It only takes ten minutes or so and we are in open country. I am mildly surprised. Though how open is hard to say since it is still dark . But we are running fast through cuttings and against the first hint of light I see the outlines of winter trees. As we roll towards 0900 the day is bright enough at last for me to see the rolling farmland though at this speed I am only catching the briefest of glimpses. The cloud is hanging low and it’s a grey day. But it’s not raining which is a good start and I am encouraged by a weather forecast that suggested the next three days will be clear and sunny. We’ll see – this is the middle of winter in Europe after all.
I am struck by how this farmland is so well tamed. Last week I drove through 1500km (last leg of 6500km) of Australian farmland and even where most intensely cultivated there is still a wild element to it. The roadside for example is untamed. Fences don’t exist in large sections of the trip. Even through all that cotton country there is still a hint of the unruly wanting to break through. Here, everything down to the tracks seems well attended.
I have a sense that we have barely got going and we are pulling up to our stop, the first on the run to Nancy. It’s a typical TGV stop – a platform plonked down in the middle of the countryside. I find the bus and expect to be able to pay on board for my ticket to Verdun (the bus company website says as much) but instead I am pointed inside to a vending machine. Which of course does not want to take any cash but does not like my Visa card either. The bus leaves. Its 30km to Verdun and I am contemplating an 8 hour walk when a very friendly chap bustles in and asks if the ticket machine is working – it is blinking its cancellation message at me. The short version of this story is that Fred, with excellent English, and a fine sense of the history of the town in which he is resident, gives me a lift directly to my hotel. Then makes sure the hotel has a room for me and is not going to sting me for arriving early. What a pleasant place to start. He was friendly, engaging and had a great sense of humour. And was generous with his time – took the trouble to orientate me to the town, showed me where I needed to be to get the bus back out of here and pointed out some stops worth looking at on my run back through to Paris later in the week. A delightful introduction to France and a great ambassador. There is nothing quite like meeting locals is there?
I have met a few more this evening and they have been terrific – and very forgiving of my French. I woke this afternoon from a codeine induced stupor and got walking just as it got dark – 4.30pm. I walked into town and worked out how to get the train back in a few days as well as timed the walk to the train station. Don’t need any surprises on the day I am supposed to leave. I picked up an umbrella – it must have some gold filigree in there somewhere. At 29 euro it’s a far cry from the 20 cent special I picked up in Nepal. That one ended up being buried under a pile of rocks after being turned inside out once too many times. But it may be a helpful investment. The forecast shows a couple of clear days ahead of me but my day pack does not include a rain jacket so this thing should be a prudent investment given the time of the year.