Lifestyle Travel

French Travels: Off Again, Just Under the Channel

Just a few decades ago, two otherwise irreconcilable nations came together, underwater, to build a truly European link: a passage between the Continent and the Nordic kingdom, which would soon take the happy-go-lucky weekender between two countries separated by sea – and in so short a space of time that one hardly has time to feel like one has travelled at all.

And the height that one must gain to feel like a traveller! In just over two hours, a high-speed train shoots under the earth and water to emerge in a foreign land, with its flat countryside and altogether different peoples, and another language to match. Here, the buildings speak Parisian French, with its Haussmanian design and laced balconies lining streets that are for some reason never quite straight, shooting off the main roads in rustic, acute angles. 

Only a few hours ago, one was at the station watching the travellers with their bulky bags in tears of parting and crinkled eyes of joy at another reunion. Oh, how much joy and sadness do the trains carry! The stations are the most emotionally packed places in the world – the stations, and the hospitals. The former carry fear and uncertainties of the future, anticipation and relief; the latter, the same, only carried out over time rather than distance. But insofar as the lone traveller is concerned, once the novelty of the journey has transformed into a fascination, the spirit of travel awoken, and the mind cleared of farewells and sentimentality, one is simply amazed at one’s own apparition into a foreign land in the space of a few hours, without ever having left the ground.

When travelling alone, one is thrown most callously into the alien land, and whether one likes it or not, one will be placed into startlingly direct contact with the culture of the place. The air will feel rich with the foreign substance, stifling if one resists it. Whilst the afternoon was whiled away with the makeshift paninis of an English station deli, come evening one will be sitting on the petit leather-cushioned wooden chairs of a bustling Parisian bistro – bustling, yes, but not with the intrusive music of the English pubs or raucous football fans, rather with an enthusiasm for commensality and the post-meal petit dessert that can only be found around French tables. Age-stained mirrors in an Art Deco interior, and an orange glow that spots the streets in every nook and cranny, smoking, bubbling… There was never a place more reminiscent of the old Parisian nightlife: concentrated in these brasseries that glow orange into the night, the liqueur bottles radiating their colourful vibrancy from behind the bar, polished wood glamourous and glinting under the light of the Belle Epoque wall lamps. A desolate street will be illuminated in the light of life as the fumeurs emit their fumes on woven chairs out on the streets, and chatter, drink, eat, with all the joie de vivre of a young Parisian.

Morning comes and the streets glow softly under the rays of the French sun, which is quite different to the English sun – for it is in fact there, and rather more sociable, chatting with the streetside shops, caressing the heavy foliage of the urban trees (which thrive in drought, floods, and polluted air), and dancing on the elaborate metalwork of the balconies and terraces. These streets are made for the flâneur, every turn presenting a delightful exhibition of cornerside cafés and little boutiques, each with some personality and a distinct Parisian flair to satisfy the idle eye. Look at the little bushy balconies, the thriving pot plants that decorate the view from below, like the mane of the sky. From a panier de pain carrying a plump croissant to the gravel-carpeted boulevards of the city jardins (where the old men play pétanque and the toddlers run away to the fountains), the morning sees the city awaken in a distinctly European energy that is somewhat attenuated in the English gardens.

But a train ride across the country will remind one of the beauties of the English countryside, which French lands can hardly mimic with their expanses of flat land (such ironed-out land is unheard of amongst the hills and valleys of the bulging patchwork on the other side of the Channel). Further south and some vineyards appear, some less desolate land, but for the majority of the journey one will be looking off towards what might well be Canada, so unbroken are the flatlands. Wind turbines to excite the soul, the occasional display of a stone church, an isolated farm standing in the middle of miles of beige-themed fields, a heron perched at the edge of a pond beside the tracks… a sunflower field! Listen to the friendly flowers greet the passing train, the friends of the hay bales that interrupt endless expanses of cultivated land. Here, the trees are tall and slim, twisting with personality and silver with pride. Enough of the trees, the cattle have arrived! Life at last with a slight elevation of the lands, the sun comes out over the more populous fields – one has reached the belly of the nation!

Illustration by Grace Kirman.