In this blogposting…
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Fourteenth Day
Now - go for it…
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: FOURTEENTH DAY
GENEVA TO PARIS
THURSDAY 1 APRIL
I wonder if all of Switzerland’s cities are like Geneva; breathtakingly proper, clean, polite, joyless and dull.
Think about it. Have you ever heard of anyone who’s ever had a fun holiday - full of memorable thrills, spills and excitement - in Basle, Zurich or Berne?
I thought not.
Breakfast in the hotel was acceptably dull, Geneva-style. Everything you’d expect to be there was there. Three different kinds of bread, a few scraggy bits of ham, some unidentifiable floppy cheese, a few small bowls of watery jam, and muesli by the bucketful.
Although by no means inadequate, it all managed to be tastelessly unappetising at the same time. As I slurped the dregs of my insipid coffee, I honestly began to wonder if the atmosphere of horrifying and stifling tedium with which Geneva had cloaked the previous evening had somehow seeped so far into my subconscious that the city had become, in my mind, irredeemably vapid; a non-place.
I began to toy with the idea of petitioning Google Earth to remove all traces of it from their satellite maps and photographs just to see if anyone would notice.
These trivial daydreams kept me lightly amused while I packed my bags and trundled down to the reception desk to check out.
Unusually for me, I used the stairs rather than the lift. This is because the lift was peculiarly claustrophobic; it had the approximate dimensions of a tea-chest or, even worse, a coffin. Anyone with the temerity to push their way in when it was already occupied would find themselves uncomfortably and uneasily cheek-by-jowl with other guests, unsmilingly eyeball to eyeball.
And it made a funny noise as it travelled up and down the shaft.
While I was getting my breath back at the foot of the stairs, something happened which went some way - admittedly, not very far - to alleviate the burdensome reputation that Geneva had etched into my mind.
The two receptionists were speaking a language utterly unknown to me.
I ‘did’ German at school and my Grand Tour had made the tones and lilts of Italian familiar to me. The receptionists sounded as if they were speaking a weird - and not altogether unpleasant - combination of the two. At one and the same time it sounded like German with an Italian accent - or Italian with a German accent.
At last - and far too late - something interesting was happening in Geneva.
When I handed in my key, I took the liberty of asking them what language they were using. It was Romanche; Switzerland’s fourth official language - which is seldom heard and thus almost never mentioned in dispatches.
So, in the interests of equity and fairness for which the English are rightly renowned, I’m mentioning it now.
That so many native European languages have managed to survive on our crowded, and linguistically imperialist, continent has always fascinated me and continues to do so. France has Provencal and Breton, Spain has Catalan and even the tiny Netherlands has Friesian (which is said to be the nearest living relative of English and is also spoken where the cows come from).
In Britain we have Welsh and Erse, of course.
But for me, the two European languages which have excited the most interest have been Romanche (because so few people speak it, despite its ‘official‘ status) and Basque (spoken in both France and Spain; a language so utterly and completely unlike any other on earth that no-one knows how it developed or when).
And so, for your edification and enlightenment, here are the numbers from one to ten - Romanche first…
in, dus, trais, quatter, tschintg, sis, set, otg, nov, diesch
...and now Basque…
bat, bi, hiru, lau, bost, sei, zazpi, zortzi, bederatzi, hamar
Like the rest of the language, Basque’s numbers are a total mystery. Zazpi? Hamar? Bost?
It might as well be Elvish or Klingon.
At least the hotel’s receptionists had given me something to think about while I waited for the train that would whisk me out of Geneva - probably for ever.
As a matter of fact, ‘whisked’ is something of an overstatement. Although the train was a TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse - high speed train) operated by French railways, it countered my enthusiasm to leave Geneva as rapidly as possible by ambling along at what seemed like walking pace. I could almost count the leaves on the trees as we crept from one river valley to the next.
It certainly didn’t feel as if the train would get me to Paris in less than three hours. And the heavily overcast sky and slow drizzle didn’t help, either. I felt distinctly and unmistakeably down in the mouth.
There was, however, one quickly-appearing consolation. Geneva lies at the end of a finger of Switzerland that juts into France. You can take a leisurely stroll from the City Centre and be inside France in half an hour. By train, I was crossing the penultimate border of my journey in just a few seconds.
