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?
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.