Planes, Trains & Automobiles - Preface
14 August 2023 | A farce in three acts.
OK, I admit it.
I'm an idle sod.
This is the first blog I've posted in five months, compared with one a week at the peak of my productivity. It's not all my fault, though. I need a modicum of stimulus to get my creative juices flowing. [Enough of your adolescent smut.] Something needs to happen to spark a blog off. When you're full-time cruising, things are happening thrice weekly. The blogster can afford to be selective in choosing the topics for a blog entry.
In these post-fulltime cruising, post-brexit, post-covid, days, however, it is all too easy to succumb to the siren call of the mundane, quotidian, life. Hence the five-month furlough.
In my defence, though, when I do eventually get round to posting a blog entry, I don't bugger about. So, in recognition of something actually happening, I present 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles', a stonking 6000 word blogbuster of a post, conveniently split into three parts to enable those readers with the attention span of a slime-mould to consume it in bite-sized chunks.
Oh - and I've made a couple of changes to the format. If I couldn't read it, what chance did the rest of you have? In addition, I've given up the pointless struggle to insert proper footnotes. Asides will now be placed in the body of the text, in square brackets [Thus]. These can be safely ignored.
As, on reflection, can the rest of it.
Go on - off you go.
Scroll down. bite the bullet and click 'Older'.
You know you want to.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles - part 1
14 August 2023 | Sliding Doors
It's a funny old world, isn't it.
We take our leave of transiting the high seas and head for the inland waterways of France, the yottie equivalent of a nice little bungalow in Surbiton, and people complain that we're hard to get to. Before we made a tactical withdrawal from saltwater cruising, our intrepid friends and followers would, just to see us, fly through three different time zones and land on some primitive airport, perched precariously on an uninhabitable speck of volcanic rock, rising vertiginously from the storm-tossed sea. Once they had negotiated the terminal building, which had been knocked up that very afternoon out of bamboo and duct tape, they would take their lives in their hands by getting in a motorised bathtub masquerading as an inter-island shuttle boat service. Two spray-soaked, emetic hours later, they would issue fate the final challenge and take a local taxi, driven by a sleep-deprived, clinically depressed crackhead along a potholed mountain road with herds of skittish goats on one side and a precipitous drop on the other, to whichever isolated, Godforsaken anchorage we happened to be in.
Now we're right next-bloody-door in France, one of the most civilised and technologically advanced countries on the planet [Come on - you may not like it, but you know in your hearts it's true.], and all they can do is whinge about how difficult it is to get here.
"Well, you've got to cross the channel for a start.", they bleat.
Oh, Poor Loves. There's a tunnel, for Christ's sake. You can take your car through it. Take a train through it. If you're too claustrophobic to go under it, go across it or over it. There are more ferries and cheap flights than you can shake a government fuel subsidy at.
"But Brexit's made it sooo awkward nowadays. The queue from Dover stretches back to just south of Wolverhampton."
Bugger! OK, I'll give you that one, but no more of the Brexit business, alright? Don't get me started.
"Then we've got to get all the way across France."
Come off it! I know France is big (for Europe), but it doesn't hold a candle to the likes of Russia, China, or the States. Or even Mauritania for that matter. Out of all 195 countries on Earth, France comes a mere 42ndin terms of land area. Even its old colony, Algeria, thrashes it 5:1. As for 'All the way across', we've already established France as one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. The French public transport system, they proudly proclaim with classic French hauteur, is second to none.
Is it bollocks.
Much as it pains me, I have to concede that the wusses, jessies, carpers, snowflakes, and big girls' blouses are right; it is far easier to get from the UK to some insignificant, isolated, rocky, volcanic fleck like Nisiros than it is to get to Saint-Jean-de-Losne, only 40 kilometres from Dijon, the 17th biggest city in France. Hell, it's less than two hundred K from Lyon, France's second biggest city. [There is some debate about this]. What is it, you may justifiably ask, that has managed to coax from my lips (OK, fingertips) such a rare and grudging admission of being in the wrong?
Direct experience, that's what.
We had to get ourselves the two thousand-odd kilometres from Praia da Luz to Saint-Jean-de-Losne. This involved a taxi to Faro airport, a Queasyjet flight to Lyon St. Exupery, a taxi to where Lyon really is , [As opposed to where GreasySweat claim it to be, which is in a field halfway to Dusseldorf], a train to Dijon, and finally a taxi to Saint-Jean-de-Losne.
Those resilient few of you who have stuck with it thus far may well comment on the unexpected preponderance of taxis in this itinerary.
