ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: FINAL DAY
PARIS TO LONDON AND NEWCASTLE
FRIDAY 2 APRIL
‘Personal space’ is a concept utterly foreign to the Parisian psyche.
Thus the only way to deal with Paris successfully is to do what its battle-hardened and bull-nosed citizens do: imagine it as your own personal space. You can‘t go far wrong if you try to pretend that you’re the only person in the entire city centre and act accordingly.
The endearing English habits of holding doors open for people, giving way to other pedestrians in the street or on the metro and being terribly polite and genteel, will quickly reduce any progress to an unbearable snail’s pace as you find yourself being pushed aside, barged into and generally taken advantage of in a peculiarly Parisian way.
Indeed, any deferential actions on your part will engender far more suspicious or disapproving looks than walking straight into people without any apology at all. That’s the way Parisians behave and so should you.
If you don’t, you won’t get anywhere.
I was forcibly reminded of all this as I made way to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar train to London. It’s only three stops on the metro from my lodgings and it wasn’t even rush hour. But the Paris Metro is a force to be reckoned with.
Paris has one of the best public transport systems in the world. There are dozens of bus routes, a fast-track underground system called the RER and a growing network of re-introduced trams, of which I am naturally very fond.
But the city’s pride and joy is - and has been for decades - the Metro.
It’s unquestionably one of the best metro systems in the whole world. There are 14 lines (the newest of which is completely computer-controlled; there isn’t even a driver on the train) and the city boasts that, in ‘greater Paris’, you’re never more than 400m from a Metro station.
It makes the London Underground (and London has three times the population of Paris) look like a plaything.
But, as anyone who has ever used it will testify, there’s something unnervingly forbidding about it. Reaching the platforms seems always to involve endless flights of steps - often up, down, and up again. And they’re not just toytown staircases either; flights of over 40 steps are not uncommon.
Naturally, escalators and lifts are still a thing of the future on the Paris Metro. And if you’re even slightly disabled you’ll probably find it easier to climb Mont Blanc than make your way from one side of the city to the other by Metro.
Add to this the interminably long passageways at interchanges - all of them covered with off-white shiny lavatory bricks from floor to roof - and you have a system that is less than it should be.
But the big puzzle is why - when the system is so comprehensive and the trains run so very frequently - does it always contrive to be so crowded?
The endless bumping and barging crowds (see above) drain away all thoughts of gentility and politesse and replace them with an enervating sense of powerless anxiety. It is to Parisians’ credit that there aren’t a dozen cases of ‘Metro Rage’ every day.
So, if you ever have to use the Metro - and eventually everyone has to use the Metro - do what I did that Friday morning. Stumble helplessly down (then up) the steps, push yourself and your luggage onto the train, try not to look anyone in the eye (unless you have a hidden agenda), be aware at all times of where your wallet/purse is and think of something comparatively calming, like being attacked by sharks.
As Eurostar sped north from Paris toward the Channel Tunnel, I tried very hard indeed to resist the temptation of thinking that my Grand Tour was already finished. But it wasn’t easy, especially as I reached a holiday landmark at Lille.
Lille is where I completed the circle. Coming in the opposite direction on the very first day of the tour, my Brussels-bound train had turned east at Lille. I had continued east to Cologne, south to Munich, Verona and Florence, north-west to Geneva and north to Paris and Lille. The Grand Tour Loop was complete.
It seemed to me that the rest of this final day was nothing so much as a mere formality. Even worse, as the train left Lille behind and the ground I was covering was no longer new, I got that sickly sinking feeling you get on the homeward bound leg of any holiday. You almost wish it away. You want it to be over and done with. All you want is to get home, have a nice cup of tea (impossible to get anywhere I visited), a biscuit (specially a shortbread biscuit - also impossible to get outside our sceptr’d isle) and a long, hot bath.
I’m very conscious that I’m beginning to sound like one of those detested English tourists who take cans of baked beans and bottles of industrial-strength brown sauce on holiday with them.
Regretfully, I have to say that they have a point. Just as we English haven’t quite mastered the art of croissant-baking (although we’re not far off), our continental cousins simply cannot scramble eggs the way nature intended. What you get is a plate of pale yellow gloop floating in what looks like (and perhaps is) soapy water.
And Italian cheese-on-toast is to die for. That is to say, you’d need to have expired before you’d even consider eating it.
Throughout my Grand Tour I often found myself wondering why the hotel I was staying in tried to imitate a ‘full English breakfast’. It simply can’t be done. Just as you need to be in Germany to sample the best sauerkraut or France for the best pancakes, so a cooked English breakfast becomes a grotesque parody of itself unless it’s prepared by an English cook - preferably in England itself.
Having said that, and in mitigation, there is some British food which not even a 5-star continental chef would even attempt to prepare. Porridge falls (or perhaps plops) into this category, as do fried bread, baked potatoes and poached eggs - the appeal of which escapes almost all mainland Europeans.
I wish I could say that I was wrong to feel so anti-climactic and forlorn on that last journey home. I wish I could tell you about the many interesting people I met that day, about the fascinating conversations I had. I wish I could regale you with anecdotes about the journey under the Channel Tunnel, the change of train in London and about the complex and pretentious thoughts I had as my final train stumbled up the East Coast main line to Newcastle.
But I can’t.
I paid my respects to the awesome St Pancras station by having a cup of coffee there and taking the photo (in this posting) of the wonderfully gigantic sculpture of the ‘kissing couple’ - then went next door to the shambles of King’s Cross. By this time, I really was starting to feel unsettled and unhappy. Without any doubt at all, King’s Cross was the ugliest, most cramped and chaotic station of my entire Tour.
Once it was a grand and romantic terminus but it’s mid-Victorian grandeur has been neglected for far too long. It stands as evidence of the shameful British disregard of our railway heritage.
It’s not a good station to be at if you’re feeling a little bit sorry for yourself anyway. It was truly terrible.
But almost as soon as the train left the station, a reminder that I was very much back in England made me smile. Within a very few minutes, there were five people in the seats around me making or receiving calls on their mobile phones. They talked as if no-one could hear them. They talked as if they didn’t care whether anyone could hear them or not.
This behaviour is unheard of on European trains. Throughout my Tour, I never, ever heard anyone talking on a mobile phone at their seat. Calls are taken or made in the vestibules at the ends of each carriage. Shouting loudly into a phone is uniformly regarded as inexcusably vulgar and is simply not tolerated.
I smiled as we headed north out of London. I was in the ‘Quiet Coach’ and was being deafened by the cacophony of ringtones and trivial conversations being bawled into phones.
Only the English, I thought, could tolerate and even cheerfully sustain such a paradox.
The train pulled slowly over the river and into Central Station. I looked out at the Tyne’s mighty bridges. St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The Keep. The Centre for Life. The Sage. The Quaysides. Dunston Staithes. And the river.
Newcastle is a monumental place to come home to.
Perhaps, I thought, there was someone on the train in the midst of their own Grand Tour. Perhaps they’d set out from Verona or Munich or Paris on their own trans-European train journey of discovery. Perhaps they were busy scribbling down notes about everything they saw and heard, as I’d been doing for the last fifteen days.
And perhaps they recognised the magnificence of this northern metropolis. Perhaps they realised that the city that was smiling its welcome at them that Friday afternoon was, in many surprising ways, a match for any other they’d seen or were likely to see on their Grand Tour.
I certainly hope so.
After all....not all those who wander are lost.