An annoying drizzle shed a veil over the Eiffel Tower, although that didn’t seem to discourage the souvenir sellers below. The top floor was closed because of the windy weather (falling off the tower is slightly less romantic than standing on top of  it), so that meant more tourists below.  To avoid them, the trick is not to stand still which, if you want to take a decent picture, is quite difficult.

“Souvenir, sir? Look! An Eiffel Tower with a flashlight! Look! 5 euro only!”

“Hmmm…no I  still prefer the real one, really.” I replied.

“Ok, ok. 3 euro!”

“No, no, really. I don’t want a model”

As a cargo of fresh money had just arrived (two fresh buses of Chinese tourists, still drowsy after their 10 hour flight to Europe), he sped off to bid them welcome to France, Paris and the European Monetary Union.

A few hundred meters upstream on the Seine riverbanks, i fled from the rain by entering the RER C station of Pont de l’Alma, the entrance  concealed in a small park next to Jean Nouvel’s Quai de Branly museum.

Although RER C is one of the ‘newer’ transportation arteries of Paris, the look and feel of it are old, not to say..well..outdated.  This might have something to do with the fact that a) it is infested with pigeons and b) it is under the care and daily operation of the French national railway company (yes, the people who brought you the shiny new TGV now bring you, straight in the heart of Paris, the pigeon-infested railway station. Now you know where the money didn’t go).

The stations look like a mix between the underground cavern lair of Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne and a standard bathroom from the Seventies. But I like the feel of it, really.  The tracks are right under the riverside road, and most of the time you can see the Seine through the holes of the grates that are supposed to keep the pigeons out (someone made a calculation error there. Thàt, or pigeons were a lot larger and heavier in the seventies.)

The screens that announce the trains look as if they were borrowed from the Starship Enterprise, with bi-coloured displays in bright blue, that flash up in bright flashy green whenever there’s a delay or a similar shocking announcement (“The trains run ON TIME!!!” *Gasp*). These are the French Railways after all… But i like it. It’s like being catapulted back into time. Nothing has changed ever since the opening of the line. Signs point you to sights long forgotten and closed, and show you a glimpse of Paris 40 years ago, when this was new and shiny, and the fastest way to travel (it still is).

As for the trains…well..erm…they look…nostalgic. Double-deck trains with classy orange leather seats, a graffiti-tagged artistic interior and a touch of Eau de Decaying Rat perfume. Everything you need for your romantic trip along the main sights of Europe’s capital of Love, Light and Art (and Versailles, where one of the C branches ends).

The elderly couple (i estimated them in the early sixties) in front of me wasn’t enjoying the romantic scenery at all. They were looking at a map. From their accent I could deduce origins far south and a touch of kangaroo.  If their English wasn’t obvious enough, the man’s yellow-green baseball cap that said “Go Australia” gave it away completely.

“Now then, we have to get off at Seen-Michell”

“No dear, i think it’s ‘Saint-Michel’, and we have to get off at Musée d’Orsay”

“That’s what I said, Seen-Michell’s, it’s right there on the map”

Intruiging as their conversation was, the way they were dressed was even more so. Under their long rain coats and their thick woolen scarfs, they must have worn 4 or 5 more layers of clothing, as they looked more like Michelin’s Bibendum man.

As the train pulled into Invalides station, a decision became rather urgent, as the next stop was Orsay. I was violently pulled from my observations (dead pigeon on the opposite tracks. 2 ‘o clock.) by a question in fluent Australo-french.

“Sorry sir, could you tell us where to get off for the Noter-Damn?”

I could have replied in Frenglish (‘not dze next stoppe, but dze one aftère’), but i chose to answer in English, and added

“Far from home?”

“Yeeesssir, all the way from Melbourne, Australia”. He added those last two words with the heaviest Australian accent I had ever heard, as if to stress the fact, in case i hadn’t noticed his baseball cap.

“My girl here ‘s from Australia (again, the accent) as well. We’ve come to France for a few days. Our plane home leaves tomorrow morning, so we thought we could enjoy a bit of the scenery until then.”

“So, what have you visited up ’till now?” I asked him, as the speaker announced a short delay due to an obstacle on the tracks (heavy pigeon, no doubt)

“The Marne trenches”

“I’m sorry, did you say…the trenches?”

“Yes. and the war graves”

“I see”

“You see, our grandfathers fought the Great War, and died in the mud. We wanted to see how it was in those days with all the rain and the mud. They left Australia in summer to fight a war that wasn’t theirs in a country with quite a rotten climate indeed. Couldn’t imagine how it would have been so we chose the rainy season to come here and see it for ourselves. Nasty weather you’ve got here. Bloody cold.”  And he pointed to his 5 layers of clothes.

