” Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts. The notion of travel as a continuous vision, a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth-with none of the distorting emptiness of air or sea-is possible only a train ”
– Paul Theroux
Living on a Choo Choo Train
Theroux could not have said it better. With the exception of my return flight from Singapore to London, I’ve travelled solely by train throughout my trip.Trains are punctual(often to the second)and well appointed. You get to see some spectacular scenery on day trains at a comfortable speed. Trains after all, are the most efficient way to traverse across Europe both cost-wise and time-wise. Prior to this trip, the only legitimate train ride I’ve been on was the Senandung Express which plied the overnight route between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Even though it was quite a number of years ago, I remember that trip vividly.The violent rumbling of the carriages as the train raced along the tracks which made eating noodle soup from the restaurant car a nerve-wracking experience and taking a piss in the cramped metallic toilets all the more a challenge.The neatly arranged plantations interchanging with wild Malaysian forests every now and then through the windows.The perilous crossings between carriages separated by a narrow connector without railings.The conductor making his rounds punching tickets and of course the transformation of your seats into beds in a matter of minutes.To a young boy, train journeys were a source of wonder and excitement. It was somewhat a roller-coaster ride without the minimum height restrictions.On a more personal level, Trains were an integral part of my family history.They were the livelihood of my late Grandfather, Uncle and many of my relatives.Trains were also the main reason why my family settled down in Singapore. My grandfather worked as a Station Master for Malaysian Railways.The nature of his job involved him being posted to different stations in the network. Eventually, his last posting led him to Singapore. Given my strong shared history with trains, it was only natural that I hold a certain fondness for the majestic train.
I’m sure many of you believe that travelling solo on a train is bound to be one lonely and boresome journey.Well, you’re both right and wrong. It really depends on YOU. If you seclude yourself from the rest of the world you are to blame if the journey is a long and lonely one.On the other hand if you keep your head up and smile, you’ll get yourself one interesting trip.That is exactly what I did and as a result I was never really alone on my train trips throughout Europe. I learnt valuable insider tips to Rome from the Cannavaro doppelganger en route from Paris to Rome despite the apparent language barrier. Italians are very expressive people! Had a nice chat with a young Frenchman on the way to Versailles. In the past, trains were a hubbub of conversation; romance and even murder! Just read of some of the great classics set on trains and you’ll get what I’m talking about. Today, the conversation aspect of train travel still remains intact. Everyone still has stories to share. Put two strangers in a compact cabin on a long train journey and they’re bound to talk. And talk I did on the trip from Venice to Paris!
24 Hours Of Non-Stop Travelling
The journey from Venice to Harrogate was a 24 hour journey spread across 3 legs.This holds the record of the longest journey I’ve ever taken to date. It was even longer than the flight from Singapore to London! The first leg was the longest- A 14 hour overnight train from Venice to Paris followed by a 3 hour Eurostar to London and the last lap- a 3.5 hour train to Harrogate. Add 3 more hours of transit time for good measure and you get one whole day of non-stop travelling. I wonder if there’s such a thing called train sickness? The long journey was well worth it because I was going to visit my Aunty Sylvia finally. 24 hours is a small price to pay for the familiarity and comfort that comes along with family especially when you’ve been travelling solo in a foreign land for the past week. I boarded the train and found out I was sharing the cabin with three Italian/French grannies.Wow Nick score! I kid. I should respect my elders.They were very maternal as expected.We exchanged smiles and I slumped myself into my makeshift bed. Venice had worn me out and no surprise, I drifted off into deep sleep in no time.
The Travelling Italian Orchestra
I woke up the next morning to a whole new environment.The grannies had already alighted and were replaced by an elderly man and teenager. I looked out the window and we were no longer in Italy but in the valleys of France. Ah the beauty of train travel! I went to freshen up and when I returned, the beds were already converted back to seats. My fellow cabin mates must have done it. I muttered thanks, uncertain if they understood English but then the elderly man responded ” You’re welcome ” . He introduced himself and the teenager beside him. Ricardo and Luigi were grandfather and grandson. Italians from Milan. I could sense Ricardo’s curiosity. Europeans generally couldn’t put their finger on my ethnicity or nationality during my trip. A welcome change from back home where most people passed me off as Malay solely based on the color of my skin.There were still those who tried on this trip to categorize me.The Street hawkers/Shop owners who attempted to lure me in with the occasional Spanish or Portuguese phrase only for me to return them a dumbfounded look.They must have thought I was Latino or Brazilian. I assuaged Ricardo’s curiosity and introduced myself. He had a faint idea of where Singapore was. “Somewhere near Malaysia?” as he put it. Close enough. At least he wasn’t one of those idiots who thought Singapore was in China. He opened a bag of Milanese biscotti and offered them to me. About time…I was famished! Over biscotti, a conversation ensued.