Mind you, crossing mainland Europe’s national frontiers isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of border checkpoints, stopped trains, passport controls and customs checks. I didn’t encounter a single baggage search, security guard or peremptory deportation at any of the borders I crossed on my Grand Tour. Trains simply cross any frontier in their path without stopping.
(On the Munich to Verona leg of my journey, the train did stop at Brenner station, which straddles the Austro-Italian border - but only to change crews. I was thus able to stand with one foot in each country, a new experience for me.)
Thus - and almost without my realising it - the countryside I was looking at just after we left Geneva wasn’t Swiss but French.
Truckshunters will know that, since my Grand Tour, I have come to know France (or at least part of it) quite well. But, on this gray and damp Thursday morning, I was entering a country almost totally unfamiliar to me.
This is not a fact of which I am particularly proud. France is, after all, our nearest continental neighbour and, as the TGV picked up a little speed once inside its native territory, it struck me as iniquitous that I had managed to get through six whole decades having only visited Paris a couple of times and without any first-hand experience or knowledge of the French people, their country or their language.
Thus, the ‘voyage of discovery’ element of my Grand Tour had started as soon as I entered Belgium on the first day and had continued right through to this moment. As the train stopped at Bellegarde and then Bourg-en-Bresse, and travelled deeper into France, I was genuinely delighted to see how beautiful and varied the countryside thereabouts was - especially as the sky gradually cleared and the sun came out.
The terrain was heavily indented with hills, valleys and rivers. Dark forests draped the hillsides as the train sped west and north; villages were both small, sparse and, as we left the mountains behind, less and less Alpine.
Quite suddenly - or so it seemed to me - the train seemed to burst out of the landscape of hills, valleys and forests and into a completely different environment. The land levelled out, villages were larger, forests became scattered woodland and vast, verdant fields and hedgerows appeared. I saw my real-life first examples of French road layout, familiar to me from countless films and tv programmes; long, straight and lined with trees on both sides. Almost every road was an avenue of limes, cypresses or beech trees.
Everything in the countryside seemed so clipped, so manicured, so ‘organised’; as if some guiding eye had decided on the aesthetics of this farm or that church or these villages. Nothing seemed out of place, incongruous or untidy. There was little or nothing ‘casual’ about the French scenery I was passing through.
This apparent lack of waywardness and unpredictability - characteristics inherent in almost every aspect of the English landscape - was surprisingly restful and pleasing. It would have been even more restful and pleasing, especially to my untutored eye, if the train I was on had been moving a little slower.
But French TGVs move very fast indeed; twice as fast, in fact, than the speeds we’re used to in England. Imagine travelling from Newcastle to London in about an hour and a half. If they were in France, you could have been doing just that for over thirty years.
The line now turned decidedly northwards as it passed into Burgundy. One of the wayside stations it hurtled through was Macon Loche. At the time, I did not know that just a few miles south of the station lay a small, peaceful French village which, over the succeeding months, I would get to know very well indeed.
My arrival in Paris could easily have been something of an anti-climax. After all, if the purpose of my Grand Tour had been to visit new and unfamiliar places, then it was already over. Ironically, Geneva had been the last one.
I’d visited Paris several times already and my friend John was at Gare de Lyon to meet me, with his Parisian boyfriend Dominique. Theirs were the first familiar faces I’d seen in two weeks.
But arriving in Paris can never, ever, be described as an anti-climax. It is a city which always meets your expectations of it, no matter what they are or how many times you’ve visited it before.
It is the most-visited city on earth. And that’s because it is beautiful, smug and contrary. It is stressful, tiring and wonderful. It is crowded, peaceful and private. It is monumental, tawdry and graceful. And it is all these things to all people and at the same time.
Parisians themselves give the impression that they believe life outside Paris is pointless - or even non-existent. And Paris’ visitors are similarly - and just as hopelessly - ensnared by its vivacity and the limitless possibilities it seems to offer.
Paris is personal.
I’m delighted that I spent the final afternoon of my Tour there - drinking, eating and talking. After thirteen days and nights, I had a lot to say.
Not all those who wander are lost.
...will take place at 1100 on Thursday 11 November in Mowbray Park, Sunderland.
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month...
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