The train had arrived at Saint-Michel. A wall of students and tourists waited outside to flood the train, from the cold platform into the overheated carriages.

“Well, gadday’ to you, mate! This is our stop then.”

“Have a safe trip home.” I replied.

“Oh..we’ll be back. Next year in December we’ll be back. We didn’t go to the place where they died, yet. It’s in Belgium. Passendale or something. Died there in December 1917. ”

As i stepped up the stairs towards the chaos of Boulevard Saint-Michel, i saw them arguing across the street, pointing on the map, looking for the shortest route to Ile de la Cité (just around the corner).

Unaware that thirteen months from now, where the poppies blow, they will probably find snow.



I was planning to write a blog post on some joyful encounters with tourists and locals in Paris, but something far more dramatic has occured (oh..well..dramatic) that needs to be written out.
Yes, for the first time, i’m writing out of anger. Anger against religion, deities and the unwillingness to act against abuse of them.

I happen to have a cinema subscription, which means i can hop in and out of my local cinema any time, and watch an unlimited number of movies for a fixed sum per month.  This means i can occasionnally watch very bad movies (after all, you always have to check if the rumours are really true). In this case, i committed the worst offense possible: i went for a Tony Scott movie…about trains. Which is completely besides the point for this story, but what you need to know is that it has a +16 rating (rather incomprehensibly, as all they do in the movie is drive trains, set off some explosions and shout a lot. But anyway…)

What i AM writing about is this: the room was packed with children and young adolescents. At first I thought i had ended up in an advanced screening of Deathly Hallows (part I), but i hadn’t. This really was the right movie, only nobody was sitting in the right room. Between the rows of pimply youngsters, i could still distinguish the anguished faces of adults and elderly couples, throwing uneasy looks at the rest of the rooms’ inhabitants and the front, as if they expected the screen to suddenly light up and show “the jolly adventures of Sean the happy squirrel” instead of an entertaining thriller about uncontrollable trains which don’t run on time (you don’t have to go to the movies to see that, by the way. Just take a Belgian train).

Just to be perfectly clear, I would have traded the Tony Scott movie any time against forestly adventures of a overexcited rodent addicted to hallucinogenic nuts, but it wouldn’t have mattered. By the time the first image of the film hit the screen, half the theatre was running around the room, shouting, screaming and giving a master-class on how to produce artificial rain with bits of popcorn. This went on for about 10 minutes when suddenly, something exciting happened on screen. As soon as this was over, however, everything started over again…

All this time…and i really mean ALL of the time…a security guard was standing in a corner, looking at the screen. Occasionally, some of the little scoundrels started dancing in front of him, throwing bits of popcorn to his face and shouting in his ear without any effect whatsoever… when, in the end, he gave up and left the room. It was right then that a mobile phone flew right past my left ear (at a cm distance or so) and crashed onto the ground.

Now, before I go on, i must really add that this is not the normal situation in an Antwerp, or for that matter, Belgian cinemas. Something was clearly wrong today because a) it looked like a children’s matinee and b) small, heavy Nokia phones can play music, show youtube movies, make coffee and do the dishes, but they cannot  fly.

So i decided to find out what it was, and left the room looking for the missing security guard, whom I found standing at the bar downstairs looking rather pale. When asked if he could come back and intervene, he spoke the magic words:

“Sorry, sir. They’re quite excited because of their religious festival today. The entire cinema (which has 20 theatres) is like this today. I can’t do anything, and anyway, they’re way too many to intervene.”

So…if i get this correctly…a religious festival is enough of an excuse to enter a screening of a movie which i’m not allowed to watch as i’m not old enough, trash a brand new renovated theatre and start throwing pieces of mobile electronics to other peoples’ heads while shouting all the way through a masterpiece of the seventh art…and get away with it because it’s erm…religion? Someone MUST have been reading the wrong codebook while deciphering the holy scripture there…

Don’t get me wrong, though. This rant is not about Islam, neither is it about Eid al-Adha, which happened to occur today. This isn’t even about a particular religion. This is about religion as a system. As a system that’s beyond the law..beyond daily reality and rules. For all I care, it might have been some Hare Krishna followers, rabbis or creationists singing christmas carols in that room hopping up and down in front of the screen. I still would have had them removed from that room. It’s not about that cinema. I don’t care about the cinema. I don’t even blame those kids, who were probably having quite a good time (although ruining a movie, even a miserable one,  is an unforgivable crime.).

It’s about the so-called ‘respect’ you are to have for religion, as if being religious gives you a wildcard to bend the rules and get away with it, to commit murder and get away with it because “it was done out of religious motivation” (i’m not kidding).