Ricardo and Luigi happened to be part of an Orchestra who were on their way to Paris for a performance. Luigi was the Orchestra’s pianist. He was 11( he looked 15) with shoulder length curls and wore Harry Potter-esque spectacles. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a child music prodigy. Luigi’s command of English was limited at best or maybe he was just reserved so he remained a spectator in the conversation. Ricardo on the other hand, possessed a strong command of English so conversing with him was a joy. Every now and then, a member of the orchestra would pop by to the cabin to check on Ricardo & Luigi. Ricardo would introduce me in Italian and they would give a friendly wave or smile in my direction. Italians are a friendly bunch!
Ricardo, as with all Grandfathers, shared with me his life story. He was well travelled and could speak 4 languages. All a result from his time working as a chemical engineer. He told me stories about his travels, business and family.When he found out I was heading to Harrogate, he recalled his brief working stint in Yorkshire during the 70s. Stories of renting a room in a whore house and brown baths were particularly entertaining. As the train pulled into Gare De Lyon, the three of us bade goodbye. He extended an invitation to attend his orchestra’s performance for free which unfortunately I had to decline. What a stand up guy!
I had 2 hours to burn before my Eurostar train to London departed. I was still hungry and since I wouldn’t be returning to the Paris; I gave in and treated myself to a French Feast. Brasserie Paris is located just across the road from the train station.To be honest, I walked into it out of convenience. Convenience aside, it proved to be the best meal I had throughout the entire trip. I had just missed the lunch crowd by an hour so the restaurant was near empty with the exception of an American couple.The waiter was French in every sense of the word. The kind you see in movies. He checked every box of what I expected a French waiter to be.
Service was so courteous and prompt that I felt embarrassed from all the attention. I took the waiter’s recommendation and ordered the Plat Du Jour (dish of the day). I was in luck that particular day. The Plat Du Jour was a juicy tender fillet mignon served with tagliatelle and seasonal vegetables.
As some of you already know, I’m a sucker for escargots so I couldn’t pass off the opportunity of trying it in the land which made it world famous!
Here’s a little snippet of advice- French snails are fighters even when they’re dead. It was challenge getting them out of their shells even with the help of the snail fork. This was due to the fact that the snail was still attached to the shell. Back home the snail meat is already detached. Well for the sake of authenticity, I shall battle.The waiter clearly saw I was struggling and offered to help but I turned him away. I had too much pride. After 10 minutes of battling with the dead snail, I successfully removed its body from the shell.1 down, 5 more to go! It must have been amusing because the American couple were watching intently the whole time.Thankfully their cheeseburgers(yeah how American.. cheeseburgers when you’re in Paris?!) arrived and I proceeded with the remaining 5 snails.The remaining snails took significantly lesser time as my snail-removing skills improved.The entire meal was a foodgasm. I left a big tip for the waiter and headed to the train station.
Platform 9 3/4
My train to Harrogate departed from Kings Cross Station, made famous by the Harry Potter series.The Harry Potter series was a big part of my childhood. I am sure the same resonates with many of you. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first real book I read at the age of 7. From then on, there was no turning back. Fast forward today, I’m the proud owner of the entire Harry Potter Series, watched all the films and not forgetting I have a huge crush on Hermione Granger.The only thing that probably separates me from the most die-hard of fans is that I don’t have a Nimbus 2000 for a broomstick. I was close to getting one though many years ago. Harry beat me to it 😉 Fortunately, I still had an hour before my train departed so I rushed to Platform 9 3/4 like an overly excited little boy.
Seeing the wall up close(even though it was obviously a mock up) brought back a flood of memories from my childhood.The little kid in me wanted to run straight at it and board the Hogwarts express on the other side.Well the train to Harrogate was fast and that would have to make do as the Hogwarts express! Harrogate after all sounds like Hogwarts doesn’t it?
The train ride was scenic. The train rolled past the English countryside, passing by small English towns. I arrived in Harrogate around 7ish after swapping trains at York. Nightfall had already descended on the town. It was a comforting sight seeing a familiar face waiting for me at the other side of the platform. Now, time for a good night’s rest on a real bed for the first time in 9 days.