‘On Meeting Our Waterloo’

“Knickers Abroad; a multiple journey”

by

Rose D. Kaye

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For a complete list of chapters in numerical order please go to this page.

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Chapter Nine

‘On Meeting Our Waterloo’

Fairlop

“Ode To The Underground”

‘Mind The Gap’ forces ears to contract,
open expectant eyes,
averted gazes,
privacy bubbles pressed,
squashed flat, mouths move
tasting aromas, heated
pheromones fantasies revealed.
Stranger’s touch,
stroking fingers,
matted hair snaps
lurching roar,
acrid stench below,
cool exhaust above
dark cables rushing by
bright tiles blurred,
fast forward, another stop
clicks into view,
rail above, rail below
standing still, passengers
moved from place
to home
as world races
past, enter, exit, only
the name has changed.

© Brian A. Fowler

Riding an hour on the Tube during the height of rush hour triggered this wonderful poem from Brian. Upon leaving the Tate Modern yesterday evening at five o’clock, we crossed the Millennium Bridge made slick by light mist and slogged slowly towards St. Paul’s Station and the ride home. We passed through the grounds of St. Paul’s, admiring the rose garden and statues before being funneled down the stairs and onto the crowded platform. Brian’s amazing poetry captured the time perfectly. We stood until the end, swaying like weightless sea grass in the surging outgoing tide. Fall colors now fading to somber winter drab broken only by flashes of bright scarves and glittering eyeliner. The behavior of work-time commuters is akin to the schooling of fish. Safety in numbers, orientating in the same directions, senses tuned to every unfamiliar noise and face. Huddled in the center of the writhing mass, slowly working your way to edge and then out into the night air, free to resume your solitary journey.

Speaking of that night, this was the sole occasion when PB made an appearance. All through the trip, Brian would walk ahead of Diane and Ann when in crowds or at the transit stations. Ann had chided him for running off ahead, but Brian explained that PB was taking point and making sure the going was safe. Since Ann had left her vehicle in a car park and it was now very dark, after we exited our final stop, PB was on high alert. He again took point and cleared the way to the dimly lit parking lot, but this time, he also took control of the body. When Ann and Diane entered the lot behind him, he noticed Ann carefully scanning the area. When he assured her it was safe she looked quizzically at him, so he formally introduced himself and shook her hand politely. He didn’t let Brian return until Ann had pulled out into traffic.

Now on this fifth morning of our journey and the ride to Waterloo, in order to connect with the Eurostar to Paris, only re-enforces my belief that mass transit exhibits quantum characteristics that fluctuate from time of day and station. Riding through cast-iron tunnels first bored in the 1890’s on a train equipped with modern maps of the entire 253-mile long system creates a sense of wonder. Since January 10th of 1863, passenger journeys numbering in the multiple tens of billions have rolled across these rails. You can hear the murmurs and whispers of patrons in decades past singing a haunting electric harmony. Although only 45% of the present day system is actually beneath the surface, ‘The Underground’ and ‘The Tube’ have entered into the modern lexicon as familiar terms throughout the world.

Check-in at Waterloo International was easy thanks to the keen recon the day before by the intrepid and world-renowned explorer Brian. Reported to Booth #3, no line and tickets validated. Security X-ray was no problem with food. Quickly through French passport control and we enter the terminal waiting area now for legal terms already in France. Board coach number seventeen, seats thirty-one and thirty-two: piece of cake. Depart precisely on time, slow, slow and slower ride out of London coming to a near halt at times, commuter trains passing us on adjacent tracks.

All Eurostar operations moved from Waterloo International to St. Pancras International on November 14th, 2007. Despite being further north in London, when the new twenty-four mile section of track opened all the way to St. Pancras, the travel time between London and Paris was reduced by an additional twenty minutes to two hours and fifteen minutes for non-stop service. The centerpiece of this rail link is a twelve-mile tunnel bored under east London until emerging about a mile short of the station.

The new quicker transit times contrasted sharply to the low speed exit out of London we took that morning. It wasn’t until we switched from third rail power to overhead gantries at Fawkham Junction upon entering the high-speed track opened in 2003 that the train began to reach the faster speeds needed to make the timetable. Racing towards the Chunnel at nearly 175 mph, the still verdant green countryside of Kent unrolled in a pleasing panorama of quiet villages, grazing cattle and bleating sheep. At least I assume they were bleating. What else do sheep do? Crossing the Medway Viaduct we raced through Ashford International on the flyover and began a gradual slowing to 100 mph and the descent for the twenty-minute ride under the English Channel.

Plunging at high-speed into the Chunnel may seem frightening, but the only thing scary about it is the massive amounts of debt leftover from the project. As far back as 1802 proposals had been made to dig under the Channel, but serious efforts were undertaken in the 1880’s, 1922 and the mid 1970’s. All of these attempts floundered for both monetary and political reasons and it wasn’t until 1987 when a joint Anglo-French consortium began digging from both sides of the English Channel. By 1994 the three 31.35 mile long tunnels were completed and service began late that year for passenger service by means of the Eurostar and via a shuttle service that carries automobiles. Freight service is marshaled around the scheduled passenger runs and includes trucks on shuttles as well. The Chunnel is the second longest rail tunnel in the world and the portion under the Channel is the longest undersea tunnel at 23.55 miles long. Eurostar train services have now grabbed over two-thirds of all passenger traffic regardless of type from London to Paris or Brussels.

