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 www.seat61.com 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.