Friday, 5 December 2014

What's a bridge between friends?

"there it is, you can see the boats! "

I pushed the button and held tight, training my little video camera on the unseen waterway beyond the glass. With a final clickety clack we left the outermost suburbs of one of France's easternmost cities and glided across two hundred meters of bridge linking the high speed rail network's radiating out from Paris with Germany and the continent beyond. Behind us lay two hundred miles of track, much of it covered at a speed greater than any other train in the world outside China, a technological, and staggeringly expensive, arm reaching out in friendship from the French capital to the people of Alsace, and fulfilling a commitment to provide seamless connectivity between France, Germany, Austria and Hungary. The ride was smooth, though the speed, around 200mph, was also surprisingly noticeable as the TGV Duplex tore across the French countryside. Strasbourg, the second home of the European Parliament and historically a pawn in past conflicts between France and Germany, was reached in around two hours, the train having slowed considerably after coming off the still to be completed fast line and crawled through undulating terrain to its first stop.

I must confess that borders, particularly those in Europe now rendered largely transparent by the Schengen agreement, fascinate me. At times they seem so strong, impermeable, constraining the cultures that abutt them on either side. Yet, are do they really apply societal segregation so strictly? When we boarded the train French voices were certainly in abundance, but German, English and other languages were well represented too. Writing this as we head towards Stuttgart, an hour or so after crossing the Rhine, the accents remain just as mixed. Perhaps a high speed train, pausing only every hundred miles or so, is not the best environment to ponder the meaning of boundaries and the genuine strength of the demarcation they purport to symbolize, but I can't help feeling these arbitry dotted lines, drawn by Generals and politicians mean a lot less in a modern Europe.

I wonder if it is my Britishness which still perpetuates my interest in the border. Gazing across the English Channel from Dover, Eastbourne or Brighton my thoughts have frequently turned to the watery frontier dividing our land of roast dinners, stiff upper lips, and orderly queues, from our nearest neighbours, with their foie gras, elegant sophistication and chaotic traffic. We may be neighbours but at times we seem so different, a sense exaggerated by the physicality of the sea between us.

Of course we aren't really as different as we think, and our national sniping is closer to that of bickering siblings than genuine animosity. Likewise, the wall between between us is breached easily with a boat or train.

So why was it so important for me to capture that moment where France met Germany mid stream? If the line between the two is a join rather than a divide, and if in any case the brothers and sisters of Europe are not so separate as we might think, surely it shouldn't matter on which side of it our steel wheels roll? I think it is about recognizing the history of this continent, the people who have worked for and fought over it, the cultures they have created, the stereotypes which have grown strong or been broken down, the perceptions of difference and the realities of similarity. Or, rather boringly, perhaps it was just to provide narrative in my holiday video, a noteworthy point in a significant journey.

Whatever the reason, as my Dad pointed out the river and I held the camera against the vibrating window, I hoped to capture a symbol of progression and transition in the water's of the Rhine far below.

Location:Am Hauptbahnhof,Stuttgart,Germany

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The next departure is to Munich

All journeys have to begin somewhere, and I suppose one's home station and a very familiar train trundling through southwest London into Waterloo is as good a way as any. Nevertheless, it feels slightly odd sitting here listening to a group of students gossiping in front, and somebody tapping away in a keyboard to one side, knowing that in twenty four hours time I should have just arrived at Munich's main station having not once boarded an aeroplane or left the ground. There they are, going about very ordinary activities, and here I am, taking the first step on a railway journey to somewhere which feels a very long way away.

I'm no stranger to these journeys. In fact I increasingly choose to travel by rail when visiting European destinations. Though the time required may be a little longer than when flying, the level of personal comfort onboard trains, the ability to feel the distance and sense the continent changing as one travels across it, totally outweighs such considerations in my view. I realise of course that this is not everyone's perspective, despite the seemingly exponential increase in the popularity of websites like which evangelise on the benefits of ditching uncomfortable and polluting airlines for the greener and friendlier alternative, most people would still rather brave the check in queues, invasive security and baggage delays for the perception of speed and efficiency that air travel brings. My long suffering friend Mark has already endured long days staring out the train window, possibly wishing he was 36000 feet above, in order to accompany me on several city breaks, and now my Dad has succumbed to pressure and agreed to a couple of days in Munich enjoying the gluehwein and bratwurst, bookended with a rail journey beginning properly in Ashford, Kent, and taking us via Paris and then through Alsace to Baden Wurtenburg and Bavaria in just eight hours of travelling time.

It's going to be great, I have no doubt, though I fear my ideal of a good railway journey may not entirely match my Dad's. Like its airborne cousin ground level transport isn't immune from delays and disruption, but as somebody who sees the journey as an integral part of any trip I am relatively happy so long as we get there in one piece, and preferably before we need to leave to get home. Dad, I suspect would like his trains to run on time, and I just hope that the delays which will inevitably be picked up at some point in the trip won't put him off this type of travel forever.

Last time I took the train to Munich things didn't go as smoothly as they might. After charging through the French countryside faster than any other train in Europe, we entered Germany and ground to a halt. It is at such times that one's language inadequacies come to the fore, and a pleasant couple of hours was spent trying to understand the difference between the exhaustive explanations in French and German, and the abridged version we received in our own tongue. We should of course have been grateful for English announcements full stop. Can you imagine the guard on the 0815 Waterloo fast service explaining in her best schoolgirl French that points failure at Vauxhall will probably lead to us waiting here a while? Nor can I.

We eventually rolled into Munich three hours late, having enjoyed two impromptu changes of train, one on a treacherously slippery snow covered platform in Rastatt, and the other involving a mad dash from one side of Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof so as to avoid missing the final connection of the night. It was really good fun, if a little tiring.

If I'm truthful delay is especially likely on this occasion, though what is concerning me mildly is not the risk of arriving at our destination around midnight, but not getting there at all. French ticket inspectors went out on strike this evening, in a dispute over the replacement of a one guard per train policy with roving bands of revenue protectors. I sympathize a little with their position, and that of the French commuter who potentially stands to lose a familiar aspect of their daily journey, though this will surely evaporate the moment our TGV from Paris is cancelled and the remainder of the trip thrown into some considerable doubt. I'm thinking positively at the moment, and all of the online information I can find justifies this position, but the potential for disruption is huge.

First things first however, I need to get guide dog Vance and myself safely down to my parents in East Sussex, from where the real adventure will begin in the morning.