Midnight Express from Paris


To make the best use of my ticket for a fortnight’s freedom of the French railways I used to take a long distance train just after midnight from one of the Paris terminals, though the destinations and the company varied over the years.

There was the train to Brest, full of inebriated sailors returning to base – Genet would have been ecstatic – or the train to the Tour de Carol in the Pyrenees, empty but for myself and the staff once it had passed the red roofs of Foix.

A packed train to Avignon…an empty one to Grenoble.

I soon learned to use the loo on the train to wash and brush up before starting the day.

Firstly it was free and there was soap, secondly it was usually reasonably clean and, thirdly, it had a proper loo, not a hole in the ground with or without raised emplacements for the feet known in France as a Turkish toilet. Goodness only knows what the Turks call it.

I remember travelling in the same carriage as a group of elderly American ladies who resolutely refused to use the train loo for fear of being trapped within.
I saw them again on the platform, clustering wonderingly around something that looked like a corrugated iron sky rocket, painted a virulent green: the station conveniences.
One unwary fart and there would have been lift off.

They were still clustered by the time I had left my luggage in a locker – one forgets the freedom of the pre terrorist days – and headed for breakfast in the station buffet, all hissing coffee machines and blue overalled railway staff looking for sustenance before coming on duty.

It must have been a toss up between drawing straws for the first victim or ringing the American consul.

I seemed to change trains at Avignon quite often over the years and thus became acquainted with the loo on the long distance platform, a hefty walk under the brassy sun of the south.

It had, of course, a Turkish toilet which involved the usual gymnastics in disrobing sufficiently while ensuring no garment touched the floor, light bag slung over the shoulder.
You did not take a heavy bag in there as there was nowhere to hang it when the periodic flush….like opening the Aswan High Dam…bore all before it.
Handbags shot under the doors and rucksacks became sodden.
You could tell if an international train had just come in by the polyglot cries of the afflicted within.
It did not, however, suffer the defect of the time switch on the light, set nicely to have you in gymnastic pose when it expires and you are alone in the gloom.
It had, no doubt, a time switch but someone had nicked the light bulbs.

Stations usually had separate loos for the sexes, unlike civic or caff loos, where you would walk past the peeing men to reach the cubicles…and being a somewhat shy young person, I preferred the provisions at the stations.

But a fortnight in France enabled me to see more than the range of loos available to the traveller.

I had prepared my trip, I knew what there was to see and I saw it, from the temple and arena in Nimes to the black swans in the moat at Nevers and by economising on eating I could afford to hire a rowing boat to go out on Lake Annecy, lying back under the late afternoon sunshine, utterly at peace.

There were still branch lines dodging everywhere….on a drizzly afternoon in Bayonne the single track line up to St. Jean Pied de Port was alight with fiery crocosmia all the way to the little town which was the gateway to Spain via the Roncevaux Pass….site of the death of Roland.

Another took me from Grenoble down to the Rhone valley….mountains giving way to hills and then to plains, passing the tower of Crest on the way to a long wait at Valence and a distinct longing to be able to take the steam train at Tournon….but it was outside the system and pennies were tight.

Inside the system, however, was the little yellow train running through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent, Vauban’s fortified city under the flanks of Mount Canigou, around the Spanish enclaves tucked within the frontier proper since the time of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659…when some legal eagle had blundered because while Spain ceded all villages north of the Pyrenees to France it ceded no towns! The train with its toast rack carriages was a favourite of mine….travelling on spidery viaducts through the mountains from the main line at Perpignan, where I was lucky enough to see people dancing the sardana….spontaneously, not organised by some cultural body…not far from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca…to La Tour de Carol where the express for Paris waited, the carriages hot and stuffy in the sun.

A Sunday afternoon would see me on a slow train from the violet city of Toulouse……passing the twin spires of the cathedral of Niort in the Marais Poitevin, where boats replaced roads…..and the town of Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before his rise to power, eventually pulling in under the walls of the chateau at Nantes which faced an art deco biscuit factory on the other side of the tracks.

But what was I seeing of France?
The sights…and the countryside between.

Who was I meeting?
Ticket inspectors.

