Puffing into Bercy, having crossed Paris in rush hour with about five metric tonnes of luggage in tow, I congratulate myself on having made it in time for the train and without having aroused *too* much Parisian ire. This was the bit of the journey that I’d been most dreading, and it has gone like an absolute dream. I consider going to the first class lounge, but then realise that I’d have to lug my bags upstairs, so decide not to bother. Instead, I plonk myself on the floor until the platform is announced.
10 minutes before the train is due, an announcement is put up on the board that the train will be delayed by 40 minutes. Thrillingly, my change in Rome is 33. Is this going to be a problem? Nah – when this happened on the way to Florence we made up the time overnight. It’ll be fine! Creaking to my feet, I decide to worry about it later and head to the waiting room in the hopes that it will be a more comfortable place to sit than on a concrete floor.
It is. And there’s a pretty young Frenchman guarding the door. He even brings me a cup of tea. This just gets better and better. I flop into a squashy leather chair with a sigh of happiness and relax for half an hour. I definitely approve of this travelling first class lark. It seems that the couple opposite me do as well: she’s fallen asleep on the sofa and he’s dozing off in the armchair next to her, with a peaceful smile on his face. I will never travel cattle class again.
I’m interrupted from my happy reverie by the beautiful Frenchman whispering in my ear. ‘Madame, your train is boarding.’ I thank him and start to gather up my bags. The sleepy man opposite me has woken up and gives me a smile. ‘Enjoy Rome!’ I start to explain that it’s not my final destination, but it’s just confusing him. What, there’s something south of Rome? Surely not! I give it up as too complex for a 30 second conversation, smile, say thank you and drag my bags back towards the lift.
Inevitably, my carriage is at the far end of the train. It’s also high off the ground, in common with all the Italian trains that I’ve been on. I throw my smaller bags up and inside and start the arduous task of hauling the big one up the steps. Thankfully, the guard appears at just the right moment and waves me away with a scolding expression on his face, grabbing the bag and hefting it up to me in one fluid movement. It never fails to surprise me how helpful the guards are here. Having successfully got me onto the train, he gives me a cheery wave as I stammer thanks at him. Is he French? Italian? I’m not sure, so burble incoherently in both languages, which seems to do the trick. I’ll find out later where he’s from, but for now I just need to get to my cabin and get rid of these bags. I feel like a particularly overloaded packhorse and am aware that I probably smell like one too. Or, rather, like the packhorse’s elderly owner. The smell of hot horse is something I rather like. Hot, unwashed human, on the other hand …
Studying my ticket, I see that I’m in berth 46, so squeeze along the corridor. Thank god my bag is narrow and deep, as opposed to wide and shallow, as it means that I can – just about – still wheel it through the train. Next time I buy a suitcase, though, I’m *definitely* getting one of the ones with 4 wheels. 2 wheels good; 4 wheels better. Finding the cabin, I start to offload detritus with relief. From behind me, an Australian voice says, ‘I don’t think so!’ I glance around and see a short, middle-aged woman. She points at my cabin. ‘That one’s mine.’ I check my ticket – no, I’m definitely in here. Realisation dawns that she thinks they’re single cabins. ‘Oh, no, I’m in here, too. She gives me the kind of look that indicates that she thinks I’m completely barking. ‘The beds fold down from the wall.’ Not that I have a clue how to do that, but I know they do. She’s still looking doubtful, so I point at the list of numbers on the outside of the door, which are listed one above the other next to little boxes, representing beds. This convinces her, and she gives me an apologetic grin. ‘Hi, my name’s Suzanne. I snore, by the way. And I’ve got a cold.’ What an opening. We both start to laugh as we flop down onto the seat in the cabin and prepare to find out a little about each other. We’re going to be confined in a small space together for the next 15 hours, so that shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s one of the joys of travelling solo – the meeting of people along the way.
The guard interrupts us, bringing bottles of water and taking in tickets and passports. It turns out he’s Italian, so, as Suzanne doesn’t speak any Italian, communication is left to me, god help us. (I’m pleased to find that I haven’t forgotten everything over the summer. A fair bit, yes, but not *everything*.) Suzanne’s face as he walks away with the passports is probably the exact picture of mine the first time it happened to me, on the way back from Salento – a study of abject terror. One of the things that is drummed into every traveller is to never let go of your passport, so it’s terrifying to watch someone walk away with yours. It does make sense, however – the guard can then hand all the passports over to border control in one hit, rather than them having to check with everyone on the train individually in the middle of the night. It’s weird being the one who knows what’s going on for a change. I’ve learnt so much in the past year, without even realising that I was doing so.
Fascinating though it is to find out about someone else’s travels, it’s also tiring. When the guard comes round a few hours later to put the beds down, Suzanne and I crawl gratefully into our berths and fall into exhausted sleep. When the morning comes, we’ll have crossed France and be in Italy, with all its new challenges and excitements.
I can’t wait.
Image by el Chovo on Flickr