It is about a system that tells it’s followers that it spreads morality, wisdom and one true law to live by, but at the same time abuses that power by using it to rape innocent children, start wars and eradicate ‘godless’ people.  It’s about a system that claims to have a monopoly and decision right on everything from humanity, sexual ethics and birth control to the hand you use to write and eat (devlish left-handed people! curse them!), while being as hypocrite to actively enable the spread of AIDS. After all, even ill followers are followers, and the more souls to save, the merrier. Most of the time, a pile of money that can be made out of that is not too far away, either…

And all that because of some holy books and a direct telephone line with some almighty supreme being, master of life, the universe and everything.

Hallucinogenic nuts, no doubt, have something to do with that as well

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

We need rails.

I’m very fond of train travel. In fact, i rarely use any other means of transport on distances longer than a few kilometers, unless there really is no other option. I would have gone to China by train if it wouldn’t take me 8 days to get there (and 8 days to come back, of course) and if I had had some more weeks of holidays to spare. Over the past 16 months, i’ve travelled 52,000 km by train, of which 24,000 were travelled on the 55 kilometer stretch of railway between home and work, 14000 on the 350 km TGV line between Brussels and Paris,and 6000 km within China. The remaining mileage was spent entirely on European railways, with a few escapades to France, Germany and Italy along the way.

Of course, this has meant I’ve had my fair share of delays, strikes and other problems along the way. But that really isn’t the point. Any means of transport is subject to those troubles, and after all travelling IS meant to be a bit adventurous . But by train, you can just sit back and enjoy the scenery, as it glides past your window.

There is one kind of train in particular that brings back the mythical railway experience and still has a hint of the good old Express-feeling: The international intercity night train. France still has a national night train network, and a few trains from Paris still go across borders to Spain and Italy, but the times when you could travel from Paris to, say, Budapest without changing trains are over. What remains until this day is a network of trains between mainly Switzerland, Germany and Austria called City Night Line, run by Deutsche Bahn. It is, without any doubt, the most thrilling kind of railway travelling you can do within Europe, but sadly enough a fading remnant of what it once was in the glory days of nightly travel.

Last Christmas, when temperatures hit -16°C in Belgium, France and Germany, i tempted fate, and boarded the Paris-Moscow ‘Perseus’ service to go to Berlin with my girlfriend. Yes, there still is such a thing as a Paris-Moscow train, although it is reduced to one sleeper carriage, pulled by the Paris-Berlin/Munich train, and coupled to the Berlin-Moscow train in Berlin Ostbahnhof . It will take you 48 hours and the train will need to change tracks at the Russian border, as the distance between both rails doesn’t match, but it will take you through the Rhine Valley, the Schwarzwald, the remnants of East Germany, and the icy steppes of Poland, Belarus and Russia. But we were getting out at Berlin. Or were we? As the train rolled out of Paris-Est station, it soon became clear the heating wasn’t working in our carriage which, with the snow outside and temperatures below -12°C, wasn’t that promising a prospect.

By the time we arrived at Strasbourg a thin layer of ice had formed on the windows, and most of the people on the train had frozen feet, pacing up and down the train to look for a spot where the heating was still on. Ironically, the (empty) Moscow-bound carriage was the only one that had some form of heating, which led to a fierce competition to conquer a spot in the corridor. The rest of the people, such as ourselves,  had to find more innovative ways to unfreeze, such as exchanging spare pairs of  socks and blankets. As the engine wasn’t powerful enough to make the heating work it also had some problems pulling the train, and soon we were running two hours late. German railways efficiency came into play, and we were given the authorization to get off in Mannheim and upgrade without any cost to the posh luxury of the German high-speed service, the ICE.

For those who are unfamiliar with the ICE, i can only tell you to try it some day, as it is a refreshing experience. Coffee and newspapers are served at your seat (yes, in second class), the train interior looks like a futuristic rolling version of the Ritz lobby, and once inside you can’t hear the outside world. It’s like the Starship Enterprise, on rails. And it also runs on time, which is quite a unique experience for people used to Belgian and French railways. The train manager on the Mannheim-Hannover ICE was ‘really sorry for the delay of about 1.5 minutes’.

Our luck had soon run out, however, as the Hannover-Berlin train got stuck behind a night train that had broken down further down the road and had to wait in case the stranded passengers on the other train had to be evacuated by ours.  For one hour we waited as the railway engineers tried to start up its’ engines to clear the rails. And when they finally abandoned, and our train could continue on the other tracks, we could make out the letters painted on the side of the immobilized carriages we sped past.

“Perseus ‘Paris-Berlin’. Sleep tight, while we carry you across Europe”