Years in the planning, months in the execution, weeks in the packing and hours from Hell in that long European air trip, we finally dumped our bags in France.
When you live in Australia, nothing can spare you the dehydration, exhaustion and nuff-nuff brain that comes from making that 24 hour trip in an air-conditioned, low-pressurised, over-crowded aircraft cabin. Not even champagne in Business Class.
I have made this trip every year of my life since I was 21, sometimes three-four times a year. I speak from vast experience to say that whether I do all the “right” things, like sleep in the European time zone, eat lightly, (some even say “eat only vegetarian”, horrors!), drink plenty of water, exercise every two hours – which is entirely consistent with drinking plenty of water by the way, – shower and change in Singapore or Dubai, or whether I am in Economy or Business, or whether I drink the best wines, eat all three courses including steak, watch movies all through the night and sleep when I am tired in the same clothes I departed in, the end result is the same. I have decided it’s the air conditioning, low pressure, lack of sleep, et al, that makes one arrive so uncomfortably, so now I just go with it. I treat the whole flight as an indulgence and worry about the consequences later. As a result I drank average wine, slept little, saw three average movies, and thoroughly enjoyed the very excellent Crazy Rich Asians.
We travelled on Qantas all the way, so went via Singapore and London to Paris. This meant our 72 kilos had been checked straight through to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Whew. No excess baggage charges.
Being on British passports, it never ceases to amaze me that I can walk straight into the UK through the “Citizen” line, unstamped, barely sighted, not logged in anywhere, then fly over to Paris on, effectively, a domestic flight. Does anyone know we are even here? More hurtful, does anyone care? With Brexit looming, we were very grateful to keep our eyes down, heads low, and not get logged into any system.
In Paris CDG airport, some 47 hours since we left our own beds, we waited for our bags with that horrid, horrible, dreadful feeling that they somehow had missed our multiple flights, and that in three weeks they would turn up battered and broken, having gone to Chicago via Cape town, leaving us sans underwear but with masses of insurance paperwork. It pays to expect the worst; they were almost the first off the carousel.
Lightened of spirit but loaded with luggage, we set off to find the train for Lille. As a TGV train departed every hour from CDG to Lille, we were in no hurry. A long walk ensued through every terminal built at CDG. I remember remarking to Keith, with my non-operational brain non-operational, “didn’t they have a bomb in here”? before I remembered one should not say the “b” word in an airport. So much for my vaunted vast travel experience.
In finding the TGV, we found signs that said “train”, “SNCF” and “RER” but nothing that said “TGV”. As we got closer to where apparently a train line was to be located, even those disappeared. Even when pointed in the direction of the dungeon that houses engines, we could not use the escalator, and made a round trip looking for a lift which would move us, along with a trolley weighing the same as another human being, down into the depths.
Finally we found the station, noted a train to Lille was coming in three quarters of an hour, and lined up to buy a ticket from a delightful black girl. I wonder if it is racist to actually describe her as black, or is it more racist that my readers will automatically picture her as white-skinned unless I so describe her? She was warm, knowledgeable and helpful, with a complete service orientation so rare to find in Paris. We could have been friends.
She told us that Seniors got discounts, and we bought first-class tickets on a special promotion to Lille for only €25 each. Now it was finally time to dump the trolley and move six pieces of luggage down an escalator to the platforms below. Trying to balance the small suitcase on the top step, it slipped, and took off under high and increasing velocity down the long escalator, propelled by its own 18 kilos of weight, watched by us in frozen shock. I mean, the noise! As it banged and walloped down the metal steps, more and more people looked around. Thank God they did. At the bottom, it shot along the platform about 10 metres before slowing and stopping. It would have killed anyone in its path, and there’s that threat of insurance paperwork again! So we were very grateful they all watched it until it stopped, then they slowly turned to stare at the two numb, Senior Australians fixated at the top, and as quickly looked away as embarrassed as we were.
It was only when all the suitcases were safely down, and I had retrieved the runaway, that I began to laugh in that silent way that only makes you want to laugh more, knowing that people would think you were insufferably uncaring and careless to nearly kill them with a vagabond suitcase. My belly was aching from hiding it, when the snow began, and the diversion saved us from further censure.
Out came the coats, hats, scarves and gloves deliberately packed in the outside pockets of the suitcase, due to that vast vaunted travel experience when once I was caught waiting to be picked up in Germany for an hour with my coat at the bottom of the case, freezing because I didn’t want to disturb the contents and not knowing when my car would arrive. I became an Abominable Snow Woman that day in Germany, and vowed to never make the same mistake.
Two numb, Senior, embarrassed, but warm Australians clambered aboard our train, stowed the bags and settled in for a super-fast hour of TGV train-travel and sightseeing at an ever-increasing snow fall.
The outskirts of Lille are not pretty, even under snow. It was once the industrial and mining centre of the North of France, and its buildings, apart from the mediaeval centre, reflect a period of rapid post-war growth of apartment buildings and economic prosperity up to the 1960s, never a good era for architecture, and the failure to effectively plan the town or its style. When coal mining ceased in the 1970s, the town went into decline, until it was revived by tourism, education and research. The central government invested in its power-house of a University and it became again a centre of world knowledge. It is prosperous and busy again, sitting as it does on the cross axes of the roads from France north to Belgium and the Netherlands, and laterally between Calais and Germany.
Lille Europe as the central train station is known, is a conglomerate of modernistic architecture, supermarkets, clocks, taxis, buses, signs, platforms, escalators, shops, stairs, fast food outlets and lifts. Designed as a modern shopping centre to move the city’s growth in an easterly direction, it doesn’t work. It is horrible; but maybe we were numb. We lined up for a taxi, requested a Kombi van style of cab, and took a ride to our centrally-located hotel.
Unpacking the minimum, as were here for just two nights, we ventured out to find something to eat. Eschewing McDonalds, we found a patisserie that sold hot pastry things and hurried them back to our hotel to scoff in our sitting room. Finally, a quick, hot and great shower, fluffy pyjamas, and we stumbled into a huge soft bed, laden with warmed quilts, thick and thin pillows, and divine sheets.
As I sank into this heavenly bliss, knowing I’d been out of a real bed for over 50 hours, I rejoiced in how quickly I would fall asleep and happily counted how many hours of sleep were available to me between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.
By 1:00 a.m., when I still hadn’t slept, and knew the answer would not be “twelve”, I arose to finally give in and take a sleeping pill. I knew that the Old Enemy, Jet Lag, was making me suffer, as it always does when I travel east to west, much, much more than the lack of sleep in that air conditioned, low pressure aircraft cabin. The torment of Time Zone Travel would not release its grip for some days yet, as we continued to languish in Lille.
Chapter Six: Belfries, Bureaucrats and Business