Drunkards and Drums

The night was long, and sleep far from possibility. From two until three I was awake, hearing loud and clear a parade of drunken revellers on Rue Claude Pouillet singing loudly and clearly the opening song from The Lion King. While that alone would have been fine to sleep to, they also had drums. For an hour the steady beat of the drum, the ratatataping of some old soldier’s rhythmic march, though more of a dance than a straight march, kept me wide awake, hearing every beat, every word, every misguided note. For fifteen minutes a man, standing perhaps on one of the balconies above the rue, would shout down, “Silencez, s’il vous plâit! / Quiet, please!” Over and over again the poor fellow made his declaration known, “Silencez, s’il vous plâit! Silencez, s’il vous plâit! Silencez s’il vous plâit!”

At some point, though admittedly I do not know when, the drums went quiet, the chorus having moved along to some other quarter of the city. I felt my eyelids begin to gain the weight of sleep once again, and soon all was nought.

The second alarm came sooner than expected. I was quick to answer it, turning it and the other six that were to follow after it. I stood, taking my time regaining my bearings. The room was brighter than I had expected, letting me know immediately that it would be a bright day. I hurriedly got ready to leave, packed the last of my things, and was out the door by 09:25.

Descending the staircase I left the key in my hotesses’ post box, and walked down onto the street in front of the building, where to my surprise I saw the kind woman herself walking towards me from the west end of Rue Claude Pouillet, where she had parked her car behind les Passages Pasteur. We talked for a few minutes, and bidding our farewells, I turned to walk back towards Pont Battant and across Le Doubs to Gare Viotte, where I would catch the first of five trains on the long journey back to London.

Le Doubs au matin

Le Doubs in the morning

The walk up to Gare Viotte was somewhat of a challenge. I knew that I was running low on cash, so the tram was out of the question. In any case, I knew that I would be sitting on trains, trams, planes, and in the tube for upwards of eight hours, so I figured that it would be better to have these last fifteen minutes in Besançon available for walking.

After about ten minutes I left the main city, walking up along Vauban’s old battlements, the earthwork and masonry defences built to ensure the preservation of French royal control over Besançon and Franche-Comté against any possible threat in the last few generations before the French Revolution. Once over the first series of battlements, I continued on a bridge which went over an old stone moat, now a bypass. On the bridge were two women, each walking their dog, both of which were small, excited, and exuberantly happy to be out in the Sun. As I approached the women parted ways, one heading south towards Besançon, the other north towards Gare Viotte. The joyous dog who went with its mother northwards towards the Gare bounced along, its tail wagging, its ears rebounding with each step. Pure joy has never been so expressed nor seen in my life.

As I entered Gare Viotte, I stopped off at a small café, where I bought a blueberry muffin and a bottle of water for breakfast. Then writing my farewell message to Eve, I went down in the elevator towards the concourse leading to the platforms beyond. My first train, a regional connecting service, departed from Voie (Platform) F, which was two platforms away from the main station building. I quickly ascended onto the platform and boarded my train. I found the seats full, the car packed with commuters and travellers alike. I pushed my suitcase up against one of the glass walls, and took hold of a bar, ensuring that I would not fall from the sudden change in acceleration when we left the station.

We pulled out of Besançon Gare Viotte soon thereafter, at first travelling at a slow pace, passing houses, shops, businesses; leaving a small city all unto its own self, a place where 100,000 people lived, and worked. I looked on as Friday continued in Besançon, while for me it was a uniquely transient day, not really any particular day of the week. Rather this day would remain unique in my mind henceforth to the end.

After about sixteen minutes we arrived at the TGV station on the outskirts of Besançon. I was ready to disembark from the commuter train as soon as we arrived, and was one of the first out onto the platform, knowing that my transfer window between trains was small indeed. Comparing my next train number with the trains listed on the monitor, I soon found that I would be on the TGV service to Paris-Gare de Lyon. The thought occurred to me that I would probably be wasting time today, that I could have just taken the Eurostar from Paris-Gare du Nord rather than flown back from Lyon-Saint-Éxupery. With this in mind, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the TGV, knowing that it would be my first experience on the famed high-speed service.