There was a reason for this, and it came in the form of 58kg of luggage comprising four computers, a set of speakers and other random electronics, along with enough charging power to refill a Tesla in 45 seconds. That was just for starters. On top of that, we had books, boots, kitchen appliances, navigational equipment, and footwear I didn't even know I owned, let alone wore.
Wait - there's more.
I was just drawing breath...
...three months' supply of drugs for our many varied and interesting medical peculiarities, four pairs of glasses each, a hair dryer (Don't ask), a set of Wahl super taper professional hairdressers' clippers, a sphygmomanometer, three corkscrews, four concertina files of assorted paperwork, and a socket set. Oh - and a toothbrush. (each).
All this paraphernalia had been stuffed into a total of four cases, with dimensions and weights straining at the limits of SleazyBet's byzantine luggage regulations. Hence the taxis. We weren't going to make arses of ourselves, puce-complexioned, grunting and stumbling on and off crowded buses and trams, dragging and heaving hernia-inducing dead-weights up and down stairs. Oh no. 'Have pension, will taxi' that's our motto. That way, all we had to do was get ourselves and our luggage to the Gare Part Dieu and on to the TGV. Then we could lay back, relax, and snooze or play on our phones all the way to Dijon.
Ah, the TGV - Le Train de Grande Vitesse, the pinnacle of France's technological and organisational savoir faire. It operates at up to 320 km/hour , [Or 200mph for the blue passport brigade and our American cousins. Or 16000 rods, poles, or perches per puncta for Jacob Rees-Mogg et al.],and has a safety record that puts Network Rail to shame. According to the SNCF puff-piece: "In almost three decades of high-speed operation, the TGV has not recorded a single passenger fatality due to accidents while running at high speed on normal passenger service." Mind you, with that many qualifiers in the sentence there can't be that much competition. You might as well add "On a Thursday, while heading magnetic North and with a driver called Reg."
However, despite all this technical exhibitionism, the TGV still has its faults. Consider the innocent-looking statement '...get ourselves and our luggage... onto the TGV.' Sounds a piece of piss, doesn't it. This illusion continued when we arrived at the platform, towing our sum worldly possessions behind us in our co-ordinated luggage set that, somewhat unnervingly, strongly resembled a family of dead hippos.
The TGV sells itself on speed, and the biggest obstacles to achieving this speed are the self-loading freight, or 'passengers' as they self-identify. They will persist in getting on and off. What's more, they have the effrontery to demand that the train remain stationary while this exercise takes place. Personally, I'd instigate a system based on the old no-stop, mailbag pick-up hooks from the steam-powered glory days of British Rail - a bit bumpy, but little more crowded than cattle class on Ryanair.
SNCF, however, are more Old-School in the field of customer service, and devised a procedure that minimised the time passengers took to board and exit without playing whac-a-mole with them. This is based on allocating a specific seat to each passenger and then throwing phenomenal amounts of computing power and a slack handful of dodgy algorithms at the task. That's guaranteed to turn out well, N'est-ce-pas?
Of course, for this to work, the freight need to know where their allocated seats are. First signs were promising. Having lugged our dead hippos up the three flights of stairs to platform H, we were pleased to see TV monitors strategically placed along the platform at 20 metre intervals, all of them in unFrench agreement that the next train, in 12 minutes, would be the 2442 TGV to Paris, stopping at Dijon on the way.
Things started to look even better. Seat allocations comprised a carriage (voiture) and a specific seat (siège) within that carriage. We scanned the platform. Behold! All along the platform were markers 'Voiture 1', Voiture 2', etc. We swooned with wonder and admiration at this manifestation of French organisational genius. As Florence was to Stendhal so was the Gare Port Dieu to us. We consulted our tickets: Voiture 08. We found the sign for Voiture 08, parked our deceased pachyderms and sat on them. [OK, pedants. The order pachydermia is obsolete. Hippos are actually in the order Artiodacyla, which includes pigs, goats and sheep.
But probably not for long. Whales and dolphins are starting to stir things up in this little taxonomical backwater.]
Bang on time, in came the train. We stood expectantly as the carriages flashed by and gradually slowed, then stopped with the doors directly in line with the 'Voiture 08' sign. What a brilliant system. Well, it would have been, had the doors been attached to voiture 08. Although we had been unable to find any identifying numbers on the carriages themselves, we were pretty sure that our seats weren't in the restaurant car. Nor were they likely to be in the first-class carriages either side of the restaurant car.
