Really? It sounds sort of, well homey. Like there might even be a cup of tea a the end of it. Sounds better than Newark. Or Blacktown. Though Blacktown would be an appropriately named destination here this morning now wouldn’t it? The lights dim and we slide out of Gare De l’Est. Nearly one hundred years ago the troops departed this same place, pointed in the same direction, all heading to the front and the forts of Verdun. I have a return ticket. A vast number of them did not.
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