When the train arrived, I found myself rather confused. My ticket was for a seat in Voiture (Car) 6, so figuring that it would be near the back of the train I had moved to the far end of the platform. To my surprise, however, I soon found that the back of the train was made up of the First Class cars, with Second Class further forward. I quickly moved up, and at first entering Car 5, I soon found that there would not be an obvious way to walk between the cars, as there is on the British and American trains. So, I quickly exited the train again, and running back towards First Class, I asked one of the conducters “Où est la Voiture 6? / Where is Car 6?” The conductor pointed back towards Second Class, offering a brief “Là bas / Over there.”

I ran back towards Second Class and found Car 6 ahead of Car 5 in the order. I boarded, and was greeted by the highly ordered nature of the SNCF, the French railways. The lower numbered seats were all on the bottom level, while the higher numbered seats were up on the upper deck. My own seat, No. 26, was on the bottom, and so I was quick to walk through the open glass doors to where my seat was to be found. Once there I soon realised that I should have disposed of my suitcase at the entrance to the cabin, and returned to take care of the baggage. Returning to the seat, I took my place at the window, and prepared myself for a 40 minute journey through Franche-Comté, what in the Middle Ages was a part of the Duchy of Burgundy.

The man who sat next to me was older, with grey hair and a grey beard. We did not talk, but were able to have plenty of room to each of us on our short journey to Dijon. I found myself inspired by the countryside, by the verdant fields, the distant Alpine foothills, by quiet villages and busy autoroutes.

Soon I began to plan out my disembarking from the train. I knew that I wanted to be ready to leave as soon as we came to a stop at Gare de Dijon. I had planned to begin collecting my things when we were five minutes out of the station. As the first half-hour began to pass, the gentleman next to me seemed to have the same idea as me, and both of us stood and passed back through the cabin towards the luggage racks, where we collected our suitcases. Then waiting in the entry corridor in front of the lavatories, we watched as our train rolled smoothly into Dijon.

I was amazed at how the world seemed to move, yet it appeared as though we were standing still. The speed at which our train moved made it seem as though the only immovable objects on the ground were the twin rails, upon which our TGV glided into Dijon, its wheels making hardly an audible sound as we slowed and came to a stop at the platform closest to the exit. I disembarked, and parting ways with the grey-haired man, I quickly descended the ramp into the main concourse of the station.

My next train was also a TGV, this time going to Montpellier. I would be leaving it at the first major stop, Lyon Gare de Part-Dieu. My train was not due to arrive for another thirty minutes, so I figured that I could stand on the platform and take in some of the air for a while. As I walked along the concourse, going towards my next platform, I saw a poster for the historic site at Alesia, a place known well to me from so many renditions of Caesar’s life and his conquest of Gaul. Alesia was the final Gallic stronghold to fall to Caesar’s legions in 52 BCE. It’s defender, a Gallic king named Vercingetorix, has long since become a symbol not only for French independence, but also for all of the ancient Celtic peoples of Western Europe.

My train arrived early, and I was quick to find Voiture 16, where I was due to take Seat 22, another window seat. As the car’s door opened, I waited while those passengers disembarking in Dijon did so, before I took my turn entering the car. I soon found my seat still occupied, by a young woman, perhaps only a year or two different in age from me. She was quite occupied, painting her nails with a deep red hue. The sharp smell of the nail polish penetrated my senses, and made for a rather unexpected welcome aboard this second TGV.

I had decided that it would be best if I kept my being a foreigner less obvious, preferring to not work on anything in English while onboard. Rather, I watched another episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals series for the BBC. She certainly noticed, and I could just barely see her occasional glances towards my iPad as a series of herbivores graced the screen, from the smallest Pikas to the largest Giraffes and Elephants.

This was a far longer journey, about an hour-and-a-half in length, and I planned to only have my iPad out for the first hour to hour-and-fifteen minutes of the trip. I knew from the start that I wanted to be ready to go at least five minutes before the train reached Lyon, knowing all to well that the next two stages of my journey would be the most complicated and challenging. So, following the herbivore episode, I listened to a brief segment of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, then returned my iPad to its place in my suitcase.

It was then that I first caught sight of the Rhône, that grandest of rivers in the south of France, over which Hannibal had marched his armies over two millennia ago on their way to Italy. All of the rivers which I had thus far beheld on this trip, Le Doubs, and the Saône flow into the Rhône. The Rhône is to this half of France what the Mississippi is to the Midwestern and Southern United States.