Frantically, I rushed up and down the platform, fruitlessly searching for some Romany-type code giving the carriage number to the initiated. When that failed, I made the mistake of applying logic and maths to the problem and tried counting eight carriages from each end. One outcome was first class and the other consisted of luggage bays, toilets, and cleaning supplies.
We were not alone in our confusion. A sizeable contingent of bewildered, panic-stricken tourists, befuddled visiting academics, and disorientated hen parties reprised my performance of Marcel Marceau in the role of Buster Keaton. They, however, did not have a bloat of deceased, semi-aquatic herbivores to increase their bargaining power.
Liz, meantime, was guarding the baggage and, unwittingly, threatening to cause chaos on a pan-European scale. Even SneezyPet's miserly baggage allowance makes a very effective chicane if carefully placed. Boarding slowed to a trickle through the doors to not-carriage-8, and a crowd of voluble French stereotypes formed, swelled, and gesticulated upstream.
The TGV 2442 was at serious risk of running late, putting a sodding great blot on the French family escutcheon. Things were starting to look ugly. Liz, faced with an angry Gallic wall of shrugs, moues, arms thrown skywards and nasalised diphthongs, steadfastly held her ground.
Just as it looked as if the gilets jaunes were about to come out, our saviours appeared in the form of a petite, unstereotypical, unFrench Madame in an exquisitely stylish business suit, and Moussa, a train cleaner of, I suspect, Senegalese heritage, who wore a somewhat less stylish reflective tabard and matching comfy-fit trousers. Moussa spoke Wolof, French and some German, while Madame seemed to speak every European language fluently except, possibly, Basque, in which she could 'get by'. I reckon that her definition of 'getting by' in Basque involved idly writing haikus in it on the napkin over coffee.
Hizkuntza bat bakarrik.
A language alone
Egungo aitzindaririk gabe.
With no extant forerunners.
Aupa! (Lau etenaldiren ondoren.)
Bum! (followed by four pauses)
They expressed sympathy for our plight but insisted that it was essential that the 2442 left on time. Failure to do so would do incalculable harm, economic, social and reputational, to most of western Europe. You're an intelligent, erudite, sophisticated bunch, so I'll precis their argument for you in the next, unedifying, episode of Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Once you've gathered your strength, click on 'Older'.
Go on - you can do it.
Planes, Trains & Automobiles - part 2
14 August 2023 | The Game Commences
"So I'll precis their argument for you in the next, unedifying episode of Planes, Trains & Automobiles."
No I won't. On reflection, I'll give you Moussa's explanation instead, which is twice as comprehensible as mine, three times as interesting, a quarter as verbose, and one-tenth as pretentious. All this despite its having been translated through three languages and two interpreters, and with the added bonuses of being in plain, short words, and the whole thing being totally uncontaminated by equations.
(Now, who do we know who could benefit from that sort of approach? -Liz)
• SNCF runs everything on computer.
• Computers do lots of sums very quickly.
• So they can schedule connections and point switches down to very small time slots.
• Which makes everything faster and more profitable.
• So, of course, they do it. In spades.
Which makes the whole system highly unstable and very sensitive to error. The slightest delay ripples through the network, magnifying as it does so. If the 2442 is delayed by 15 minutes this morning, then by 6:30 this evening the rail traffic in Antwerp and Frankfurt will be in meltdown. [This is hardly surprising. Building lag into a system improves reliability and resilience, but it costs time, and time is money. Given capitalism's obsession with the short-term bottom line, it becomes almost inevitable that lag is kept to the absolute minimum].
All of this has consequences. Captains of industry miss meetings and company rescue packages fail, putting people out of work. Pilots miss their slots, spreading the chaos into the aviation sector. Lovers' long-awaited assignations remain unconsummated, and patients remain un-operated upon. All because a couple of dickhead tourists couldn't find voiture huit.
"So," they concluded, "much as we sympathise with your predicament, we can't have you risking a total collapse of European civilisation, so get your arses and those bloody hippos on the train and sort things out while you're on your way."
With that, we were unceremoniously bundled into the gangway connection next to the dining car, with our luggage casually tossed in as an afterthought by a couple of Olympic shot-putters who happened to be going to Paris. We looked around and took stock. We were obviously in the railway equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs crossed with an outside privy. And before you start, yes, I do remember outside privies, and yes, we did have one when I were a kid. We also had an Anderson shelter out back, and that was more spacious than the oubliette that was currently home to us and our luggage. It did, however, have a luggage rack, albeit full, and a jump seat, which Liz commandeered and guarded the luggage, while I set off on a search & occupy mission on voiture 08.