What was I eating?
Apart from a roll and coffee for breakfast in the station buffets it was cheap picnics…a loaf, some cheese or pate which was soft by the time it came to squash it into the sandwich, cheap wine.
I could look at the pissaladieres and quiches in the windows, but I couldn’t afford them until the end of the trip when there might be a surplus while the idea of eating a meal was in the realms of financial fantasy.

I really was on the outside looking in.


30 thoughts on “Midnight Express from Paris”

  1. Ah, I remember the Turkish toilet well. It was the only toilet up on the ‘servants’ quarter where the family housed me when I was their Au Pair girl. Good thing I was young, naive, and adaptable then. 🙂

      1. Yes! Plus, I didn’t have electricity in my tiny room for the first 4 months (used a flashlight), and I never did get cold water in the sink that was in my room. But in the end, it didn’t matter, because I was in Paris!

          1. Yes, they were both lawyers and treated me pretty lowly. It was good character building, I guess. I actually did try to switch families, but the only other one available at the time was in the country, and I wanted to remain in Paris. I had fun with the boys though.

  2. You can tell a lot about a nation by the design and “convenience” of its country’s toilets although I’ve yet to work out whether a rough toilet hardens the spirit or just girds the loins.

  3. Such adventures – and not just the loos – but seeing so much of a country that is really very, very beautiful and extremely different to the UK…it obviously made a big impression on you and I am very impressed too by how you executed your plan. Good stuff…without doubt, there’s more to come!

  4. Ah, the delicious waft of an olive laden pissaladière, just a mere hint of sun ripened tomatoes, fresh basil and the wonderful zest of wild garlic. Black swans in the background, roasted coffee at my fingertips. What a truly marvellous image you conjure from my memory Helen.

  5. Surely you loved France in those long-gone days?
    I know how you soured towards the country and its many ills, but surely the landscape, the villages, the history are all still there? Not to mention the food. (yes, I know, don’t tell me about the fast food joints and the expensive but crappy tourist traps spread everywhere now)

    I haven’t been to France for a good six years but when we went, we loved it still. We chose reasonably priced, good bourgeois family hotels and rarely, if ever, were disappointed.

    Do you think we just become more likely to complain about things as we get older? Less patient, less forgiving?

    Mind you, I’ve never LIVED there, only spent many happy holidays there.

    1. I’m reasonable about forgiving but no good whatsoever at forgetting.
      Yes it is all there…but holidaying and living are two different beasts.
      I cannot contain my revulsion at the regimentation…at the stifling of talent, at the ingrained corruption…and you have to live there to see it at first hand.

  6. Your ingenuity is as interesting a part of the story as the sights and sounds. France as few have seen it and were interested enough to write the story.

  7. I have planned a trip on the little yellow train a couple of times, but something has come up which has stopped it actually happening as yet. Your descriptions are brilliant…..toilets are just so important. I suspect they were less important back in those days, we just adapted. Its the memories of the contortions whilst recognising that such things would be so much more difficult now . that makes me laugh.

  8. I love train journeys and what a fantastic way to see so much of the country. I doubt it would be so enjoyable, or even possible, these days.

    The Turkish toilet…I hate them but have had to use out of necessity at times. It’s simply called the alaturka tuvalet (squat toilet) , so it’s easy to see how the French ‘à la Turque’ has derived from it.

  9. Spanish toilets always have the light on a time switch and there’s never enough time. I had an interesting experience in a toilet in a bar in Madrid that was in a junk room that was, of course, pitch black without the light. I had to feel my way around the walls, it seemed to take forever to find the door and the light switch and a few brooms and buckets got knocked over in the process!

  10. On the outside looking in is a wonderful place from which to get a wide perspective, Helen. Your love of France as a country – its landscapes and architecture and history – shine out of this post and I’m only sorry you had to experience the human downsides so intimately.

    1. The rather horrid phrase ‘lovely country, pity about the people’ comes to mind….but only in the sense of ‘pity about the people running the place’.

      Mark you de Gaulle’s phrase about the French being ‘les veaux’ also comes to mind in the context of the current problems…..

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