Northern France was very flat and rural with small villages, dominated by a stone church in each, and surrounded by windbreaks of stubby trees. The fields were mostly bare earth with occasional winter crops sown and sheep here and there. The sparse landscape was only occasionally relieved by the view of a wind farm or an industrial park. Despite the better rail, the speed was no higher than in England, although sustained for longer periods of time. There was little in the way of urban sprawl and we maintained our schedule until traffic into Gare de Nord delayed our arrival by five minutes.

One thing I noticed on the run-in through the northern suburbs of Paris was the vast quantities of graffiti on the walls and buildings alongside the tracks. This continued on le Métro and on the RER both in the tunnels and on the exterior of the coaches. Compared to the London Underground, le Métro was far dirtier, the stations more confusing, the signage less clear and the trains smaller. It was quieter though as much of the rolling stock is on rubber tires. Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris was better known as the Métropolitain or le Métro – it’s now run by the RATP – but in contrast to the London Underground, it is far cheaper to use per single-trip ticket. Primarily running through compact neighborhoods, it is the most densely packed station wise of any transit system in the world and it carries the second most passengers in Europe behind only Moscow. The short distances between stations and the overall length of 133-miles can be explained in part by the resistance of many Paris residents throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to allow le Métro to reach into the inner suburbs. Their fear of crime and undesirables if non-Parisians were allowed free access into the city is also why the decision was made to run le Métro on the right hand tracks rather than on the left as the suburban trains were being operated. It was not until 1934 that the first line was extended beyond the city limits and this remained the case until the 1960’s. By then, lingering post World War II problems related to the many closed stations and the booming population growth, finally lead to the decision to construct an entirely new rail system. The RER linking the city of Paris to the ring of suburbs was the ultimate result.

Purchasing two tickets at the station was simple and we took the number 4 Métro line one stop from Gare de Nord and then rode the number 2 line to Charles de Gaulle Étoile. There we walked outside and up to an elevated platform to get on the number 6 line. It was interesting to be sure: different of course from London but not because of the language. Citizens of Paris are different. Way to go Rose! What a keen insight! No need for sarcasm here Dewy, I know that every writer since the time of the Romans has commented on Parisians, I was simply stating what I observed. You think it’s easy having Dewy around all the time? No she’s not real, not like I am, but that doesn’t stop her from poking her rounded assets into my life. Back to my observations please. As this was their first visit to France, Brian was being very cautious and triple checking the maps. He had a small folding map from a guidebook that he compared to the diagrams in the stations and on the carriages. The first transfer was easy since it was only one stop so they stood. The doors on the carriages are self-service and the pictogram instructions are not all that clear. Depending on the line, some have buttons, some have handles and they don’t all work the same. Since Brian wasn’t sure on how to work the doors, he made sure they were behind someone who did on every stop.

Which brings me to state my first observation that Parisians are impatient. The first person in line was trying to open the doors before the train came to a halt and if that person moved too slowly, someone else would reach around to do it quicker. On the second leg of the trip, they sat down next to an old woman. Brian smiled and said bonjour and she returned the salutation. The stops clicked off one by one and before we knew it, our next transfer station was at hand. Nothing any of us had ever read mentioned that some stations were elevated and when we followed the signs to Line 6, it lead out onto the sidewalk. To Brian’s surprise there was no exit ticket gate or an entrance ticket gate onto the next platform. There were however, several sets of steep stairs and Diane had to stop and rest. Which is my next observation. If you look confused while reading a map no one will break stride to offer advice. Not bashing Paris, but it was very noticeable though that few people in public would actually make eye contact.

At our final destination, the elevated Passy station, Brian was in a daze and got spun around and we descended the multiple flights of steps in the wrong direction. It turned out fine though because there it was! La Tour Eiffel. It was actually real and right across the Seine from us silhouetted against the crystal clear blue sky. What a glorious sight as we took pictures and it was only then that it sunk in that we were actually in Paris. Retracing our steps up the hill, a very steep hill – Paris is not flat – the hotel sign was visible from blocks away. The hotel Regina de Passy was recommended by our friend Tara and it was very nice and at 177 euros a night, considered to be moderately priced. We were on the third floor and had a room at the end of the hallway overlooking rue de la Tour. Featuring a large bedroom with two double beds, a television and desk the room was complemented by a walk-in closet with a generous bathroom. Despite the constant traffic, the room was quiet with no sounds from the hotel and only muffled noises from the street below the balcony. Diane was feeling very tired so she laid down for a nap and rested. Brian and I went for a walk to scope out the neighborhood and look for a place to eat dinner… we must get our priorities right!

Which brings me to another observation. The first thing I noticed when we got to the hotel was that the front desk help was smoking! That was a culture shock more than the fact that they spoke only French to us. That was expected at least and Brian simply bulled his way through the check-in procedure. You can’t intimidate him, he can out haughty the best of them. He’s far from an Ugly American but he demands respect and service in a civil manner. Diane was exhausted as it was decidedly more walking than she had planned on and Paris seemed to be all uphill. She was very hungry but too tired to go out exploring. After we had gotten to our room and unpacked Diane asked Brian to bring her back something to eat. Front desk aside, Brian was pleased with our accommodations. He’s stayed in hundreds of hotels through the years and this was a pleasant place. The lobby on the ground floor was flanked on one side by a room with a computer and opposite a breakfast room. The carpeted stairway to the back left curled in a circle from landing to landing around an open elevator shaft. It looked like an old movie set with the metal accordion door and tiny interior.

Paris was overwhelming to me. The short trip on le Métro, the walk to the hotel and the myriad narrow streets filled with traffic and people walking purposefully in every direction. This was a city that brooked no nonsense and expected visitors to keep up. It was already apparent that we would be unable to comply. It was time for a new strategy.

Tower

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