We followed the course of the Rhône south, at last crossing it and coming into our next port of call, Lyon Gare de Part-Dieu. I watched from the entryway as we entered a busy corner of the station. Next to me were three women, one older, respectable, with a kind face, another busy, ready to go to work, and a third with the appearance of a punk rocker, her headphones covering her ears and hair, blasting heavy metal out for all to hear. She wore a bull-ring through the central cartilage of her nose.

Within five minutes we were stopped, and I disembarked the last of my three SNCF trains for the day. I stood on the platform for the longest of moments, unsure as to where the exit was. The flow of the foot traffic was confused, erratic, and unable to accurately gauge. Eventually I decided to walk to the right, and soon found myself on a long ramp going down into the main concourse of the station. Along the ramp were a number of posters for the new The Jungle Book film, or Le Livre du Jungle, which includes the great Chicagolander Bill Murray in its cast as Baloo the Bear.

Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu

Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu

There I found the busiest railway station that I had thus far seen on my travels in Europe. There seemed to be no sense in the people, who walked in many disorderly fashions around the very ordered layout of the station. I made it my purpose to find the sign for “L’Éxpress de l’Aéroport / Airport Express,” which I knew would lead me to my last bit of ground transportation in France, the Rhône Express. I soon found what I was looking for, and followed the signs out of the front doors of the station onto the pavement beyond. There a number of newspaper hawkers attempted to sell their goods to me, though I simply continued on my course, not stopping to respond, nor giving them any attention. They seemed confounded by my negligence of them, but I could not understand what they said.

I crossed a series of tram tracks, and walked to the second platform from the entrance to Gare de Part-Dieu. There a tram, painted in deep red with the words Rhône Express painted in white atop the red, sat waiting its 13:15 departure for Aéroport de Saint-Exupéry. While I already had a ticket for the tram, I could not find a way to collect it. So, I quickly bought a second ticket and boarded the tram.

At 13:15 on the dot we departed Gare de Part-Dieu, heading out of Lyon towards the airport. In many respects I found Lyon to be quite similar to what Kansas City will be like, or rather what I imagine Kansas City might be like, in fifty years time. It is a city of similar size, in a similar place in its country. Once we in Kansas City are able to build up our streetcar system, rebuild our airport, and return our city to its status as a great American destination, it certainly could be known as the Lyon of the Midwest. As we pulled into the Gare de l’Aéroport, I knew all to well that I wanted to return to Lyon and give it a proper visit.

The airport seemed nicer, more inviting on Friday than it had on Wednesday, though the lack of freezing rain may be able to account for this. I walked out of the station and up into Terminal 1, where I grabbed a quick lunch, a couple slices of pizza, as unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any Friday-appropriate food on my then budget. I quickly ate, and now with a full stomach made my way along the long walk to Terminal 3, where I would board my flight back to London.

At Luton I disembarked, and bade farewell to the French couple who I had shared Row 9 with on our EasyJet flight from Lyon. I made a speedy route into the terminal building and up to the customs checkpoints. Being enrolled in the Trusted Traveller programme, I was able to go through the E-Passport Gates, which are normally reserved for European, Swiss, and European Economic Area Citizens. The process was smooth, swift and easy to comprehend, and soon I was heading to the bus stand, awaiting the coach that would take my fellow passengers and I to Luton Airport Parkway railway station some ten minutes drive away.

We arrived at Luton Airport Parkway much quicker than I had expected, unloaded in an equally speedy manner, and soon I was going through the ticket barriers, a concept which I have found is primarily British, as neither the French nor Germans utilise them in their railway stations. As I made my long way over the station to Platform 1, I ran into an American woman who had been on my flight from Lyon. We chatted for a few minutes before our train arrived, and soon I was hurtling south on a brand new Thameslink train to St Pancras Station.

This journey now nearing its end, I would take one flight back to England, then another train down to St Pancras. From there it would be back into the Underground to my neighbourhood. I had deeply enjoyed my time in Besançon, and had truly fallen for Franche-Comté. I was cheered in my departure by the fact that in less than a month I would be returning to this alpine region in the east of France. In one month I would find myself speaking French once more. In one month I would see my parents again.

Besançon from the Citadelle


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