Technologically, the TGV is a masterpiece. In terms of ergonomics and human psychology, however, it has certain shortcomings. Chief amongst these is that it's very disorientating. The whole train is a repeating pattern; walking along it is like trying to navigate your way through a Matrix-like universe based on those magic eye pictures that were so popular in the late '90s. As you pass through the connector into the next carriage, time does a backward jump, and you find yourself back at the beginning. I half expected to find myself waking up again and again to the strains of 'I got you, Babe.'
Just to keep things interesting, there is a second, alternative, universe, which unexpectedly floods your senses when you drift into a first-class carriage. French first-class carriages are a surreal amalgam of a mausoleum, a Quaker meeting and the reading room of the British Library. The first thing you notice on passing through the door into a first-class carriage is the wall of silence that hits you smack in the face. No beeps, no 'KERCHANG!'s, no infuriating 105dB, tinny ringtones. No self-important, bellowed instructions to Iris in accounts, no homicide-inducing, 125 bpm technoshit leaking from cheap headphones.
Just silence, but silence so thick you can almost hear it. If you strain your ears to the point of rupture, you might, occasionally, just pick out a soft rustle as a page is turned, or (rarely) a slightly overenthusiastic pencil-scratching as The Wrong Word is tetchily obliterated. Even these are de trop and are invariably met with looks of disapproval and the occasional 'Sh' which in turn is met with looks of approbation from the purists.
The inhabitants of these lofty cultural oases are operating on a higher intellectual plane than we mere mortals. The gentleman in seat 43 is translating Proust into Albanian, and sits primly, head back, eyes closed, fingers steepled, pince-nez poised just-so, as he wrestles with whether 'kujtesa' or 'kujtim' would best translate 'mémoire' in this particular context.
The lady in seat 34 is reading Derrida's 'The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Phenomenology' in the original gibberish, while in 27 a rather attractive woman with a somewhat prominent Adam's apple is writing a pamphlet entitled 'Cis, trans & binary - How the scientific patriarchy appropriates LGBTQIA2S+ cultural iconography.'
Needless to say, the arrival of a twat British tourist in grubby, creased shorts, sandals, tea-stained T shirt, and a hat that just cried out for a couple of ironic, post-modernist corks, did not put the refined, sensitive, congregation at their ease. Neither did my pathetic attempts to blend in, nodding to alternate sides, doling out Bonjours left, right and centre, interspersed with the odd "Je cherche la voiture huit. Savez-vous par hasard où il se trouve ? only to be met with a blank wall of impeccably polite good manners, which managed to be simultaneously deeply insulting.
Talking of blank walls, that's what confronted me on leaving my final first-class trial by ordeal. Access to the last three carriages was closed off. Voiture Huit remained an unsubstantiated legend. I returned Lizwards, re-running my gauntlet of humiliation by politesse in reverse.
On my way, I passed through another oubliette, uncannily similar to our current accommodation. Closer examination revealed a number of subtle differences. There were two jump seats instead of one, the luggage rack had a modicum of free space, and the smell from the toilets wasn't quite as pervasive. I determined to upgrade and transfer ourselves and our hippos to this luxury accommodation.
You remember that old logic puzzle about transferring a fox, a chicken, and a bag of seed across a river in a small boat? We faced a similar conundrum. The aisles on a TGV are narrow, far too narrow for us to transfer the whole four-piece suite of luggage in one go, so Liz promoted me from 'Scout' to 'Point' and poked me off to deliver Daddy hippo to his new home.
Many train afficionados recommend aisle seats, arguing that they are less claustrophobic, give more convenient access to toilets and restaurant car, are generally roomier, and enable leg stretching by putting at least one foot into the aisle. Overall, they reckon, aisle seats give a more convenient and comfortable ride.
Not if we're on board, they don't. Not if some idiot Rosbif drags a fifty-kilo weight down the aisle, crushing legs and ankles like some modern-day Torquemada. I ended up with a kneecap count to match Shankill's finest. For carriage after carriage, I wrestled the recalcitrant bastard from one end of the train to the other, leaving a trail of destruction in my wake - spilt coffee, knocked off glasses, streaks of misapplied lipstick, expensive coiffures disarranged beyond recognition, and even more expensive suits dishevelled and disfigured with dust and grime.
