|cafe near the gare de Lyon|
There’s an ineluctable magic about those words – night train, train de nuit, treni di notte, these great carriages with only one or two lights showing in the bar/restaurant, where insomniac passengers sit, their glass of red wine or Pernod or brandy in front of them, watching the darkness flash past. Or so they might be seen from outside, a throb in the night air, a whistle, a slight vibration in the ground.
The train was empty when I got in at Port Bou, just across the border into Spain. That feeling of excitement and anticipation as I put down my pack, arranged pillow, sheet and blanket, took a last look at a sky growing dark with threads of pink and silver, and stretched out on the couchette. This was luxury indeed. The night before had been spent on a coach from London to Paris, with a ferry crossing in the early hours of the morning. I stood on deck for a while, padded with warm layers, hood pulled over my head as the wind whipped and tugged. Later I lay down on the floor on the lower deck but didn’t sleep. Back on the coach I fell asleep almost instantly, only waking up three hours later on the Paris périphérique, and it was still dark.
Only half light by the time I reached the Gare de Lyon, Paris, so there was still this atmosphere of things taking form, destinations and purposes, directions and decisions, all murky with the mysterious smoky morning half-light, the night lights outside the station still glowing, still to fade into invisibility.
Sometimes I do wonder why I travel this way. I forget the tiredness, the carrying of a heavy back pack, the irritation of the petty rules, such as, after paying 50 cents to use the wash room the wash-hand basins are only for washing one’s hands in. One time after an overnight coach trip, I’d brushed my teeth in the basin and got shouted at by the attendant. I snapped back – there’s no sign to say you’re not allowed to brush your teeth. She pointed triumphantly to the sign that said you could only wash your hands there. I spat out the toothpaste in disgust, and she sighed loudly and raised her eyes heavenward.
But when I go to make my reservations, the young SNCF man is friendly and helpful. He sniffs frequently, a nervous mannerism, and I find it hard to keep focussed on the seriousness of the operation. For it is a serious procedure, these rules. The first possible train can be booked up to Port Bou, but there are no spaces left on the night train. So he tries the next one, and yes, there are spaces and a reservation can duly be made, and since a reservation is obligatoire, I can legally board the train. The only thing I have to remember to do now is to compost all tickets before boarding.
As the TGV swept south, the clouds disappeared, the sky became blue and cloudless and I tried to stay awake.
Mesdames et messieurs dans quelques instants nous arrivons a Nîmes....ah Nîmes – memories of the little train from Vauvert, changing to go to Arles, the intense heat of summer, changing to go to Carcassonne, the arena, the second hand bookshop, going to the hairdresser’s to have my hair cut....
Then there is Montpellier, Sète, Narbonne, Béziers, and Perpignan, where I changed trains for Port Bou. Perpignan, el centre del món, the centre of the world, the Pyrenees, the peak of Canigou, rising behind it.
From the steps outside Port Bou station you have a view out over the sea, there is a sense that the mountains have come right to the edge of the land and have peered over, and people have perched their homes and their lives on the toes of the mountains, leaned against the mountains’ feet, and walked under the hot sun and waded in the warm water of the Mediterranean.
- Why is this not the centre of the world? I ask the night spirit who presides over trains.
It has a safe, secure feeling to it as if it has arrived here and there is nowhere else it needs to go.
- Because there is nowhere else it can go. Unless you head out to sea, or bore tunnels through the mountains, as has been done, for this train to pass through. You may think the mountains make it secure, but they press close in. What protects can become a barrier if it comes too close. But at Perpignan, there is a sloping plain and then foothills between you and the mountains. So you can feel encircled and protected but not hemmed in. And you can also feel the way the mountains call to you, should you wish to climb up onto higher ground, and expand your vision....
At Port Bou I remember why I travel this way – to watch the sky darken, with its few clouds and its clear light. To pull back the clean sheets of the couchette, to stow one’s things and know that after a glass of Spanish red, one will sleep and that the train will rock slightly and hum to itself and in the morning one will be transported by magic and will wake up somewhere else.
The train left Port Bou with that almost imperceptible tug and sense of movement, soundless except for a little squeal and faint grinding sounds and I take this to be the train’s squeal of joy at being in movement again and the grinding hiss is its breathing out with the sense of relief I felt too. A slight rocking motion, the rhythm as it picks up speed. The sense of abandonment to utter security as the sky grows dark outside as one is carried by this sleek and massive creature, fashioned by the god Hephaestus, so it is as if the god himself is holding you as you hurtle through the landscape, underneath the stars.