Have you ever noticed just how big and clumsy everything is back in the UK? Huge coins, big number-plates, large road signs with easy-to-read childish print, very thick white lines on the roads, big fat easy-grip door handles moulded in primary colours, public notices in simplified English, crude Mr Men pictograms instead of words, and those little diamonds instead of dots on London Underground posters... very strange. Like finding oneself back in primary school.
It’s also dirty. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare London with the Cevennes, but it certainly is a fair cop to compare the SNCF with British Rail and I tell you, living here, I’ve got used to French trains being scrupulously clean, comfortable, affordable and efficient. After which, the Stanstead Express comes as a shock: slow, noisy, filth-encrusted, covered in graffiti, it’s definitely an experience to be missed, especially at £15 for a single ticket. Blimey, play your cards right and you can get from Montpellier to Paris on the TGV for very little more than that!
Mais en plus, the facilities on the Stanstead Express are enough to make the strongest stomach heave. Black with grime, the floors were wet and there was nowhere to hang a coat or a bag. A sign informs passengers that waste is discharged directly onto the track and the draft up your backside bears witness to this barbarity. Needless to say, hot water, soap and towels were conspicuous by their absence. Yukety-yuk.
It’s not like that on the TGV to Paris, mate! I know because I have to take that train quite regularly, and I’ve never come across anything like the Stanstead Express. French trains are quiet and steady, they’re clean, well-heated in the winter, air-conditioned in the summer, the carpets are spotless, the seats are comfortable, tickets are cheap, and the services run on time.
But to be fair, you don’t get the same service in France. I mean, you get service - you just don’t get it with the same open-hearted jokey chit-chat. French waiters are unlikely to call you “darlin’”, they’re even more unlikely to advise you to avoid the quiche: “It’s left-over from yesterday. Take a tip from me - have the fish!”
So I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to The Smoke: after the formality and dignity of Paris, London seemed relaxed and friendly: the train conductor was chatty, the bus driver positively jovial, everyone seemed up for a laugh and a joke. I found myself exchanging light-hearted comments with other passengers on the tube, entering into a ludicrous pantomime with a book-seller on the South Bank, swapping phone numbers with a wine-taster I met in Starbucks, and having a lovely chat with a labrador (and his owners) in Hyde Park.
In my experience that sort of thing doesn’t happen too often in our bit of France. Or perhaps that’s just me? Perhaps I’ve turned into such a yokel that I’ve forgotten how to be a cool city slicker?
Ooh-er! Pass them carrots over ‘ere!
Next column will be uploaded around 15 March.
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