My arrival at cubbyhole number two presented another problem. The luggage bay had space for both Mummy and Daddy hippo, but said space was at just over head height. There was a time when I could have lifted 55 kilos to head height with ease, but those days are gone. I was just about to concede defeat when Moussa came in. He took one look at me, sighed, and shook his head. With one smooth movement, he leant forward, flipped the case on its side, swung it onto his back, slid it up to his shoulders, stood up, and slotted it into the bay. He picked up his broom, grinned and touched his cap in a casual salute, à la John Wayne, then turned and was gone.
"Who was that man in the dayglo tabard? Oh Broom Man! How can we ever thank you?"
I made my way back to Liz. This, of course, involved retracing my steps through the scenes of my previous carnage. This, actually, was quite fun. As soon as I appeared in the doorway, waves of bristling indignation propagated down the carriage. Looks of refined disapproval, and studied ostracisation, were practiced internally. I, meanwhile, chose to have no truck with this vindictive Gallic cold-shouldering. I strolled through each carriage in turn, cheerfully Bonjouring all and sundry. That got them. They were put in an impossible position; trying to reconcile the burning desire to punish and humiliate this coarse, ill-mannered, undignified, shameless lout of a Brit on the one side, and on the other the response that generations of programming and indoctrination had burnt into their brains; one of the founding principles of French social intercourse: A 'Bonjour', once given, must never be left unreturned.
They tried; I'll give them that. They squirmed and writhed with internal tensions, but the programming won out in the end. Dangling, skewered, on my deadly "Bonjour, Messieu's - 'dames" they struck their colours, held their noses, and mumbled "Bonjour M'sieu", adding a defiant "Pah!" by way of consolation.
I got back to base camp and reported back to GHQ. She decided on a full-scale operation, committing our entire manpower on a blitzkrieg assault, with the objective of delivering all three remaining payloads in one surprise attack. We gathered up our charges, took a deep breath, and went in with a roar.
You should have seen their faces. All decorum went to the wall, and the air was thick with Gallic alarm calls:
Mon Dieu - maintenant il y a deux des bâtards !
Merde! Trois valises aussi !
Sauve qui peut !
We took advantage of the French disarray and made a final push, just closing the door behind us as they started to regroup. We looked around our prize. Our case was still in the rack, but the space beside it had been filled. Mummy Hippo would have to stay on the floor.
Right under a notice saying "It is forbidden to leave luggage obstructing the emergency exits."
To the average Frenchman, notices such as this are mere background noise. They impinge upon his consciousness about as much as a parliamentary code of conduct does upon a cabinet minister. Were he, inexplicably, to actually read it, he would consider it advisory at best, and even then only applicable to lesser mortals such as notaires publiques and the mayors of provincial towns. To meek little authority-respecting souls such as us, however, it read:
YES, YOU, YOU INSIGNIFICANT LITTLE SQUIRT!
PAY ATTENTION - THIS IS SOMEONE IN AUTHORITY SPEAKING.
DON'T YOU EVEN THINK OF LEAVING THAT BAG ON THE FLOOR.
IF YOU DO, THEN THE MAN WILL COME AND TELL YOU OFF IN FRONT OF LOADS OF SNIGGERING FRENCH PEOPLE.
THEN YOU'LL PROBABLY WET YOURSELF, AND THEY'LL LAUGH EVEN MORE."
Just as the French have had the dangling Bonjour drummed out of them in childhood, so I have had a dread of The Man drummed into me.
"Bobby! Stop doing that or The Man will come and tell you off!"
She was very good at delegating, my mum. Any man would do to don the mantle of The Man. She even managed to bludgeon our milkman, Harry, one of the mildest of men, into giving me an extended bollocking for some misdemeanour that I didn't even remember committing.
I hadn't the foggiest idea who The Man was, where He came from or even if He was alone or one of many with different jurisdictions. All I knew was that He scared the living shit out of me, and still does. I looked around desperately, but there was nowhere to put the case, or me. I was now fated to spend the remaining three hours of the journey in a state of nervous terror, convinced that every passing Frenchman was an informer for the SNCF Stasi. My real terror, though, was the appearance of someone in a uniform - any uniform. People in uniform scare the bejezus out of me. I equate them all with the Waffen SS. The only people who scare me more than tall blonde men in uniform are people out of uniform, especially if they are short, overweight, softly spoken, chain-smoke and wear rimless glasses with lenses like the bottoms of wine bottles. These, I equate with the Gestapo. I blame all those boys' comics and magazines that I devoured voraciously in the 1950s.
At which point, Moussa came in.
Go on - you know the routine by now: