17 January 2008

The Night Train

The shortest distance between two points?

“In the night train, there are ghosts,” Charles Trenet used to sing. I suspect they weren’t ghosts but sleepless passengers instead.

I have just returned from my second round-trip journey to Spain on the night trains jointly operated, it is alleged, by the Spanish national railway (RENFE) and the French (SNCF). I am a great believer in train travel, perhaps in atavistic response to my great-grandfather, an executive with Southern Pacific. However, I must now concede that the Franco-Spanish experience is lacking.

For one of the great pleasures of train travel, the ability to look out the window and see the unfurling countryside, is denied to riders of the night train in winter: when we board the train, the skies are dark already, and when we descend, the next morning, the skies are still dark, or mostly. You are welcome to look out the windows of the bar car or the corridors, but all you will see is your own reflection. Your pale, haggard, sleepless reflection.

This is an unnerving sight, to be avoided at all costs, and for this reason the windows of the compartments are curtained, and it is considered a grievous breach of etiquette to part those curtains for any reason whatever. It is a strict policy, but a sound one. You would be wrong to argue against it.

The trains are designed for teeny-tiny people with no luggage. The corridors are so narrow that I have to hunch my shoulders to pass, and the compartments are not much more spacious. (The adjacent photograph is life-size, by the way.) The seats are painfully upright, and there is no leg room. If one of the passengers has brought along a big bag (and on each of my trips, someone has), there is no floor room, either. You do not know where to put your feet, your elbows, your shoulders. When it is time to fold down the beds, at last one can stretch a bit, but one can’t sit up without banging one’s head on the bed or ceiling above. Even the Europeans, who are on average shorter than I, find this awkward.

Conversation is limited, less by an air of mystery than by a universal desire for self-preserving privacy. The railway publishes a little magazine, which this month featured a positively inspirational article on Alfred Hitchcock’s many suspenseful train films. Nobody took the bait, however, and on my return trip, my compartment mate did not solicit my assistance in murdering his mother, or pass me a secret code, or disappear without a clue, or utter two words for the entire trip. But he did leave his bag in the middle of the floor, so that I could trip over it in the dark.

On the train lines, called Talgo on the Madrid route and Elipsos on the Barcelona route, you will never see a French employee, nor even a Spanish employee who speaks any French, or English, or indeed any language but Spanish.

I have long believed that the French are a bit snobbish, especially about their language, but it turns out the Spanish are even worse. If you do not speak their language, they have nothing to say to you. They certainly do not care to inform you why it is necessary for them to confiscate your passport, or whether they will ever return it to you; or why your train has been sitting idle in the station at Étampes, thirty minutes outside Paris and a very long way from the Spanish border, for the past three hours, or whether there is any reason to hope that, at any time, the train may start again toward its ostensible destination. If they wanted to tell you these things, they would install a public-address system in the train, such as one finds in any other country on earth; if you wanted to know these things, you would have studied Spanish. It is too late now. There is no hope for you.

On my way to Barcelona, we were delayed more than eight hours, for a total of twenty hours on board the train. The railway made some effort to keep us from setting off a crazed carnival of crime in the cars: they gave us free sandwiches at lunchtime, and as we whizzed passed the medieval fortress-city of Carcassonne and the famous flamingos of the Camargue, a conductor generously pointed out the sights.

It did not occur to the train personnel to fold up the beds again, so that we could sit normally in the compartments; most of us took advantage of the situation by trying to catch up on our sleep. But sleep on the Elipsos is not easily to be had, unless one’s concept of the ideal condition is that of a Christmas morning, when a six-year-old boy has decided that it is time to open his presents and therefore sets about shaking you from your slumber. The jostling was constant and fiercesome — when we were moving.

Happily, perhaps, we were not often moving at all. It is supposed to be a high-speed train, but we spent a great deal of the journey at a complete standstill; at other times, we crept along the tracks. I understood at last. The old lady who was pulling the locomotive got tired from time to time, and so she would stop to take a restorative glass of Armagnac; when we got to Toulouse, she took an hour and a half to visit her sister, and to help her bake a cake. I am certain it was delicious, and entirely worth our wait, although we never got to taste it.

I am beginning to reconsider my fear of flying.