When I was working summers at the SNCF, the French Railways Corporation, I was based out of a city smack-dab in the middle of France, while technically part of the South-West. I would “travel” mostly within a very large triangle between Paris, North-Eastern Spain and Bordeaux. Paris may be a strange place to put in the South-West, but the particularity of Paris is that it has six stations, circling the city at its periphery, each of them being the end station of a different region: Gare d’Austerlitz for the South-West and Spain, Gare de Lyon for the South-East and Italy, Gare du Nord for the Northern part of France, Belgium and other cold places, etc. All the stations are dead-ends, and trains that arrive there have to go back the way they came. This is important, moderately so at least, since this story is about trains going from Belgium to South-West France, which would imply normally getting off at Gare du Nord, crossing Paris, and getting on board another train at Austerlitz.
These trains were different for two reasons: first, they circumvent Paris altogether, not an easy feast, considering that since the French railways have been built centered around Paris, with railroads leaving its six stations towards the provinces, most express trains go from and to Paris. Period. The second difference is that these trains are seasonal — summers only — and transport families of happy vacationers, complete with automobiles. The idea being that after a good night’s rest, and a couple thousand miles in trains, these vacationers would be less liable to be part of an automobile crash, something that was a very common occurrence in France every summer when I was a kid.
Except that… Except that this assumed the so-called vacationers would be rested and sober when they left the train at Narbonne and got on board their vehicles, for parts unknown — probably Spain. We’re talking about people — Belgians and Dutch — who live 335.5 days a year in rain and grey weather, with temps in the high 40s, and I mean Fahrenheit. We’re talking about people who think drinking beer is a god-given right, along with it being beneficial to their local economy, of course. Shall I throw into the mix trains that had little to no air-conditioning, except windows that might be cracked open, given Obelixian strength and a couple of power-drills? Now we have a recipe for a very hot evening, and lots of work for the cleaning staff in Narbonne.
As I said, I was based in the middle of France, and the northeast point I ever went to on SNCF business was Paris, on a regular basis — once or twice a week, actually. We’d usually go there, stay a few hours in a dorm-like facility, and go back 6 to 8 hours later. Our work revolved about timeliness, and coordinating so many people and trains is not an easy task, and every employee working in trains produces graph-like time-lines of what was supposed to happen, and what really happened. Work assignments look like cipher messages, and we’d get little slips with assignments in our individual mailboxes, or week-long regular schedules, which would look like gibberish to outsiders. You get used quickly to the abbreviations, station names and train numbers, at least the common ones. So that night, I had to ask one of the old-timers. “What da heck is XXX?” — I can’t remember the three-letter acronym of this station, but XXX would work just as fine here, as it was not even really a station, but, as it soon came out, a triage area.
“Oh, you’re doing the Schaarbeek-Narbonne train, then, kid?”
“Er, I dunno, what’s that?”
“Well, you see, this station is Villeneuve, south-east of Paris. This is where trains from the south and the north meet, so that engines can be swapped. There are only two kinds of trains that bypass Paris. Freight trains, and special tourists trains. Since they don’t need us on freight trains, it means you’ve been assigned to baby-sitting the Belgians…”
“Okaaay, and how do I get there? If it’s a triage area, there’s no station!”
“There’s a shuttle bus, once in a while, if the guys remember, from Choisy le Roy. Or you can try to hop on the engine that’ll be swapped at Villeneuve. It’s usually departing from Austerlitz. Just ask around…”
Not a good start. Austerlitz is a maze of a station, and Paris being Paris, the people there aren’t the most pleasant ones. Even to colleagues. But this is the “Big House” — a happy family where we all toil away for the greater good of, well, who knows. I call a colleague of my father’s, a train driver, and ask him about this deal. While he doesn’t know about that engine swap, he tells me where to go to ask, engine dispatch, and to tell any of the people there that he sent me. Best idea I had so far. The dispatcher looks up the schedule, and tells me where and when to board the engine. Now I can go and enjoy one of those family-style lunches we had.
*** Interlude ***
Conviviality, forced or real, was very big back then — maybe still is. One of the most important things then was having lunch/dinner together. Whether at a major station like Austerlitz with 100 people any given day or in the middle of nowhere with 4 guys counting the hours until they could head back home, going shopping for ingredients, cooking and enjoying a meal together was the most important thing, if you intended to become “one of the guys”. These guys, who probably didn’t lift a finger at home — if my dad was any standard to go by — would outdo themselves. We would have huge lunches and dinners, with way too much to drink too, alas, followed by a few hours of rest. These meals served also as major relays for the grapevine, and rumors and information would be exchanged. One of my favourites was lunch in Agen, a small city in the south-west, where we’d cook lunch and early dinner for 6 to 8 people, from ingredients bought from a local market. Fresh produce and meat, locally-made bowel-cleaning liquid that was labeled and sold as wine. This was life!
*** /Interlude ***
So here I am, calling out to a train driver, up in his seat at the front of the huge electric engine.
“Yo! You’re the guy going to Villeneuve?”
“And you’re the poor sod who wasn’t told how to get there? Hop in, kid!”
Formality was never really part of life at SNCF. We all treated each others as instant brothers — ready-made brothers, like instant coffee, and just about as memorable and durable. But I always made efforts to introduce myself to drivers, being the son of one of their colleagues. And it usually paid, as many were bound to know him. This one wasn’t an exception, and we left off for Villeneuve, while chatting about my father, known associates and the old days of diesel and coal engines. Yawn.
The engine slows down and stops, in the middle of what seems to be hundreds of railroad tracks. The only thing I can see, in the dimming light, is dozens of freight trains. There’s no one around, apparently, and definitely no large sign with a red arrow saying “Here, dda, there’s your train!”. The driver smiles, obviously understanding my unease. “C’mon kid, no need to worry. Your train will be easy enough to find.”
“Er, right, got a map?”
“What for? Just stick around. Whatever train I get hooked up to is yours too, dummy!”
Right. Night comes, and still no news of our train. Not much to see now, not that there was a lot anyway in the first place, and conversation about engines and colleagues can go just this far. Then comes a voice from below, and, I guess, outside. “You there, Narbonne? Your train’s incoming, we’ll hook you up in a few minutes!” We never saw the guy come, and he’s there with a couple of other guys, ready to unhook the engine and hook us up instead. Within a few minutes, we’re all set, and as I get off the engine and prepare to board the train, the door opens and a colleague gets off, looking around. Apparently, he’s about as green as I am. “Did you see my engine?” I point behind me, adding “Dunno whether he’s waiting for you, but he was on the next track, over there, a few hundred meters off”. “Shit, better go and catch him them. Have fun, they’re all warmed up, by now.”
Whut? Warmed up, what does he mean? I hop on the train, check on the routing documents the compartment number where I am supposed to be staying until we arrive in my home-town, and head there, a few carriages down. Warmed up indeed. Talk about ghost town. There’s not a single soul in there! I am apparently accompanying an empty train. I find my compartment, unlock it, drop my bag, and, bored, decide to give the train a look-see. It’s not very long, a dozen passenger carriages, plus car-carriers, which I won’t get to see anyway, so it should be done quickly. And we won’t stop anywhere until I have to get off – the only reason we stop there is for me to get off and another dude to come in and replace me — so there’s not much to do anyway. No tickets to check, no sleepers to allocate, this is indeed baby-sitting.
More of the same. Empty compartments, again and again. Then comes faint music. Then louder. I open yet another door between carriages, and there you go. Full blast. Someone has brought a boom box into the dining-room carriage, and it is full of people dancing and drinking. 99% blond hair, white/pink skin. I would be unrecognizable, being from Belgian stock on my mother’s side, but for the blue uniform and cap. Heads turn towards me, spilling torrents of beer on the floor in the process. “Lookit, they brought us a new guy! Come here, bro, have one with us!”, says one of the alpha-males, a guy who looks right out of Asterix chez les Belges. Jeez. Just standing here and smelling the spilled beer would probably make me drunk enough to fail the physical. Then again, this is the SNCF, so drinking is kind of engraved in our collective DNA. I look at the 1% non-blond, the other hired help on this train, the waiter/clerk who’s supposed to sell food and drinks. He shrugs and says “They invaded the carriage as soon as the train left. They had cases of beer, that boom box. They’ve been here ever since… What can I do?” I point at his right hand, which holds a bottle of beer. “Probably drinking to forget, eh?”. He shrugs again…
I finish my round, more empty compartments, some of them closed and maybe not so empty, judging by the sounds. Heading back to my own compartment, I have to cross the “night club”, and this time the Belgian “cousins” won’t let me go. I have to accept a glass of beer, by now tepid at best, and listen to the slurred speeches of a bunch of drunk tourists speaking French with a weird accent. Over deafening music. Wouldn’t be so bad if the air-con worked, too. I drop my hat and uniform jacket, and the tourists take this a sign of surrender, I suppose, for they cheer loudly and start singing “A poil le contrôleur !” — no way I am doing a strip-tease, Chippendale style, on top of sipping a beer while on the clock…
After a while they loose interest — viva extra-strong Belgian beer! — and I head off to my compartment, and lock myself in. What I don’t need right now is a bunch of crazy, drunk, and possibly half naked tourists invading my hiding hole… Three more hours pass, night trains drive at 50 mph, give or take, and we approach my stop. I straighten my tie, put my hat and jacket on, and prepare to get off. The next conductor, who’s lucky enough to board the train from a station platform and not in the middle of nowhere, is waiting right in front of the door. An old-timer, who seems delighted to be on this train. “The tourists drunk yet?” Yup, he’s been here before… “Good, maybe I can go to bed too, anyway — next stop Narbonne, 6 hours of sleep if I can help it.”
I did this train a few more times, and it was always the same circus. The last time, in 1988, I had locked myself in as soon as I boarded the train, and almost missed my stop, as I had dozed off. I jumped off the train while it was starting moving, landing on the platform in a very unceremonious manner, clothes, bag and documents strewn around, cheered by the few people who were still awake. I’ve never been to Narbonne, by the way, and I wish I had been once on the last leg of this trip, to see their faces when we woke them up at 8am with loud cries of “Narbonne, Terminus!”.